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Haakon Chevalier’s Interview – Part 2

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Haakon Chevalier was a French literature professor, author, and close friend of J. Robert Oppenheimer beginning at Berkeley in 1937. In this interview, Chevalier discusses aspects of Oppenheimer’s personal life, including his romantic relationships, hobbies, and religious views. He explains his own involvement in the Communist Party and Oppenheimer’s work on left-wing issues, and gives his thoughts on Oppenheimer’s security trial in 1954. Chevalier recalls first meeting Kitty Oppenheimer, and remembers her as a warm and friendly woman.

Date of Interview:
June 29, 1982
Location of the Interview:


Martin Sherwin: You mentioned a point that others have mentioned that intrigue me: [J. Robert] Oppenheimer’s summer in Corsica. You said that Oppenheimer had once told you that reading [Marcel] Proust’s Memory of Things Past was one of the great experiences of his life.

Haakon Chevalier: Yes.

Sherwin: I have two questions about that. One, could you elaborate on that? Anything that you recall he said and why. The second has to do with whether you know anything else about that summer in Corsica.

Chevalier: No, I don’t think I can add very much to either of those. I think I quote the thing that he mentioned there about the cruelty, the ultimate cruelty.

Sherwin: Yes.

Chevalier: Which he quoted, that is, not verbatim, but made reference to that. He had great admiration for Proust, his insight into the deep things in the consciousness of human beings, and his art as a writer, his quick perception and skill in writing.

But I don’t remember anything else of the Corsican adventure, except that he was in Italy reading Proust and he didn’t mention anything else. I don’t know if he went swimming. He probably did, but I don’t remember his mentioning it.

Sherwin: The reason I mention it is that this is alleged to be the summer in which he had an involvement with a woman who was very significant in his life. But it comes from a source that is not particularly reliable, and I was wondering if he had mentioned anything about that to you.

Chevalier: No.

Sherwin: You say also a bit later on that it was at one of the meetings in 1939, where Oppenheimer got the idea of a periodic newsletter or pamphlet that could come out explaining the ideas of the left in the language of the center, which I think is still a very good idea in America. Americans don’t speak any foreign languages, and they don’t even speak foreign languages which are in English, foreign political languages. That was a good idea and again, I would like to see if you can recall any of the subjects that were discussed in the few newsletters that were put out. Do you happen to have copies of those?

Chevalier: Yes I do, and I am going to use them.

Sherwin: In your book, right? That’s good. Could you tell me anything about them?

Chevalier: I can show them to you, if you want to use them.

Sherwin: There are two of these reports. They are entitled “Report to Our Colleagues, 1: February 20, 1940,” and “Report to Our Colleagues, 2: April 6, 1940,” which Oppenheimer wrote. The signature is the College Faculties Committee, Communist Party of California.

Was Oppenheimer a member of the Communist Party?

Chevalier: It was a closed unit and unofficial. There’s no record of it, so you can say that he was or wasn’t.

Sherwin: Was this some kind of a special unit? That is, when you say “closed unit,” how does that—

Chevalier: There was no record of it. It was not known to anyone, except one person.

Sherwin: Who was?

Chevalier: I don’t know who he was, but in the top echelon of the party in San Francisco.

Sherwin: This was unusual, however, as opposed to the way—

Chevalier: Apparently, the same thing happened in many other parts of the United States, closed units for professionals, for people who didn’t want to be identified in any way.

Sherwin: Well, if they didn’t want to be identified in any way, how could Oppenheimer write this as a member of the College Faculties Committee, Communist Party of California?

Chevalier: His name is not connected with it. 

Sherwin: I saw in the Oppenheimer papers a letter from you to him when you were—I guess it must have been about the time that you were writing Oppenheimer: The Story of a Friendship—in which you say that he was a member of the Communist party. I think you asked for permission to use some material, and he said no, said he didn’t know what you were talking about in terms of membership. I take it that this all goes back to this involvement?

Chevalier: Yes.

Sherwin: Now, was this College Faculties Committee the study group that you were referring to?

Chevalier: Yes.

Sherwin: Do you remember, you mentioned three or four people who were in it. Can you remember any others?

Chevalier: No, I don’t want to mention anyone.

Sherwin: If there was no record of Communist party involvement, what made it an official Communist party group?

Chevalier: Well, I guess it isn’t, or wasn’t. That is, it had a kind of shadowy existence. It existed, but wasn’t identified. That had some influence, because we had our views about certain things that were happening, which were transmitted to the center. We were consulted about certain things.

Sherwin: How were these reports written up, printed, and distributed? I’m talking about the specific process. Oppenheimer sat down at a typewriter, or somebody else did, or with a pencil and pad and wrote it out?

Chevalier: I don’t know. I wasn’t in on that. But I know that they got written, they got printed, they got sent out, and Oppenheimer paid for it all. Over a thousand copies to different colleges and universities on the West Coast.

Sherwin: It was a mailing list, but it didn’t go into every faculty mailbox at Berkeley, for example. What I’m curious about is if it was signed by the Communist party and distributed to non-Communists. As I understand it, if you were openly known as a member of the Communist party at Berkeley, you would lose your job. How the distribution took place without people finding out who was distributing it?

Chevalier: I guess it must have been mailed. I think it was mailed. It wasn’t put in the faculty boxes, I don’t think. We never had any repercussions.

Sherwin: This is quite late in the game.

Chevalier: Yes, 1940.

Sherwin: I want to get back to those. But first let me sort of push ahead here with a few other questions that come from your book. Oppenheimer’s relatives who were brought from Germany who you became friendly with, what were their names?

Chevalier: What were their names? He was a doctor.

Sherwin: Was it Friedman?

Chevalier: No. Stern. He was a gynecologist. He came with his wife and one child, I think. I don’t think there was more than one. And his mother, who was the grandmother of the child of whom Oppenheimer was very fond.

Sherwin: Did he set up practice in Berkeley?

Chevalier: Yes. In order to get the license, he had to do some internship and probably examinations, but he was practicing.

Sherwin: Might he still be alive, or was he too old when he was brought over?

Chevalier: He could be, could be alive. He wasn’t older than I was.

Sherwin: Did Oppenheimer spend a lot of time with them? Did you all spend time together?

Chevalier: We did once or twice, I think. We were together with them. But we saw them separately and Oppenheimer saw them separately. I can’t remember any parties in which we were all together.

Sherwin: There’s all this contradictory activity that’s going on, which is not necessarily out of character with somebody of Oppenheimer’s complexity, but nevertheless it deserves elaboration, in terms of the social relations. He not only joined the American Association of Scientific Workers in 1939, but he also joined the Commonwealth Club of San Francisco, which is a juxtaposition of some interest.

Chevalier: Yes, and the country club, too.

Sherwin: Right, the Rio Del Mar Country Club. Now, I’m somewhat familiar with the Commonwealth Club, but I have no idea what the Rio Del Mar Country Club in Santa Cruz is like.

Chevalier: No, I haven’t either. But there’s probably golf links there, and swimming, and a casino.

Sherwin: Was that a result of having met Kitty? I see there’s no specific dates here. He met Kitty in 1940, I believe.

Chevalier: I think it was ’40, yes.

Sherwin: And that was the same date of the Rio Del Mar Country Club?

Chevalier: It might be, although they never spoke of it.

Sherwin: Did anybody ever chide him about joining the Commonwealth Club or the Country Club?

Chevalier: I never knew it at the time.

Sherwin: You have seen that Oppenheimer series, haven’t you?

Chevalier: On BBC? Yes.

Sherwin: It just played in the United States.

Chevalier: In May, yes.

Sherwin: The last one finished last week. I thought it was really soap opera.

Chevalier: Yes, it was a miserable program. There were some spectacular things, but that was [inaudible] material.

Sherwin: Now, I suppose there are a lot of things we can talk about there, but the most interesting one in relationship to the characters that are drawn in that series and the characters that you refer to who are relevant that are drawn in your book is Kitty, who comes across in your book as an interesting, friendly person who was in no way related to the character that they drew in the early period. What I would like to do is have you just comment on everything that was wrong with, in your view, the BBC characterization of her in those years.

Chevalier: Yes, she was made out to be sort of brash from the beginning.

Sherwin: And very manipulative and malicious.

Chevalier: Yes, and completely out of character. All the dialogue was very poor. It had no relationship to Oppenheimer’s own dialogue.

The transcript [of the Oppenheimer security hearing] is very bad, unless he’s talking about scientific things. The first day, when he talks about some of the scientific aspects of his work, that was very clear and very good. But most of the time, he wasn’t functioning.

You would expect that in all that material, at one time, he would make some kind of statement, that would be a statement as to who he was, and what he had done, and “You sons of bitches,” something like that. Nothing came through, and when he was made to say things which he knew weren’t true, when he admitted that those telegrams didn’t indicate that he had told the truth or that he had told a lie.

Sherwin: When he said, “I was [inaudible].”

Chevalier: [Roger] Robb said, “Does this indicate to you that you were told,” and so on, and Oppenheimer said, “Certainly not. I’m quite clear,” something like that, which was just denying what he knew was true. He must have just suffered agonies, doing that.

Sherwin: Yes. Everything was wrong with that hearing.

Chevalier: It was trumped up. It was deliberately held with the knowledge that they would win.

Sherwin: There’s no question about it.

Chevalier: No question. The big bastard was [General Kenneth] Nichols.

Sherwin: About Kitty. I think that one of the things that Prince, the writer of the Oppenheimer script did, was to take for everyone a prominent characteristic generally at the end of their lives, and, in fact, paste that characteristic right on the forehead of the character right from the beginning. Kitty, by the later years of her life, was an alcoholic. 

As I was saying, I think that this characteristic just got pasted on Kitty, that at the end she could be terribly nasty to people she didn’t like.

Chevalier: Yes:

Sherwin: On the other hand, my understanding of her, from speaking to lots of people, was that she was extremely warm with her friends, and that her relation to Robert was totally different than anything that was suggested by the series. How would you describe her relation to Robert in the years that you knew them best?

Chevalier: Very warm, very understanding.

Sherwin: You were saying that Kitty was warm?

Chevalier: And understanding, and very friendly. She would call us up very often, or he would call, and we saw each other very frequently. We had dinner at each other’s houses, listened to music, and sometimes went to a movie or to a concert. One concert we went to was Paul Robeson singing on the campus, in the gym.

She was a good cook. She liked to cook, and she did some very nice dishes. She seemed to be a very good mother. We had the baby [Peter Oppenheimer] for a couple of months while they went up to Perro Caliente.

Sherwin: Hot Dog [laughter].

Chevalier: We were very close friends. There were no barriers, there were no difficulties of any kind.

Sherwin: Did you ever see Kitty behave in this vicious way that she was capable of behaving?

Chevalier: No, I think that must have come mostly later.

The first time we saw her was unfortunate. I don’t know whether I mentioned it or not. He had been going with Estelle Kane. I told you she was the last one of a series whom we saw him go out with. There was a period there of maybe a year or more when there was a string of three, four, or five mostly very attractive youngish girls.

But he had been invited with several others of us, including the Serbers, and about five, or six, or seven people. Estelle Kane and Oppenheimer were one of the people. He came late, and he came unannounced with Kitty. She hadn’t been invited. The last time we had seen Estelle, I don’t know exactly how things stood.

Sherwin: Was that Estelle’s house or Jean Tatlock’s house?

Chevalier: Estelle’s.

Sherwin: Certainly in the movie, they had it in Jean Tatlock’s house, but I think in here it also suggests Jean Tatlock’s house, unless I just read that into it.

Chevalier: I didn’t know Jean Tatlock well. I just saw her on a number of occasions with other people.

But anyway, she [Kitty] appeared with him and had a big corsage of orchids, and all the rest of us were sort of shocked. It was something that he shouldn’t have done. Normally, he could have telephoned, but didn’t. So we had a sort of grudge against her at that point. The next time we saw her, everything was perfectly normal.

Sherwin: Was [Robert] Serber at that dinner?

Chevalier: I think he was, he and Charlotte, his wife, who has since died.

Sherwin: I didn’t know that Oppenheimer had had mononucleosis.

Chevalier: Uhm hmm.

Sherwin: What was wrong with Oppenheimer’s back?

Chevalier: I don’t know. He complained of it a lot, and had my wife build him a chair, a very hard, straight chair that he used all the time, one that was comfortable for him. It must have been some spinal thing.

Sherwin: You talked about, a particular meeting, “Our little group in Berkeley inevitably reflected the country’s change of mood. The crisis in the local never recovered.” And there was that last meeting sometime in January, and the group continued to meet irregularly. Now, is this the small group that you were talking about?

Chevalier: Uhm hmm.

Sherwin: Okay, so I know as much as I’m going to learn about that group. Could you tell me about that meeting between the Dalis and Oppenheimer, which didn’t work out so well? Oppenheimer didn’t like [Salvador] Dali and treated him rather cavalierly?

Chevalier: I don’t have too vivid a memory of it, except that it wasn’t disagreeable. But Dali has weird ideas about science, and wanted to get some confirmation from Oppenheimer on something or other and that didn’t work. It was a rather unsatisfactory evening.

Sherwin: [Laughter] A euphemistic way to put it. What were his ideas about science? Was he hostile to science?

Chevalier: No, but he had some strange preconceived notions about scientific things, which I never got very straight. He did a painting, you know, of Gala [Dali], where nothing touches anything else including the water of the ocean and the throne that she’s sitting on and so on. Leda Atomica.

Sherwin: When did he paint that, do you know?

Chevalier: I saw him paint that down in Del Monte, California. It took several months of course to do, and I saw it on two occasions while he was working on it. When was it? It must have been around 1942, possibly [actually 1949].

Sherwin: Do you think that he might have been pressing him—in other words, those ideas were reflected in the painting. He [Dali] didn’t think of it as an artist’s view of the relationship between sort of science and the human condition, but actually had some theories about how science worked?

Chevalier: Well yes, he has very concrete ideas about all sorts of things. But they are mostly rather fanciful, far-fetched, but have a kind of Dalinesque coherence.

Sherwin: Does that mean they only cohere through his mind?

Chevalier: Yes.

Sherwin: Now, was he well known then? Was Oppenheimer familiar with him as a great painter?

Chevalier: Yes, he was familiar with him, with his painting, yes. But I don’t think he had any great admiration for it. But Dali was certainly very well-known already, although it was nothing like what he has become since, that is, through advertisement and through various shenanigans. You heard that Gala died, didn’t you?

Sherwin: You told me, and I looked right in The Times. I might have missed the day it was reported, but it certainly wasn’t on the news in America.

Chevalier: It was on the 10th of June.

Sherwin: Yes, I talked to you right after that, I think, by phone. She was a good friend of yours?

Chevalier: Yes. She was eighty-three, quite a bit older than he.

Sherwin: I was surprised by this, because Oppenheimer had the ability to charm people of note who he wanted to charm.

Chevalier: Oh, yes.

Sherwin: I was surprised since he was always so interested in artists of various kinds, whether in music, or painting, or whatever, who were well known. This seemed to be out of character. But he just might have had some strong negative ideas.

Chevalier: I think he didn’t like Dali.

Sherwin: So that was the end of that.

Then we come to the so-called Chevalier Incident, which you describe fully in the book. Is there anything that you could add to that description?

Chevalier: Yes, I have a new insight on it now. I don’t want to talk about it. If my book comes out before yours—

Sherwin: I’m sure it will. I hope it does.

Chevalier: I’ll give you the benefit of everything that I know that I have.

Sherwin: Can I do anything to help you, in terms of sending you anything from the States?

Chevalier: I haven’t got very much data on Groves, and I’d like to have some kind of material on Groves.

Sherwin: I’d like to go back to these two documents that Oppenheimer wrote, “Report to Our Colleagues.” There’s no question in your mind that Oppenheimer wrote these?

Chevalier: No, none whatsoever.

Sherwin: How do you know that for sure?

Chevalier: Well, you can recognize the style, for one thing.

Sherwin: Well, I read some of it, and it’s an eloquent style.

Chevalier: He has certain little mannerisms, using certain words in a characteristic way.

Sherwin: Are there some particular words or phrases that you have identified like that?

Chevalier: “More and more surely.” That’s very characteristic of him. “More and more surely.” You wouldn’t ordinarily find that use of “surely” in such a context. And then the other things, too.

Sherwin: Did you know Frank Oppenheimer?

Chevalier: Yes, but not nearly so well. I saw him last last September. I had my eightieth birthday, and I had all my children and grandchildren together for the first time in San Francisco.

Sherwin: Your daughter lives in San Francisco?

Chevalier: San Francisco, yes. That was a birthday party. Then a few days later there was another birthday party that she gave with about forty of the people that I knew including Frank, who was there with his new wife [Millie Oppenheimer].

Curiously enough—we have been on very good terms, but not terribly close. At this party, we had a few words and we said something about the film that we were in [The Day After Trinity]. I said something about his being very good. He said, “But you said he lied.” That is, Oppenheimer lied.

I said, “Well, he did, didn’t he?”

He said, “No.”

I said, “Well, he admitted that he did. I just couldn’t understand what he was trying to say.” I think I know now, but it was very mysterious.

Sherwin: Is there any way I can get a copy of these reports?

Chevalier: I don’t want you to use them until I have used them.

Sherwin: Okay. As I say, I don’t think there’s a—

Chevalier: After I’ve used them, you can have them.

Sherwin: Okay. When do you think that you will be finished with your manuscript?

Chevalier: I hope by the end of summer.

Sherwin: By the end of this summer?

Chevalier: I hope.

Sherwin: Well then, yes, no problem. My biography is a good two years away.

In terms of this new book, what is the structure of it? Is it going to focus on the so-called—

Chevalier: Incident?

Chevalier: Mostly, yes. I think I told you, my thesis is that if it hadn’t been for that, Oppenheimer—even if he might not have succeeded in stopping the bomb from being dropped—would certainly have gone on record. They were waiting for him to say something, and he didn’t. It would have changed the whole picture of the present day world, if that had happened.

Sherwin: Yes.

Chevalier: It’s a somewhat daring hypothesis, but it’s a very plausible one. Because everybody agrees that the main thing that decided the hearing to refuse the clearance was the Chevalier Incident, and that was presented in a false way. So it was on the basis of false evidence that this happened. That’s what I want to bring out. 

Copyright 2005 Martin J. Sherwin. This transcript may not be quoted, reproduced, or redistributed in whole or in part by any means except with the written permission of Martin J. Sherwin. Rights granted to Atomic Heritage Foundation.