“Wealthy Gentleman Seeks Mature Lady”

For over a century, biographers of both Alfred Nobel and Bertha von Suttner have searched far and wide for the initial catalyst that drew them together: his newspaper advertisement in a Viennese newspaper for a secretary/housekeeper at his home in Paris. The only available clue for historians was Bertha’s account of the job posting in her memoirs: “A very wealthy, cultured, elderly gentleman, living in Paris, desires to find a lady also of mature years, familiar with languages, as secretary and manager of his household.”

At the time of the advertisement’s publication, Bertha’s secret affair with Artur Suttner, the son of her employer, had just been discovered by his disapproving parents. Having been asked to relinquish her position as governess to Arthur’s younger sisters, the job posting provided a rare opportunity for a woman of her talents. It would also keep Bertha and Artur far apart, which would have pleased his parents immensely.

A few years ago, I sat down for coffee at the Nobelmuseet in Stockholm with curator Ulf Larsson, whose fascinating book Alfred Nobel: Networks of Innovation provides a wealth of information and images from an exhibit of the same name. When I asked him about the sought-after advertisement, he replied that someone might have found it after all, but that it remained both unverified and inconclusive. Most scholars agreed that it had probably appeared in the Neue Freie Presse, but searches through that paper’s archives (my own included) had turned up nothing. Having unsuccessfully chased down many such ambiguous leads during my own research, I moved on to other topics.

My recent conversations with peace studies scholar Peter van den Dungen reignited my curiosity about this purported secretarial advertisement. In 2019, the Swedish journalist Ingrid Carlberg published a new biography of Alfred Nobel, Nobel: Den gåtfulle Alfred, hans värld och hans priser (Nobel: The Enigmatic Alfred, His World and His Prizes). The book features new and in-depth research from her travels across multiple countries. Over the course of several pages, she documents her own unsuccessful efforts to find the advertisement that Bertha had described. By process of elimination, however, she settles instead on something from the Illustriertes Wiener Extrablatt more closely resembling a personal ad: “A wealthy elderly gentleman in need of spiritual stimulation seeks acquaintance with an educated beautiful girl or widow, whom he is willing to support with advice and deeds. A marriage may not be excluded. Reply under ‘Good luck’” Carlberg concludes, “This ad is more likely than the one Bertha von Suttner reproduced. … So while awaiting the critical review that is the basis of all truth-seeking activity, not just science, I venture the claim that (this) ad may actually be the right one.”

This ad, on an intuitive level at least, didn’t sound to me at all like Alfred. Likewise, it didn’t sound like anything that Bertha might have considered worthy of a response. She was madly in love with Artur and had demonstrated on numerous past occasions a strong and stubborn sense of self in matters of the heart. What she wanted was work, not romance.

Knowing that the world’s information databases have been growing almost exponentially day by day, I decided to hop down the proverbial rabbit hole once again. I reconnected with Ulf Larsson and reminded him of our conversation years ago. In his reply, he sent along a digital file of what might—or might not—be the advertisement in question. “A historian in Oslo received it from someone in Sweden some 15 years ago,” he wrote, “but no one remembers the source anymore. So I am not sure which newspaper it was and have not been able to check it.”

Here is the transcription of the German ad followed by a translation into English:

Gesuch.
Vermögender, hoch gebildeter äl-
terer Herr, in Paris wohnhaf,
such, wegen Anstellung einer
Sekretärin-Hausvorsteherin,
mit einer sprachkundigen Dame
im reifen Alter Kontakt.

Request.
Wealthy, well-educated elderly gentleman, living in Paris, seeks contact with a language-proficient lady of mature age for employment as a secretary-head of household.

[NOTE: While the original advertisement contains two errors (wohnhaf should be wohnhaft, and such should be sucht), my friend and professional translator Patricia Paige-Pfennig notes that the composition of the ad demonstrates a high level of sophistication and linguistic accuracy. Because of that, she believes that the errors are, in fact, typos. On the other hand, I wouldn’t be at all surprised if Alfred purposefully introduced the errors himself in the hopes that any successful applicant would be both bold and confident enough to point them out. I once worked for someone who did things like that all the time. That, to me, sounds a lot more like Alfred than the ad mentioned by Carlberg above!]

This advertisement matches Bertha’s description so accurately that at first I worried someone had mocked it up as an illustration. This had been done previously with the apocryphal newspaper headline “The Merchant of Death is Dead,” a premature death announcement claimed by many biographical sources to have motivated Alfred to establish the Peace Prize.

Equipped with this physical specimen, however, the task of locating the original source—and thereby providing proper authentication—became much easier. Diving back into Vienna’s newspaper archives, I found that the style of the post matches the typeface and set-up of classified advertisements in the popular newspaper, Neues Wiener Tagblatt. It most likely appeared within the “Kleine Anzeigen” (small advertisements) section under the category “Dienst und Arbeit” (Services and Work). The number in the lower-right-hand corner also matches the newspaper’s tracking system for similar postings.

Via his own independent path of inquiry, Peter van den Dungen had come to some of the same conclusions. As with proper scientific experimentation, we were able to produce the same results under different conditions, thereby moving closer and closer toward proving a hypothesis and providing final authentication.

Unfortunately, as of this writing, the online archives for Neues Wiener Tagblatt are incomplete. Fearing that the issues I’ve been searching for had been lost or destroyed, I contacted the research department at the Oesterreichische Nationalbibliothek. A few days later, librarian Daniela Köck responded that the particular volumes I was seeking had simply been overlooked in the digitization process. In fact, she now had the physical copies right there on her desk for my perusal and would request that they be scanned and properly archived.

I’m eager to complete this last step of authentication so that historians (and historical novelists such as myself) will at last have a more definitive time line for these important initial interactions between Alfred and Bertha. If only we could find the letters that she and he exchanged between Vienna and Paris as a result of this ad… For now at least, fiction (or, as some might call it, narrative nonfiction) will have to suffice to bridge the remaining gaps in their stories.

Symbolic Gestures

Kafka-as-pupil

Young Franz Kafka

Much has changed since my last post here, especially after the U.S. election last November. I’ve been tempted to comment on the many parallels between the daily news and the historical events I’ve been researching (among them terrorism in the early 1890s, anti-immigration and anti-Semitic policies of that day, the looming specter of doomsday devices, and even disputes over Venezuelan sovereignty).

At the same time, I’ve felt a greater urgency to complete the final chapters and not be overly distracted by all the hype and click-bait published in the media, both social and professional. On several occasions I’ve thought about Franz Kafka’s dispassionate and seemingly self-centered journal entry on the outbreak of World War I: “Germany has declared war on Russia. Went swimming in the afternoon.”

(Brief historical aside: Kafka’s spirit haunts me as I write this book, especially after I learned that Bertha von Suttner’s birthplace, the Kinsky Palace in Prague, was later converted into the grammar school that Kafka attended as a child. It now houses the Franz Kafka Bookshop. See http://www.prague.cz/kinsky-palace/ for more details.)

 

Prague_Palace_Kinsky_PC

The Kinsky Palace in Prague, birthplace of Bertha von Suttner and, later, the site of a grammar school attended by Franz Kafka

There’s a vast psychological distance between those two sentences in Kafka’s journal, and yet by now many of us are all too familiar with it, perhaps to the point of feeling overwhelmed and completely powerless in the face of current events. What can one single person do in this place and time to create a better future for our world? For some, the answer is to take to the streets with banners and placards, to spend hours arguing with legislators on the telephone, to post and repost fact-based articles detailing the most demanding issues of the day. For others, the answer is to persist and persevere along our chosen paths. “Stay in your lane,” advised the poet and journalist Ted Genoways, urging fellow writers to do what they do best: write. The benefits may not be realized in the short-term, especially for those of us working on epic-length novels, but we maintain faith in the positive, long-term effects.

In the meantime, we should look to our health as individuals and prepare ourselves for what promises to be a long-term challenge. When has this not been the case? Losing sleep, courting depression, indulging addictions: none of these helps with solutions.

The trend toward aggressive militarism in the United States, for example, didn’t begin with the contested election of Donald Trump, nor did the nation’s long-running struggle with racism and xenophobia. When I began writing this book years ago, these ugly and immoral aspects of American life were already deeply ingrained in our culture. Just compare how a 19th-century female pacifist like Bertha von Suttner would have responded to the wildly popular movie “Wonder Woman” and so many viewers’ claims that here, at last, was a positive role model for young women. To use a modern catch-phrase, “I can’t even.”

Today is the International Day of Peace, one of many symbolic annual events such as Earth Day that neatly package a grand idea into twenty four hours of observation. Many (like me, I’ll admit) will post a banner or meme on their Facebook walls before returning relatively unaffected to our daily work. Some, like the real wonder woman, Nobel Peace prize winner Malala Yousafzi, may continue to act on their beliefs in human goodness and progress, perhaps placing one brick atop another to construct a new and sturdy schoolhouse for young women in a war-ravaged nation. (More likely, Malala will be hunkered down in the library doing her homework after classes at Oxford University, continuing to improve herself even as she works to improve the world.)

 

Screen Shot 2017-09-02 at 5.02.37 PMSymbolic gestures such as International Peace Day remind us that the work of peace is varied and ongoing. Bertha von Suttner was a firm believer in the power of advertising and propaganda; in fact, these were among the primary goals of the many peace societies she helped to found throughout Europe. Together with other luminaries of the day, she helped craft a pin for society members to wear, something visible to promote the cause in public. “Peace is sought for by Justice,” the emblem read, reminding members of the ideology behind their movement. Today, we carry that idealism forward according to our individual gifts and talents. On days like International Peace Day, it’s worth pausing to consider what our efforts can achieve collectively.

So on this day, remind others that our labors for peace are ongoing and that we must continue to do what we can do. Read a newspaper to stay engaged. Volunteer to help a friend or neighbor in need. Share your hopes for a better world. Purchase a book to stay enlightened. And swim a few laps to stay healthy.

Facts, Fake News, and Fiction

15418395_10154138347379103_2426340092127106366_oThis past weekend, as the 2016 Nobel Prize winners received their awards on the anniversary of Alfred Nobel’s (actual) death in 1896, the western world continued to grapple with a “post-truth” political landscape that threatens the very foundations of the laureates’ achievements: evidence-based research and discovery. In his introductory remarks, Carl-Henrik Heldin, chairman of the board of the Nobel Foundation, said, “The grim truth is that we can no longer take it for granted that people believe in science, facts, and knowledge.”

In my own explorations into the origins of the peace prize, I’ve been surprised at how often historical “facts” have been twisted and manipulated into false narratives, even in supposedly authoritative, academic texts. Take, for instance, this excerpt from the Encyclopedia Brittanica’s biographical entry on Nobel, which chronicles a bit of “fake news” concerning his (supposed) death in 1888:

The French newspapers reported Ludvig’s death but confused him with (his brother) Alfred, and one paper sported the headline “Le marchand de la mort est mort” (“The merchant of death is dead”). Perhaps Alfred Nobel established the prizes to avoid precisely the sort of posthumous reputation suggested by this premature obituary. (https://www.britannica.com/biography/Alfred-Nobel)

nyt-early-obitI’ve found versions of this story repeated throughout my research, though neither I nor many of the historians who have studied Nobel’s life have been able to document or verify the headline quoted above. I have, however, been able to verify that the false obituary did appear in newspapers around the world, including in The New York Times (see right). In many instances, Nobel biographers draw a direct correlation between the mistaken obituary and his development of the peace prize, despite the fact that eight years (and at least two prior drafts of his last will and testament, neither of which included a peace prize) separate the two events.

Once we have the “merchant of death” story in mind, however, we start looking for other facts and details that support this intriguing (and admittedly entertaining) narrative. This is called confirmation bias: starting with a hypothesis and seeking out evidence that supports it rather than remaining objective and drawing one’s conclusions from the evidence itself. Sadly, we expect to find an abundance of confirmation bias in politics, but it’s doubly distressing to see it infiltrating academic texts. As a false correlation like the one above is referenced and footnoted throughout subsequent works, it becomes harder and harder for us to discern the “fake news” from the facts. Key words such as “perhaps” from the original encyclopedia entry have a way of disappearing in subsequent retellings.

As someone writing a fictionalized account of the origins of the peace prize, I’m tempted by some of the more dramatic and entertaining options available, such as suggestions of a romantic relationship between the two protagonists, Nobel and Bertha von Suttner. Fiction, however, prefers to revel in complexities, not settle for simplistic explanations. By extension, historical fiction insists upon careful research and analysis, with the central narrative(s) supported by both evidence and logic.

img_5379

Taken from a plaster cast of his face, Alfred Nobel’s “death mask” rests atop engraved lines from his last will and testament.

This isn’t always possible, especially when theorizing about what drove and distracted major and minor figures in the 19th century. Like a good detective, the historical fiction writer looks for probable cause, not merely plausible cause. The latter may attract a wider readership (by suggesting that Abraham Lincoln was a vampire hunter, for example), but it borders on being irresponsible. When you consider that the creators of “fake news” are, in fact, peddling this same sort of fiction, you can begin to appreciate the rising anxiety levels of already anxious writers today.

Fiction posing as fact is not a new phenomenon, nor is the eager gullibility of the general public. Literature may invite us as readers to “suspend our disbelief” when entering imagined worlds of the past, but readers should do so sparingly, and then only temporarily. Above all, we should continue to question and explore the topics that interest us and influence our lives beyond the final pages.

Some might protest that homework ends in adulthood, but that’s hardly true in any civilized society. Many farmers continue to research and practice new ways to improve their crop yields just as doctors constantly research and practice new life-saving procedures. Likewise, our civic duty demands a critical attentiveness to the present-day news and, as a kind of “healthy skepticism,” a steadfast desire to verify the truth of that news. This is the ongoing and absolutely vital kind of education promoted by both Nobel and Suttner throughout their lifetimes. Without it, we remain vulnerable to all manner of future horrors and atrocities, as Suttner herself warned right up until her own death—just days before the violent outbreak of World War I.