Robert Oppenheimer, the so-called father of the atomic bomb and one of the most brilliant physicists never to have won a Nobel Prize, has inspired legions of biographers and memoirists. And for good reason: He was a polymath of enormous gifts and charm. He could be wonderfully kind and equally cruel. He was a dazzlingly effective leader, especially at Los Alamos, but an often bumbling political player. Dogged by FBI surveillance and later stripped of his security clearance, he was never disloyal to his country. But he did at times betray his friends, his family and, arguably, his own best instincts.
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Both exalted and humbled by history, Oppenheimer (1904-67) lived what his biographer Ray Monk calls "a life inside the center." He succeeded more than he failed, often under the most intense scrutiny, and died too young, of throat cancer linked to his incessant smoking.
Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin's 2005 biography, "American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer," beautifully conveys its subject's mythic quality. The recipient of both a Pulitzer Prize and a National Book Critics Circle Award, the book remains the most elegant, compelling and complete examination of Oppenheimer's career trajectory and personal life, as well as the youthful leftist political associations that would later cause him so much trouble.
But the massive achievement of Bird and Sherwin hasn't deterred other, more recent biographers. In "Robert Oppenheimer," Monk, a British philosophy professor and the biographer of Ludwig Wittgenstein and Bertrand Russell, adds to the record by laying out Oppenheimer's contributions to 20th-century physics. And in "An Atomic Love Story," Shirley Streshinsky and Patricia Klaus discuss Oppenheimer in relation to the three women they say he loved best.
Monk's tome is essential reading for Oppie enthusiasts, even those who don't know a meson from a cosmic ray (and don't much care). It is undeniably impressive that Monk made the effort to master the complexities of nuclear physics, astrophysics and other fields in which Oppenheimer made a mark. But the arcana he describes still are likely to elude the comprehension of nonspecialists.
Fortunately, the rest of the book — though less gracefully written than "American Prometheus" — is rich in circumstance, detail and anecdote. Monk aims to be even-handed. He can be hard on Oppenheimer, noting how the almost unaccountable lies he told security officials in the 1940s (about Haakon Chevalier, a Communist friend who once asked him to spy for the Soviet Union) haunted him — not to mention Chevalier — for much of his life. Monk is also disapproving of "the weakness of Oppenheimer's loyalty" to his former students with Communist Party ties, and even to his beloved brother Frank. But Monk is harder still on the men, including U.S. Army security official Boris Pash and U.S. Atomic Energy Commission chairman Lewis Strauss, who sought to besmirch Oppenheimer's reputation and expel him from public life.
Monk begins by noting Oppenheimer's deep ambivalence about his German-Jewish roots, not unusual at a time when anti-Semitism was prevalent in American society. He suggests that this issue was at the core of Oppenheimer's personality problems. The authority Monk cites is a close friend and fellow physicist, Isidor Rabi, who described Oppenheimer as "a man who was put together of many bright shining splinters" but "never got to be an integrated personality."
Rabi, it should be noted, was no psychiatrist, and Monk's somewhat simplistic analysis does little to explain Oppie's immense appeal. Neither can it account for his extraordinary wartime leadership of the Manhattan Project — his uncontested indefatigability and skill in overseeing the scientific, technical and managerial challenges of creating the first atomic bomb.
Monk reminds us just how intellectually impressive Oppenheimer could be: mastering Dutch in order to give physics seminars in the language (his nickname Oppie derived from the Dutch "Opje"), studying Sanskrit in order to read Hindu literature, immersing himself in T.S. Eliot, Baudelaire and Proust. At the Los Alamos Laboratory, working with physicists, engineers and others, "he could understand anything," the physicist Robert Serber said. Something about Oppenheimer also inspired people to do their best — an ineffable charisma that no biography can fully capture.
Monk underscores another theme: Oppenheimer's "deep, and sometimes fierce, devotion to his country." Less flatteringly, he details the man's vanity, snobbery and desire to be at the nexus of power and celebrity.
One particularly delicious anecdote, from 1947, illuminates the pride before the fall. At the time, Oppenheimer was still riding high from his success at Los Alamos. After a physics conference on Long Island, he had rented a seaplane to fly to Harvard to receive an honorary degree and had invited other Boston-bound physicists to join him. Stormy weather compelled a protocol-violating diversion to a naval base, where they confronted an angry naval officer.
"Let me handle this," Oppenheimer told the pilot. Monk takes up the account:
"He offered his outstretched hand to the officer and said calmly: 'My name is Oppenheimer.' 'The Oppenheimer?' gasped the officer. Upon being reassured that he was indeed in the presence of the most famous physicist in the country, the officer changed his attitude completely, welcomed Oppenheimer and his companions to the officers' club where they were served tea and biscuits, and then arranged for them to be driven to the local railway station."
Such reverential treatment was short-lived. As the Cold War deepened, Oppenheimer's opposition to the hydrogen bomb, his past links to Communist organizations (Monk agrees with Bird-Sherwin that he was never a party member), his conflicting statements about being approached to spy for the Soviet Union, and his penchant for attracting powerful enemies all made him a target. After secret hearings, and the outrageous wiretapping of his private meetings with lawyers, he was stripped of his security clearance in 1954 — "more of a farce" than a tragedy, Monk says, echoing Oppenheimer himself. Oppenheimer was nevertheless able to retain the directorship of the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton, a prestigious research enclave for young physicists.
It was there, before Oppenheimer's disgrace, that my physicist father, Abraham Klein (also mentioned briefly in Monk's book), first encountered him. In a letter of Dec. 29, 1952, he invites my father (then 25) to give a talk on something called "the pseudo-scalar theory of the two-nucleon system." With his characteristic wit, Oppenheimer writes: "Our regular seminars are on Tuesdays; but we will make an irregular one if you feel that is better."
Oppenheimer was known for interrupting speakers with challenging questions. In a memoir for his 65th birthday symposium, my father recalls how a "dress rehearsal" for a friend "uncovered all the sloppy elements of my preparation." As a result, "that day ... I was able to answer all (Oppenheimer's) objections, some of them before he could finish voicing them." Afterward, the director quintupled my father's expense payment, "suggesting a French restaurant in Manhattan where some of the money would be well-spent."
For the most part, "Robert Oppenheimer" neglects any discussion of the women in Oppie's life, a gap that "An Atomic Love Story" fills. Interwoven with a sketchy account of Oppenheimer's career, it offers intersecting (and often fascinating) portraits of Jean Tatlock, a troubled psychiatrist whom he had hoped to marry; his wife, the former Katherine "Kitty" Puening, and his friend and possible lover, psychologist Ruth Sherman Tolman.
Both Tatlock and Puening (who was married three times before she wed Oppenheimer, including one possibly "common law" husband) had been Communists, which contributed to the suspicions about Oppenheimer's loyalty. Tatlock wrestled with depression; Kitty, while devoted to Oppenheimer, was an alcoholic, disliked by her husband's friends and not the most loving of mothers to their son, Peter, and daughter, Toni.
The authors suggest that Kitty's thwarted ambition to become a botanist contributed to her obvious unhappiness. By contrast, Tolman, nearly 11 years Oppenheimer's senior, emerges as an entirely admirable figure, mature and loving and with a notable career to boot.
All three women, Streshinsky and Klaus write, "were intellectually engaging and wholly involved in their times, ambitious, earnest, risk-taking .... Each loved Robert until the end of her life; he, in turn, remained devoted to each until the end of his." He stayed close to Tatlock even after his marriage, occasionally spending the night, and was devastated by her suicide in 1944.
In outline, these characterizations are familiar. But the staccato narrative of "An Atomic Love Story" fleshes out family histories, Kitty's earlier marriages, and Tatlock's adolescent yearning and sexual confusion.
The book also parts company from Bird and Sherwin on the Tolman-Oppenheimer relationship. "American Prometheus" asserts the two were lovers, but Streshinsky and Klaus are less certain the relationship was sexual, stressing instead "the strength of their emotional connection, and their enduring loyalty." The surviving letters convey the flavor of their intimacy, which certainly seems tinged with romance. "Oh Robert, Robert," Tolman wrote in 1949. "Soon I shall see you. You and I both know how it will be."
By contrast, Kitty seems to have caused Oppenheimer considerable grief as her drinking escalated. Streshinsky and Klaus write: "Kitty remained for us … an enigma: Bright, frustrated, capable of erratic kindnesses and frequent cruelties, she was the epitome of a life unfulfilled." The gender-based asymmetry of the couple's achievements could hardly be more obvious: Whatever his failings, Robert Oppenheimer embodies the fulfilled life.
Julia M. Klein is a cultural reporter and critic in Philadelphia.
By Ray Monk, Doubleday, 825 pages, $37.50
"An Atomic Love Story"
By Shirley Streshinsky and Patricia Klaus, Turner, 382 pages, $29.95Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun