Thursday, May 9, 2019

Aurelia Plath's First Love

Austrian civil engineer Dr. Karl von Terzaghi was invited to the U.S. in 1925 to teach and establish a program at M.I.T. and, incidentally, to explain why new M.I.T. buildings on the Charles River banks had been sinking an inch per year. Terzaghi (1883-1963) founded two new sciences: soil mechanics (the physics and hydraulics of soils; he proved that soil types, like any other building materials, had principles) and foundational engineering, now called geotechnology. Terzaghi hired "Miss A. Schober" as his secretary in 1926 -- not 1927, as Aurelia has it in her introduction to Letters Home. That's where Aurelia, who never gave his name, wrote about:

". . .[w]orking at the close of my junior year (1927) for a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He had a handwritten manuscript in German dealing with new principles of soil mechanics. As he had a publication deadline to meet, I usually worked into the early evening, so we often had dinner together before I left Boston for home. It was during these meals that I listened, fascinated, to his accounts of travel and colorful adventures, fully realizing that I was in the presence of a true genius in both the arts and sciences. I came away with my notebook filled with reading lists. . ." (6)

She wrote that this self-education would one day benefit her children, but that is not the whole story. The friendship ripened into love.

For two years they enjoyed the theater, museums, hikes, camping, gardens, evenings with Karl's faculty friends, dining and dancing, and conversation most of all. The above photo was taken in 1926, when Karl, 43 and divorced, Boston's most eligible bachelor, chose Aurelia Schober, 20, moved by her innocence, intelligence, and sensitivity. He took her to her junior prom at the Kenmore Hotel on May 13, 1927 and then at 4:00 a.m. in Winthrop ate the post-prom breakfast Aurelia's mother had left prepared for them with instructions, Austrian style. Terzaghi wrote about it in his diary. His 82 volumes of diaries are in Oslo. I learned where his diaries were by reading his biography. ("Aurelia's boyfriend has a biography?")
Terzaghi centennial stamp, Austria, 1983

Shorthand transcription unlocked and confirmed his identity; he's the "Karl" in young Aurelia's lovelorn Gregg shorthand annotations in her copy of poet Sara Teasdale's Dark of the Moon. That book is in Sylvia Plath's personal library at the Lilly Library in Bloomington. Find the transcriptions here.

In 1928 Terzaghi left the U.S. for a prestigious engineering professorship in Vienna. Ten years later when the Nazis expelled his Jewish students and pressured him to work on the German Autobahn he returned to Boston, taught at Harvard and consulted worldwide. His legacy includes the Chicago subway system and the Aswan Dam, plus immortal equations and elegant problem-solving designs. In 1975 Bostonians in certain circles, or engineers, or Aurelia's college friends, could have guessed whom Aurelia was describing in Letters Home -- it's obvious, now that we know.

Their story is heartbreaking. For more of it, click here. Sylvia, taking her cue from her mother, married her own foreign-born male genius, Ted Hughes.

References: Karl Terzaghi: The Engineer as Artist (Goodman, 1998); Letters Home 1950-1963 (Plath, 1975); Norwegian Geotechnical Institute Terzaghi Library;; Wikipedia: Karl von Terzaghi (mentions Aurelia Schober, future mother of Sylvia Plath); Wikipedia: Ruth Terzaghi; Geotechnical Hall of Fame; American Society of Civil Engineers

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