Saturday, July 20, 2019

Otto Was a Rebound

Aurelia Schober was a Boston University undergraduate when in 1926 she started secretarial work for an M.I.T. guest professor 22 years her senior and a native of Austria. They fell in love, dated for two years, nearly married, and he -- Dr. Karl von Terzaghi -- wrote at length in his diaries about their relationship as it happened, leaving an unprecedented record of Aurelia's life before she became a Plath.

Karl was Aurelia's first love and he, M.I.T.'s engineering genius-in-residence, introduced Aurelia to his friends, took her to her junior prom, sat at her hospital bedside. They hiked, dined, camped, danced, went to museums and concerts. She was dazzled; his feelings confounded him. "What shall I do with my love for this child?" he asked his diary. He called her "Lilly," a nickname for an idealized German-speaking girl. A civil engineer in mid-career, Karl often traveled to consult at distant construction sites and, in summer 1928, just after Aurelia's college graduation, he spent four months in Central America working for the United Fruit Company. Aurelia, age 22, worked that summer at Camp Maqua in Maine, hating it and worrying that her 44-year-old Karl didn't need her anymore.

Karl returned to Boston in September 1928 to a stack of job offers. He took what he had planned, a professorship in Vienna, and would be moving to Europe in a year. Already in April he had confided to his diary that he would not ask Aurelia to marry him. In November 1928 the couple had the dreaded "talk" and broke up. Devastated, Aurelia cried and asked Karl, "What will become of me if you leave?" On their final date they saw the Chicago Opera Company's Carmen. He wrote about their evening, “It was like a farewell and symbolic. [Aurelia] does not want to be an 'episode' and I can offer no more. The dear little girl. She takes life so seriously.[Footnotes are the end of this post.]

Not three weeks later, on December 18, 1928, Karl met with and dined with a smart, independent female college student Aurelia's age: Radcliffe graduate student Ruth Doggett. Smitten -- the more so because Ruth was a geologist -- Karl fought for a year his impulse to propose, but finally proposed to Ruth from half a world away.

The word "rebound" meaning "post-relationship phase" has been around at least since 1818, so yes, in the 1920s it helped drive people's choices as it does today. After a breakup, sometimes long afterward, people resembling the lost one tend to catch our eye or attract us.

Boston Herald, April 1, 1930, p. 4

About the news clipping pictured above, from The Boston Herald, April 1, 1930: It says Miss Ruth Doggett at Cambridge City Hall was denied a license to marry her fiance Karl Terzaghi of Vienna because he lived overseas. A reporter noticed Karl's still-newsworthy name. 
Boston was Aurelia's hometown, the daily Herald had printed Aurelia's name frequently during her college years, and later printed her daughter Sylvia Plath's first published poem. So most likely at least one of Aurelia's classmates, friends, neighbors or family members, all of whom had known Karl Terzaghi as her beau, read the Herald and saw "Radcliffe Girl to Wed Viennese Professor" and told Aurelia, or Aurelia herself read that Karl was engaged. Maybe she already knew.

How Aurelia felt about this we do not know. The Herald story was no April Fool's joke: Karl and Ruth wed two months later. We do know that around April 1, 1930, Aurelia was completing her Boston University master's degree and bilingual thesis about Paracelsus as a literary figure, consulting with her German instructor Professor Otto Plath -- like Karl, a fine-looking, German-speaking, divorced European-born professor of science two decades older than she. On the semester's final day, Otto asked Aurelia for a date: a weekend with him and his professor friends who owned a farm. "I was ready for some fun," Aurelia recalled in Letters Home, so she agreed to go.

During the year-plus that she and Otto Plath dated, if Aurelia noticed any "red flags" she ignored them or married Otto in spite of them. They married on January 4, 1932, and were not happy.


Goodman, Richard E. Karl Terzaghi: The Engineer as Artist.  Reston, VA: ASCE Press, 1999, pp. 108-121.

Norwegian Geotechnical Institute (Oslo), Karl Terzaghi Library, Terzaghi Diary 26.1: entry 24 August 1926, "Miss A. Schober, unmarried, every evening until dinnertime and I thoroughly enjoyed the company of the warmhearted, clever girl"; Diary 27.1: 13 May 1927, junior prom;  29 September 1927: "What should I do with my love for this child?"; 2 October 1927, "In the evening three hours in the Homeopathic Hospital at the bedside of my girl"; 4 December 1927, "The poor one still needs her crutches"; Diary 27.2: 6 April 1928, "Thought seriously about marriage. Settled for me"; 6 November 1928, "hated Maqua," "What will become of me if you leave?"; 3 December 1928, "I can offer no more"; 27 April 1929, "Back to 1928: Dec. 18. Phone call from Miss Doggett. . .Called in my office 5:00 p.m.  . . Dinner at University Club"

Plath, Aurelia S., ed. Letters Home by Sylvia Plath, Harper & Row, 1975, pp. 6-10.

Plath, Aurelia S., to Mary Ann Montgomery, 21 April 1980, re the hospitalization: Mrs. Plath wrote that she broke her ankle at age 10 and again at age 20. In October 1927 Mrs. Plath would have been 21.

"first published poem," "Poem" by Sylvia Plath, Boston Herald, August 10, 1941.

"Herald had printed Aurelia's name frequently," "Studying Aurelia Plath," blog post May 14, 2019.

"The word 'rebound'": "The heart was caught, Miss Edgeworth says, on the rebound" Letter to S.E. Williams, December 8, 1818, A.G.K. L'Estrange, ed. The Life of Mary Russell Mitford, Told by Herself in Her Letters to Her Friends, vol. 1. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1876. Mitford used "rebound" in that sense in a novel she published in 1830 (OED).

No comments: