The Book

An Atomic Love Story:

The Extraordinary Women in Robert Oppenheimer’s Life

Set against a dramatic backdrop of war, spies, and nuclear bombs, An Atomic Love Story unveils a vivid new view of a tumultuous era and one of its most important figures. In the early decades of the 20th century, three highly ambitious women found their way to the West Coast, where each was destined to collide with the young Oppenheimer, the enigmatic physicist whose work in creating the atomic bomb would forever impact modern history. His first and most intense love was for Jean Tatlock, though he married the tempestuous “Kitty” Harrison—a member of the Communist party—and was rumored to have had a scandalous affair with the brilliant Ruth Sherman Tolman, ten years his senior and the wife of another celebrated physicist. Though the three women were connected through their relationship with Oppenheimer, their experiences reflect important changes in the lives of American women in the 20th century: the conflict between career and marriage; the need for a woman to define herself independently; experimentation with sexuality; and the growth of career opportunities.

Beautifully written and superbly researched through a rich collection of firsthand accounts, this intimate portrait reveals the tragedies, betrayals, and romances of an alluring man and three bold women, revealing how they pushed to the very forefront of social and cultural changes in a fascinating, volatile era.


What is it about Robert that made people fall in love with him?

0081(A) - JRO as Director of Los Alamos (1945, LANL) (Aside from the penetrating blue eyes, the probing mind and the sophisticated tastes)


Here is how Pulitzer Prize-winning author Paul Horgan, a close friend since boyhood, answered that question:

            “He was the most brilliantly endowed intellectually of anybody I’ve ever known. . . . He combined incredibly good wit and gaiety and high spirits. . . . a superiority but great charm with it, and great simplicity . . . great simplicity . . . I’ve rarely known anyone with more beautiful manners.”

Harold Cherniss, professor of ancient Greek philosophy, a longtime Oppenheimer family friend and a colleague at Berkeley and Princeton would add:

            “He was interested in almost anything you could think of. His mere physical appearance, his voice, and his manners made people fall in love with him—male, female, almost everybody. . . . He was terrifically attractive.”

Physicist Frank Oppenheimer had another take on his brother’s almost universal appeal:

“One of the most important characteristics of my brother . . . involves the way in which he made people into heroes. He could like all manner of people but in liking them they became special and exceptional. And his own sense that they were special was transmitted both to the people involved and others. . . . Anybody who struck him with their wisdom, talent, skill, decency or devotion became, at least temporarily, a hero to him, to themselves and to his friends.”