Sunday, 25 January 2015


Alfred Nobel met Sophie when she worked in a flower shop in Baden, near Vienna. She was his lover for some fifteen years until she got pregnant by another man. Nobel, who perhaps felt responsible for having seduced her and accustomed her to a luxurious life, stayed in touch. In his will he left Sophie an annuity of about $ 150,000 (6,000 florins) a year – not quite as much as she had hoped!  Here is one of her many long, unpunctuated begging letters. Although she was of Jewish descent herself, she did not refrain from anti-Semitic remarks.

Dear Alfred, It is very bitter to have to talk of money, because I am being treated like a common whore, especially by that common, nasty Jew who is known all over Vienna and whom you would find an arrogant and vulgar dog, if I judge you correctly, so I have to tell you that I am quite determined to marry and if you want to pension me off, dear Alfred, I beg you to give me 200,000 florins, then you have the assurance that I and my child are looked after and can make ends meet, you can invest the money with a bank, so that I get only the interest, it would in any case only be 8000 florins, how one would make economies, considering how I have lived so far, it would mean setting all luxury aside. But I will gladly do it because it is better to be dead than to lead a life like this, and I will show up that vulgar Jew. I curse him and his children right to the grave. Today I heard that you don’t agree with my travelling to Budapest, I have to go there, I can’t marry here, and I can’t remain unmarried and live alone with my child, I don’t want that, I want to be a decent woman in future and not exposed to such hangmen, to suffer indignities, I am going to bare my teeth to that miserable fellow. You hired him, I suppose, to pay the woman who lived with you for fourteen years, not to insult me, I find that quite ignoble and everyone I tell my story will think the same.
Dear Alfred, you are in a pretty situation, entrusting yourself to them, that can’t bring anyone luck to treat a helpless woman like that. Nor do I think it was your intention to have me treated like a whore. I cried so much, and God will avenge me, believe you me!
What I have suffered over the last three weeks is indescribable! Yes, I have done wrong, but even so I’m not the worst or a vulgar woman, no one can say that who knows me, but to surrender me to that vulgar Jew that’s a sin, I didn’t deserve that, I have wasted my whole youth and must be glad now that the Captain marries me, although I would deserve a more loving husband. No one wants a wife who has been the mistress of another and lived with him for so long, believe you me.  That is why you must be reasonable and not so hard on me.

(Source: Correspondence between Hess and Nobel, my translation)

Thursday, 22 January 2015

Beatrice Cenci -- from Nobel's collection

Alas, no. But if there was a prize, Alfred Nobel made the qualifications clear:
  • Without decency and human dignity a woman cannot be a true wife or mother. Okay, we won’t quarrel about that, but if dignity is such a big deal, why does he call his lover my little toad and signs his letters Your grouchy-bear?
  • The ideal woman will keep busy.  Female craziness…has no other reason than a lack of occupation or a lack of company.  Hmm. And male craziness?
  • Nobel never married, perhaps because he couldn’t find anyone who sweetened a man’s life, as a woman should do. A woman, however, should marry and become a good wife and fulfil the purpose of her life.
  • First and foremost, women should be sensitive. The secret of winning hearts is in the ability to understand the feelings and aspirations of others.
  • Of course the ideal woman should be educated. I don’t demand perfect all-round education, I’m not even partial to that, but I don’t want to be embarrassed by every word a lady utters…At the first public display of vulgarity, I’m off.
  • In a word, the ideal woman must be reasonable and forget stupid nonsense. On this point, however, Nobel can’t quite make up his mind. Be a dear good little toad, he writes to his mistress, and be reasonable. Well, you and reasonable! That idea makes me laugh. The nice thing about you is the complete absence of reason. 
Next post (Sunday): How the "little toad" treated her "grouchy-bear.' I'm surprised Nobel didn't turn into a complete misogynist.
(Source: Nobel’s correspondence, my translation. For more quotes see Kenne Fant, Alfred Nobel: A Biography)

Sunday, 18 January 2015


This ad ran in the Neues Wiener Tagblatt, November 1922:

Distinguished widower, Isr., in his forties, in independent reputable position, good character, altruistic, feeling lonely in his free time, longs for honourable connection with an independent, cultured, and selfless lady of natural beauty, medium height, full-figured, handsome, with beautiful teeth. Financial situation and religious affiliation unimportant, but absolute beauty, grace, and sensitivity are essential. If our characters harmonize, and we feel mutual sympathy and true affection, a future marriage is not excl., but as a decided aesthete I am so demanding that I will only consider a lady who has, without exception, all the above mentioned traits and virtues. It is not enough if she thinks she is beautiful. She has to be beautiful. Send replies under “Therefore examine  24465” to the editorial offices.

OMG, that’s so me: beautiful, gracious, and sensitive! Too bad I wasn’t around in 1922.
Wonder how the aesthetic gentleman made out?
Karl Kraus comments: Let’s hope she isn’t too critical and will accept him even if he doesn’t have beautiful teeth.

(Source: Karl Kraus, Die Fackel, Nov 1922; my trans) 

Thursday, 15 January 2015


Some people said the Boston merchant Robert Keayne got his estate by unjust dealing and wronging of others.  A court fined him for unfair business practices. Whatever. Other people did not think highly of him, but he made up for it by thinking highly of himself.

In his will Keayne left money to build a Town House comprising a market place, court room, gallery, library, granary and armory.

As for the library, he got it off to a good start with some writings of his own: 3 great writing books which are intended as an exposition or interpretation of the whole Bible. Right. We all know that the Bible is the all-time bestseller. Besides, as he said: All these books are written with my own hand. And that’s gotta be worth something.

In fact, one of his manuscripts was so valuable that he couldn’t leave it to the public library. He left it to his son, hoping that he would appreciate its value. It was a commentary on I Corinthians, a little thin pocket book bound in leather, all written with my own hand which I esteem more precious than gold and which I have read over, I think, 100 times.

Then there were the books and manuscripts which he had marked with diverse leaves turned down thick in them. They are only such choice places which I intended to transcribe, but didn’t get around to. I should be glad if some ingenious young scholar that hath a good, legible hand and a ready and willing mind that delights in writing and reading were requested to do this work.

Keayne also planned on leaving money for the purpose of teaching Indians to write and read and to learn the English tongue…and also that some of our scholars or young students might be encouraged to study and learn the Indian tongue (so that they could convert them to Christianity), but alas a certain Mr. Eliot disgruntled him by trying to run things his own way, and so Keayne cancelled that bequest.

There. Let that be a lesson to people like Mr. Eliot, lest by too much stiffness to have their own will and way, they hinder many good works.

(Source: The Apologia of Robert Keayne, ed. B. Bailyn)

Sunday, 11 January 2015


Here is why you should read poetry:
The poet makes things better than nature bringeth forth, or quite anew…The world is made of brass. The poets deliver only gold.
Some people don’t see the filthiness of evil. They need it spelled out in the great foil of comic verse. Then they’ll perceive the beauty of virtue.
Poetry is the mother of lies, you say? Come on now, the poet never maketh any circles around your imagination to conjure you to believe for true what he writes. He citeth no authorities. The poet’s persons and doings are but pictures of what should be.
But, you say, poetry infects us with many pestilent desires. No, it’s your pestilent mind that's at fault. It’s not that poetry abuseth man’s wit, but that man’s wit abuseth poetry. – Poetry is full of virtue-breeding delightfulness.
But of course you can’t appreciate poetry if you have so earth-creeping a mind that it cannot lift itself up to look to the sky of poetry.

(Source:Philip Sidney, An Apology for Poetry, ed. F.G. Robinson)