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Interview of Herbert Smith by Charles Weiner on 1974 August 1, Niels Bohr Library & Archives, American Institute of Physics, College Park, MD USA, www.aip.org/history-programs/niels-bohr-library/oral-histories/4896
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Discussion of lifelong friendship with J. Robert Oppenheimer, by his high school English teacher at Ethical Culture Society in New York City. Oppenheimer's early life, in particular his relationship with family and classmates (Jane Kayser, Francis Ferguson); ethnic background. Smith's own educational background and the history of Ethical Culture Society (principal in 1938). Preservation of Oppenheimer correspondence. Also mentioned are: Frank Oppenheimer and Robert Serber.
Well, the most important element I think in Robert’s life was his feeling that his own parents’ particularly his father’s maladroitness, had resulted in all sorts of humiliation to him. This thing came out when the — halfway through what would be the senior year. There was a small group in his class, names that will recur, that had Frances Ferguson in it, that had — who is a great scholar — that had two or three of the girls who went to Vassar, from this Ethical Culture School in New York. I’ll give what I think is the most important way into it by quoting something that Robert told me in great confidence and quoting what was his method of dealing with it. He told me in great confidence that he had been sent to a summer camp by his parents, that there was the usual amount of smut that you'd get with small boys in a camp, and the Oppenheimer’s, Papa and Mama, came dashing out to find what a sink of iniquity their son had got into. And of course, they had hardly started for home when the boys realized that this had leaked through Robert, and they locked him in the refrigerator naked all night. Yes. He had no trouble in school. People liked him. They realized that he was a genius particularly in his Physics, and from the very beginning in English. That brings up a second recurrent thing. This class, which was a mall class, small enough so that I could have my wife out helping here — she's a good plumber — I could have her help entertain the larger part of this small specia1 group at our house. And this was Thanksgiving I think in his senior year; or thereabouts, six months would make no difference. At that time, I had something that had just been published — a good idea spoiled by pedantic Teachers’ College methods. Now these, this is what came out of Teachers’ College. And since it was handled in Teachers’ College, they sent it round to I don’t know how many thousand teachers of English, and anything that any of them couldn’t figure out, they’d drop it from the list. And what was left didn’t have high poetic distinction anyway. But that we realized halfway through the Thanksgiving meal, and whi1e the maid was changing the things, somebody said, “We can do a better job than that.” And just as soon as the second part of the meal was over; we divided the pages, and we had the use of all the books that were in the house, and then we started to do it, committing ourselves to these things: the original must have some high poetical appeal. Now, we also realized pretty early that having an appeal for a person who was sensitive to Shakespearean English was quite different from — you see? There’s no unit kind of [???] that we were trying to get after. But then, when we began trying to fool each other, then this game to be played, that obviously if you, as a person who is having your ability tested, preferred something that either a young teacher or your parsonage had deliberately spoiled, it says a little bit about your sensitivities to that kind of thing. And then it became a game, to make these things. Now, when these youngsters graduated from school, I’m coming back to the importance of this midyear separation with Robert; when they wrote to each other — see, for one thing they’d been accustomed to easy contact with boys and girls, and like it or not, there were somewhat different characteristics, and so they were always writing about the state of their souls or something like that. Here again, if they could put one over on the rest of the class, score one for them. It was played I guess for something like three years. Well, to get what happened —
The exercise was judging poetry, this is what stimulated it?
This is what started the whole business, and then it became a game. And it did show one thing about Robert immediately, and that is the tremendously high degree of sensitivity to all kinds of poetry, prose, — he had a magnificent prose style. I don’t know if you’ve come in contact with enough of his —?
— oh yes —
This was no small matter. And on the whole, so did Janie Kayser Didisheim who was probably the person that was the one who really understood Robert and his family more than anybody else.
Jane was a classmate?
Jane was a classmate.
She figures in the letters. How do you spell her last name?
Kayser. She was a schoolgirl. Her last name was Didisheim. I think she may have come from Lorraine or somewhere there. There were a good many of those New York people who imported something or other to the United States, and in that case I think it may have been jewelry, but that didn’t matter much.
What age was Robert at the time of this self-made judging poetry exercise?
Oh yes, that must have been in the autumn of his, what would be his junior year in the four year high school. He came into that quite young. Now, I want to bring up one other matter, and that is that he came back from Europe into his senior year, one, with half a year with nothing to do, because for some reason I never understood at the school there, it was the Ethical culture School, that had graduation, theoretically, half way through, and then they took up additional work, went to college with extra credits and that sort of thing. But the summer before that, Robert came back from a stay in Europe, I don’t know where in Europe, with chronic colitis. And I can only tell you what happened with that chronic colitis. It had been associated with unwise treatment. For example, it was diagnosed as the kind of thing that a broken down 50 year old businessman might have and so forth. Therefore, no stimulating books at all. You lay in bed, and bribed the nurses to bring in all the books on various subjects that he could get. And then, just as soon as — he was not the first, but the second person whom I had taken west. The first person is not relevant to what we’re talking about. He was a relative of Felix Adler, the founder of the school. Then what happened was that this boy who had been harshly dealt with and had been caused no end of embarrassment by his family went out with me. They had wanted me to get leave from the school and take him abroad. The school wouldn’t do it. And so we did go out to, and this is coming very close to the celebrated part of this visit, close to New Mexico and Los Alamos and that whole business. And what happened there to cut that short was that Robert, who I think usually did get instantly appreciated as a genius, by women more readily than by men — he was a little too off beat for the conventionality of the boy that age but the women sensed it. And a science teacher out there whom I knew out there, being at that time in that time in Pasadena, he said, “This boy is a genius.” And socially, the hostess with whom we lived that summer was an old, old aristocratic family from New Mexico. This is the Chavez(?) family. And instantly, the reigning princess so to speak of the house of Chavez Katherine Chavez (she was Mrs. Page by that time, she married a person her father’s age), but she instantly took to Robert and Robert found himself the favorite of the reigning princess of that social circle, and as somebody said about New Mexico, millionaires were a dime a dozen. These people were the old aristocracy, and they did, for legal claim titles and what not, one went back into Mexico. So this was the first time in his life that Robert found himself loved, admired, south after.
You mean in a motherly way or a romantic way or?
It’s hard to distinguish. He was “in-group”, that’s about the only thing you can say. Now, they rode, and I was a miserable horseback rider and he was a far better horseback rider. When we went out into mining regions, on the other hand, he would pass over to me some unknown specimen, and I would be the technical department that would whack into it and get it and that way we worked. We went out, with the understanding, — I don’t know what Mrs. Oppenheimer’s name was, and that’s another curious thing, nobody ever saw her right hand. She wore it in a white glove. And I never heard a murmur of criticism on Robert’s part of Mother. He was certainly critical enough of Father. So here was your setup. We went out to the West Coast. We had been instructed, I had been instructed by the parents to go and take counsel with the head of the Ethical Culture Society in San Diego, a man names [???] Johnson. Well, by that time Robert was on top of the world. No more colitis; nothing at all. And this, of course, was his real reason for picking Los Alamos was — oh, the general over there, General Groves – that’s a much better book than any of the others.
Telling something from his own experience.
Yes. I was so much amused, Robert was talking about him once, and he said, “Oh yes, Groves is a bastard, but he’s a straight forward one.” So that was his attitude.
It was because of this childhood association with that region.
Well he had really grown up believing that it was a shame, a sort of thing that you were born with and never got over, to belong to the Jewish group.
Did he talk about this?
Only this — he tried his level best to have me take him west as my brother, with my name, which had no prestige at all, in order to avoid that. And I can also say that every time that there was a recurrence of colitis, in the whole time that I knew him, and they became less frequent anyway; it had been because someone who wasn’t thinking about religious or social questions at all had said something disparaging about Jews.
In his presence? Did he ever respond to that?
Never brought it up direct1y.
No, but respond to it as it occurred? Call the person on it or comment?
No, no. What he actually did was, I think comes out quite strikingly, that he had a sort of — oh, almost nobility of phrase, nobility of — he wouldn't argue with a question like that. But he might suffer from it. And the last time that I saw Robert was not long before his death. He was out at Northwestern, and this also is related to something that we’re talking about, to do something at the university. I was by that time head of the Francis Parker School there, and he and I, because the afternoon was available, had lunch together and talked all the afternoon, and at one point — because this was tough company for anybody to be moving in, I’m verbal, but my wife is primarily not, but he always was very courtly to her, and at one point he said, “You know, I think that the contribution made by a woman who is listening to two men talk, whether or not she follows what they’re saying, gives a kind of reality to it that they won’t get any other way.” I also saw him do the same sort of thing to his wife, who did drink too much, and this happened at Princeton, down at — what was his title?
Director of Inst. of Advanced Study. (crosstalk)
There were two things that happened that evening. One, I went over and had dinner with [???] — I guess I had dinner at the inn with Robert and then the two of us went over to his house. And Susie had been drinking more than she should have, and she knocked her drink off onto the floor and it smashed. And instantly Robert said, “Oh Susie, whoever it is will clean that up in the morning,” and poured her another one. On the other hand, he couldn’t resist, when it either was laying a glaze of ice on the outside of the greenhouse next to this room or on the inside, and she said the wrong one, and then he would — couldn’t pass it. I mean his devotion to truth was too much. At that point he would always drop his voice way down. He’d say, “Well, I’m afraid it would be better science if you’d put it the other way round.” And the business that got into the paper most about Oppenheimer had begun at the time, his first year out of school, and that was the matter of completely forgetting whom he had gone out with. You know the story, because you know that thing that happened in California. It happened in New York. He had taken, he and his cousin Barbara [???], and this was [???] year in college, I think, and I had gone together to this place where there was some service, you might call it so, of the Ethical Culture Society on 64th St. there. And Robert touched my arm and said, “You know how it is with me. Don’t worry” and left me with the girl. And there’s a queer reference in one of his letters, saying, that “B A B stood for Barbara, it didn’t stand for” — what somebody had accused it for being. It was his cousin.
In this case he left you with his date.
In fact, it was in California, he left the girl that he was out with, and I’m sure you remember that.
It was Melba Phillips, the woman.
Yes. And the police came along — and then when they went to the apartment, he was there. Now, there’s one other thing that I believe may tie in. There is a mechanism for kicking an intolerable fact under the rug. And it was something that, when it was carried to its most dangerous, got him into trouble when his case came on. He had not told the truth, in the case of the man who approached him saying quite correctly that the Russians were our allies. Why in the world were we withholding from them this thing? He scared the life out of the man. He said, “This is something you must not say or do or think of,” and knew quite correctly that the man wouldn’t. But meanwhile, it came out that he had not turned over as the security required.
Did he ever discuss that with you?
No. No. I’ll tell you what he did tell me about. This had to do with his travelling with his younger brother who went to Johns Hopkins; was his name George?
Frank, that’s right. Frank Oppenheimer and they went from the Mesa Verde place down to Ship lock, which was in those days an awful expedition, and on the way they managed to tip the car over and dislocated the shoulder of one of them, I don’t know which. When they got there they telegraphed, “Safe in Ship Rock after wonderful trip.” Well, in a way, that makes sense. The Oppenheimer’s at home could do nothing about it. Then one last bit and I really mean this, of some general interpretation. And that is that he is different from Frank in that it was only under some sort of inhibition that he forgets the thing. I asked him once, I said, “You’re the only physicist I’ve know who wasn’t also musical. And I never heard you refer to music.” He said, “I don’t know, as a little boy, something must have happened because l used to be devoted to it, and I just don’t know what happened.” Now, I’ve known him to bring up, that way, “I just don’t know.” But what you might call the essential [???] — Unquestionably, he was, this one, I don’t know who it was he shielded. But he had done all that was necessary there. And then to pass – it may have been that — that [???] person, Chevalier — well now, does this make sense to you?
I’m very grateful for this, because it’s something obviously that you’ve been thinking about for a while, an overview, and my questions are very specific to help me fill in some factual information, and this helps to answer many of them. My questions seem less important now. I would like to explore one part of your general interpretation, and that is, his psychological state. The colitis came at a relativity young age and during the — how early was that? During his high school years?
His high school year, his last — he was put to bed with it for half a year, and as I say, the treatment was the one that was currently — that I understand was currently in use for the old broken-down business man that can’t go to the office.
But it’s not clear what precipitated that. Was there any crisis in his life?
Something must have happened that summer in Europe because he came back with it. Now, the parents attributed that to, oh, though they’d been drinking bottled water right along, they hadn’t sterilized the tooth brush. Well, maybe. My guess is that something rather else happened that brought on the colitis because it was a well-established bond between the — the — the feeling that he was hopelessly inferior. There’s one other thing that I don’t know whether we should bring up or not, and that is, two or three times, I find I’ve been quoted in articles and quite correctly on Robert saying that he was the loneliest man in the world. That remark came, however, when I think his mother was dying in the next room to him. I was in the apartment with Robert all the afternoon and I think that his mother, whom I’m sure that he just worshipped — he was turning the pages of a book and I said, “Robert, I should think you’d find it satisfactory to be able just to take up a new book and turn the pages and have all the material mastered.” That was when he said, “I’m the loneliest man in the world.” I think that with his mother’s going, this was — I’ve spoken already about women responding more quickly to him. To turn it around, the other items of writing that would more or less fit in with that — one, letters from Francis Ferguson, which more often than not -– see, he was the Rhodes Scholar, the classmate, he had been associated with Robert’s social, oh, recognition, and how in New Mexico and it was a known family and they were able people. But there’s no genius in them. I knew the pretty well. Then, I know if Georgia mentioned to you, but I did also teach him in class and took him West.
Francis Ferguson too?
Yes. So that — oh, I suppose, this became a highly desired thing to do. What do you do with your young men when there’s nothing for them except the usual summer resorts, see?
You send them with a favorite teacher to a magnificent environment.
Yes, sure and who had access already through their own contacts with a place out there.
Had he had any contact with the West, with New Mexico, prior to your —?
That was a strength untruth, result of — he had had no contact with that whatever until I took him out there. That I know about, very flat. Then, the relation of the family was this. The ranch that the parents — I think you can’t buy it outright but you have an indefinitely renewable occupation of it – that was something that they bought when they went out to visit the Chavez’s. They liked the Chavez’s. And to Robert’s surprise and delight, the Chavez’s took them right in; they appreciated the good qualities. [???] had some of the I think, the most lovable characteristics. While you’re on Cape Cod, if you’re here long enough or come back again, there’s a thing called a huck tomato or a ground cherry, and they’re going to be ripe pretty soon and they are — we always liked as children to eat them straight. In Hawaii, I had some served for a ground cherry sundae and underneath the Hawaiian [???]. Well, I don’t know where [???] got those things. He had them. I’d never seen them anywhere else except here at Cape Cod. And he pulled this out of his salad and gave them to my wife. Robert could have killed him. You see, this was the business of being so maladroit. But it wasn’t. Then when I was talking with Robert, they referred to them as being very substantially rich, the family I was very fond of anyway; they were nice people and so Julia said, “I’m selling out my business and not setting up a foundation. I haven’t got enough money for that but I’m making a trust fund so that Robert will never have to give up his research, for enough to live on.” And, well, you must have gathered by this time that I’m pretty much anti-Semitic on the thing and the usual belief that you had in the United States at that time is that if a young man had shown already the kind of administrative ability that Robert had begun to show, you kept him in the family business. But here, it was a public trust.
Had he shown administrative ability?
In what way?
Well, he had in the first place, he had, before they bought the ranch above the Chavez’s, which was the ranch that they did lease, he had taken more and more the initiative in planning. He had another characteristic, and I don’t know that that comes out anywhere except in the whole business of Los Alamos. He, so far as I know, never tried to commit suicide. But neither would he turn his hand to prevent his being snuffed out; that came out on two or three occasions there. We were going over the — we were going to go from Denver either over the pass to Leadville, or by rail. This is when I first went out with him. We hadn’t even gone down to the still. And Robert was dead set on going. And I said, “Well, nobody’s been over that trail yet this year Robert. I don’t know that I have a right to impose this on you. You’d be just as much exposed to death by freezing as I should. But at least let’s toss for it.” And thank God I won. I don’t know how I’d have got out of it if I hadn't. But there was that.
Do you equate the risk taking with a feeling about his own life; about the work of his life? I’m not sure I understand.
I think it was simply that life had been so rough with him in so many ways that he wouldn’t go out of his way to prolong it.
You’re saying that’s the same as being a risk taker when your own life is in the balance.
Yes. He wouldn’t allow the threat to his continued existence to keep him from doing something that he much wanted to do.
That I can understand. The question is, the interpretation of it, and your interpretation is —
Yes. I don’t think it was bravado. I think it was simply indifference to that.
There were times when he was in Cambridge, England, when he was –
— I knew about that too.
— I talked with John Edsell who was a classmate of his at Harvard —
— yes, did you know that he was retained at Cambridge for a while only on condition that he had periodic interviews with a psychiatrist there?
I don’t recall; I may have heard that.
But that’s not down in writing anywhere. I knew it partly because of Francis Ferguson’s word about it and partly because one of my psychiatric friends in New York said that he gave the psychiatrist in Cambridge an outrageous song and dance. He said, “The trouble is, you’ve got to have a psychiatrist who is abler than the person who’s being analyzed. They don’t have anybody.” Now this, as I say, is no good for these purposes here. There’s one other thing. I can take you up and show it to you. Do you remember the Coriolanus play in Shakespeare?
Yes, I remember something of it.
I have a handsome engraving of that Coriolanus thing, where Coriolanus is unclasping his mother’s hands from him and throwing her down. And Robert gave me that. I could show it to you if you want to see it.
Did he comment on it in any way?
Not a comment. No. This is the kind of thing he would do. I remember, we were packing to go — I’ve never been able to pack a coat so it would look like anything when I took it out. And he, that was one thing he had down to perfection. And I said, because we were rushing, I said, “can you make this coat fold up so it’s not looking like anything?” He looked at me sharply and said “Oh yes — the tailor’s son would know how to do that, wouldn’t he?”
He carried this thing as a heavy burden, but it seems to me there may have been other things contributing to his psychological state. You identify that as one of the points that he mentioned explicitly to you, in terms of his family.
Yes. But he wouldn’t have talked — I don’t think he would have been physically capable of saying, “My mother's been so demanding and rigid.” This is a woman who never would allow anything unpleasant to be mentioned at the table. I know that she didn’t let him realize that the people whose obtrusive manners from the oh [???] trade in New York were uncongenial, were a group that he belonged to. And so this was something that he was always over sensitized to. And there’s one thing Jane Kayser has that gives you at the same time a feeling for Jane — what’s that? Yes, this was an enlargement of a picture of them going up to the [???] observatory, I’d say, yes, here it is.
Outside of where, this?
Robert is —
— just behind the third line —
Then this woman behind there was a science teacher in the local high school, and they’re just coming up that trail.
And right here?
That is something that Robert refers to in a couple of letters as “that damn scoundrel.”
He was a classmate?
No, he was somebody who thought that Robert could be easily gullible in going around picking up specimens, and Robert had a curious kind of sense of humor about it. His grandfather had given him a beautiful mineral collection, and Robert made quite a gesture of giving that to the school, but was delighted when he picked up a mineral called (an appetite?) in the sewer that was being driven through in the north part of Manhattan. He found it in the sewer. The name of the ranch up there sort of bastard Spanish for “hot dog,” “[???] Caliente.” And he had the Jewish irony; just to perfection. This I think gives Jane’s quality — I’m trying to gather these things together —
This is 1974 she wrote. She was in Europe somewhere.
Yes, actually she’s at — in the [???]
I would like to look at this a little later when I have a chance.
Do. Take it. Take it with you, and I think in particular, her feeling of affection for Robert.
Her statement here, “Surely it is important that these letters and the others you know of should be brought together and made accessible to scholars who will want to go further into the understanding of Robert’s character, achievements and disappointments.” I agree.
Have you come to the part where she said that she might have had more consideration, but how could she, just a school girl, realized how vulnerable he was? This is in connection with her own urge.
Yes, “How callous I must have been never to have… the thin skinned delicacy of his attachment, and worse, in my silly real egotism, I certainly never imagined that I would contribute to Robert’s unhappiness.” What does she refer to here, did she spurn his affection, and is that the basic —?
Robert, though he was in many ways so objective and would identify a specimen in the sill of a bunk house up in the high Colorado mountains as coming from somewhere out in New Zealand, that sort of thing, hadn’t the faintest idea that, at the time that Jane was herself falling in love and getting married, of course she wasn’t paying any attention to him. So that she realizes that, at that point, instead of giving — she’s the person who’s most frequently alluded to.
Yes, I wondered, was he romantically interested in her?
Yes. But it was kind of romance that didn’t lead to either matrimony or worse. That was what you got.
She was a classmate.
She was a classmate, and she was the one most frequently mentioned. She’s the only one of them who had any letters from Robert.
I see. What has happened to the letters?
Those are — oh, it’s a photo copy that’s made. They may be in there and if they aren’t they can easily be gotten.
Oh, you have them.
I have them. And I also have a very considerable number of letters from Francis Ferguson.
From Francis Ferguson. Now, anything that was sent to me and, in an envelope, signed by Francis Ferguson, I think is in the public domain. But I think that we are not, we would not be justified in writing to Francis Ferguson, who I think still is living, and saying, “Do you want to comment? Revised opinion?” I don’t think that’s something we’re interested in.
I don't think, necessarily — oh, I don’t know, it’s a question of courtesy, though — I think if letters that he wrote were to be published and he’s alive, I think it’s a courtesy to get permission.
I just fee1 that I would want that consideration, and I think —
— yes, but I have no reason to suppose that he would be vindictive about it now.
Why, did they come to a parting of the ways? Was there any bitterness?
Now, listen, this wasn’t a parting of the ways, but it pretty well — Francis told me that at one point Robert tried to strangle him with a belt. He just wasn’t strong enough to do it. Now, that’s a parting of the ways, I suppose, but it didn’t interrupt their correspondence at all.
I wonder why he was so provoked, what the issue was.
Well, I don’t suppose one could ever trust the judgment of the opponent in that sort of thing. I had quite definitely from Francis Ferguson the impression that it was because he, Francis, was more successful with the ladies than Robert was. I think that’s as good as any other.
They were classmates both at the Ethical Culture School and at Harvard?
No. Well, remember, only indirectly. I mentioned that I had been out with Felix Adler’s nephew, a perfectly pleasant but not highly distinguished person, and the summer before I’d been there, and at that time I had also met the Ferguson family. They were — oh they went out in a covered wagon. Partly German. At one time, Francis Ferguson, the oldest of the four Ferguson chi1dren, was regarded as “the great novelist;” he didn’t turn out to be, but right along, Francis Ferguson’s interests were those of the biologist and geneticist, that sort of person. Robert’s were those of the mathematician and physicist. And one gets his Rhodes scholarship the very same year, and both of them write, saying, could they make use of me to recommend —
So they met there, and Francis Ferguson was not in the Ethical Culture Society of New York?
I’m sorry; he had not been all the way through it. He had come to New York after I had met the family, my first year out, and he was lost in one of those huge New York high schools, and so I said something to the scholarship committee and they worked out a scholarship for him.
So he knew Robert then through the school.
Yes, he knew Robert through the school, and he knew the school. He was in it as a classmate of Robert’s you see but only for one year. And I don’t know whether that was the year that Robert was ill or not. I simple wasn’t in touch with the two boys very much at that time.
There’s another teacher in this school, Augustus Clark(?) who is mentioned quite a bit by Robert in terms of his interest in chemistry developing. He was a colleague of yours.
That’s right. Felix Adler was a very extraordinary person. He was the person who founded the Ethical Cultural Society because he believed that people should be able to agree on what were just principles or dealing with each other, whether or not they were affiliated with any organized group. That was a very controversial thing in New York at that particular time. And Rabbi Wise and people like that were introducing the term “I’m a Jew and I’m proud of it” sort of thing. Adler had begun to sense pretty early the student tendency to recognize that certain types of thinking are more congenial to him. And this is what they got with Clark, without any doubt. Clark was a fine influence on him. And you had also what I think was just necessary to Robert always, a feeling that he was liked as a person. They would have laboratory parties up there and cook wieners over the Bunsen burner. And so, that was all to the good.
What about his relationships with classmates?
There was no problem.
No. They knew he wasn’t a distinguished athlete. They knew he was physically clumsy. But that didn’t matter. More and more, the school began to branch out and say, develop the ability that you have, associated that with the courses that you’re taking. So it was a very good school for him. And by the way, I can say this without prejudice, I went down to New York from the work at MIT and Harvard and I’d been there teaching on the advice of [???] and Nielson, who’s the president of Smith, to go and try a school again from the point of view of a teacher, before I committed myself by taking a PhD and going on to college work. And I just had too much fun. I never came back.
At this moment I’d like to find out more about your career. Where did you start; what did you do; prior to the time of coming to the Ethical Culture School?
I took a bachelor’s degree in French and Greek at Harvard, and I took a master’s degree in English.
What year was that?
It’s one of those things where you choose which class you want socially — I remain affiliated with 1912, though I took the bachelor’s degree in ‘11. And incidentally, when Robert was being hounded as he was, that last talk I had with him, he came bursting out with something that made me realize that I’d ben unwisely complacent about having majored in Greek, because Robert proceeded to talk to me in fluent Greek, which was wildly beyond anything I could do to him. And this was in 1956. Yes, that was it.
So you majored, received your master’s — then you taught at Harvard for a while?
Then I taught at Harvard, and before — I had about half a year to go to finish the dissertation and take the exam, and so instead went down to New York.
When did the MIT period come in?
The MIT thing came when I began teaching at MIT in the fall of 1912.
Was it the humanities department then?
English. And it was called English at Harvard. And it was given not because you knew anything about teaching English, but because they had a promising young scholar. Lots of people suffered under that kind of instruction.
How long were you at MIT?
I was at MIT four years, I think. I was either at Harvard five and MIT four or the other way around.
Harvard was first, then MIT?
Well, I held appointments concurrent1y.
I see, from about 19l2, 1913?
Then from there, down to New York.
Then down to New York, no intention whatever of staying there, and had a wonderful time.
You must have come just at the beginning of the school?
No, the Ethical Culture School went way back to Workingman’s School, one of the activities of the Society.
You’d have come at the end of World War I.
I came in 1917.
Robert came in as a student what year?
Oh, he'd been there I suppose right through the lower grades.
The school was at W. 64th.
And their residence was at W .88th and —
I live at the moment on West End Avenue and 85th St. And I was riding my bicycle past that old bui1ding the other day, that red brick building is the one, I guess, with the entrance on — I know where it is.
Yes. That’s right. See, through the various contacts that I had with — Jane Kayser is the person that I’ve known longest — her husband as a young international lawyer of great distinction. He’s the young man who welcomed Woodrow Wilson on behalf of the youth of France in 1914. And just a delightful, cultured Frenchman. What I was using my sabbatical for was to see if I could find out something or other to account for the fact that the European students were so much further ahead academically than the American ones. This is a parenthesis, but there wasn’t the least doubt in my mind that it was because of the terrific pressure from the family. The whole future of the family depended on Johnny’s being able to hold his position in the higher classes and indeed, the work in the Ecole [???] Superieur was the surest ticket to be premier of France sometime or other — for someone.
How long did you remain at the Ethical Cultural School?
I remained at the Ethical Culture School until ‘38 and by that time, Adler had died, and there was already a beginning of the unpleasantness that comes over practically every organized thing, every religion, every — when the great people pass by, and the — I will throw [???] on me — people, just little people, come and squabble over the remnants. And I’ve had enough, thank you. So I went out to this very different school, Francis Park School in Chicago. And then from there, I said I intended retiring. I got a call — I’m doing another piece of name dropping — from Eric Johnson of Texas Instruments, and he and Stanley Marcus had just taken over really the administering of the [???] school in Dallas. This was an utterly different world. From New Mexico, Texans had been regarded as a particular kind of vermin. And then, the school down there had been maladministered by the man appointed by the founder of it to carry on her policies. Well, so she believed the recommendations of this man and got as a public school administrator in the north part of the Midwest. Well, one thing that anybody should have known about that – the part of the United States where things still are done more personally than anywhere else is the Southwest, and particularly in the north part of the Midwest, and to a considerable extent around here, public school administration largely runs on the basis of, if X, the thing that you’re wanting to have somebody get, is something that you can’t get everybody, you don’t let anybody have it.
That’s changed somewhat, I think.
Yes, but I mean, this was the traditional attitude. And so the business down there put me in touch again with people who were like the Chavez’s but from the extreme Southwest. It was essentially that same — incidentally, just as there was one of the Jewish families of New Mexico that had come through as a peddler with his wares on his back, that was true also of Samuel Marcus.
Was he the Marcus of Neiman-Marcus?
Yes. This is Neiman-Marcus. So what happened was, I finally went down there and was given carte blanche for four years; had a wonderful time.
What was your position there?
I was headmaster.
Did you retire from that?
Yes, for the second time.
Retired to — is this a year round residence for you?
No, it’s not. This house is one that's been in my family for generations, and oh, probably on this site and by the Windsor family, since the late 1600’s. They’ve got the water rights to the millstream down there in something like 1685. So they didn’t waste any time in grabbing whatever was around loose.
Then it’s natural for you to use this as a summer home. Where do you —?
What happened was, I took some of the – I’d like to say this for the Southwest. I went down there, this was ‘56, Eric Johnson, whom I came to like very much, Eric Johnson said, “Now, you don’t need to worry about discussing the rate of compensation in your contract, because there isn’t going to be any contract but I’m going to pay you.” I don’t think I’d ever had a salary more than $10,000. “I’m going to pay you $12,000 a year and all living expenses.” So then what we did was come back here, and the breaking up into developments was already threatening down in the east end of town. My wife comes from the east end of town. And so what we did was to get a — the son of an old Quaker lawyer in Boston to make a thing called a Ten Lots Association, whereby if you belonged to the Association you had access to [???] all right; but if you turned out to be an S.O.B. and didn't follow the regulations as laid down, you couldn't make use of the tennis court or the private beach or any of those things.
I see; a covenant to preserve this area from development.
Yes. Then here, now, well, that thing there has just come from a grandson we have who’s in the Peace Corps. He brought that in. But things have come into this house for generations. Some of them are out there.
— I’m looking around —
Now, if you will just twist any of those glass knobs, which aren’t in themselves very beautiful, probably the small one on the upper right hand drawer there — no, undo it. Unscrew it. You see what you’ve got. You’ve got the thread pressed in the glass.
Really interesting. Do you live here all year round?
Where is your other residence?
What happens is, with the money from Texas, we have a thermostatically controlled house on [???] Road. You’ll notice it if you go along [???] on the way back, that just beyond [???] there are a couple of houses, and one of them is Donald McGregor. The McGregors are old friends of ours. The McGregors, the (???) and a number of other families, something like six of them, apparently got together in early Colonial times and went back to England and bought the rights that they had agreed to give 50 percent of the profits. They were already having to pass over too much, and so gradually the people who benefited by that let them have a strip from coast to coast, north to south, right straight through, and so that now is set up, and we rent it in the summer, and then, when it gets colder, then we go.
So you’re living on Cape Cod, all year round, whether it’s in this house or the other.
This is for -– well for other people, I guess, a rea1 retreat, away from the torrent that goes by. You’d be amazed how little you hear of what goes by the end of that road. See, with us, the trees and bushes shelter.
I'd like to walk around, later.
I wanted to get part of your life history because it helps me understand, to know a little more about you.
That’s right. We’ve also wandered about. You see, I had major educational responsibility in Cambridge, and in Boston, where MIT was in Boston —
— Boston Tech they called it, right.
Yes, and the Rogers Building, right across from Trinity. And there was a man named Harlow Bates who was the head of the department at that time, and that was entirely run — oh, like a court martia1. That is Howard Bates would call his whole English department together, and bring up a question to be discussed and have a recommendation on it, and three times out of four, he would approve. The fourth time he'd say, “Well, I’m sorry gentlemen, but the responsibility is mine, and it will have to go the other way.” Well, that was not at all bad, and meanwhile, Harvard was as impersonal — so having moved the thing it was just glacial to get any institutiona1 move out of it.
I have joined the faculty of MIT officially as of July 1, I’ve been appointed professor of history of science and technology in the school of humanities there, but I’m on leave until January. So this is a vacation tor me —
Also you’ll find — this picture that’s right behind you — it reflects what I had repeatedly in one way or another. This, Robert would have referred to as another of my entire knowledge. If you look at it closely, but from far enough across the room, you'll see that that has two faces, one facing directly on, and the other looking up. And this was a girl who had been badly mishandled before we got her in Dallas. She just couldn’t take the business of coming up with any final evaluation at all. So she — I had to send her home, and presently this thing came, not framed but to be framed, and it did show that. I also got a great deal, talking about good teachers I’ve had. I learned a great deal from a course that was given for graduate students, only then I was an undergraduate but l got talking with the man who gave it when I was on a railroad train ride, and I had a few good grades in an elementary course in psychology, and I said I wished there was a way of getting something that was a little more up to date than that. He said, “Well, I'm giving a course in abnormal psychology. And though you’re not supposed to be admitted to it, I don’t have to report you.” And so we had weekly meetings in some one of the Institutions, one at [???] one at — when what you thought was just put in front of the young doctors, well, of whatever would show up, in the mien and behavior of the person. And I learned more from that, I think, about the deviations, than I would have learned anywhere else.
He must have been a pioneer in his day, certainly.
It was really —
— very, very important —
By the way, that mentioned — that’s not in the letters, but he was invited in the middle of the summer to give a lecture at the University of Leyden in the autumn and he learned Holland Dutch meanwhile. He did the same trick one of the trips later, when he was just using the train to get from the West Coast to the East and he stuck a book on, oh, Medieval history or something like that in his history, and covered the ground in that whole thing and passed a Harvard examination on that.
I think I would have flipped out the window — of course it’s a personal choice — traveling — I have some questions, if you want to continue now?
Oh yes, getting a great deal of — (crosstalk)
It's a pleasure to me, you’re very enlightening. I was getting back to Robert at school. What about Frank? What did you know about the relationship between them and Frank’s experiences at school?
Did I give you the letter that Frank wrote me?
I’m puzzled that Frank wrote me. Very much like Frank. I got in touch with Frank because he and another person that I knew in New York socially were in touch with each other in California and so Frank said, “I have about seven or eight letters that I think would be suitable for inclusion,” but didn’t send them along. It was characteristic of Frank, one that he’d be generous and say he’d send them along, but he didn’t do it.
How long ago was this?
Not so terribly long ago; it was about six months ago.
Frank showed me about 18 letters which I read —
— then you’ve got those —
Oh, he still has them, and I talked with him about it. He felt that it would be good perhaps to publish them, but if they were really from this same period, he didn't know of any others at the time.
— yes —
He didn’t know that you had them. Now what I hope to do is talk to him again and say —
— yes, yes. I don’t think you'll find him — and he has a wonderful sense of humor.
Oh, I know Frank. I did some historical interviews with him.
About his life.
Did you hear from him his story of the barber who broke down and wept?
No, I’m not sure —
One or the things I remembered from Frank, when I resumed, after a good many years of not writing him, was to say that I wondered if he remembered as well as I did, the theme that he had written in school. He was a classmate of my own daughter in New York. In whole he said he was going to be a scientist. He knew it was a hard career. It was like climbing a mountain in a tunnel. You wouldn't know whether you were going to come out above the val1ey or whether you were ever going to come out at all. And that was pretty apt — He said, no, he’d forgotten all about that, but he did remember one thing that probably I didn't remember, and that is that I had called him, Frank in, and said that he’d been pretty rough, and hurt the feelings of the head of the athletic department by, well, pretty contemptuous behavior to them. And he said, “But you didn’t understand, it never crossed my mind that he would think of the opinion of someone like me who’s so wretched an athlete as hurting anybody, and I didn’t realize it until I was getting attended to by a barber a little while ago, and I told the barber that I didn’t think I’d have anything more done of the things he wanted to do to me, and he broke down and wept.” Well, you knew the difference in the reason for the attitude of that clearance — it isn’t in Groves’ book. But Robert actually didn’t lie, except in the duress of being compelled to implicate himself, which sometimes he regarded as not quite in accordance with the Constitution, but the attitude of Frank was, to lie, right straight from the beginning, on it. And apparently the wives didn’t get on too well with each other.
You mean Jackie and Kitty.
Yes. And one of the things that Robert’s rather did that I was very much amused by — as you see, I like impressionists and those were the things that the Oppenheimers liked very much, so all around the dining room, the Oppenheimer dining room, was decorated with the large reproductions, in this case of Van Gogh. And I said something later to Robert, had he the Van Gogh’s that his father had? He said “Yes, and some of them were genuine and some of them weren’t, and I didn’t know which was which, and now Frank has —” Apparently Robert used to get — there was I suppose a certain amount of squabbling. But the placing of that ranch was done with loving care by Julius(?) and his wife when they went out there, and it was there, and they lived up to the aristocratic manners, if you want to put it that way, and I think that comes out in his letters. He can’t spell for nuts. When you go through you’ll be amazed at that. But he almost never makes a mistake in “shall” and “will.” And you know —
— you know he’s full of literally allusions too, and one wonders whether this was a forced thing, because he’s writing to his beloved English teacher and therefore this was his mode of discourse with you, or whether this was a natural part of his style? I think an outsider looking at the letter might say, “He’s trying very hard to be very literary.” I don't know if that would be true?
No. I think it would be easy to form that judgment. But I also think that he had great fun with it. Do you remember an allusion there to a classmate or schoolmate; I’m not sure about the year of graduation, named Daisy Noon?
You remember his allusion to it?
Yes, the last word in the sentence being “slut.”
“Slut,” yes, well, she is and was — I still think that it is a bad [???] in that way. I hadn’t read it for years and years. I took it out and looked at it.
There are references to a lot of literary work. The correspondence started I gather, as soon as he left New York for Harvard. Well, I don’t remember exactly, the first letter in this batch, and I'm not clear if it’s — I can go by this — is October 2, ‘19. Smith — yes —
— that was his first semester up there?
Then it continues. There are gaps. I have a couple of questions. First, let me get back to Frank. In the school period, did you have Frank as a student? He’s younger than Robert.
I don’t think I did. On the other hand, — you see, I was running the school and really fighting a board of trustees who didn’t —
by that time you were headmaster?
Well, they called it principal, I think. See, they had separated from the downtown school and they went up to what was known later as the Fieldstone School.
That’s when Frank was up there.
That’s when Frank was up there.
So you were headmaster then?
I think the actual title was principal, not that it makes any difference, but it meant that I was harassed a great deal, and this paper might have been brought to me by his English teacher saying, “Have you seen this?” That was common practice then; one reason that I've always insisted, when I was active at all. I did that down in Dallas. I insisted on doing some teaching, as I think that the administration’s is in much better rapport with the faculty if you’re willing to step into a classroom and take over and do it.
Carry out your own policies; see how possible they are to carry out anyway —
I will get back to the correspondence period. Did you keep any of your letters to him? We have only one side of the correspondence.
Not one single thing.
What a pity, never made carbons?
As a matter of fact, what happened was that the first year when I came back from the hospital — I don’t know if you’ve had much contact with these cases; it was considered a great success but there’s a heavy blood loss that keeps you from being very clear headed. So I wasn’t very clear headed. And I probably threw out a whole lot of those, because I was amazed when these things turned up. And I had thought that I bad destroyed them all because they ought not to be used with indiscretion by someone who had written saying “I have been named the official biographer of Robert Oppenheimer.” Did you get that correspondence yourself?
I don’t think anyone was ever named official biographer.
Of course he wasn’t. I don't know what sort of racket it was. And it will be for a life of Robert Oppenheimer for children; of all the incomprehensible people.
There are several biographies, I don’t know if you’ve seen them all — one by Denise Royall, one by Michael, Peter Michael — some are good, with the elements they have. Then there’s one by Stern which deals with the trial primarily but has a reasonably good biographical introduction. And yet there’s very little of Robert Oppenheimers own writing involved. They didn't use any archival sources. And that is why I feel it’s important to makes sure that the letters are preserved, and that some selection for an edition is made, so that at least on the library shelf along with these biographies, some of them being —
— I should think that would be a good thing to do with those Ferguson papers.
That might be.
I should imagine that a computer could figure out the placing, if this were fed in and the dates of Robert’s correspondence on both sides, bracketing —
Oh, I think a good historian could do it better than a computer. (crosstalk) I’d like to take a look at them. In the correspondence, there are references made to his poems and short stories, some of which he sent to you. Do you have any?
Not one. No. They disappeared.
Where were these letters? Were they in a special trunk or file or something?
They were in a large sliding drawer; out in that vestibule, where you came in. And as I say, the business of — the hallucinations due I imagine to massive loss of blood — I had a wild time, that business.
It must have been a very rough year for you.
It was a rough year. That was the only thing that I was unprepared for. I expected to be uncomfortable. But I had the most amazing — it took me months to separate these hallucinations from everything that was really happening and during that time, I’m afraid I just dumped. I was so surprised when I went there, early this spring and pulled all those things out.
Is there a possibility that somewhere else in a similar hidden location —?
— I don’t think there is. No. I've looked most carefully for that. I’ve looked in places where you’d expect that they might be found. There was a set of — oh, French novelists that he had specially bound for me. He refers to them and the publisher’s week that it will be ready, because he didn't like the thing that was available. But it’s not there. I went through that secretary.
You mentioned on the telephone photographs as well.
Oh yes, lots of them.
I’d like to take a look, but before we look for that, if you have the patience to go on — let’s see the tape, it’s almost over but I have another one. There are references there to the beginnings of his scientific work. He mentions Russell in Cambridge and I don’t know if you recall his response to this work. He mentions Kemble at Harvard of course with whom he studied physics and Bridgeman with whom he was involved as well.
This is the number of times that he didn’t like.
I noticed that letter. It was 1948?
It was November 8, 1948. Now, that wasn’t in the height of his tria1 or anything of the sort. The only thing I could think of was that it’s not as modest as he would usually like to be.
In the letter he says that he thinks perhaps it may do him good even though he didn’t like it. He said, “I suffered agonies from it for the first week or so, but have finally decided that the whole thing was probably good for me in some obscure but not entirely masochistic way.” Oh well. Did you have much contact with him after the war? I see only two letters, one from Santa Fe which is dated August 26; I assume it’s just a few weeks after the bomb was dropped.
Yes. I wrote immediately… (off tape) Well, after the burst of excitement in ‘45, when it was obvious that the dropping of the bomb had had a decisive effect in ending Japanese-American slaughter, then there was a reaction; particularly in England, about, people were saying “Well, maybe if they had done this, maybe if they had done that, maybe if they had done the other." and that is the place where Robert never would defend himself at all. He did say, and I’m sure that was true that they were by no means sure that the atomic reaction would be stoppable anywhere. He said they didn’t know what was going to happen. And then the English attack on it — I said I thought I'd like to say that someone that he knew and I had by that time lost our older son in the war, and our surviving son was with the troops, ready to steam into Manila Bay, I was particularly aware that it was a major service to have stopped this killing, whatever the outcome. And he accepted that but at no point have I heard him argue that at all.
In his letter to you from Los Alamos on the 26th he said “You will believe that this undertaking has not been without its misgivings. They are heavy on us today when the future with so many elements of high promise is yet only a stone’s throw from despair and that the good which this work has brought contributed to making the ending of the war looms very large to us because it is there for sure.” This is in response to your letter, where you were saying, that this was necessary, saving lives — and he was introducing the doubt, is that it?
Your letter may be preserved, because in the Library of Congress the main body of his papers are preserved, most of them from the postwar period. There is a folder with your name on it. I have not looked into it. The next chance when I’m in Washington I will look and it may be that the letter to which this was an answer is there. Those folders, the way they’ve catalogued the collection is not in terms of individual documents but just folder headings, so there may be one letter, there may be a dozen, but my own recollection is that there were very few materials of any type from the pre-war period. Generally these were later. They’re from his Princeton files.
I think that the chief service and I jotted down somewhere almost what I think is a catchy title for a volume that comes out, and that is that. Why are people so preoccupied with what scientists do, instead of paying any attention to what they are?
It’s because they don’t see them as human beings.
They picture them as devoid of feelings and personal histories. Science I think has contributed much of this image as well. Scientists very often have represented themselves as cold, objective, rational, and therefore above human frailty.
Now it may be, incidentally, that some of this that I have been repressing would be of interest to you. At the time that practically anything written by an atomic physicist could find a publisher, Conant of Harvard prepared a manual tor the teaching of science which said that the student should be led to repeat, in [???] the historical order from the beginning, all the experiments and what not that had been done. And I was talking with Robert about it, and I said that seemed to me just as idiotic as it could be. Why lead down the student, who ought to be at the time when he’s most fertile in his own imaginative work, so many blind alleys that have already been found out to be blind alleys? And Robert smiled gently and said, “Conant is shallow.” Well, I think that is absolutely true. I had a good deal to do at one time or another with Conant and I always found myself irritated and on the opposite side.
Robert Oppenheimer had a feeling about history. There were two instances. One is, toward the very end, he was planning to devote himself to some historical writing, including his own memoirs, and we had agreed to do a series of interviews, he and I. We talked of this. He was already being treated for cancer. I was asked to do a filmed interview of him for a documentary film on Enrico Fermi, where he was going to comment on his connection with Fermi and I did that at Princeton. This was a few months before his death. When that was over he took me aside and said, “Well, when do we get down to the real business, the real interviews, the real historical personal material?” I said of course we’d plan it, so we worked out that I would come to Princeton every Saturday, although he didn’t want me to, he said, “That would be an imposition on you, you’re very busy.” I said, “Well, I like to go to the antique stores around, I can spend a very pleasant weekend anyway so it’s not an imposition.” That was my way of —
I’ll reward you by showing you some of the antiques that your eye probably spotted as you came into this room.
Yes, I did. But it was my way of saying, “Well, it’s no inconvenience.” He said, “However,” — if he is too weak, and he didn’t know it, from time to time, he'd have to cancel on short notice, postpone it till the following Saturday and he would telephone the day before. Well, such a series of calls came through. He could barely talk. He had to talk with his secretary, whisper to her and then she would repeat his words to me on the telephone. So we never got to do the interviews. But the other historical interest is that when our library, which is named after Niels Bohr, our historical library called the Niels Bohr Library was dedicated, he spoke at the dedication on, and what I’ll remember to do when I get back to New York is to send you a copy of the talk that was taped and we transcribed it and published it and I put a title on it, “Reflections on the Resonances of Physics History.”
Have you run across any of the material on the bitter attack at Harvard on his choice for the William James lecture?
No, I don’t think I know of that.
Yes. I've never known anybody else that was so violently attacked. Petitions were sent round to the candidates for the board of overseers, and they were required to state how they would stand on this question.
This was after the hearings, you mean?
I think it was after the hearings. And they went as far, some of the extremists, as to send to Andover an editorial published in the Exeter — I've forgotten the name of the thing — defending Oppenheimer with the expectation that of course Andover would like to jump all over it, and Andover instead published the letter itself with their comments. Oh yes, it was the major article of trouble, I should say, after the war. And meanwhile, I think that I oughtn’t to leave all my references to Conant so denigratory, because I think that without any doubt, his ability to get British and American scientists in touch with each other probably saved the First World War. I think without that — no, the second, skipped a war —
Did Robert talk to you, write to you — even if you don’t have letters about his trouble, you say you met him in 1956 at Northwestern.
He didn’t write about troubles at all. Not ever. He'd joke about them, joke quite freely. But I also think, considering that later he became so completely addicted to smoking, I don’t think he ever smoked when I was with him. I know he never did when he was in our house visiting.
In what period was this?
Well, I was thinking of this Thanksgiving party.
You lived in Manhattan at the time?
No, I was living in South Orange.
Oh, the reference to Orange I see in one of the papers, South Orange, New Jersey. So he wasn’t smoking then.
No. And it’s also I think awfully hard to get over, oh, the extreme informality and — there was just this small group, so that at one point, Jane Kayser and one of the other girls took our two little daughters and dumped them in the garbage pail and rolled them all around out there. There was almost anything in the way of fooling.
It sounds as if there was more of a family life and congenially with you than with his own home.
Yes, because it was a strain on him. And you were asking about Frank in his own home, and the remark you quoted, to me there, when Frank was physically dirty, just didn’t wash enough and probably his mother was scolding him, and — for his coming to the table that way — and he said, “Well, both my behavior and my hands will be much cleaner when I go call on the other house” that he’d just come from.
There were big gaps in the letters. You say you may have thrown out some unknowingly, but do you recall whether there were periods when he was in California and didn’t correspond as much?
He didn’t correspond as much after he went to Princeton. I think for real reasons. I made either one or two calls on him. You see, as head of the school, I would each year, along toward midyears, make a trip around to see how the students were getting on who had been there an talk over the next year’s crowd, and the Inn, Princeton Inn, was an easy place in which to have that. And I remember definitely the time that I was referring to, when Kitty had had too much to drink — what happened was that Robert came, we were driving up to the door of the Inn, and I got in beside him, and presently a large black head came over and licked my ear — a huge dog he had with him. In other words, the relations, right down to the last time I saw him were pretty much — oh, I got I guess you'd say the treatment that one would get from nephews being nice to a favorite uncle, something like that.
But in the early period you shared a great deal, were even closer than that.
How about the 1930's, was there correspondence then or had that already become a different stage?
I don’t remember so much for the l930’s —
I’d like to see what you have. This is a folder that says “originals” here. May I look at this?
Please do. No, I don’t have anything for the 1930’s.
I don’t know if the ones George sent me were all the ones that you’d sent him. They’re all typed transcriptions, and the last one is dated 1935.
Now, let’s see. Yes, the one that is dated 1948 was written on the Institute for Advanced Studies paper, and it's written and signed, it’s signed by Robert, so that's much the latest.
Right, but there’s a big gap. The only other one is the Los Alamos letter from ‘45, August, and then the last one 1925.
Now, you’re asking what contacts I had meanwhi1e. Twice I visited him at his hotel in Chicago, but I’m sure he was there on Manhattan Project Business. And he also wanted to get recommendations of physicists. He was scraping the country tor physicists. Did I have any?
Did you have any?
Oh sure, and he was completely unscrupulous about saying, “Let me have them.” Then there was als, it was through him that I got the story of the heavy water that was delivered in one of the lecture rooms, and the bell was rung and all the scientists came in, to be sure that they got one little teaspoon for this and one for something else, and then when they went back, they found that the janitor had come in and poured it all down the drain. Had you heard that?
Yes, yes. He told you that at that time?
No, I don’t know when I got that, but quite probably he told me that. I remember quite definitely going down to his place there. Then there was some talk — and that was an occasion when (?) Page I think was with him. There was some talk about whether he would try to get me to quit school teaching and go out to share responsibility for organization.
At Los Alamos.
Yes. But that never was official. I had gone on to Chicago to save a school that was otherwise pretty sure to go under — twice I’ve had to do trouble shooting — so I couldn’t do that. But that time, I do remember that — I’ll tell you one other thing that came up at that time. The quota system was being legislated for and against and what not, and I said that the important — this was in a conversation with Robert — the important thing was not to find out what percentage of the applicants came from any one group, but what means were used to choose them, to get ones that really were fitted for it. Then Robert said, “I personally would be bothered very much because,” said he, “I know that Negroes make excellent biologists and excellent botanists, but I have never had an application from a Negro physicist. So on the basis of what I’ve done, I’m grossly discriminatory.” That, I suspect is true.
This was when he was at Princeton, he’s referring to this, or —
It was either when he was coming on, on his way through, he would stop in Chicago. He had rooms in one of the lake front hotels. He would attend to what was being attended to for his project down there — scraping up physicists —
Applicants meant applicants for work at Los Alamos?
Yes. Yes, at Los Alamos — no, no, I’m sorry, I had made — — this is a generalization — and he said, “Right away you’d convince me that would be an entirely incorrect basis for acting.”
Did you ever notice, over the years, a really substantial change in his whole being, his whole manner, his psychological structure, his personality?
Yes, very much. And I think it was almost within the span of the letters that do survive. I think it was a feeling that he could stand on his own feet, do what he thinks ought to be done, and he isn’t leaning on anybody for approval. And I was struck by it today, as I took a look at that letter that was written 1948, was it, yes. That’s a man standing on his own feet, isn’t it?
What about, you said within the span of letters?
I include that really within the span of letters.
I see, so something that comes as late as the forties? But it certainly didn’t happen in the twenties; you thought he was very much the same?
No, I think — when he said — where’s the one about a business letter?
There are two like that, if I remember —
I think that those two letters, letters that show a man doing a man’s work.
There’s no date on that —
— and I couldn’t tell when it was.
That’s one so-called business letter. There’s one other where he calls it a business letter.
He’s still playing, the same play, you see, with the sets of verses.
It’s a pity; he sent these stories, “Conquest” he refers to one of them but you don’t have them. I would love to see them.
So should I. Well, the only other work of his that I have had access to is that mimeographed thing that came from Jane Kayser, saying… that’s it.
Not mimeographed, did you mean mimeographed?…
Incidentally though, never from either Robert or his family or indeed from Jane Kayser herself have I had any reference to the Jewish question. I, in talking with her husband, who died some time back of tumor of the brain, had no trouble at all. He was the president of the Radical Socialist Party and generally a power behind the [???] and he had no inhibitions. I said, “Shall I give you a [???]?” and he said “From that point of view, I shall not be a Frenchman but a Jew. Robert would have died rather than said that! But he had come out on the other side of it.
What do you mean by that, he'd come out on the other side?
I think that he was no longer dependent on anybody’s approval when he refers, as he does, to this, “in some [???] masochistic fashion.”
Do you think it was during that period, in the twenties then, the Harvard period and Cambridge period, that was the change? Yet it was a period of great personal despair for him, at least part of the time. He says so.
Yes. But in between, did you notice that he had been sailing on the North Sea?
I think that very often he was having a much better — he dramatizes like everything. I suppose we all do but he certainly, more than most people that I know. I also know how the man who was for quite a while the dean of the graduate school of education at Harvard, and who was devoted to Robert and they been off on a deep sea cruise together — sailing was a great source with him, as it was with FDR.
And Einstein. Well, there’s such a complex human story that it’s very hard to reconstruct all of it, but the letters will be very helpful. About the letters, my feeling is this. I think that I expressed agreement with first, the need to preserve them along with the rest of his papers, where they will be available under proper conditions for serious scholars. That’s number one. And I guess Jane agrees with that too?
Oh yes, no question about that, with great joy — because I have no facilities even now.
And there is a danger that they’d deteriorate.
Yes, danger that they’d deteriorate, danger that — this house is unoccupied in the winter. Fine.
What I'd like to do on that point is to take the letters, and if you would like copies of them, I can then make a Xerox copy of everything I’ve taken —
— that would be nice.
You would have a complete record of what you have in the first place and you may want to preserve it for the family. And the originals could go to the Library of Congress.
Yes. That would be fine.
In the interim, I’m going to be away till about mid-September; if I’m back anywhere I’m only back for a few days. I would deposit them in the Center for History of Physics in the Niels Bohr Library which Robert dedicated, and —
Yes — incidentally, I think Bohr was particularly [???] — he left the table, that I referred to, in Princeton, after he got home, to talk over, I imagine, wireless, with Bohr.
I see. They had some interesting correspondence, and I’ve been asked by Niels Bohr’s son, [???] Bohr in Copenhagen, to participate in a volume of Niels Bohr’s letters, several volumes — his writings, published writings, the manuscripts he worked through so many before he published anything, and related correspondence, and he asked if I would do one on Bohr's social and political news, and there happen to be some interesting letters between the two of them.
I think I have, and if I don’t have it, I think I can get a report by one of the top law school men at Harvard on the, this same William James Address.
That would be good to have. I don’t know, has the address been published?
It must have been published.
We may have it.
You probably do. The man who made it — there was a man named — (?) von Lightsmith.
He’s the one who reported on it?
He reported on it and certainly made a carbon of it. But he's also known for his —
— getting back to what I would like to do is to take the letters, and in my absence I’ll have Xerox copies made and they can be sent back to you. I would like in the fall then to transfer the documents to the Library of Congress, to the rest of the collection, — with your permission, I would like this particular portion, these letters, also to go to the Center for the History of Physics in New York, in other words the Xerox copies, with the originals going to Washington, one Xerox set going to you and one remaining in New York.
I take it, though possibly in error, that you would include the Xeroxing of those.
Yes everything. I’m talking about everything. That would be the first thing. I'd like to retain a set in New York, so I would have access to it. Then I would like to talk with Frank, as a first step; to ask if he's done anything about his plans for those 18 letters which he asked me to read and asked my advice on them, and I advised by all means publish them. I said, "Publish them but when you’re ready let me refer you to the interviews that have been done with Robert on those early years.” In fact I subsequently did some with Frank on the early years. These can provide kind of a narration to give the context of the letters. Robert Serber, who was a student of Oppenheimer’s, and knows the whole circle, who now is the advisor really to the fami1y, to the daughter, had planned to bring out an edition of letters years ago. He was toying with the idea. He was discouraged because he didn’t know what to do. He's not an historian. So he consulted with me. I went to his apartment and read the Xerox copies of the letters that are in the Library of Congress. Subsequently, I’ve read them there in the original form. I didn’t read them, I surveyed them, really. And I advised Serber that it would be worthwhile to do an edition, if there was some selection on some interesting principles, and encouraged him to do it. He said, “Why don’t you do it?” I said, “Well, I have a lot of other projects, if I did it it would only be in collaboration with you.” That was in 1970 and things have sort of stayed at that level since then. Meanwhile there’s a young historian who knows the postwar atomic science period very well, who proposed doing an edition of the letters. And Berber got in touch with me and said, “What do you think of this fellow?” I said “I know him very well and he’s very capable.” So we have assumed that maybe he would go ahead with something. So here’s Frank with some letters in California, here you are with letters here, and then there’s the main body of letters. I talked with this fellow, his name is Martin Cherwin, he’s at Princeton now and said, “What happened to your project?” He says he’s not pursuing it for a while because it looked too big and seemed to require grant support and he didn’t think that he wanted to get involved. I said, “What if a few people got involved on their own without a grant just to do something as a labor of love, and if there were some expenses needed tor copying or for some travel to get pieces that were missing, that perhaps a publisher would advance the funds, so you get some small funds for it but nothing massive, no one’s years of salary being paid but perhaps someone who had some typing to do, it would pay for that.” He said he would be willing to cooperate in that. I’m not committing myself yet in terms of what role I would like to play, but I am committing myself that I would help initiate such a project.
Well, one thing that George brought up, that I’ll be perfectly clear on — at one point George said, “Now, I ought to tell you that you are probably making a very substantial money contribution, in effect, in not selling these.” But I'd like to go on record as being glad to waive that in order to get this other thing to happen.
Let me explain about what I do know about that. The tax law is vague and it’s still being contested in the courts, and there's a Congressional bill that is supposed to clarify these things. But as it stands now and this is subject to change, if you donate letters that were in your hands, letters written to you and if those letters have a market value, you can claim that value as a tax deduction. Depending on your particular financial situation, it may be significant and it may not. Now these letters would be appraised to have a certain market value and although you’re not paid for them, you can say, “My gift is the equivalent of so many hundreds, so many thousands of dollars.” and you’re enabled to deduct that. If they were your own letters then you couldn’t get anything for contributing them, and unless they came through a bequest, unless they came through the hands of someone as part of your estate someday, then that person could claim your letters, you see. I just thought I’d clarify that.
— well, I had no intention anyway of —
— when I talk with the people from the Library of Congress who — about this — I'll tell them to acknowledge this to you, directly, and I’ll find out from them come of the tax information, because you certainly should get some advantage on the tax question if you’re entitled to it.
Not if it would be at the cost of having less resources available for the publication.
No, I don’t think that would affect it. The other — on the publication, I think it’s going to take a while. I think when I’m back in the fall, in New York I’ll start pulling the pieces together. Serber will be back at that time. I'll have made my contacts with people at MIT for example and MIT press has done some work in this area and I’ll have talked with Alice Smith. Alice Smith is the historian, who knew Robert very well, and she and her husband were involved in — Cyril Smith is a British scientist who’s lived in this country for the past 60 years, I guess and he’s — I know him, he’s a very good friend, just retired as an institute professor at MIT. He’s held professorship of metallurgy, professorship of humanities and an institute professorship and now he’s emeritus all of the above. So I would talk with both of them, with cyri1 and Alice Smith, and see what people feel, then talk with the publisher and see what kind of project we’re talking about, how long it might take, who might do the work, what might the standards be. And I’ll keep you informed of that. But I don’t think it’s going to be all that fast moving. I won’t really be able to make any moves until October or something 1ike that. Then when I move to Cambridge, which will be around the first week of January of ‘75 — I’m on leave from MIT. They’re very kind to me. They made me a professor, and then they told me not to show up; I 1ike it very much. So I doing some of my own historical writing that I’m behind on. I think by the time I’m in Cambridge in January of ‘75, I’ll have a lot of my past work in hand. I'll be on the scene and I’ll be able to, I think, be a little more active on this, and see what we can do about an edition. It’s my intention that there appear on the shelves of every good library several volumes of Robert Oppenheimer’s letters. I’m committed to that. But how it's to be done, what role I would take in it, I’m not sure, but I would certainly like to help pull things together. I have a feeling that I might want to get involved in a volume or the early letters. I have a feeling for that. I think these are the most formative interesting years. I don’t think I’ll ever write a biography of Robert Oppenheimer, but I think that your recollections which I’ll have transcribed … the recollections part of it, I would like to deposit in our collection at the American Institute of Physics.
Now, I have not raised at all with Jane Kayser the question of whether she has photographs of Robert. I find the only photograph I have of Robert is that one —
Where was that taken?
That was on the way up to the observatory at — outside Pasadena.
Oh, so it’s on the way to Mount Wilson, I see; on the trail to Mt. Wilson. Do you know the year of it? It doesn’t say.
Now, wait a minute. I can tell you when that was. It was not the first year that I went out because May was along with us, so it was the second year that I went out there, and that means, I went out first in — oh dear, when did I go?
I think one of these biographies mentions it. I don’t know how accurate it is. Is it prior to 1922? Oh yes, it has to be.
— It was. I think probab1y it was ‘22.
This photograph. May I take that?
Would you like it back? I can have a negative made and another copy, so that you can have this back or equivalent, and I’ll return everything, in other words, in copy form. But you don’t have any other photographs? That’s a pity.
I don’t, I don’t, I don’t, I don’t. The trouble was, that almost always, he and I were together. In going through Colorado, for example we went up the — spectacular thing, there — the east side of Long’s Peak, you know, Colorado, Estes Park, is a place that we just climbed up. Neck or nothing, you had to go up — came on rain — we had rubber soled shoes on. That would have been a wonderful picture. But there was nobody there to take it.
Well, I think that really covers the ground on these other folders, I’m not sure that I looked into all of them. Are these the poems, or —? Oh, these are other photographs. At least one photograph.
Maybe with this big magnifying glass, we can identify the — All I can be sure of is — I simply can’t identify that; Mountain side trail. But it’s not up in the — I wonder if there’s anything here that — no. It’s just…
Well, this is the negative of that large photograph.
Wait a while I may have that. [???] was up there and that — Robert took this picture, bless his heart. Here’s [???] that I was telling you about.
Oh, that’s really very good. Now, let’s see who’s in it.
I’m in it — and he, Robert, quite obviously took the picture.
Who are the other individuals in it?
Well, [???], a physician from California, Herbert.
So that’s then on the real pickles(?).
It's not Robert but it’s unquestionably taken by Robert.
She is one of the Chavez family?
Yes, that's the younger sister.
A person that Robert cordially hated.
He mentioned her in a letter.
These things… now that’s actually the — this is the place on the [???] not the place that the Oppenheimers had, but this is the place that the cows — it’s the cattle.
Who did the —?
That probably is done by my daughter, who’s no longer living. This is the large cabin.
I don’t think we can cover this in color.
I’m afraid we couldn’t.
(too far off mike to be distinct) … and it might be good to keep in the family…
That's Alice [???] again. We were up there at Gallup.
Let me see if I understand everything that I have here, sort of inventorying it. The picture on the way to Mt. Wilson, and then the picture of Consuela Chavez with Taos Pueblo on the other side, and the picture of Beedy's cabin on the Rio Pecos. Those are the only photographs. Then this folder has some c1ippings relating to him, and we may not have some of them, so I would want to Xerox them, and I'll send back the originals. There are some more letters in here from Robert. I don’t know why they’re separated out from the others oh, there's one from, they’re from Francis, yes – I’ll take them along. These are the negatives for the two large photos, and this is the thing I wanted to ask you about. It appears to be a press release. It says “cover list, education” — anyway, it says “Oppenheimer.”
This was a thing that I had no business to get, but it was an interview from somebody who'd been sent out by TIME MAGAZINE or something like that — and it’s a highly inaccurate version, incidentally. It’s just the report of an interview with me.
Was it used for that story?
It was not used for that story, but it was used in I think another one — does it say what number this is?
Well, it says the date is October 22, 1948.
Well, that was pretty surely the material, yes.
I see. Well, I would like to copy that too and then copy this here, and I'll send you back the TIME MAGAZINE because I think you want to have that. And then the other — this is that other photograph. Now, who am I looking at here, I’m not sure.
Well, that's the one that I couldn’t make out. It does not look to me like Robert at all. But neither does it look like anybody else that I know.
Well, we have the negative there; maybe we can get a better print.
Oh, from this?
Yes, I noticed in the little envelope. Then these poems, you explained the background of the judging poetry and I would like to copy them, ok? That would be good —
Let’s see, now, this folder. This is just your notes, which I don’t think — I mean, since they’re notes of what was in the letter I don't think it's necessary since we’ve got the letter. Here’s an excerpt from a letter. I don’t know what this is about.
This was to explain what elicited that letter. See. I didn’t keep my copy, but this summed up what I had written, and — that’s just a quote from something that Bundy(?) wrote about him, and I didn’t have that.
I would like to copy all of that, and then return this to you.
This just says that it is about him. There’s nothing there at all.
No, that’s not —
That’s that formidable Chevalier thing.
That is quite a vitriolic book. Did you read it? Did you read that book?
I certainly did. I thought that that man is just pathological.
Well, the motivation was clear. Now, these are the Ferguson letters and there are — let me just take a look. They’re dated on the envelopes anyway and that helps.
Yes, the ones that are on the envelopes, those are easy.
And they’re typed, which is very fortunate. At least some are.
Not all of them are typed, by the way.
Now, those are the originals, the original Oppenheimer letters. That’s the purpose of all of this. And that folder — this is an inventory of some Ferguson materials, I think. Oh, I know what's missing. You said you might have the letter that Frank wrote to you regarding his own letters.
Yes. Also, this brings those in. Those are letters from Francis Ferguson, Betty Thomas, Enez and Kitty Pollack. I told you, those young people corresponded with each other.
I see, and they’re all classmates at Ethical Culture.
All classmates at Ethical Culture. Where there’s a reference to Robert from Francis, I’ve —
You’ve made a note of it.
It was simply a matter of recording whenever there was a letter of — Francis was referred to.
Where does Francis Ferguson live now?
Well, now, his address — I had a letter from his grandson a while back. It’s the address given in Who’s Who.
I see, very good. And how about the address of — is that?
Yes, that’s where she is now.
I see. Well, that completes the — with the one exception of Frank's letter, if we can find that. I think I’ve done my inventorying well. It’s all recorded here. I don't know what we have in front of us here, but these are just the books.
Yes, and also, noted where that, that Conant(?) 10,000. That’s just plain wrong.
Oh yes. You know, I met him, I told you. I told him that Robert Oppenheimer was very disappointed in the book. He asked me, “Do you know what his reaction was?” I said “Well, he told me he was very disappointed and he couldn't understand what you had done.” And he said, “Can you express my apologies to him?” So I said, “Well, it seems to me that something maybe should be done.”
Actually, and I took a pretty careful look at the name that’s written in the upper right hand — do you know whose writing that is under your little finger? That is Robert’s handwriting. That is Robert’s handwriting. And I think for him to — here, it’s the worst — you won’t like it but I can’t draw any other inference from it. I haven’t made either the capital H or the capital S like that, and even in the oldest signatures —
Did he send it to you, or you don’t recall?
I think he did. I recall his saying, just casually; it wasn’t written down in any form at all, that it would at least tell you something about — The other thing that tied us together in the way of books was a man by the name of Broad who was on the faculty of the University of Edinburgh, that — it’s just called SCIENTIFIC THOUGHT. And that’s what he wanted. And there was one other thing that you may want to refer to and it comes up in one of Jane’s letters, and it’s — which one is that? Oh yes, OF HUMAN BONDAGE, which he said had influenced him more than any other book he'd ever read.
Robert said that? Why?
Well, Jane and I had some correspondence about that and she said she thought it was because he was so notable more awkward, and this is true, physically. But at any rate, he did say that. And I think that the copy of HUMAN BONDAGE up there is the one that he passed over to me.
That's fascinating. Well, I think this has really covered a lot of ground. I think we can likely shut our machine off now.