Shirley Streshinsky and Patricia Klaus think you can learn a lot about a man from the women who love him.
When they decided to co-write a book on J. Robert Oppenheimer, the authors took an unusual approach, focusing on the three women closest to the physicist often described as the father of the atomic bomb -- Kitty Harrison, who married Oppenheimer in 1940; Jean Tatlock, with whom he had a passionate love affair; and Ruth Sherman Tolman, a close friend who may have been Oppenheimer's lover as well.
The three who mattered
The result is "An Atomic Love Story: The Extraordinary Women in Robert Oppenheimer's Life" (Turner Publishing, $27.95, 382 pages.) A deft blend of politics, passion and historical upheaval, it's a fresh look at one of the most written-about scientists of the 20th century and the female trinity central to his life and work.
Streshinsky, the Kensington-based author of three previous nonfiction works (including the biography "Audubon: Life and Art in the American Wilderness"), and Klaus, a historian who lives in Petaluma, spent years researching and writing the book. In a recent interview at her home overlooking the San Francisco Bay, Streshinsky said it all started with Oppenheimer.
"I've been interested in Oppenheimer for most of my life," said Streshinsky, who lives just steps from the Arlington Road home where the enigmatic physicist lived during his tenure as a UC Berkeley professor. "I had always wanted to do a book on him."
Oppenheimer has inspired numerous biographies and fictional works, but when the biography "American Prometheus," by Kai Bird and Martin Sherwin, was published in 2005, Streshinsky returned to the subject. "I started thinking about Kitty and talking to Patricia about it, and we finally decided to write about all three women."
The new book, which begins by tracing the German ancestry of Robert and Kitty, as well as the New England lineage of Jean and Ruth, led the authors on a wide-ranging trek through archives and research centers across the United States and Europe. They visited Los Alamos, N.M., where Oppenheimer directed 6,000 workers on the Manhattan Project to develop the first atomic bomb. They interviewed scientists and advisers on the project -- some of whom still reside in the Bay Area.
Still, it was "Oppie's" women who drove the book. "They're left so untouched in the other biographies," Streshinsky says. "Once we got into their lives, we saw how much they were really women of their times. Oppenheimer was one of the best minds of the century. But to be the wife of a physicist, you had to have a lot going for you."
Each woman, say the authors, was brilliant in her own right. Jean Tatlock was a psychiatrist and communist who wrote for the party's "Western Worker" in Berkeley; Oppenheimer, who called her "a lyrical, uplifting, sensitive, yearning creature," continued to see her -- often under FBI surveillance -- until her death, a suspected suicide, in San Francisco in 1944. One of the authors' first breakthroughs was finding a cache of her letters in the New York Public Library -- many to the novelist May Sarton, a close friend. "They were so revealing, of Jean's sexuality, her intellect," says Klaus. "They're funny, beautifully written, and ultimately tragic."
Ruth Tolman also captivated the authors. Ten years older than Oppenheimer and married to another Manhattan Project scientist, she was a psychologist, author and lecturer who held a key post with the government's Office of Strategic Services.
A lifelong relationship
Kitty Oppenheimer, a journalist and botanist who put aside her aspirations to become a wife and mother, is perhaps the best-known of the three. She remained at the center of Robert Oppenheimer's life until his death in 1967 -- even though their relationship was often volatile. "She didn't like the duties of a wife," Streshinsky says. "She wanted to be with the thinkers. And men loved her. She had terrific sex appeal."
Streshinsky, who was 10 when the first atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan, thinks that people still grapple with the enormity of those events and Oppenheimer's role in them. "It's a huge subject, and we all still live under its shadow," she says.
"An Atomic Love Story" portrays him in human terms. "These women helped create him as a human being of feeling and character," Klaus says. "Robert is often described as brilliant and arrogant, without friends. But in these relationships -- especially with Jean and Ruth -- there was a depth of affection that helped make him the person he was. They humanized him, in a way that power politics never did."
Turner, $27.95, 382 pages