Dr. Jean Tatlock, Oppenheimer’s great love, had a profound and lasting influence on his life, both before and after her death.
With the impending release of Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer, I thought it would be timely to revisit the influential relationship between J. Robert Oppenheimer and Dr. Jean Tatlock, arguably his first and only great love.
I was pleased to read that Tatlock is a significant character in the new film and is played by the talented Florence Pugh. Though Oppenheimer and Tatlock enjoyed a romantic relationship that lasted only three rocky years and a friendship that lasted eight, Tatlock had an enduring impact on the physicist’s life. Their relationship was so significant to Oppenheimer that historians believe that the naming of the nuclear test bomb, Trinity, was named in honor of Tatlock who had taken her life a few months before the detonation. And it was Jean, even in death, who played a significant role in the 1954 farcical Red Scare hearing that stripped Oppenheimer of his security clearance and diminished his professional standing in the science and political worlds.
Robert and Jean: The Beginning
Both Robert Oppenheimer and Jean Tatlock were born into comfort — the former the son of a painter and textile merchant, the latter the daughter of an Ivy League professor. Robert enjoyed the unique private school education of the Ethical Culture Society School in New York City in the 1910s, and Jean, ten years his junior, attended the Cambridge Rindge and Latin School in Massachusetts. Their unique childhoods helped shape the adults they’d become — ones who were inquisitive and empathetic — but it would take meeting Jean to unlock those traits in Robert.
As a child, Robert was nervous and sickly, prone to emotional outbursts and fits of depression. Depression is one trait Jean shared in common with Robert, though friends had described her as free-spirited, outgoing, and vibrant. They traversed their academic years attending the best schools — Robert secured degrees from Harvard, Cambridge, and Gottingen; Jean graduated from Vassar and earned a degree in psychiatry at Stanford — and met while Jean was starting her first year at medical school. They met at a party — Robert, then 32, knew her as the daughter of scholar John Tatlock — and the smart 22-year-old anti-fascist and Communist Part of America member immediately charmed him. Little did he know how deeply she would affect his life.
Communist Party of America and Oppenheimer
Robert had dated women before Jean, but this was arguably the first important woman in his life.
Though he grew up in a left-leaning environment, Robert didn’t pay much mind to the world around him. Because of his family’s wealth, he was clueless to much of the suffering in the world. He said he had no idea the stock market crashed in 1929 because he didn’t read the newspaper. But with the rise of Nazism in Europe, which affected his relatives, and finally becoming aware of the effects of the Great Depression on his students, Oppenheimer started to pay attention.
She was his introduction to the Communist Party of America, and with her and the members he found a community of people who opened up his eyes to the atrocities in the world. He began hosting events at his home and donating money through CPUSA for liberal causes such as the anti-fascist fight in the Spanish Civil War. Years later at his security trial, he said that he enjoyed the newfound companionship of the passionate people he met in the Communist Party.
A relationship not meant to be
The common word used by historians to describe Robert and Jean’s relationship: “intense.” He proposed to her twice, but she turned him down twice. Due to her depression and questioning her sexuality, she would go through sad periods, greatly affecting Robert.
In American Prometheus, the Pulitzer Prize-winning Oppenheimer biography by Kai Bird and Martin Sherwin, it’s noted that Tatlock struggled with the generosity (possibly overbearingness?) of Oppenheimer. He was known to bring her flowers, and she was known to throw them on the floor and tell him to go away.
According to Robert Oppenheimer: A Life in the Center by Ray Monk, Tatlock would disappear for weeks on end and then would taunt Robert with updates about who she had been with. Monk surmises that Oppenheimer deeply loved her, but his overt affection was too much for Jean to handle. By 1939, their relationship had come to an end, and later that year Oppenheimer would meet the woman who’d become his wife and the mother of his children.
Kitty, kids, and the Manhattan Project
Things started to pick up for Robert after the end of his relationship with Jean. He impregnated and married the thrice-divorced and still married Kitty Peuning, a German-born fellow traveler in the Communist Party, they welcomed two children, Peter and Toni, and in 1942 he was appointed director of the Los Alamos Laboratory, which helped develop the government’s top-secret nuclear weapons project. Kitty was described as cold and punishing by people who knew her, though she was smart and had moments of wit and warmth. Both she and Robert enjoyed their fair share of alcohol — their slight frames were attributed to diets of cigarettes and martinis. Several historians believe Robert had continued an affair with Jean after marrying Kitty, but there is little evidence other than one fateful evening in 1943 that would change his life forever.
Due to the secrecy around the Manhattan Project, employees were rarely able to leave Los Alamos. But one year into the project, and two years before the dropping of the bombs, Robert was granted permission to leave on the grounds of finding an assistant back in Berkeley, California. While there, he spent the night with Jean.
What Robert didn’t know was that the government was tracking his every move.
Before he had left for Los Alamos in 1942, Jean asked to see him. He didn’t go to her due to the secrecy pertaining to his new employment. But things were different this time — Jean was not in a good place.
In his 1954 security hearing, he said,
“I felt that she had to see me. She was undergoing psychiatric treatment. She was extremely unhappy.” When asked why she needed to see him, Oppenheimer responded with, “She was still in love with me.”
On his visit, Robert stayed at Jean’s house. No one knows for certain if the two slept with one another, but the government detail that was tracking them noted that the two were affectionate in public. Robert would visit with Jean for two days, going out for drinks and meals. Jean dropped him off at the airport, and that was the last time he would ever see her.
Six months later, Jean ended her life at the age of 29.
Her feather found her, drowned in her bath tub. Theories on how she died include overdosing on pills and drowning, drowning without taking pills, or that she was murdered by the U.S. government.*
Grief and Accomplishment
Robert was, by all accounts, devastated by the loss of Jean. Robert Serber, Oppenheimer’s friend and fellow physicist at the Los Alamos lab, said Robert was deeply grieved. Upon hearing the news, Robert left his office and went for a long walk into the New Mexico wilderness. His historians generally believe Jean was the love of Robert’s life.
Fast forward two years later: The scientists at Los Alamos test Trinity over the New Mexico desert in July, and the US military deploys Fat Man and Little Boy over Japan in August. After WWII ended in September, Robert was hailed as a national hero.
In short order he was invited to be the director of the prestigious Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton, he was a founding member of the Atomic Energy Commission, and he traveled the world speaking about science, transparency, and nuclear weapons.
But Robert’s newfound popularity was to be short-lived.
A Broken Man
Robert became increasingly critical of the U.S. government’s bloodthirst for nuclear weapons. His concerns reached a boiling point when a former physicist on the Manhattan Project, Edward Teller, wanted to create the even more powerful hydrogen bomb.
Robert was already disliked by the conservative government due to his left-leaning tendencies and Communist past, but his vocal criticism of America’s military endeavors made him public enemy number one. Lewis Strauss, a political big wig and chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission, thought Robert was arrogant and rude, and his disdain for him grew by the day.
Using his clout and friendships with people like J. Edgar Hoover, Strauss, at the end of 1953, got the Atomic Energy Commission to serve Oppenheimer notice that his security clearance was suspended. Terribly upset, Oppenheimer appealed the decision and a multi-week farce of a hearing ensued.
Oppenheimer was not given due process and he was illegally wiretapped. One goal of the hearing was to show that Oppenheimer was a security threat because of his past Communist leanings. Another goal was to publicly shame Oppenheimer. That meant his maybe-affair with Jean Tatlock was brought up in front of Oppenheimer’s wife. The prosecutor interviewing Oppenheimer, Roger Robb, asked Oppenheimer for details about his visit to Tatlock in the summer of 1943.
Robb asked him why he had visited her and whether she was still a Communist.
Here’s how the exchange went:
“You spent the night with her, didn’t you?” Robb asked.
“Yes,” replied Oppenheimer.
“Did you think that consistent with good security?”
“It was, as a matter of fact. Not a word — it was not good practice.”
“Didn’t you think that put you in a rather difficult position had she been the kind of Communist that you have described her or talked about this morning?”
“Oh, but she wasn’t.”
“How did you know?”
“I knew her.”
Robb and the hearing board succeeded in tearing down Oppenheimer.
The hearing ended with Oppenheimer’s clearance revoked. While the AEC board believed Oppenheimer was patriotic, they still deemed him a security risk. Though humiliated and exhausted by the entire experience, Oppenehimer made the best of the remaining 13 years of his life.
He bought a rustic piece of land on St. John Island and spent months out of the year sailing with his family. He attended the occassional public speaking engagements, and he was considered a martyr within the science community. After visiting Japan in 1960, Oppenheimer said he was not regretful of building the bomb, but his friends and family knew that it weighed heavy on his mind. In 1963, he was presented with an award from President Johnson as a “Sorry we screwed up your life” token of appreciation. Robert died in 1967 at the age of 62 from throat cancer, and Kitty died five years later, also at the age of 62, from a pulmonary embolism as she set out on a sailing trip across the globe.
It’s lost to history how Kitty responded to the information she heard in the hearing about her husband visiting Tatlock in 1943. Maybe she already knew, or maybe Robert told her his visit to Jean was innocent, which is very well could have been. Robert and Kitty stayed married until his death. It’s difficult to say whether their marriage was a happy one, though I guess one can say it was a successful one since they were together for 27 years. Robert was known to have at least one other affair. He had a romantic relationship with Ruth Tolman, a psychologist and dear friend who was eleven years his senior and married to Robert’s colleague Richard.
The Legacy of Robert and Jean
Robert and Jean both had tragic lives. Both were passionate, motivated and cared deeply about the world around them, but their demons got the best of them. Jean’s demons became too much for her to bear, and Robert’s demons left destruction in their wake. It is unfortunate that Jean was unable to complete her dream of being a psychiatrist and helping others, and it’s unfortunate that Robert was a victim of a war-mongering government. It’s pretty clear that Jean did not love Robert in the same way that Robert loved Jean. However, Robert was one of her closest confidents, hopefully being an arm to lean on during her darkest days. He wanted to save her, but he couldn’t save her, or himself.
To learn more about Robert Oppenheimer’s relationship with Jean Tatlock, check out my podcast about their love story below.
*If you or anyone you know has had thoughts of suicide, know there is help. You are loved and valued. Please called the Suicide Prevention Hotline 1–800–273–8255 if you need support.