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Robert Oppenheimer

Government photograph of J. Robert Oppenheimer (in light colored hat with foot on tower rubble), General Leslie Groves (in military dress to Oppenheimer’s left), and others at the ground zero site of the Trinity test after the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki (some time after the actual test). September 1945. (Wikimedia Commons)

The Princeton Years

By Anne Levin

For three days last April, the Institute for Advanced Study resembled its 1950s self. Vintage cars were parked outside. Actors Cillian Murphy, Matt Damon, and Robert Downey Jr. were spotted in and around Fuld Hall and Olden Manor, wearing mid-century-appropriate clothing.

These actors and accompanying crew had descended upon the Institute — one of the world’s foremost centers for theoretical research and intellectual inquiry —to shoot scenes for a feature film about J. Robert Oppenheimer, the famed theoretical physicist and the Institute’s director from 1947 to 1966. Oppenheimer led the World War II Manhattan Project that developed the atomic bomb. Less than a decade later, he was the most prominent victim of the McCarthy era “red scare.” Oppenheimer, directed by Christopher Nolan and based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning biography American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer, is due to be released in July.

A blurb on the back cover of the 2005 book by Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin sums him up concisely: “J. Robert Oppenheimer is one of the iconic figures of the twentieth century, a brilliant physicist who led the effort to build the atomic bomb for his country in a time of war, and who later found himself confronting the moral consequences of scientific progress.”

Born to a prosperous German/Jewish family in 1904 and raised on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, Julius Robert Oppenheimer was educated at Harvard before studying at Cambridge University in England and the University of Gottingen in Germany, one of the world’s leading centers for theoretical physics. He taught at the University of California, Berkeley, and California Institute of Technology, before becoming wartime head of the Los Alamos Laboratory in New Mexico. The first atomic bomb was successfully detonated there in July 1945. A month later, the weapons were used to bomb Hiroshima and Nagasaki, helping to end World War II.

J. Robert Oppenheimer sitting at desk. (Alan Richards, photographer; Shelby White and Leon Levy Archives Center, Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton, NJ, USA, undated)

After the war, Oppenheimer was named chairman of the General Advisory Committee of the United States Atomic Energy Commission. He became increasingly anxious about the prospect of nuclear proliferation. In American Prometheus, the authors write that physicist Freeman Dyson, a friend and colleague at the Institute, “saw deep and poignant contradictions in Robert Oppenheimer. He had dedicated his life to science and rational thought. And yet, as Dyson observed, Oppenheimer’s decision to participate in the creation of a genocidal weapon was ‘a Faustian bargain if there ever was one…. And of course we are still living with it.’”

Due mostly to his past associations with people affiliated with the Communist Party, Oppenheimer was subjected to a hearing that resulted in the stripping of his security clearance and the end of his formal relationship with the U.S. government. This decision, just nine years after he was lauded as the “father of the atomic bomb,” was a public humiliation that weighed heavily on him and disgusted many of his colleagues.

At Oppenheimer’s memorial service in Alexander Hall on the Princeton University campus in 1967, his Princeton neighbor and fellow physicist Henry DeWolf Smyth said in a eulogy, “Such a wrong can never be righted; such a blot on our history never erased…. We regret that his great work for his country was repaid so shabbily.”

Last December, the 1954 decision was nullified by U.S. Secretary of Energy Jennifer Granholm, who said it had been the result of a “flawed process” and affirmed that Oppenheimer had, in fact, been loyal to his country.

Oppenheimer, his wife Kitty, and their two young children arrived in Princeton in the summer of 1947. At their disposal was stately Olden Manor (also known as Olden Farm), a white colonial house with portions dating back to 1696. The site had been owned and farmed by the Olden family for generations. The west wing of the house served as a field hospital for General Washington’s troops during the Battle of Princeton in early 1777. The Oldens added on to the house over the years, and it had 18 rooms by the late 19th century.

The Institute bought Olden Manor from the family in the 1930s. By the time Oppenheimer took over from previous director Frank Aydelotte, the property (now occupied by current Institute director David Nirenberg) came with a live-in cook and groundskeeper/handyman. The barn and corral soon housed two horses, one of which Oppenheimer’s daughter, Toni, liked to ride around town when she got older. A greenhouse was built for Kitty, who filled it with many varieties of orchids.

J. Robert Oppenheimer (left) and John von Neumann at the October 1952 dedication of the computer built for the Institute for Advanced Study. (Wikimedia Commons)

Founded in 1930 by Louis Bamberger and his sister Caroline Bamberger Fuld, the Institute was designed as neither a teaching university nor a research school. The first director, Abraham Flexner, described it as “a wedge between the two — a small university in which a limited amount of teaching and a liberal amount of research are both to be found.” Albert Einstein was hired in 1933 for a then-lavish annual salary of $15,000. Throughout the 1930s, Flexner also recruited John von Neumann, Kurt Godel, Oswald Veblen, and several other brilliant minds — mostly mathematicians.

Oppenheimer brought more physicists into the mix, including Dyson, Niels Bohr, George Placzek, and Hideki Yukawa. He also broadened the Institute’s scope to include classicism, psychology, archaeology, and poetry.

Physicists Albert Einstein and Oppenheimer conferring circa 1950. (Image courtesy of US Govt. Defense Threat Reduction Agency)

“In his speeches about the Institute, Oppenheimer continually emphasized that science needed the humanities to better understand its own character and consequences,” according to American Prometheus. “He hoped that he could make the Institute a haven for scientists, social scientists, and humanists interested in a multi-disciplinary understanding of the whole human condition.”
Princeton in 1947 was a quiet community, with one traffic light at Nassau and Witherspoon streets. Oppenheimer spent two thirds of his time on Institute business, and a third traveling, giving speeches, and attending classified meetings in Washington, according to Kai and Sherwin.

J. Robert Oppenheimer at blackboard. (Alan Richards, photographer; Shelby White and Leon Levy Archives Center, Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton, NJ, USA, undated)

He was tall, thin, and intense; frequently described as distracted from the real world. Those who had even the briefest encounters with him in Princeton recall them vividly, several decades later. John Loeser, who grew up in the town, remembers a day in 1963 when Oppenheimer spoke to a men’s service group at the YMCA.

“As a member of the YMCA’s youth service group, I was one of the high school students that served tables,” he wrote in an email. “We were allowed to listen, and each received a copy of his book, which I believe I still have. I recall his presentation included a tone of regret and optimism. He seemed a very cordial man and respectful of the use of the bomb, including references to them in his speech. I have added to my list of claims to fame the fact that I shook hands with him.”

Joel Goldberger wrote, “For the last few years of Oppenheimer’s life, both of my parents spent most weekends with J. Robert and Kitty, and often I accompanied them. They continued their close friendship with Kitty following his death.” Goldberger’s mother founded the Princeton Children’s Museum, “a more modest version of the Exploratorium that J. Robert’s brother Frank founded in San Francisco. Frank and my mother talked for hours about what a museum should be. Most of these conversations took place at Olden Manor, the residence of the director of the Institute for Advanced Study.”

Director’s House at the Institute for Advanced Study. (Shelby White and Leon Levy Archives Center, Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton, NJ, USA, undated)

Oppenheimer had a notorious nicotine habit. Numerous descriptions of him mention the ever-present smoke wafting above his head.

“His secretary was my godmother, and they both met and had coffee and smoked in my family’s kitchen on several occasions,” wrote Rob Platten. “I am not sure why. He chain-smoked and the room was a cloud of smoke, with three adults all smoking and chatting as I ran through to grab a Coke and go outside to ride my bike. My memory of him is of a somber man, rather intense, with absolutely no interest in baseball or other important matters that dominated a young boy’s mind.”

Lydia Pirone, the mother of Princeton Councilwoman Michelle Pirone Lambros, was a 20-year-old secretary in the controller’s office at Princeton University when she was offered some weekend work at Oppenheimer’s office at the Institute.

“I would go on Saturdays to help his secretary, doing all the leftovers she had from the week,” Pirone said. “He was very quiet, very stoic. He was not handsome, but he had these piercing green eyes. I always initiated ‘Hello, good morning, sir,’ and he would answer politely. He was always very well dressed, unlike his wife Kitty, who was always in jeans and looked like an unmade bed. She had a drinking problem. The rumor was that he was having an affair with his secretary, and I could see why, because she was very attractive. I don’t know where she was living, but she used to come to work at the Institute in a horse and carriage, which was a little unusual, even then.”

While a cover story in Life magazine depicted the Oppenheimers as a happy family, with photographs of “a pipe-smoking father reading a book to his two young children as his pretty wife looked on over his shoulder and the family’s German shepherd, Buddy, lay at his feet,” life at Olden Manor was far from easy. Numerous accounts in American Prometheus from neighbors, colleagues, and others who interacted with the family recall Kitty’s drinking and her frustrations with the role of Institute director’s wife. A trained biologist, botanist, and member of the Communist Party of America, she had little patience with small-town social life.

Not surprisingly considering his chain-smoking, Oppenheimer was diagnosed with throat cancer in late 1965. After undergoing unsuccessful radiation and chemotherapy treatments, he died in Princeton on February 15, 1967. He was 62.

His memorial service a week later was attended by some 600 of his colleagues and friends, from historian Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. and novelist John O’Hara to choreographer George Balanchine and Manhattan Project Director General Leslie R. Groves. Smyth, diplomat George Kennan, and physicist Hans Bethe delivered eulogies.

A recollection by Art Dielhenn, an author who lives in Los Angeles and grew up in Princeton, perhaps describes Oppenheimer in his final years best:

“A hundred years ago when I was 17 or 18, I worked for Bohren’s Moving and Storage. One morning I was sent as the helper in the truck to move some guy and his wife. His name was Oppenheimer. At that age, all I knew was that he was some egghead from the university. On arrival, as I crossed the threshold into the entry hall, I had the sense that it was the saddest place I had ever been — dark, muted, and deadly quiet, except for his wife who seemed inebriated and still in night clothes and a robe, shuffling from room to room as if trying to find a treasured possession. She was whisked off by someone and we never saw her again. He was tall, lanky, and ghostly. What I didn’t know then, but certainly know now, is the immense toll his genius cost him. I don’t remember much else except that we tried to get out of there as fast as we could. As I reflect on this event now, I can’t imagine the weight he was carrying, the sheer magnitude of the future that he spawned, and the depth of grief he held for having done so.”

Oppenheimer receives the Fermi Award, 1963. (U.S. Department of Energy, Historian’s Office)

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