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Louis Hempelmann’s Interview – Part 2

Louis Hempelmann was the director of the Health Group at Los Alamos. He and his wife Elinor became close friends with J. Robert and Kitty Oppenheimer. In this interview, Hempelmann discusses the lives of Peter and Toni Oppenheimer, Robert and Kitty’s children. He recalls visiting the Oppenheimer home on St. John’s in the Caribbean, and explains that all the Oppenheimer homes were decorated in a rather focused, austere manner. He remembers Oppenheimer’s concern that he was being followed or secretly recorded after the war, as well as Oppie’s incredible ability to speed read. Hempelmann also recalls going horseback riding with Oppie and having dinner at Edith Warner’s home by Otowi Bridge.

Date of Interview:
August 10, 1983
Location of the Interview:


Louis Hempelmann: He [J. Robert Oppenheimer] just told me what the situation was. He did not ask me, which is the same thing when he got sick because I was in the radiology department here and I knew something about it. He would call me up, tell me what he had done, and then say “What do you think of it?” By that time, the only thing I could say was, “That was fine.”

Martin Sherwin: For example, was there any suggestion to him or did you ever get a sense from him that something very positive had to be done for Kitty [Oppenheimer], some intervention was necessary?

Hempelmann: I do not think so.

Sherwin: How about a psychiatrist, or somebody to deal with this problem?

Hempelmann: He never asked me about that, and I did not ever volunteer it. What he was doing, I did not know. How active their steps were, I do not know. But as I say, he was not one to ask advice about anything, really.

Sherwin: There was also a great deal of difficulty between Kitty and Peter [Oppenheimer].

Hempelmann: How did your interview with Peter go, by the way? Did he talk?

Sherwin: Not really. I did not expect him to. I wanted to meet him. I did not want to sort of barge in and ask questions that would make him uncomfortable. I felt if he wanted to tell me things about his childhood or his parents—

Hempelmann: I do not think he likes to talk about it at all.

Sherwin: No, he does not, at all. That was quite clear.

Hempelmann: There was a period in the ‘50s when he was really in bad shape. He could not talk to anybody. I think I was one of the few people he would talk to.

He was very interested in photography. We used to go down there and they would say, “Peter, show  Louis your darkroom.” Peter and I would go off for about an hour or so, and then we would come back. He was married once, you know.

Sherwin: To Diane.

Hempelmann: Yeah. She was a very positive girl. I think at the time he liked that, and he needed her to make all the decisions. Then I think when he got more secure, then he did not like it. She left him or divorced him or something. I do not know how that worked out, really. He met and married Virginia. That was the best thing that ever happened to him.

Sherwin: She seems like a lovely person.

Hempelmann: She is marvelous, yes.

Sherwin: Is she from the Santa Fe area?

Hempelmann: No.

Sherwin: Diane was from Princeton, right?

Hempelmann: Yeah. She [Virginia] was from Georgia, I think. She was married to a teacher at Saint John Fishers, which is the way she got out there. She was working in the—what is that educational pre-school program?

Sherwin: Montessori?

Hempelmann: Head Start.

Sherwin: Oh, Head Start.

Hempelmann: She was teaching the Indians in Spanish and taking care of the kids. She has a marvelous calming influence on him. She has brought him out. Before he met her, he was withdrawn. He is withdrawn now, but not nearly so much as he was.

Sherwin: It is the first interview that I ever had that I felt very uncomfortable at, because I would have been much better off if I had met him before I knew anything. The family situation was so difficult that I just felt just sort of nosy and prying. I have to know as much as I can learn in order to write intelligently. The more I know, I think, the more sympathetically and understandingly I can write. I just could not bring myself to say to him, “Look I understand.”

Hempelmann: “Why did you not get [inaudible]?”

Sherwin: You know, “Your mother was an alcoholic,” and all of that. I just asked some very, very general leading questions. I felt if he wanted to talk that was fine, and if he did not, okay.

What we did was, he was working on a fence behind the house. So for two hours, we put up barbed wire. He struck me as a very intelligent person. We really got into an interesting conversation near the end. Unfortunately, my time was structured, and they were bringing a horse back in two hours.

But the last twenty minutes or so, he began to really grill me on why I was writing this book. I talked about my interest, among other things on the transition of science, in the ‘30s to the ‘50s, the McCarthy period. We got into a very interesting discussion about the origins of the Cold War. You could tell that he knew how to ask tough questions. I wish we had another two hours.

Hempelmann: I do not think he finished high school.

Sherwin: He was at the George School. I do not know if he actually graduated from Princeton or not, but he spent his last year in Princeton High School. Perhaps he did not, but he is obviously intelligent.

Hempelmann: Oh, yeah. He is a great builder. He has this company called “Adobe” spelled backwards. “Eboda,” that’s it. He does building. He has done a lot of work for us. He can do anything with his hands. He takes his car apart and puts it back together. I think he takes after his mother there, because she was very—

Sherwin: Well, he probably also takes after Frank, who is fantastic with his hands. Frank talks about his childhood, sort of taking everything apart when he was a kid and putting it back together, clocks and bicycles.

Hempelmann: Robert did not do that.

Sherwin: No, he could not do that at all. I gather there is also a very close relationship between Frank and Peter?

Hempelmann: Well, he stayed with him. He lived with him, when Frank had that ranch in Colorado.

Sherwin: In Colorado, I see.

Hempelmann: I do not know how long. He was there over a summer. I think maybe longer.

Sherwin: That was about ‘49 to ’59, I guess.

Hempelmann: I do not know. No, after that.

Sherwin: After ‘59?

Hempelmann: Oh, ‘59, yeah that could be it.

Peter and Diane spent their honeymoon in our barn here.

Sherwin: Oh, out north of Santa Fe?

Hempelmann: No, here.

Sherwin: Oh, here in Rochester. You lived out on a farm?

Hempelmann: Yeah. Well, what used to be a farm. We have a barn with an apartment in it, which is supposed to be a place for me to work, but we can actually put people up there. They could not make up their mind what they wanted to do. I think Peter was indecisive. I was there and Peter used to come here occasionally. I said, “Why do you not come out?” So they came.

They stayed up in our barn, and they would have dinner with us. Then we would plan trips for them, and they would go out on their own.

Sherwin: Great. When was that?

Hempelmann: Let me see. It must have been after 1965.

Sherwin: How long were they married, Peter and Diane?

Hempelmann: Two or three years, I think.

Sherwin: Did you know Toni very well?

Hempelmann: Oh, yeah.

Sherwin: Do you have any sense of how her suicide, how she was driven to that?

Hempelmann: Her husband, we met. He was a horror, we felt.

Sherwin: This is the second husband?

Hempelmann: Yeah. We were down there after she killed herself. We could not stay for the services. We were there when Peter, Virginia, and the kids arrived.

We met her husband. She was not a good picker when it came to men, because her one, her first husband, was about thirty years older than her. They were separated, and maybe divorced. I do not know. But then they began to see each other, as I understand it.

I gather that she was depressed under the best of conditions. I should not say that. I do not know how long that had been going on. I do not know. Something happened there which just drove her to it.

Sherwin: Because she seemed to be—everyone I have spoken, she was—

Hempelmann: She seemed to be must better adjusted than him [Peter]. I think she definitely was. There was no question of that.

Sherwin: She was responsible. People have told me that the whole family relied on her to get things done. She just seemed like the together child.

I am going to go down to the Oppenheimer home in the Virgin Islands. Again, I think I just have to see the place and get a sense of it. Which island was it on?

Hempelmann: On Saint John’s.

Sherwin: Saint John’s.

Hempelmann: In her will—I was told this by Bob Serber, I think—she was going to leave that place to—

Sherwin: The people of Saint John’s.

Hempelmann: Yeah. Just what has happened to it, I am not quite sure.

Sherwin: Who should I talk to down there? Are there names that come to mind? Did you visit the Oppenheimers down there?

Hempelmann: Oh, yeah. There was a nurse down there who I think was close to her.

Sherwin: Close to Toni?

Hempelmann: Yeah.

Sherwin: Do you remember her name?

Hempelmann: I do not.

Sherwin: How about neighbors?

Hempelmann: She was a public health nurse.

There was a family living just up the hill from them, where Peter and Virginia stayed. There was a woman alone, I suppose she is a widow or something like that. You can find out these names from Serber.

Sherwin: Okay.

Hempelmann: He was so close to it that I am not sure what sort of reading he would give you. But he could certainly tell you the names, because he knew all these people.

Sherwin: Just offhand do you know the name of—are there motels? I have never been to the Virgin Islands, so I have no sense of what it is like, which is one reason I feel I have to go.

Hempelmann: When we went down there, we could not stay on Saint John’s. There is that Caneel Bay, which is a beautiful place. I have never been there, but it is very fancy. Rockefeller donated things, which is actually quite near the Oppenheimer’s. What else there is, I do not know. We could not get any place to stay there, so we stayed on Saint Thomas near the ferry. We would go over in the morning and then come back in the evening. We were not there very long. We were only there for two or three days.

Sherwin: When was that?

Hempelmann: Three years ago.

Sherwin: I see. This was after?

Hempelmann: This was after she had killed herself, just before the services.

Sherwin: Okay. But you were never there when Robert and Kitty were there?

Hempelmann: Oh, yeah.

Sherwin: You were?

Hempelmann: We were there back in 1960, I think.

Sherwin: Do you have any recollections or impressions of the visit? Did that just happen to be the time that he lectured at Puerto Rico?

Hempelmann: No.

Sherwin: Okay. It was sometime around there when he lectured at Puerto Rico. Could you recall what the house was like?

Hempelmann: Oh, sure. It was very open and very near the sea. Depending on the tide, I think up to about twenty feet. I do not know how they could—I did not think it was legal to build that close to the ocean. The whole thing was open towards the sea. Their bedroom I think had more shelving than the rest of the place. One big room with a bedroom, and some couches where they could people up.

Sherwin: Is it a dirt floor or cement floor?

Hempelmann: Oh, no.

Sherwin: Does it have a roof?

Hempelmann: Oh, yeah. Cement floor. It was just one of those very open places. No screens. They may have now; I do not remember. Very open. Of course, they have those trade winds. Very attractive.

It was much too primitive for us. All of their places were always very stark. They both had marvelous taste and they had marvelous things, but they were just stark as they could be.

Sherwin: Also, the place in Princeton, Olden Farm. I have not been in there yet.

Hempelmann: They had a lot of good pictures there. His study, for example, was quite stark, just like their house down in Los Alamos. White walls. I do not have much feeling for that.

Sherwin: Was the furniture just sort of old comfortable stuff, or not even comfortable?

Hempelmann: Oh, yeah, I do not mean that it was not comfortable or even done in good taste. Our house, for example, is just a clutter of things. My wife collects things, and everything is out. Theirs was just the opposite. Everything was neat, everything put away.

Sherwin: Oh, I see, fastidious. That is very interesting because I do not know Kitty’s personality as well as I have come to know Robert’s personality. It seems to me that there was always a tremendous power of concentration. He focused on whatever he was doing and he did it in a way that was quite appropriate for the environment.

So if we are talking about physics and working on physics, there is an intensity and an ability to dig in very deeply and very quickly. If you are talking about the hills of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, you are talking about a can of sardines and half a pint of whiskey and on the horse. You do not mess with fancy food. But if you are talking about San Francisco, you are talking about Jack’s [Restaurant] and that kind of thing.

Now you bring in also the house, that it is not a lot of monkey business but if you like paintings, they are on a white wall. It is the paintings there, you concentrate on the paintings, and nothing on the wall takes away from the paintings.

Hempelmann: Other people could tell you more about that, because I am just not very knowledgeable about things like that. As I say, I am used to a lived-in-look, so when I get something that austere, I am not used to it.

The other thing, talking about how Oppie could concentrate: I finally wrote him a monograph on those two accidents [the Harry Daghlian and the Louis Slotin criticality accidents], since radiation injuries were something [inaudible]. So I ended up with this monograph telling about the illnesses, and then going into basically what had happened to them in this form of injury. I ended up with the monograph about 210 pages with pictures, particularly on the two fatally injured people, because their arms were just terribly burned. They were just gangrenous, actually.

But anyway, Robert helped me get permission from the [Louis] Slotin family. I finally got this thing published by the “Annals of Internal Medicine.” It turned out to be about 220 pages or something like that. When I got a copy, I took one down to Robert. We were sitting in his office at the Institute [for Advanced Study] and I gave it to him. He sort of started to thumb through it like that.

He went through the whole thing. Then I said, “Should I leave a copy here so you can read it?”

He said, “I have read it.”

He had done something about speedreading. I have never seen anything like that before in my life.

One of the other things you might be interested in is that although we were very close, we were very unlike each other. He was very brilliant, and he knew everything and was articulate. I was the opposite, I stutter, and I am not at all articulate.

I found when I was first dealing with him, that I would come in to ask him something or tell him something that was happening. If I would ask him something, I would get halfway through my story and he would either go like this or like that. That was very upsetting to me, because I thought he did not have the whole story. I always dealt with him by writing him a memo first, so that I knew he would have seen the whole thing.

Sherwin: That is interesting, because everybody who knew him as a physicist has said to me that you never got a chance to finish a thought with Oppenheimer, because he was always at the end when you were barely at the beginning. There was nobody who did not have this experience. He was always just way out there.

Somebody told me recently an amusing story about this. The same kind of thing would constantly happen to them. When he was a student, he complained to a friend that, “Every time I ask Oppenheimer a question , he always gives me an answer that I do not understand at all.”

Someone who knew Oppenheimer better than him said, “That is because he is not answering your question. He is answering the question you should have asked.”

Hempelmann: Yeah. [Laughter]

Sherwin: This was in the student-teacher relationship. He was right on top of things.

Are there some warnings you would like to give me or some sense of how to deal with the situation between Robert and Kitty, knowing it as you do?

Hempelmann: I just do not know what to say. She was very bright herself, you know. She had a Master’s in mycology, which is the study of—not fungi, but—

Sherwin: Bacteria?

Hempelmann: No. Well, fungi is okay. She was very bright and very competitive. She would compete with him really, would finish his sentences and things like that. It never seemed to bother him.

One other thing that you might be interested in. I do not know if his parents were born in this country or not, but he was very Old World and very courtly. If a lady sitting near him got out a cigarette, he would jump up with his lighter and come rushing over. He would push chairs, seat the ladies. He was really very, very old fashioned. He had Old World manners, really. He would almost overdo it at times.

Peter has some of the same things. He would jump up and do it, too.

Sherwin: Was Peter very close and admiring of his father, or was it in the nature of things that it was so difficult that he could not?

Hempelmann: When he was young, he was. Also, he would do things like make the drinks, and he would show off how he could fall or something like that when he was a certain age when kids do that. Then during this difficult period, he was not close to anybody, not even his father.

Sherwin: The difficult period runs from what, in Peter’s ages?

Hempelmann: When he was in his middle teens, I guess.

Sherwin: This was after the hearing?

Hempelmann: I suppose so, yeah.

Sherwin: Fourteen through eighteen, that kind of thing. The high school years. What kind of father was Robert in this sense of time?

Hempelmann: He was very loving. He did not discipline the kids. I think Kitty did all of that.

Sherwin: Did she over discipline Peter?

Hempelmann: I would not be surprised.

It sounds like we were in almost daily contact in really a very important part of their lives, but we were not. Months would go by, and we would not hear from them or they would not hear from us. But it was just during these periods of crises when we would see them quite a bit.

They had more trouble during that period than we did, of course. I mean, normally you would expect the younger person to go to the older ones. We needed help often, but we did not need the sort of help they could give us.

Sherwin: They had their share and more, that is for sure. What would you identify as the various crises? I know, of course, the hearings.

Hempelmann: That was preceded a long time. They did not know what was going to happen. I suppose after he had his conversation with [General Leslie] Groves—

Sherwin: With [Lewis] Strauss.

Hempelmann: Not Strauss. Well, this thing about that fellow out in Berkeley, [Haakon] Chevalier.

Sherwin: Oh, that, yeah. Go ahead, tell me what you know about that.

Hempelmann: Well, he was always conscience of being followed. Sometimes we would be sitting in a hotel room or something, he would say something, and then he would make a statement for the record.

Sherwin: This was during the Los Alamos period?

Hempelmann: No, after that.

Sherwin: Is that right?

Hempelmann: Yeah.

Sherwin: Could you try and zero in on that? Do you remember when, an example of that? After the war, he was aware that he was followed? I know for a fact that he was. I have seen some FBI stuff on it.

Hempelmann: I just remember most vividly one time being out in Santa Fe with them. My wife and I were sitting in their hotel room, I think.

Sherwin: Do you remember which hotel in Santa Fe?

Hempelmann: I think La Fonda.

Sherwin: I stayed there.

Hempelmann: But he would make a statement, then he would say, “I hope somebody hears this, or something like that.”

Sherwin: Turning his head toward a microphone that he assumed was around?

Hempelmann: Yeah. Then walking down this road, and he gave us this sense that he thought that people were actually trailing.

Sherwin: This is in Santa Fe?

Hempelmann: Yeah.

Sherwin: Do you remember if it was ‘45, ‘46, ‘47?

Hempelmann: No.

Sherwin: Was it before he was at the Institute or after?

Hempelmann: I think it was before.

Sherwin: So it had to be somewhere between November of ’45, when he left Los Alamos, and ’47, when he went to the Institute.

Hempelmann: I think it was probably before October of ’46, because I do not think we had our house out there. We lived up at Los Alamos during the war. At first, it was lots of fun, but then as things wore on and everybody got tired, tense, and irritable, it was not so good.

Also, everyone was living in each other’s pockets. You would play with the same people that you worked with. A friend would ask you out to dinner. You would not have anything else to do, but you just did not want to go. They would know if they drove by your house, they would see that your car was still there. Everybody knew everything about everyone else.

I left in the spring of 1946. I was going out to Bikini. Then I was going to try to get back into academic life. I left Los Alamos in the spring of 1946, and the test was postponed about six weeks.

Sherwin: June of ’46?

Hempelmann: Yeah. So my wife and I went to Saint Louis, stayed with her family for about six weeks, and then went back.

Then during the summer sometime, they had some problems with their medical department, and Norris Bradbury asked me if I would come back there. I said, “I would come back for two years if we did not have to live up on the Hill.”

So we went. Dorothy McKibbin helped us find this house, which was about twenty miles north of Santa Fe and about twenty miles east of Los Alamos. We rented this place beginning October 1946. We rented it for two years and then on the day we left, we could not bear to part with it, so we bought it. We have had it ever since.

I would think that if we had had that house, we would not have been up in their hotel room. So it was probably before October 1946.

Sherwin: I see. So you used to commute every day after that, back and forth?

Hempelmann: Yes.

Sherwin: During the war, did you ever participate in one of those dinners or sessions down at the [Otowi] bridge?

Hempelmann: Oh, we hated it.

Sherwin: Tell me about that.

Hempelmann: Well, this was a very nice lady who was living with the Indians down there. She was a marvelous cook. We would never go there on our own, but we were taken by various people. The guests were so solicitous of Miss [Edith] Warner. We always had the impression that people were saying, “Oh, your salt is simply delicious, Miss Warner.” Everybody acted too beholden to her.

We did not like it, and we never went on our own. It was a great thing to do. It was almost as if you were expected to be honored to be taken there.

Sherwin: Did Oppenheimer—

Hempelmann: He was very good with her.

Sherwin: Did he sort of discover her and that place?

Hempelmann: I do not know who did, really.

Sherwin: And make it into some kind of a tradition?

Hempelmann: I do not know how often they went there. I think we went there with them once. I do not know how often.

Sherwin: Was it for dinner?

Hempelmann: Yeah. I remember during the summer of 1944, Kitty was pregnant, so she could not ride with him. So we rode over to their ranch over the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. God, it nearly killed me. He was on this horse that was single-footed and he was perfectly comfortable. My horse had to go into a hard trot to keep up with him. I think the first day, we must have ridden thirty to thirty-five miles. I was nearly dead.

But we rode down as far as Miss Warner’s house and had lunch under a tree. She was not there, but he knew her well enough so he could go in the yard and make himself comfortable. But he was very polite. As I said, he did have these courtly manners.

We stayed at a place called Cundiyo, which must be about thirty miles, in the house of the postmaster. The man was not there, but when we were riding over the mountains, we met him. Oppie was just so courtly with him and so gracious, as if he were the king of Spain. He was marvelous with his Spanish.

Sherwin: He spoke Spanish? He spoke French, German.

Hempelmann: I suppose [inaudible]. I do not remember ever hearing him speak Spanish.

Sherwin: He clearly could read it, but maybe he did not speak it. Did he spend much time during the Los Alamos period in this house that Peter now lives in [Perro Caliente]?

Hempelmann: No. He and Kitty rode over there sometime in ’43, I think. Or they took some sort of trip, I should say. Then in the summer of ‘44, we rode over there, and then I left my horse, then came back in a week and we rode back.

Sherwin: I see.

Hempelmann: My wife Elinor went with Kitty in their truck.

Sherwin: That is when she—

Hempelmann: Because she was pregnant.

Sherwin: When you talk about this increasing tension at Los Alamos, are we talking about the last six months before the war?

Hempelmann: No, the last year.

Sherwin: No, the last year.

Hempelmann: We were working a six-day week you know. I would not say a twelve-hour day. Some people were putting in twelve-hour days. We did not know whether the damn thing was going to work or not. Everybody was really uptight.

Sherwin: How would you describe Oppenheimer’s physical and mental condition during this?

Hempelmann: He was always so painfully thin, of course. He had chicken pox up there one time.

Sherwin: He did?

Hempelmann: He would not see anybody, because his face was all broken out.

He did not get sick very often. He was amazingly strong; he had a lot of endurance. He always looked so frail, really.

Sherwin: He lost a lot of weight during those years.

Hempelmann: I guess he did.

Sherwin: I guess he was thin to begin with. Again, you were not his doctor, per se. [James] Nolan was.

Hempelmann: If he could help it, [laughter] he did not have a doctor.

Of course, Jim Nolan and I were completely new in this field, and we did not know anything about public health medicine or anything like that. One of the dogs—this was in the very early days—began to act awfully queerly and sort of staggering around and everything. We thought maybe that he had rabies. We thought we should quarantine the place. So we went to Oppie to tell him about.

Incidentally, when people would talk about him, they would call him “Oppie,” but usually when they spoke to him, it was only “Robert.”

Sherwin: Robert, okay. I was going to ask you that question.

Hempelmann: So we went to him and said we thought we ought to do that, just to be on the safe side. He said, “Nonsense; he does not have rabies.” He just overruled us completely. Of course, he was right. The dog did not have rabies. We were just being young and being extra careful.

One other thing. While we are talking about Peter, did you read the [General Douglas] MacArthur book?

Sherwin: The [William] Manchester?

Hempelmann: The American Caesar.

Sherwin: I have not. I read an excerpt from it in Harper’s, I think.

Hempelmann: It is overwritten for me, every detail. It is 700 pages. It tells you more than you want to know, or it told me more than I wanted to know. His [MacArthur] child was not born until he was sixty-two years old, and he was so solicitous of the child, and he would not let his wife discipline him at all. I thought when this first started, I thought, “I wonder what is going to happen to this boy, in the shadow of this very powerful man.”

Sherwin: Do you know what he is? He is a general just like his father.

Hempelmann: No.

Sherwin: No, it is [General George] Patton’s son.

Hempelmann: He changed his name, moved across the island, Manhattan, and concentrated on his music. Whether he plays or not, I do not know. But he just went into complete hiding. I could not wait until the end of the book to find out.

Sherwin: Find what happens. Do you think that there is some kind of analogy with Peter there?

Hempelmann: Sons of famous fathers have a hell of a time. 

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.