“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.

Paris is Burning (Again)

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Artist’s rendering of Paris during the Communard uprising of 1871

Over the past several weeks, I’ve been immersed in thought about Paris, not only because of the recent terrorist attacks, but also because I’ve been considering the effects of terrorist attacks from over a century ago as they relate to the themes of militarism, idealism, and pacifism in my novel Peace at Last.

First, some historical background: In 1871, the Prussians defeated France after bombarding and laying siege to the city of Paris for several months. Shortly after France was allowed to establish a provisional government, radical members of the upstart Paris Commune challenged the new republic, setting fires throughout the city and destroying major landmarks such as the buildings of Les Tuileries with explosives. (Today, the area is a beautiful public garden.) Harsh reprisals against the Communards continued even after the initial uprising was quelled. In the years that followed, the citizens of Paris rebuilt their city from the ashes and welcomed new and well-to-do residents such as Alfred Nobel. When Countess Bertha Kinsky (later von Suttner) arrived from Vienna to become his secretary, however, Les Tuileries remained in ruins along the Seine, a grim yet intentional reminder of what Victor Hugo had called “L’Année Terrible.”

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Alfred Nobel’s house on Rue Malakoff in Paris (now Avenue Raymond-Poincaré)

In the mid-1870s, having returned from exile abroad to the city he loved, Hugo remained at odds with many of his fellow Frenchmen. The world-renowned author argued that reason and compassion should prevail despite the anger and calls for revenge resulting from the violence. Rumors circulated of police-run torture cells in the sewer systems beneath the streets, raids and round-ups of suspects and firing lines beside massive graves dug out of sight and earshot in the countryside. Angry mobs gathered on Hugo’s doorstep and accused him of being a terrorist sympathizer, and when the aging writer requested protection, the Parisian police turned a blind eye and a deaf ear.

 

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Victor Hugo during his later years in Paris

Alfred Nobel first met Victor Hugo in this harsh and judgmental climate and, one might easily assume, found the literary lion to be something of a soul-mate, a successful man who was nonetheless vilified by parts of society for his idealistic views on mankind. (It was not lost on the public that Nobel’s latest invention, dynamite, had laid waste to so many city landmarks during the Communard uprising.) In his opening address to the Paris Peace Congress of 1849, Hugo had proclaimed, “A day will come when there will be no battlefields, but markets opening to commerce and minds opening to ideas.” Such a philosophy would have resonated loudly with Nobel, who was already well on his way to becoming the wealthiest man in all of Europe. Over time, Nobel became a good friend of Hugo and dined often at his house nearby. Together, the two men also frequented a number of Paris’s most popular, celebrity-filled salons.

 

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Juliette Adam: author, editor, and “instigator” of one of Paris’s most famous salons

Sadly, Victor Hugo died two years before Bertha returned to visit Nobel in Paris, this time accompanied by her husband, Artur Gundaccar von Suttner. Though a decade had passed, demands for revanche (revenge) against the Prussians still reverberated throughout some of the salons, particularly that of Juliette Adam, the founder and editor of France’s Nouvelle Revue. “What an outpouring of amateur political opinion there was!” Bertha remarked in her memoirs.” Even here, amid this artistic and social gaiety, the dark word ‘war’ buzzed through the room. … How can a woman ever busy herself so much with politics?”

 

Debates about war in one salon gave way to discussions of peace in another, however, and these sparked Bertha’s curiosity and imagination. Over the course of the next two years, she nurtured her own philosophical ideas about pacifism and disarmament while crafting her best-selling novel, Die Waffen Nieder! (Lay Down Your Arms!), a direct response (and, she hoped, preemptory warning) to the calls for violence and revenge overheard in Paris. In salons, meetings, and congresses across Europe, a new peace movement grew up around her, one that challenged traditional notions of conflict and conquest. With Nobel’s support, she worked tirelessly to realize Hugo’s vision of open minds and open markets—and to banish the terrifying and seemingly relentless specter of war that threatened both.

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Les Tuileries after dynamite explosions destroyed the central dome

A “Magnificent Blunder”

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Nobel’s writing desk at the Swedish Club in Paris, where he composed his final will in 1896

When he died in 1896, Alfred Nobel was one of the richest men in the world. People responded with both kudos and criticism when they learned that he had assigned much of his fortune to the establishment of various prizes. Hjalmar Branting, an emerging political leader in Sweden and editor of a Stockholm newspaper, praised the “magnificent intentions” of Nobel’s will but followed up his assessment with the headline “Magnificent Blunder.”

In his analysis, Branting attacked Nobel’s will on philosophical grounds, arguing that “the only road (to peace) is through a merger of the working masses in all countries.” In other words, peace was a goal for common and democratic endeavor, not something to be determined in autocratic fashion by a millionaire. Branting concluded his lengthy critique by saying, “A millionaire might personally be worthy of esteem, but it is better to avoid both the millions and the donations.”

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Hjalmar Branting, the “father” of Sweden’s social democracy

Even so, what else was Nobel to do with his fortune? A bachelor throughout his entire life, he had no sons or daughters of his own. His brothers (and, by extension, their families) had already filled their own coffers to overflowing as leaders in Europe’s growing oil industry. Despite their financial security, they launched one legal battle after another in the courts of several countries, eager (along with the tax collectors) to grab up their share of Nobel’s lingering millions.

In her memoirs, Bertha von Suttner wrote that Nobel felt it was “improper for rich men to leave their property to their relatives,” insisting that “he regarded great inheritances as a misfortune, for they have a paralyzing effect.” Branting would have agreed, arguing that fortunes passed down among family members could lead to a lazy class of men and women who had neither the need nor the motivation to work toward the common good. According to Suttner, Nobel believed that “great accumulations of property should go back to the community and common purposes,” toward “the renewed enrichment of the world.”

Even today, some of the wealthiest individuals in the world pick and choose their charities, endowing a favored few while leaving others to struggle. The so-called “billionaire class” may pick up the slack when and where governments falter, but they risk enabling and prolonging political weakness in the process, compromising the ideal role of government in general. As the “father” of social democracy in Sweden, Branting worked to empower the common, working-class citizen, favoring a “grass-roots” approach to politics over the growing influence of industrial (i.e. corporate) concerns. This may have put him at odds with Nobel’s intentions, but blunder or not, both men had their beliefs validated: The Nobel prizes were finally instituted in 1901, and Branting’s idealism and  achievements would earn him the Nobel Peace Prize in 1921.

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Alfred Nobel’s last will and testament

The Red Cross Controversy

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Jean Henri Dunant, founder of the Red Cross and first Nobel Peace Prize co-recipient

Disputes often erupt around the announcement of Nobel Peace Prize winner, and this was true from the very beginning. Many peace activists assumed that the first recipient would be Bertha von Suttner in the firm belief that Alfred Nobel had created the prize with her in mind all along. Instead, the first prize, awarded in 1901, was split between the French economist Frédéric Passy and Henri Dunant, the Swiss-born founder of the Red Cross.

Of the two, Dunant was the more controversial. Though Suttner and others admired the Red Cross for its humanitarian work and philosophy, they worried that treating wounded soldiers and sending them back into battle (as opposed to sending them home to heal fully from their wounds) only led to greater injury and prolonged periods of warfare. They argued that Nobel had intended the Peace Prize to help deter and end armed conflict, not to facilitate its continuance.

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Handwritten draft of Dunant’s “Un Souvenir du Solferino”

Suttner and Dunant were no strangers to one another. In fact, Suttner likely relied quite heavily on Dunant’s firsthand account of the 1859 Franco-Austrian war, A Memory of Solferino, to write some of the more graphic descriptions of battle in her own bestseller, Lay Down Your Arms! The battle of Solferino, during which Dunant recruited civilians to help tend to the wounded, inspired him to establish the Red Cross. His thoughts and ideas would later provide the foundation for the first Geneva Convention.

After receiving his award, Dunant wrote to Suttner, “This prize, gracious lady, is your work, for through your instrumentality, Mr. Nobel became devoted to the peace movement, and at your suggestion, he became its promoter.” Four more years would pass before the Norwegian Storting, the governing body charged with deciding amongst the nominees, awarded Bertha von Suttner her own long-awaited Nobel Peace Prize.

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An artist’s depiction of Henri Dunant tending to the wounded in the aftermath of the battle at Solferino

Continuous Education

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Portrait of Bertha von Suttner (1894) by Adrienne Gräfin Potting. The painting now hangs at Schloss Harmannsdorf, once Bertha’s home in Austria.

In 1912, Bertha von Suttner addressed the National Education Association of the United States of America and declared, “It seems to me that education must be continuous, and that the greatest educators are life and experience.” As she well knew at the time, life and experience were often the only two avenues for learning available to women, who were still barred from pursuing a more formal education in many countries.

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“Martha’s Tagebuch,” published in 1897, was adapted from Suttner’s novel “Lay Down Your Arms” and became “the first work of German pacifist children’s literature” (Roderick McGillis, 2003).

As part of her efforts to spread the message of peace from her landmark best-seller, Lay Down Your Arms!: The Autobiography of Martha von Tilling, Bertha worked with her close friend and fellow writer Hedwig Gräfin Potting (whom she jokingly referred to as “Hex,” from the German word for “witch”) to create and publish a version of the book that might appeal to younger audiences and help educate them about the horrific costs of war. Based on the life and experiences of the original novel’s central character, Martha’s Tagebuch (Martha’s Diary) features several illustrations by Hedwig’s sister Adrienne, who years earlier had painted a youthful portrait of the world-famous author.

With the gracious help of my friend Patty Paige-Pfennig in Wiesbaden, I’ve been fortunate to obtain a first edition of the book, one that had been tucked away in an old barn in Germany. Even though Bertha was the first woman to receive the Nobel Peace Prize, her resounding calls for peace and disarmament were regarded as a serious threat to the militaristic leaders of her day. Many of Bertha’s published works and personal effects were destroyed by the Nazis and other fascist groups in the decades between World Wars I and II, so the book is a rare find indeed.

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The fictional Martha von Tilling, based in large part on Bertha von Suttner herself, writes in her journal. Illustration from “Martha’s Tagebuch” by Hedwig Gräfin Potting.

Writing a historical novel involves following a number of paths and tangents, some of which can result in an author’s falling “down the rabbit hole” and losing track of the original story and its themes. In this instance, however, I’m thankful to have discovered an important secondary character for the book in Hedwig “Hex” Potting, especially as Hex was one the very first people to learn that Bertha had finally been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1905. I look forward to sharing more stories of the lives and experiences of such engaging characters as I continue to follow in the footsteps of Bertha von Suttner and Alfred Nobel.