Peter Oppenheimer is a carpenter, and the son of J. Robert Oppenheimer.
Peter was born in 1941 in California, and moved with his parents to Los Alamos when his father became the course director of Los Alamos [National] Laboratory. Most of his childhood however, was spent in Princeton, New Jersey during the period that his father was the Director of the Institute for Advanced Study.
By all accounts, Peter, like his Uncle, Frank Oppenheimer, had an engineer’s dexterity with his hands, even as a child. In spite of this, he never excelled in school. Due in part to crippling shyness and sensitivity, Peter often avoided social interaction as a child, which made his education challenging. His parents sent him to George School, an elite Quaker boarding school in Newtown, Pennsylvania, but his grades were subpar and he was unable to graduate, finishing instead at the public Princeton High School.
Another challenge that Peter Oppenheimer faced while growing up was his father’s security clearance hearing, which took place just before Peter started high school. After a schoolmate jeeringly told him that his father was a communist, he wrote an angry message on a chalkboard in his room. It read: “The American Government is unfair to accuse Certain People that I know of being unfair to them. Since this is true, I think that Certain People, and may I say, only Certain People in the U.S. Government, should go to HELL.”
Relationships with His Parents
Peter’s anxiety was not alleviated by his parents. In particular, he and his mother were seldom on good terms. Robert Oppenheimer’s secretary, Verna Hobson, posited that “Robert thought that in their highly charged, passionate falling in love, that Peter had come too soon, and Kitty resented him for that.” Hobson was something of a surrogate mother to Peter, given the troubled relationship between him and Kitty. There are accounts of Kitty putting immense pressure on Peter, on issues ranging from his weight to his grades. Hobson observed that “she used to make Peter’s life just miserable.”
By most accounts, Peter was very much loved by his father. Unfortunately, it seemed that Robert Oppenheimer simply did not have the social awareness to properly help his son’s development. When Pat Sherr, a family friend since the Manhattan Project, suggested that he see a child psychologist to help with his anxiety, Robert bristled at the idea. His reluctance was rooted in his own frustrating experiences with psychotherapy, but it established a pattern that Sherr described as a father who “could not have a son who needed help.”
For his part, Peter has given mixed accounts. He once told historian Priscilla McMillan that “my father’s tragedy was not that he lost his clearance, but my mother’s slow descent into alcoholism. Cut that word slow.” However, his children only recall him saying good things about his parents. In fact, Peter has been so positive about his parents that his children are often taken aback by media portrayals of Kitty Oppenheimer as cruel and unrelenting.
Return to New Mexico
After an ostensibly unhappy childhood in Princeton, Peter went west soon after high school. He spent some time with his uncle, Frank Oppenheimer, at his ranch in Colorado. He was in intermittent contact with his parents throughout the 1960s. Soon after Robert Oppenheimer died in 1967, he permanently moved to rural northern New Mexico, living at the Perro Caliente ranch in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains that Robert purchased decades earlier. He works as a carpenter, and now has three adult children, Dorothy, Charlie, and Ella. He lives contently in seclusion.
For more information on Peter Oppenheimer’s life, read American Prometheus by Kai Bird and Martin Sherwin.