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Living in secret in Los Alamos

In "109 East Palace," author Jennet Conant tells the story of daily life in the New Mexican desert during the building of the bomb.

For more than two years, 3,000 scientists lived in secret in Los Alamos, N.M. Cut off from the outside world, these scientists, with their families, lived like pioneers to build the bomb before Germany. But there was more to life than just work, and in "109 East Palace: Robert Oppenheimer and the Secret City of Los Alamos," Jennet Conant tells the story of the challenges and successes these workers and their spouses and children faced in their new desert hideaway. Read an excerpt.

Chapter Two: A Most Improbable Choice
Standing a few feet away in the lobby of La Fonda, Oppenheimer's twenty-three-year-old secretary, Priscilla Greene, watched him work his magic on Dorothy McKibbin. The meeting could not have lasted more than a few minutes, but she had no doubt of the outcome. Dorothy appeared to be bright, lively, and intelligent, with rosy cheeks and fine-boned features topped by a mass of curls. She had an engaging manner, a gentle, assured way about her that was very attractive. Oppenheimer would like her, and there was no question of her liking him. In the short time she had worked for him, Greene had observed that it was the rare individual who was not beguiled by his Byronic looks, quick mind, and grave, courteous manner. "I don't think he really interviewed her. He just offered her the job," she recalled, "and she didn't hesitate for a minute to accept."

Priscilla Greene understood this all too well. She had fallen for Oppenheimer almost as quickly as Dorothy McKibbin had. Scarcely a year earlier, in February 1942, Greene had landed a job working for Ernest Lawrence, a Nobel Prize-winning physicist at the University of California at Berkeley. Not long after she had started, Lawrence had doubled her workload by loaning her out on a part-time basis to his good friend "Oppie," yet another tall, handsome, flirtatious physicist. Oppenheimer (who had picked up the nickname "Opje" during a postdoctoral stint in Europe and would sign personal letters that way for the rest of his life, though the nickname eventually became Americanized as "Oppie") was head of Berkeley's theoretical physics department and had an office in Le Conte Hall, the same administrative building where Lawrence worked. Oppenheimer had been asked to hold a special wartime science conference that summer and needed a hand getting it organized. As it turned out, he had needed a lot of help, and Greene was delighted to find herself in the employ of such a dynamic figure.

At the time, Oppenheimer was thirty-seven, and had a reputation on Berkeley's campus as an inspiring lecturer. He was also known to be impatient, arrogant, and possessed of a razor-sharp tongue — and as a young teacher had been infamous for terrorizing anyone in his classroom he found plodding, dull-witted, or in any way crass. He was considered one of the very best interpreters of mathematical theory, and study with him guaranteed the ambitious a fast-track career in theoretical physics. Many people were intimidated by him, though those who knew him better claimed that he had mellowed in the decade since he had come to Berkeley in 1929 after a sojourn in Europe, where he had studied with a small colony of world-class physicists, including James Franck and Einstein's friend Paul Ehrenfast, and been a recognized participant in the quantum theory revolution. But there was always the sense with Oppenheimer that the mediocre offended him and that he did not regard the denizens of a West Coast university as quite his equals. John Manley, a refreshingly low-key experimental physicist at the University of Illinois whom Compton assigned to assist Oppie on the wartime physics project, recalled that when he met Oppenheimer for the first time, he was "somewhat frightened of his evident erudition" and "air of detachment from the affairs of ordinary mortals."

Oppenheimer could also be dismissive to the point of rudeness. He had a habit of interrupting people mid-sentence by nodding and saying quickly, in a slightly affected Germanic accent, "Ja, ja, ja," as though he understood exactly what they were thinking and where their argument was headed — an argument that he would then proceed to rip apart in brutal fashion. After witnessing one such performance, Enrico Fermi, who was every bit as agile if not more so, observed that Oppie's cleverness sometimes allowed him to sound far more knowledgeable about a subject than he might be in practice. But with his magnetic presence, astonishing quickness of mind, and wide range of intellectual interests, Oppenheimer was an exciting figure to be around, and students and colleagues were drawn to him as much by his great capacity as a physicist as by his immense charm. "We were all completely under his spell," said Philip Morrison, one of the brightest of the young physicists who studied with him. "He was enormously impressive. There was no one like him."

His allure extended well beyond the lecture hall. Oppenheimer had the powerful charisma of those who know from birth that they are especially gifted. He expected to dazzle — the implacable blue eyes said as much in a glance. It was his mind that burned so brightly, with an intensity that he brought into every room, every relationship, every conversation, so that he somehow managed to invest even an offhand gesture or remark with some extra meaning or significance. Everyone wanted to be initiated into his inner circle. Even his younger brother, an astute observer of the Oppie effect, was not immune. "He wanted everything and everyone to be special and his enthusiasms communicated themselves and made these people feel special," said Frank, who was eight years his junior and idolized his talented brother, following him into physics even though he knew he would never be in the same league. "He couldn't be humdrum. He would even work up those enthusiasms for a brand of cigarettes, even elevating them to something special. His sunsets were always the best."

What drew people to Oppenheimer was that he was so very serious and he took those he collected around him so seriously, endowing them with rare qualities and facets they did not know they possessed. He would focus on them suddenly and relentlessly, showering them with phone calls, letters, favors, and unexpected, generous gifts. His attention could be unnerving, but at the same time exhilarating and gratifying. He was far from perfect, but his flaws, like his dark moods and savage sarcasm, were part of his fascination. He liked to show off, but the performance disguised a deep well of melancholy and self-loathing he carried with him from his cosseted New York childhood. It was the loneliness of a prodigy. He was named for his father, Julius Oppenheimer, a wealthy textile importer, but was always known simply as Robert or Bob until his early twenties, when he felt compelled to embellish his name, perhaps in the belief that "J. Robert Oppenheimer" sounded more distinguished. He suffered from serious bouts of depression as a student first at Harvard, and then later at Cavendish Laboratories in Cambridge, England, and even flirted with the idea of suicide. After failing to find satisfaction in psychiatry — one high-priced London doctor diagnosed his condition as "dementia praecox" and a "hopeless case" — he immersed himself in Eastern mysticism and became a fervent admirer of the Bhagavad Gita, the seven-hundred-stanza Hindu devotional poem, which he read in the original, after studying Sanskrit for that purpose. For a scientist, his search for wisdom in religion, philosophy, and politics was so unusual as to be considered "bohemian." While it got him into trouble at Caltech (the California Institute of Technology), where he also taught, and the Nobel Prize-winning physicist Robert Millikan refused him a promotion on the grounds he was too much of a dilettante, at Berkeley it only added to his appeal.

His style was to be the tormented genius, and his spare frame and angular face reflected his ascetic character, as if his desire to engage every moment fully and completely were consuming his inner resources. He had been a delicate child, and when he pushed himself too hard, he became almost skeletal, resembling a fifteenth-century portrait of a saint with eyes peering out of a hollowed face. There was something terribly vulnerable about him — a certain innocence, an idealized view of life that was only saved from being adolescent by the sheer force of his intellect — that touched both sexes. His students all adored him, and he inspired the kind of devoted following which led some jealous colleagues to sneer that it was more a cult of personality, that Oppenheimer was the high priest of his own posse. He was trailed everywhere by a tight, talented group of graduate students, the stars of their class, and Greene learned to easily identify them by their pompous attempts to imitate Oppenheimer's elegant speech, gestures, and highbrow allusions. She sometimes had the impression that Oppie was conscious of his ability to enthrall. It was no accident that people wanted to help him and would go to extraordinary lengths to earn his approbation.

Greene, who had graduated from Berkeley the previous year and still wore her long, blond hair loose on her shoulders like a schoolgirl, found him "unbelievably charming and gracious." His voice was one of the most mesmerizing things about him. When he singled her out for attention, he was "so warm and enveloping," he made her feel like the most pleasing guest at the party. "When he came into a room, my most characteristic memory of him is [his] coming across to shake your hand, with a slight tilt and a marvelous smile," she said. "And what secretary wasn't going to be absolutely overwhelmed by somebody who, in the middle of a letter -- we all smoked in those days -- whipped his lighter out of his pocket and lighted your cigarette while you were taking dictation and he was talking."

Compared to Ernest Lawrence, Oppenheimer was a person of enormous culture and education. Lawrence was celebrated for his invention of the cyclotron, the powerful atom smasher, but was proletarian in his pursuits outside of physics. Oppie was from a wealthy New York family, wore good suits, and tooled around campus in a Packard roadster he nicknamed "Garuda," in honor of the Sanskrit messenger to the gods. He spoke six languages, quoted poetry in the course of everyday conversation, and could be snobbish about music and art. "Bach, Mozart and Beethoven were acceptable," noted his protégé, Robert Serber. "Ditto the Impressionists." He had fierce opinions when it came to food and wine. "Martinis had to be strong. Coffee had to be black...Steak had to be rare," listed the British physicist Rudolf Peierls. Once, Oppenheimer took Peierls and a group of graduate students out to a steak restaurant for dinner. He proceeded to order his entrée rare, and this was echoed by everyone in turn until the last student at the table requested his, "Well done." Oppie looked at him for a moment and said, "Why don't you have fish?"

He spent a great deal of time cultivating people and interests that had nothing to do with science, and even Greene could not help being struck by the wide variety of his correspondence. One of the first things he asked her to do was take down a letter to a San Francisco museum to which he was planning to give a painting by Van Gogh, which he had inherited from his father. He had pronounced the artist's name in the guttural German style with lots of breath — "Van Gaaaccchhh" — which was beyond her, and in the end he had had to spell it. "The people he thought about, wrote about, and talked to, he had such a wonderful feeling for, that you really wanted to be part of whatever he was doing," she said. "It was very hard to resist him."

His personal life was equally flamboyant, and subject of much comment. Two years earlier in 1940, he had shocked friends and colleagues by marrying Kitty Puening after a whirlwind romance, and their son Peter had been born so soon afterward that Oppie had attempted to jokingly defuse the scandal by dubbing him "Pronto." Kitty was dramatic, dark-haired, and petite; claimed to be a German princess; and was prone to putting on airs. She had also been married three times before the age of twenty-nine and had been with her previous husband for less than a year when Oppie met her at a Pasadena garden party. It was characteristic of Oppie that he would fall for someone so exotic, utterly unsuitable, and beyond reach as Kitty, who, among her many problems, was at the time another man's wife. Oppenheimer, who was besotted, called her "Golden." His close-knit circle was less charitable, considering the poetic young wunderkind — who was so bereft after his mother's death in 1930 that he described himself to a friend as "the loneliest man in the world" — easy prey for a calculating woman. The faculty wives who had doted on Oppie, who was known for bringing flowers to dinner, took an instant dislike to her. After his marriage, many of his peers felt he became more socially ambitious than ever, as though seeking to remove himself from the dreary confines of academic life, and came to regard him with a mixture of envy and resentment. To Greene, however, he seemed even more of a romantic figure. While she would never have admitted it at the time, she was, she said, "more than a little in love" with her boss.

Excerpted from “109 East Palace: Robert Oppenheimer and the Secret City of Los Alamos,” by Jennet Conant. Copyright © 2005. Published by Simon and Schuster, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt can be used without permission of the publisher.