When he'd tell the three anecdotes from what he called his "bad year"—fall 1925 through spring 1926 in Cambridge—Robert would get the order wrong, deliberately perhaps, it seeming more poetic, even "biblical," to begin with the apple incident and then end with the near murder.
It was Francis Fergusson, visiting his old friend in 1966, who tried to set the record straight: "But Robert, the apple came second. It was the train thing first, apple second, me third"—"me" meaning it was Francis who supplied the neck Robert tried to wring with the leather strap.
By 1966, Robert was dying of throat cancer, and one imagines that quotidian truths no longer seemed so important, anyway.
His wife, Kitty, would beg him not to waste his strength rehashing that old stuff—his friends had heard it all a dozen times by then—but it didn't stop Robert. Talking was a form of expiation, family and friends concluded, that year in Cambridge Robert's albatross. But Robert had no patience with such puerile theorizing. This was the man who'd wrung his hands in the Oval Office, October 1945, and said, "Mr. President, I feel I have blood on my hands." To feel guilt over an apple? No, he told the stories in the same spirit that he and I. I. Rabi would sit endlessly studying a formula-crowded blackboard: to understand.
So he told himself at least. Even a casual observer, however, would note the element of performance in the telling. By then he enjoyed being the center of attention. He made friends easily, women flocked to him, and he'd even discovered the pleasures of an unexpected gesture of patience and kindness, this from the man who could terrorize even those closest to him with his pitiless arrogance.
So, a search for truth, for understanding? No doubt, but one could never discount the desire to put on a good show. Disney's Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs had debuted by then, and there were those who swore that Robert assumed the role of the wicked witch when he told the story of injecting the apple with cyanide and leaving it on the desk of his tutor, Patrick Blackett.
"What happened?" first-time hearers would always ask. Robert would only shrug and reply, "It was discovered." "But why did you do it?" they'd cry, and he'd shrug again and smile mysteriously. If pressed, he'd say, "He wanted me to wash the test tubes," which was silly, but in truth Blackett was an adept experimental physicist and like the Brits in general valued the hands-on approach, which was anathema to Robert. Theory was his game, and being required to make beryllium films to use in studying electrons, for instance, as he was required to do in his early days at Cambridge, was more than tedious: it helped drive him to the edge of a nervous breakdown. Indeed, Cambridge officials refrained from giving him the boot (at the very least; they could have had him arrested for attempted murder for the poisoned apple) only under the condition that he receive psychiatric help. (The supplications of his rich daddy didn't hurt, either.)
Still, Blackett's ministrations were no more onerous than those of Robert's other "superiors" at Cambridge. Besides, Robert genuinely liked and admired him. So the question remains: why the poisoned apple?
Wolfgang Pauli, who did not suffer fools gladly (although even Pauli would never call Robert a fool) said that Robert created mysteries where none existed (i.e., made up the story) just so he could be the center of attention. However, although at his most emotionally fragile it was not always certain that Robert could distinguish between fact and fancy, the apple incident almost certainly happened. Robert Serber—a lesser physicist than Pauli, perhaps, but more attuned to his old mentor and friend—said that there was only one reason to keep telling the story of the apple—he hoped that someone would explain it to him.
Robert's great discovery in his student days in Europe, where for the first time he encountered peers in the truest sense, was that he could learn from others. Indeed, his characteristic M.O. as a researcher was to talk out problems with teachers, colleagues, students. Not for him the solitary study, communing only with numbers, a la his Cambridge friend, Paul Dirac. Dirac, in fact, was the first to whom Robert tried to explain the apple incident. When Dirac, more disgusted than intrigued, asked Robert why he had done it, Robert answered with one word: jealousy. Dirac was perhaps the only person in the world to whom it would not occur to ask, "Jealous of whom? Of what?" He simply didn't care. Instead, he waved his hand dismissively and said, "Stick to physics, Robert, and forget all that other stuff"—meaning affairs of the heart, one supposes.
In all the times he told the apple story thereafter, never again did Robert repeat that first response—jealousy—when someone inevitably asked why he did it. Had he come uncomfortably close to revealing something he'd rather not acknowledge? Or would too definite—and prosaic—an explanation rob the tale of its mystery? Robert was always more interested in questions than answers, after all.
It can't be denied that he was prone to jealousy, though. Hence, the Francis Fergusson incident.
In contrast to the apple poisoning and the "train incident," there can be no doubt that this one actually happened. Fergusson was there, after all, and survived to tell the tale and hear Robert tell it on numerous occasions. He would never look at Fergusson during the performance but would almost look at him, seem always about to glance at him, with an ironic smile, one might guess. But one would be wrong. The glance, had Robert allowed himself, would have been gentle, affectionate, like one fondly recalling a lovers' spat from days long gone, all healed now.
It happened at the end of a series of contretemps including the train and apple incidents, all affirming Robert's emotional instability. In a misguided effort to cheer him up, perhaps, or divert him from his self-absorption, or simply to share some good news with a friend, Fergusson announced that he had proposed to his girlfriend, Frances Keeley, and that she had accepted. Robert sat stunned, speechless. Covering his embarrassment, Fergusson knelt down to pick up a book. Robert pounced, wound a trunk-strap around his neck and began to choke him. There was a noise—maybe Fergusson had managed to call out, maybe someone passed in the hallway outside the room; Fergusson isn't sure—and Robert loosened his hold momentarily. Fergusson was able to wrench free, at which point Robert collapsed to the floor, weeping.
Fergusson prudently kept his distance for a time, but in truth he forgave Robert almost immediately. It took Robert much longer to forgive himself: "You should have…a pilgrimage to Oxford, made in a hair shirt, with much fasting and snow and prayer." Robert made no such pilgrimage, of course, but maybe his telling the tale again and again was his hair shirt. (But he took such pleasure in the telling.)
With the details here so little in dispute, we are left to ponder only the motive. But can there be any doubt of it? Jealousy.
It can be dangerous to impose a later age's standards and judgments on a former; but even at four-score years' distance we can be forgiven for noting that Robert was jealous of the girl and—couple this with an earlier incident when Robert "lost" another male friend to a girl—concluding that Robert was homosexual. If he'd just "come out of the closet," he would have been more content with himself and his world. Indeed, there's considerable evidence that young Robert was uneasy with his sexual identity.
Trumping all this, however, is the fact that 1) sexual-identity confusion in young men is common if not universal and is not by itself evidence of homosexuality; 2) the mature Robert was attractive to women and attracted to them; 3) biographers have unearthed and memoirists have reported no homosexual encounters in Robert's life early or late; 4) no one who knew Robert well ever accused him of being homosexual.
No, the answer is either simpler or much more complex, depending upon how one looks at it: Robert's jealousy sprang not from homosexuality but from loneliness, a fear of abandonment leading to desperate measures (poisoned apple, leather strap around the neck). Friends and relatives all report a distant quality in the young Robert, a sense of standing apart, above the fray, as it were. This is not at all unusual among geniuses, of course, most especially physicists and mathematicians. But with many others one senses this distant quality grew out of their essential natures. They really were above the fray. Not so, obviously, Robert. His advice to his brother, Frank, to "see the world without the gross distortion of personal desire" no doubt grew out of the recognition that this was something he himself could not achieve. Beneath the apparently cold exterior, Robert boiled.
The ur-incident (although in Robert's telling it would always come last, as if it were the culmination) occurred in 1925 aboard a train from Cambridge to Liverpool, where Robert was to meet his parents, sailing from the U.S. to observe and comfort their troubled son. There are no witnesses to corroborate Robert's account, no shred of evidence to affirm (or deny) that it actually happened. Of course, such is generally the case with very private moments or brief encounters involving an individual and passing strangers, never seen again. Then too one could argue that even if the incident was entirely fabricated, the nature of the fabrication is relevant. Perhaps especially if fabricated. The question is, in other words, does it have the psychological ring of truth? Considering what transpired in Robert's life before and after, the answer must be yes.
Robert's telling of the tale would vary, not in particulars but in completeness. Often he would relate only what we might call "part one" of the tale, less frequently parts one and two, only a very few times in his life the whole of it.
Here it is. He's on a train to Liverpool, in a third-class compartment with two strangers, a young man and woman. While he tries to concentrate on his reading (a text on thermodynamics), the couple "make love" (in the 1920's sense of the term, surely: kissing and "petting"). When the man leaves the compartment for a moment, Robert, without the slightest conscious forethought, moves in on the woman and kisses her. The woman is apparently more amused than outraged or alarmed, but, suddenly apoplectic with contrition, Robert falls to his knees and begs forgiveness. Here the account jumps to the train station in Liverpool. Standing on an elevated platform, Robert sees the couple on the level beneath him. On impulse, but admittedly trying to hit the woman, Robert drops his suitcase over the side of the platform!
Most often Robert would conclude his account of the train incident with the stolen kiss. Delighted laughter in the "Oh, you rogue" vein would inevitably follow, but the more perceptive of Robert's auditors would sense something missing, especially when contrasting the episode's "skimpiness" to the apple and choking incidents, which would precede the train in Robert's order of telling. Some would call him on it—"Come on, Oppie, there has to be more than that"—but questions were usually of no avail. Why? Maybe to impart that air of mystery that all storytellers love. Or maybe vanity, the kiss confirming the view that Robert was a bit of Jack the Lad. Or more likely a different kind of vanity, the easily wounded variety that would hesitate to reveal part two of the tale.
A few times, in more intimate gatherings, with people he really cared about, Robert would answer the "What happened next?" with part two, the humiliating truth: "I fell to my knees, cried like a baby, and begged forgiveness."
Reaction to the admission would range from nervous laughter or an uncomfortable turning away (the men) to such a gushing of sympathy and petting from the women that a cynic might wonder if Robert hadn't planned it that way all along. But Robert-the-Lad—famous, powerful, assured, and well-off—had no need of such machinations. He did not lack for women (even or especially during the long years of his married life).
Invariably the tearful apology would seem a fitting denouement to the stolen kiss. No one ever asked, "What next?" Robert volunteered the third part four times over the course of his life, though: first to Frances Fergusson and then again to Fergusson toward the end of his life; once when he tried out the full version at a Berkeley cocktail party, never to be repeated in so social a venue (the full version was serious business, not entertainment); and one day after class to a student who was too worshipful of physicists in general and the Great Man in particular. In all cases he would seem anxious to get the telling over with, jumping from the tearful apology to "After we got to the train station in Liverpool, I saw the couple on a platform below me. I dropped my suitcase on the girl. Tried to anyway. Missed, of course."
Robert, of the wealthy New York Oppenheimers, always had expensive luggage. He'd later buy a new set with leather straps, but this suitcase, though leather, had brass hinges and snaps. In his mind's eye he would see his hand, as if it belonged to someone else, release the suitcase, which would rotate not quite one-hundred and eighty degrees as it fell dreamily toward the woman, the brass hinges catching the station lights and winking dully in the smoky air. One person at the cocktail party asked him what happened to the woman, but no one ever asked what happened to the suitcase. If they had he would have told them, "When it hit, it exploded like a bomb."
There are geniuses, and then there are super-geniuses. The difference is less statistical than personal: that is, not a matter of I.Q. but how they lead their lives. The former join MENSA and brag about doing the Sunday Times crossword puzzle in ink but otherwise walk among us indistinguishable from you and me, and this irritates the hell out of them. Super-geniuses, though, are freaks—divinely inspired, perhaps, and often lauded and feted, but freaks nonetheless. They live apart. Some accept this, even embrace it. Paul Dirac was impatient with if not outright contemptuous of the noisy, noisome world beyond his beloved problems in physics. Then there is the Robert variety.
At times he seemed made from the Dirac mold. The young Robert was frequently described by friends and relatives as distant, cold, even arrogant. The ladies' man and bon-vivant he developed into in later years could still occasionally inspire the same sort of reaction. His Berkeley friend and colleague Martin Kamen, for instance, said Robert was "very brilliant, but somehow superficial." It was difficult to find the real Robert, Kamen felt: "He had the overwhelming temptation just to snow you."
Probably the real Robert can never be gotten at, especially from our by now nearly half-century perspective. But the scientist in him would no doubt suggest we start with the visible evidence. This: Robert was never alone. Not for him the cloistered study, the ivory tower, the laboratory at midnight. He was always in the company of a relative (mother, cousin, brother), a friend, a colleague, a lover, or most often some combination thereof. True, he sometimes felt the need to "get away from it all"—most especially to Perro Caliente, his ranch in the Sangre de Christo Mountains—but he never went even to Perro Caliente alone. Nor could this man whom some mistakenly saw as cold and superficial "give up" a person once he'd made a connection. He refused to cut the ties to sometime lover Jean Tatlock even as she became dangerously unbalanced, finally committing suicide. He destroyed his career (eventually; he would not realize it at the time) by refusing to "finger" communist-leaning friend Haakon Chevalier when questioned by the C.I.A. in the early 1940s. Most significantly (if strangely, considering his willingness to engage in extramarital affairs), he stood by his wife Kitty, not an easy person to live with or even be in the company of: "one of the very few people I've heard men—and very nice men—call a bitch," observed Robert's secretary.
Maybe Robert realized that his "freakish" intelligence tended to isolate him from "normal" people; hence he had to work harder to maintain human relationships. If so, this surely was an admirable endeavor. However, we also sense a desperation in this need, and, in his young manhood at least, the desperation was pathological.
Pathological. Is the term too strong? Robert hurled a suitcase down at a young woman's head; he tried to poison his mentor; he very nearly strangled to death his best friend. In each case the cause was frustrated passion and/or the fear of abandonment. Was the tendency toward violence merely a passing adolescent phase, or did he suppress it, appease it, in later years by surrounding himself with so many admirers he would never be alone. Love me or else…
…or else what?
Robert was interested in music and the arts but especially literature. Reading Proust's Remembrance of Things Past, he claimed, helped bring him back to health after the Cambridge year. He not only read but wrote poetry—some of it quite good—throughout his life.
Poetry was more for Robert than a change of pace from physics: it was an attempt to go beyond the limited truths physics could address. The poet Arnold Frings recalls a discussion with Robert in the early 1950s in which Frings—a bit in his cups, as he admits—boasted, "We poets seek to know what can't be known, you physicists only what can." Rather than countering, Robert nodded sadly and said, "Yes, ultimately we're just shit-stackers with slide rules."
After the poisoned-apple incident, Robert underwent counseling, the first but not last time in his life. He hated it, and there's no evidence the counseling helped him; still, he would always remain interested in psychiatry, especially psychoanalysis. Indeed, Wolfgang Pauli once complained that Robert "seemed to treat physics as an avocation and psychoanalysis as a vocation."
What Pauli could have said was that for Robert psychoanalysis and poetry were hoped-for avenues toward a deeper understanding than physics could provide. Quantum mechanics, you see, was easy. Robert was the baffling mystery. He tried. He looked long. He looked deeply. In photographs, in those shocking-blue eyes, you can see it: the inward-lookingness, the bafflement. Beneath it all, perhaps, the fear.
A poisoned apple. A strap around the throat. A suitcase hurled like a bomb. Then, many years later when Robert seemed to have long ago left behind youthful follies and passions, to have achieved, not just maturity but a kind of contentment, to have become not just admired but liked—to have become, in a word, "Oppie"—at Alamogordo, just south of Robert's beloved Sangre de Christo Mountains, a mushroom bloomed. And Robert had planted it.
How did it happen? This was the man who could inspire admiration bordering on adulation, not just for his genius but for his humanity. "He had really an almost saintly empathy for people," Robert Wilson recalls; "This is a man who is angelic, true and honest and he could do no wrong." And yet when Wilson, among many other scientists, began to express doubts about the wisdom, the humanity, of unleashing the atomic bomb on Japan, where was his saint?
Robert may have had his misgivings about dropping the bomb (Wilson reports him murmuring, "Those poor little people, those poor little people" as the Day neared), but on the numerous opportunities he had to express those misgivings in an official way, Robert the humanitarian faltered. He never once suggested that the bomb program be stopped. When the majority of his colleagues at Los Alamos argued that a public test of the bomb be conducted rather than a surprise attack on Japan, Robert demurred. Scientists, he said, had no more privileged insight into these matters than other citizens; eventual use of the Bomb was for the military and the President to decide.
Yes, famously at Alamogordo at the moment of the First Flash, he intoned tragically, "Now I am become death, the destroyer of worlds," but don't we sense the moment has been too carefully rehearsed? Robert always loved a stage. Indeed, rather than drawing back, appalled at the fruits of his labors, he exulted. I. I. Rabi: "I'll never forget his walk [after the trinity test]; I'll never forget the way he stepped out of the car…. his walk was like High Noon…this kind of strut. He had done it."
Much more significantly, when James B. Conant argued that a civilian target should be blessed with the first atomic attack, Robert didn't object. Instead, he went Conant one (or several) better, musing whether a number of such targets should not be hit simultaneously. Well, as it turned out, a couple did the trick.
The evening of the Hiroshima bombing, a jubilant, whistling, foot-stomping crowd gathered in the Los Alamos auditorium to hear their hero, their god, J. Robert Oppenheimer. Instead of entering from the wings as per usual, Robert strode triumphantly up the center aisle and leapt onto the stage, as Sam Cohen recalls, fist-pumping the audience. He was proud of what they had done, Robert told them, his only regret being that they hadn't finished the bomb in time to drop it on the Germans.
Mushrooms blooming at Alamogordo, Hiroshima, and Nagasaki. A quarter of a million human beings, the vast majority of them civilians, incinerated, dismembered, or dying horrible deaths from radiation poisoning. The world changed, surely for the worse, forever.
Why? Why? Why? Why did J. Robert Oppenheimer—this brilliant, cultured, often generous, and in other respects humane man—choose to play such a central and ghastly role? The seeds of those mushrooms' blooming can be found in the poisoned apple, the strap around the throat, the suitcase dropped onto an innocent stranger. He feared abandonment. He needed to be loved. Never had he been so surrounded by people, so admired, so loved as when he had his hand on The Bomb. Regret came (too conveniently?) later.
Harry Truman may come across as the villain in scientists' (most prominently Robert's) efforts to put the genie back in the bottle post-Hiroshima. But the Missouri haberdasher had a genius of his own for cutting through the crap. When Robert, October 1945, sat in the Oval Office wringing his hands and claiming that he had blood on them, Harry threw him his handkerchief and said, "Well, wipe 'em off."*
*Some few characters, incidents, and conversations in this "re-imagining" are invented. The "Cambridge year" incidents are described in Bird and Sherwin's American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer, as are all the "real" incidents and quotations. The atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, alas, require no such validation.