Allow me to introduce you to Robert Underwood Johnson (1853-1937). For the longest time, I only knew him as that one weirdly close friend of Nikola Tesla (himself a popular crush, it would seem). As I begin to research Robert further, I realized what a remarkable person he was in his own right.
Robert was the editor of the CENTURY magazine, which no longer exists, but in its time it published material by renowned writers and thinkers, including Tesla’s controversial article, THE PROBLEM OF INCREASING HUMAN ENERGY. Through his work with the magazine, Robert came to know anybody who was anybody in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. One article I read referred to him as a “genius whisperer.” That’s not far from the truth.
Robert is best remembered today because of his friendship with Tesla. Tesla was a notoriously asocial man who had very few close friends. Robert, and his wife Katharine, were the exceptions. Robert and Tesla shared a love of poetry, and Tesla nicknamed Robert “Luka Filipov” after a hero from a Serbian epic. The two men would remain close for the rest of Robert’s life, with Robert referring to Tesla as his best friend on several occasions.
(There’s all kinds of talk that Tesla may have been in love with Katharine Johnson, or vice versa, and while I think there is some merit to that theory, it’s not entirely pertinent to this post. Though I can’t help but wonder if Robert knew, and how he felt about it… But I digress.)
In 1920, President Wilson appointed Robert ambassador to Italy, a post he held until the summer of 1921. Robert was a lifelong Italophile who had been given awards by the Italian government for his work supporting international copyright laws.
I should dedicate some space to what Robert would most want to be remembered for: his poetry. While not necessarily a great poet, he did publish several books, and it’s hard to deny his passion and enthusiasm. He even wrote a poem titled IN TESLA’S LABORATORY, dedicated to his friend. He favored formal styles of poetry, often speaking out against what he saw as the encroachment of modernism on classical forms of expression (for example, he did not care for the work of either T.S. Eliot or Walt Whitman). While I do not necessarily agree with this, it does show that Robert was a strong minded individual who was completely dedicated to the causes he chose to support.
As previously mentioned, Robert was a friend of a great many famous and talented people. He records his reminiscences in his memoir, REMEMBERED YESTERDAYS, a warm and engaging look back on a fascinating life.
Some other neat things:
- His famous friends, apart from Tesla, included Mark Twain, John Muir, and Rudyard Kipling.
- It was at Robert’s encouragement that Ulysses Grant wrote his memoirs. They were published in the CENTURY at first.
- He and Muir helped establish Yosemite National Park.
- Katharine and Robert had two children, Owen and Agnes. Owen went on to become a successful writer.
- In the early 20th century, Robert was the secretary of the American Academy of Arts and Letters. At this time, there were many rabidly misogynistic members of this all-male organization. When the question of the election of women to the Academy was raised, Robert supported letting women in, in spite of the often vicious opposition from other members.
- Apparently, as Katharine Johnson lay dying, she told her husband to always keep in touch with Tesla. Shortly there after, Robert wrote to Tesla saying that this might not be an easy thing to do, but it would not be his fault if it was not done.
- It’s like, wow, you can really tell how much he loved this woman.
- He signed his last note (before his death in 1937) to Tesla as “Luka Filipov.” Are you crying yet? I am.
OK, I’m sorry, this turned into a really long post, but Robert Underwood Johnson deserves the recognition. He was more than just Tesla’s friend. He was a poet, a diplomat, an editor, an environmentalist, an activist, a friend, a father, a husband. He was, I truly believe, a good and admirable person not only for his own time, but for ours as well. As a lover of all things Italian who’s been known to scribble down the odd poem now and again, I feel especially drawn to him. Everybody should have as good a friend as him. Hell, everyone should try to be as good a friend as him.
Tl:dr Robert was an insanely accomplished dude who was BFFs with some awesome people, was an awesome person in his own right, and was probably the best friend anyone ever had. He deserves to be more than just a footnote in the Tesla story.
Now, if you’ll permit me a little more room, a quick guide to the photos (from top to bottom):
- Robert as a younger man. I’m not gonna lie, I never found beards attractive until I saw this old, grainy photo.
- with Tesla in the laboratory. Supposedly they did this a lot.
- walking down the steps of the White House like a boss after being appointed Ambassador to Italy.
- seen here at left modeling for the sculptor Paul Swan, at right. That bust is majestic.
- portrait by William Merritt Chase, a fellow member of the Academy and one of the most important artists of the day.
- an Onion headline edit by yours truly. Robert was tough and downright feisty when he had to be, but I think this still applies.
Cheers, Mr. Ambassador!