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National Museum of Nuclear Science & History

Margaret Norman’s Interview

Manhattan Project Locations:

Margaret Norman is the eldest daughter of Nobel Prize-winning physicist Ernest O. Lawrence. In this interview, Norman describes her father’s childhood, including the importance of her father’s Norwegian heritage and values, and how her parents met. She recalls what it was like to grow up as the eldest daughter of six children, and how Ernest passed his values on to them. She describes visiting the laboratory at Berkeley where her father worked, and finding out about the atomic bombs and Ernest’s involvement. Margaret also recalls her father’s friendship with J. Robert Oppenheimer, Edward Teller, and other scientists, and explains that he could never really relax because he was always thinking about science.

Date of Interview:
October 27, 2017
Location of the Interview:


Cindy Kelly: I’m Cindy Kelly, Atomic Heritage Foundation, and it is October 27, 2017 in Washington, D.C. I have with me Margaret Lawrence Norman, and if you could say your name and spell it.

Margaret Norman: Okay. It’s Margaret, but I go as Margie. M-A-R-G-I-E, but officially my father always called me Margaret. M-A-R-G-A-R-E-T, Lawrence, L-A-W-R-E-N-C-E Norman, N-O-R-M-A-N.

Kelly: Can you tell us when you were born and where, and begin describing what your parents were like and what you remember from your early years?

Norman: I was born on September 17, 1936 in Oakland, California. My home was to be in Berkeley, which was right next door. I grew up as the oldest girl, and it turned out to be six children.

I have an older brother, who has since passed away, Eric, John Eric, named after my Uncle John Lawrence. Then I came, Margaret Bradley. Then my younger sister, Mary, Mary Kimberly, and she has passed away. And then my brother Robert Don, and Don comes from Don Cooksey who was one of the members in the laboratory, my father’s first-hand man. Then there was a big jump, about eleven or twelve years, and surprise, surprise, so Barbara came into this world. Because there was another spot left, they figured, she needed somebody that she ought to play with, so we had another one, and that was Susie. So there was six of us all together.

As the oldest girl, I was kind of the typical oldest girl. I was the responsible one and followed the rules, and all that kind of stuff. Then as the kids came on, they all took their positions in the family. We ended up being a pretty happy family and a pretty boisterous family and a pretty noisy family.

Kelly: Tell us about your mother, let’s start with her.

Norman: As I told you just a few minutes ago, my father always said, “Your mother is far more intelligent than I am.” She was indeed a very brilliant woman. She started out to have a career in bacteriology. She was getting her advanced degree, her PhD, and Dad whisked her away. They had known each other since she was sixteen.

Mom grew up as the oldest daughter of four girls, and my grandfather, her father, was the Dean of the Yale Medical School. He was quite often bringing home young men to introduce his daughters to these young men. That wasn’t supposed to be the purpose, of course. They were just people he really thought were very interesting. But obviously, when you come to have dinner at somebody’s house and there’s four girls, you’re going to be introduced.

He brought Dad home one time, and Dad was about—I think he was nine years older than Mom, so she was maybe sixteen, so he was in his early twenties, I think. Apparently, he took one look at her, and I guess probably had some conversations with her or something too. Not a lot, because she was very shy, and apparently just said, “This is the person I really like.”


She was not feeling the same way. She was a sixteen year-old girl, and she was on her way to Vassar, and she wasn’t really interested in the man at that juncture. He was this older guy, tall, skinny guy, she didn’t think he was that attractive or anything. She would sort of try to stay out of the picture if he came. When Grandpa would bring other people home, and he was one of them, she would try to stay away from the situation.

But he tried to seek her out, and he would keep coming. Finally, I guess, one day, she was out on the bay fishing for clams or something, I don’t know what they do in Connecticut. But anyway, she was out there doing that. She had on this big floppy hat and looked absolutely terrible.

All of a sudden Grandpa’s out there, “Molly, come on in, come on in, Ernest Lawrence is here.” And she just was absolutely petrified, because she didn’t want to go again and see him, and particularly how she looked. She looked just like a scullery maid or something. She tried to stay away that time too, but I don’t think it worked. She had to come in to say hello, but then she made an excuse, she had studies or something to do, so she would sort of retreat, I guess. It was an interesting kind of a dance between the two of them, Mother trying to stay away from him and Dad apparently trying to get her. Well, finally he won, obviously.

When she finished Vassar, she had been also having classes at Wellesley because she was taking premedical stuff, too. At that time, doing that was a very difficult chore for a woman because they didn’t really want women in those kinds of courses. She told me the story once about how what they would do is there were two women, and Dr. Zinser was this very, very difficult professor – he was high expectations and very strict. But she was a very good student, but he didn’t like women being in the class.

When  it came to the time at the end of the semester or whenever it was for finals he says, “I want you women to go upstairs.” The two of them, apparently, they went upstairs, and he shoved a microscope in front of them—I guess it was a bacteriology class—and he started putting slides in there. He says, “What’s this? What’s this? What’s this?” And they were to tell him what the slide was.

Mom got one slide, and it was just all black, and you couldn’t really see anything. She thought, and she thought, and she said, “What is that?” She said it was a blastoma.

Then she guessed that was what it was—and I’m not using the proper words for it. But that’s what it was. He looked down at her, and she said, “He gave me a look that made me feel I am finally accepted, because I guess nobody else had gotten that right.” She felt she had done a very good job.

So when Dad said she was brighter than he was, I think he really felt that was true. When we would have to have help with our lessons or anything like that in junior high and high school and stuff like that he would say, “Go to your mother,” if he were home—most time he wasn’t. We got used to going to Mom.

We thought Mom was much more smart than Dad was, except we found out, “Well, I don’t know about that, because everybody seems to think he’s so smart.” We felt we were privileged because we had two very intelligent parents.

Kelly:  That’s great. Great story. Tell us something about your dad’s upbringing.

Norman: Dad grew up in a Norwegian family. His father was the son of my great-grandfather, who came to this country from Norway in the late 1800s because they lived on a very tiny farm, which we visited, my husband and I visited five years ago. It was essentially about two or three acres of grassland up high on the hills of Norway. To get there, you had to climb for probably about an hour. This was after wintertime, so it was full of slush and water and creeks and all that kind of stuff.

They were doing a play in honor of my father. It was written to describe how his grandfather had left Norway, and what the circumstances were. The circumstances were that this was a very small farm, and it could not support the family, and they didn’t have any money. Somebody had to leave, because they couldn’t keep enough food on the table to have everybody make it.

My great-grandfather, left with, I think it was his—was it his cousin? I think it was his cousin or his brother, I can’t remember which one. But they left and went to America. His mother was absolutely devastated. She was not feeling very good anyway, and she died within the year after he left.

Grandpa had a very Norwegian upbringing and passed that on to my father. The Norwegian upbringing basically teaches you that it’s very, very important to be a person who is useful. Dad kept saying, “For whatever you want to do, whatever you want to be, just be sure you’re being useful.”

That was the chore that we were all supposed to follow, not that we did it very well, but he certainly did. He ran his whole life, I think, based upon not money, not status, not power, but on the fascination of science and what he could do with science to be useful. Whenever he was asked to do something, by whether it was a nonprofit or a corporation or government or whatever, if he felt that was something that would be useful, that was something that was important, he would do it.

Now the good of that was, he was a person who did a lot. The bad of it was, he did too much. Because what he did is, he died way too early at a young age. I remember one example of that when, I think it was Monsanto Company, wanted him to be on their board of directors, and he was on lots of boards of directors and things like that. He said okay, he would because it was a chemical company and he felt that he could do a lot of good things for them.

 I was talking to Mom about it, and I said, “Oh yeah, Dad’s going to [join the Monsanto board], he said yeah.”

She said, “I wish he wouldn’t do it.”

I said, “Why?”

She said, “Because he’s just doing way too much.”

He said, “Oh, well, but Molly, it’s going to pay $15,000.” In those years, that was a lot of money.

Mother just looked at him. Mother was the bookkeeper. Mother looked at him and said, “Ernest, you don’t need that $15,000, because the government is going to get ninety percent of it!” In those days, that was true, literally.

Then he said, “Well, that’s not the important point anyway.” He just felt that he needed to do things that were going to be useful and important, and to help people, and to help the government and the help the United Stated of America. That was one of the sort of basic tenets of his life.

Another one that was often seen in the family situation was that the one thing that was just absolutely prohibited was lying. Lying was the biggest evil possibly thing you can do. If you lied, he would never—it was just like, he would look at you as if—he would just look at you like that. So very few people in our family are liars. It stood us in very good stead, actually, it really did. That’s a tenet that I’ve tried to keep living by.

Growing up with him as a father was not easy, because he was a man who never saw greys. He saw blacks and whites. “This is good. This is bad. This is right. This is wrong.” There was very little movement in behavior that he understood that you could look at in more than completely right or wrong or good or bad.

If you did something that he felt was not appropriate—an example would be, I remember when I was a teenager, and I was having boyfriends. Mom and Dad came home in the car when I was sitting in my boyfriend’s car in front of the house. We were necking, which means kissing, nothing else, just kissing. I saw the car, and they pulled into the driveway, and I just panicked because I knew my father would not approve.

I jumped out of the car and ran over and said, “Oh, hi, you guys!”

He looked at me, and his eyes just – he just looked at me and said, “Margaret, we are not guys.”

I went, “Oh,” you know, I was so nervous.

But that’s how he felt about things, that you must be upright, you must be honest, you must carry your responsibilities, you must do all these musts. He never spoke of them, but you knew.

My poor younger sister, Mary, who was a rebel, she was always getting in trouble. She stood up to him, though. Me being the oldest girl, I kind of knew, “Oh, okay, how do I handle this?” What I would do is, I just wouldn’t let him know some of the things I was doing. Mary, unfortunately, she would do things, and he would find out.

I remember one time, she had a bottle of wine underneath the seat of her car from a party she had gone to, and it rolled out from under the car when he got in to drive her car. Well, all holy hell broke loose, except for that was the other thing—no swearing. He never used bad language. He would say “Oh, golly gee.” “Oh, for heaven’s sakes.” I find myself saying the same kinds of things now—not that I didn’t go through a period when I was younger, where I was saying much worse things. But anyway, that was another no-no. It was kind of tricky growing up when he was home, but in a certain way, because he wasn’t home very often.

Mom was kind of the opposite. She was somebody who really could empathize, and she understood each of us in our own age as we were growing up. She could respond if we wanted to do something or if we got in trouble. She would let us explain what we had done, why we had done it, etcetera, etcetera, and we would work through it. But Dad, no. No. You knew, you either behaved or you didn’t let him know it, or you went to Mom and you hoped he didn’t find out. That was difficult.

But at the same time, he was so much fun. He was a wonderful father, in the sense that when he was home oh, did we get spoiled, oh my gosh. He would take us skiing, or he would take us to the fair, or he would do all kinds of really kind of fun things. It was like money was—we didn’t even know about money at all, because we never—you know, when you were kids in those eras, twenty-five-cents was a big deal.

We would go with him, and we would say, “Oh, we want one of those, or we want one of those,” and he’d get one. And we had no idea. Then apparently, he would come home, and Mother would see what he’d done, and she would say, “Ernest!” Because then she would get a bill coming in for like twenty-five, thirty dollars, or something like that. She would say, “Ernest!”

Then one time, it was hysterical. He had been to Yosemite. He was on the board of directors of Curry Company in Yosemite. Mom rarely went to a lot of the places that he was going to, she had her hands full at home. He comes back, and two or three days later this odd-shaped package arrives in the mail. And she said, “Ernest, there’s a package here for you.”

He says, “Oh, oh yes, oh yes.” I can’t remember whether he opened it, or she opened it.

But anyway, by the time it had been opened, this thing was put on top of the piano. I said “Mom, what is that?”

And she said “It’s a—it’s a—I don’t what you would call it.” But it was a wrought iron strange-looking thing where you had a bowl stuck up in it, and then you pushed the bottom lever and wine would come out.

I said, “What is it?” She told me and she explained it, and we went and worked it and saw how it worked. I said, “Where did this come from?”

She said, “Your father bought it in Yosemite.” [Laughter]

He was a little kid in many, many ways. He was just a little kid. He would see something, “Oh, that’s neat,” and so he would buy it. Not that he ever spent lots of money. He was very good with money, too. But he’d come, and he’d say, “Molly, what are the finances? How are things?”

She would pull out her book, and it had every penny was listed as to where the money had gone. And the checkbook, every check had its thing here. She could tell him day by day, month by month everything that had been spent and gone out. He would go, “Oh, my goodness.” He had no idea. Then he would go, “Oh,” he said, “I guess I better not spend money.” And he would.

That was another one of his characteristics, that he was always very rational. Rationality is another important thing in our family. When you know something, you know it. Like he told me one time, when I was in early high school or something like that. Because there’s so many of us in the family we didn’t travel much at all. We were all just Berkeley-ites, and San Francisco maybe a little, but we didn’t go anywhere. So I was really pretty much unaware of where things were in these United States of ours. He was always going back to D.C. or something like that.

I said, “Where is Washington, D.C.?”

He gave my one of those looks again, and he said, “Margaret, Washington D.C.—” and then he sort of pinpointed it by states about where it was. He said, “Now I’ve told you where it is, never ask me that question again.” Because he was surprised that, at my age—I was probably fourteen, fifteen years old—I really didn’t have a clue where it was. His thing was, you can always ask a stupid question once, but don’t ask it again. That was another lesson that we had to learn.

Life was interesting. But now I look back on it and I realize, he was really kind of an extraordinary person and had the ability to shift from where maybe I was really afraid of him in certain times to being the best father in the world. To being fun, to being giving, and to being accepting and all that kind of stuff. He was a good person.

Kelly:  When he was not with you, at least from accounts, he was going a hundred miles an hour. He was so intensely involved. How did he shift gears? Was he able to come home and put all of the frenetic energy that he—

Norman: We really didn’t even know what he was doing. For instance, all during the war when they were working on the Manhattan Project, and even before and after that, we didn’t know what was going on. We had no idea.

We did know that something was secret, because one of our favorite things to do with him was on Friday nights, every Friday night when he was home he would take the older one—most of my childhood was of the four older ones of us, because Barbara and Susie came so much later. With Dad, it was the four of us and Dad when he would come home. He would take us all down to the Telenews [Theatre] in Oakland which was, basically, a television news program now. You would say that’s what it was, and of course, it was all about the war. It was about the war, and then they had short subjects and stuff and things like that. That was a really a fun outing. Every Friday night, we really enjoyed that with him.

He wanted us, though, to understand what was going on in this world. That was one of the best ways to do it, because you were seeing visually. You were seeing the war. I’ll never forget some of the visions of the Nazi war camps and the crimes and stuff that were committed that you saw when the war was over. It was so horrifying that we really had a picture of what this whole war thing was all about and realized how horrible it was.

He had a funny sense of humor too, because they would also show sports clips. For instance, I remember this one where it had high jumping skiing, where they would come down these long ski things, and then they would go out. It was absolutely amazing. It was embarrassing, though, because when somebody would come down and go way, way out and then fall and go splat, and Dad would go, “Ha, ha,” he would just start laughing hysterical.

Then everybody else in the theater would turn and look at us, and here was this man there laughing. He thought it was hysterical. And I was thinking, “Dad, don’t you know that poor guy probably hurt himself?” But he just looked at what was happening. He thought it was so funny. So he did have a very kind of boyishness about him. People would comment about that. He always had a twinkle in his eye, and he always was up to something.

Of course, just totally into science. Into science to the point where he couldn’t relax. He didn’t know how to relax. He would come home—we had a house down in Balboa, and he would come down for a couple of days, and he was itching to get back to the lab. I mean, you could just tell. He didn’t know how to relax.

I remember one day, we were out on the beach. Dad actually got out on the beach, which was interesting. And what did he do? He cleared the top sand off, pushed all the sand back like this, got it down to the damper sand, and started writing formulas in the sand. I went, “Dad, you know, come on.”

He said, “No, Margaret, leave me alone, leave me alone.” He just loved it, absolutely loved it. He could not stay away from it.

As Mom said, she said, “I realized when I met him and when I married him, finally, I knew that science was first, and family and me would be second.” She accepted that, and that was always true. Anytime he needed to do something or be somewhere or meet with somebody, off he went. When he came home, he was there for a while, but then, boy, you could see he was itching to get back up to the lab.

It affected our lives too, because when we were kids, when we were old enough, when we went to the Telenews? Sometimes we never got to the Telenews because he would drive up to the lab to check in before we drove down to Oakland. We would get up to the lab. We didn’t mind it too much because he left us in the guard’s gate, in the little room where the guard was. The guard would be there, and we would talk to him, and he would play with us, and we had a good time.

But we would look at our watch and say, “Where is Dad? Where is Dad?

He [the guard] would say, “Well, you know, he’ll be back.”

He would leave us there for like two hours. And then by the time he would come out, of course, Telenews was too late. Then he’d take us all out for ice cream or something, so that was okay. But we spent I don’t know how many hours up in that guard’s room outside the cyclotron. But we knew that we couldn’t go in.

Eventually, it sort of dawned on us later that, “Something’s going on in there that we’re not supposed to know about.” Before the war though and after the war, we used to go in, we used to go in with him. He would talk to all the students. I was there when the put the Bevatron on up to—they broke through I don’t know how many millions of whatever it was that they were doing, but they broke, and they had a big celebration and stuff like that.

He included us in everything that we could be included in. But he wasn’t home that much, and when he was there it was, “Watch out what you do. Be careful, and then have fun.”

Kelly: He was plagued at the end of his life by colitis? Were you aware that he was suffering from an illness?

Norman: Yes. I knew. But you know, you don’t ever really know serious something is. You don’t know what colitis is. You don’t know what kind of pain that causes, or what that does to your life. He was an expert at ignoring pain or denying pain, or didn’t want anybody to know that he was not well. Again, wanted to be able to do everything that he felt he should do that was useful, that would help the country, that would help the nation. He, I’m sure, was doing things that were way far more than his physical ability was to do them. He would just deny to everybody that there was any problem, until it got so bad that he was on death’s bed really, and he had to get out of there.

At the very end, when he was negotiating for the arms treaty with the Russians, they had him locked in to a room where you had to go through doors to get to this central room, the negotiation room. It was all very secret and all very tight. I think there were three or four, I think, on the American team. There was Dad and there was this guy from—GE, was it? One of the contractors, I think it was. Anyway, they were doing the negotiations for making arms control. He, clearly now, I know, was extremely ill, extremely ill, and his colitis was just inflamed like that.

Probably by the time he finally died, Mother insisted upon looking to see—she, being a bacteriologist and everything—she wanted to see what his colitis looked like, I mean, how serious it was, whether there was a reason he had died. She just came home, and she told me, she said, “Oh, Margaret,” she said, “There was nothing left of his colon. Just nothing. It was just all gone.” He was playing tennis even sometimes, when apparently the doctors just said later they didn’t even know how he could play tennis because there was almost no circulation to his legs.

He was in very, very severe health problems. I remember, I graduated from Stanford in 1958, and that was not long before he died, about six months later. It was a blistering day, and he was home, and he and Mom came. I graduated cum laude, so they wanted to come and see too. Then they did, but they had to sit way up.

He never pulled rank. He never wanted to be given special favors or special anything. They were sitting way up on the hill at Stanford, and the sun beating down. I know now, he was miserable. We made it through the ceremony, and he never complained. He never said anything. But I felt so awful because he was dead three, four, five, six months later. I know that was a terrible, awful thing that he had to go through. He had dedicated his life to service, and died because of it.

Kelly:  He went to Geneva, didn’t he?

Norman: Yeah. It was well known in the medical community and in the Berkeley community that he was so dedicated to what he was doing, so interested in it, that nobody could stop him. It wasn’t like that he was stoppable.

As a matter of fact, when I was in high school, a man by the name of Fallis, he was the head of Standard Oil, and Dad was on the board, I think, of Standard Oil too. This gentleman was Mr. Fallis. I never met him until this particular event. He decided that Ernest had to get away, that unless we could get him away he was going to just keep on going and going and going and going. So he organized an around the world trip for him, for he and Mom. It consisted of going on one of the oil supertankers from New York across to the Near East, docking at Bahrain at the end of the Mediterranean Sea. I think it was about three months.

Fortunately for me—I felt very guilty, with the rest of my brothers and sisters. But in that case, I was a senior in high school, so I must have been fifteen or sixteen. I had a hot boyfriend at that time. I was a very good student and all that kind of stuff, but I kind of was coming late into the boy/girl thing. That was probably my first steady boyfriend, because I was always athletic. I was a tall drink of water, tall and skinny, and played all four sports. The boys weren’t too cool about a tall, skinny gal playing sports.

This was my first kind of main boyfriend. In the house in Berkeley, it was four stories. We kept having to turn everything into bedrooms, because as the kids—got more kids. It started out being like a two-bedroom house, and it ended up being a six-bedroom house. We didn’t add any outside space, we just kept taking any room we could find and made it into a bedroom. My bedroom used to be the top deck, and it was turned into a bedroom. Outside my bedroom, the other half of the deck was still there, and that’s where the ping pong table was. We used to go up there, groups would go up there, and play ping pong right outside my room.

One time, Dad came home, and we were up there. Roger and I were kissing on the bed, sitting on the bed. We weren’t in bed, we were sitting on the bed. We were kissing, though, and the other kids were out playing ping pong. He took, again, one of those looks at me where he just looked at me as if I—oh, I knew I was in trouble. He just told Roger to get out. Out he was to go. Didn’t even know his name. Never knew names of our friends. He knew the names of everybody else in the world that he was interested in, but never know the names of our friends. So he just said, “Out,” and he never wanted to see him again.

Then the next morning, after he left, Mom said, “You know, your father thinks you might come on this world trip with us.”

I went, “What? What?” I was a senior in high school. I said, “Yeah, but—.”

She said, “Well, would you like that?”

I said, “Well, sure, I’d love that.” The idea that Dad was going to leave me behind, knowing I was now becoming a woman in the sense of having a boyfriend and stuff, he was afraid to leave me at home. He decided that I was going to come with them. Well, my younger sister was furious, absolutely furious. That was quite an experience. I got the whole wardrobe of clothes, and Mother took me down to Magden’s, and oh, we had a wonderful time.

So we went on the trip, and it was a very interesting trip, and it was a great trip. He really did relax. He was forced to. But never relaxed in the sense of what a lot of people would call relaxed, because he was always doing something. Any place we got to, you know, out to a city or a place, he was always going someplace. He said, “Okay, we’re going to go to dinner, and now we’re going to do this, and now we’re going to do that.” All day, the day would be packed with activities. We didn’t have any spare time.

That was an interesting trip. I saw that though he did become, I think, a little bit disconnected from some of the science that was in his life constantly, I think that he was able to turn loose of it a little bit, but not a lot. But they took him out of it completely. That was probably in the beginning, more the middle, of his colitis situation, so it wasn’t as serious at that time. But I think it helped. I think it probably waylaid things for a little bit.

Kelly:  That was four plus years before he died. Did he learn from that trip that he needed to pace himself?

Norman: No.

Kelly: The next four and a half years were back to normal.

Norman: Yeah. Yeah. That was him. He couldn’t be any different. But the other thing too is that he was a family man, in the sense that he just thought Mother was the cat’s pajamas. She was a Connecticut, Eastern, reserved person. A shy person, basically, really. Very intelligent, very empathetic, very humanistic in many ways, too. But I think he just felt he had gotten the best woman in the world. He kept saying, “Your mother is a handsome woman.” If you would look at her, you—I’m not so sure what people would think. With today’s way we look at women, I don’t think she would have been considered pretty or cute, but I think she was a handsome woman.

She had a lot of character in her way of being and in her looks. I think she did stand out, and everybody loved her. Everybody liked Mom, even though she was quite reserved and stuff. But she was so good. She was such a good person that I think he felt that he had been the lucky one, that he went after the right one.

I think she loved him, too. I think she was a little overwhelmed by him at times. She would say, “Now, Ernest, you don’t need to do that, you don’t need to do that. Now, Ernest.” But I think she really loved him and respected what he was doing, and was very proud of him.

Kelly:  How long were they married?

Norman: Well, let’s see. They got married, it must have been 1933, maybe, ‘33, ‘32. I’m not sure when. Eric was born in ’34, so I hope it was ’33. Then he [Ernest] died in ’58. Actually it wasn’t that long in terms of years, but gosh, it was a long time in terms of—of course, maybe because I was a child. You know how when you’re a child, you think you’re growing-up period from zero to twenty is probably half your life? So that may be that because my recollection as a child, it seemed like forever that they were married.

When he died I was in New York on a training program, and I was shocked. I didn’t know. I cried all the way back on the airplane.

Kelly:  It was sudden? No one was expecting it?

Norman: I think the kids weren’t expecting it. I think a lot of people may have known. I think Mother knew that he was really seriously ill.

Well, the other problem was, you see, he couldn’t follow the medical advice, which was dietary primarily, a lot of it. He was a meat and potatoes man. He loved the big full dinner and drinks before and maybe something after. He certainly wasn’t an alcoholic at all or anything like that, but he liked his drink. He would come home for dinner, and before dinner they would have a drink, and that was it. And then he would have dinner, and then he would go back to the laboratory a lot of times at night. So, where was I?

Kelly:  I asked whether anyone expected him to die so quickly.

Norman: Oh, yeah. I think I knew he was really ill and all of that, but you never think your parent is going to die. It’s almost like you know, but when it happens, you’re not ready. I think that’s the best way to say it. I probably knew, but I wasn’t ready. I immediately flew home, of course, and there we were. He was too young.

Kelly:  How long did your mother live after that?

Norman: Oh, she lived years and years and years. She died in 2003. She was ninety-two. She kept saying, “I want to live through the millennium.” He was nine years older. He was born in 1901. She was born in 1910, so she was ninety-two when she died, and was pretty darn healthy up until the last year or two. She, unfortunately, fell and broke her hip, and that kind of led down the bad road. But she had a good long life, and I think they both had interesting and good lives. I think they both felt good about themselves and their lives.

Kelly:  If they could stop to think about it [laughter]. If your siblings were sitting where you’re sitting and were recollecting, do you think they would have the same image of your dad and mom?

Norman: No. Probably not. I think it has a great deal to do with the personality of the child. My younger sister, Mary, who had since passed on, she was the rebel. She and Dad sort of had a contentious relationship. She would probably say he was dogmatic, he was harsh, he wasn’t fair. She might say a lot of things like that. But that’s a different relationship, really.

The two younger ones, they wouldn’t have much to say because they were too young. Let’s see, I think they were six and eight or something when he died, something like that.

My older brother Eric, he had kind of a tough time in the family because he was—I don’t know how you would describe it. But he was the kind of person that just didn’t quite know how to act in a way to get positive reinforcement. He would say things or do things that would give him sort of, “Oh, come on, Eric, do this, or don’t do that, or no, that’s ridiculous.” He wasn’t very sensitive to other people’s impressions.

I also think he probably suffered from being Dad’s oldest son. I think that was difficult, because Dad’s expectations of him were quite different than Eric’s desires for himself. I think that created a real problem. Dad, of course, would have wanted him to be a scientist, and that’s the last thing that Eric wanted to be. Eric wanted to be a photographer. So that created dissention there.

But at the same time, Eric, I think, felt probably more than any one of us the importance of being his son. In other words, he lived his life, I think Eric did, in reflected glory. You know what I mean? He didn’t really feel that he had done much himself, but he would tell everybody about his father. So that was a difficult situation.

Kelly:  Did he become a photographer?

Norman: He did photography and did some newspaper stuff, but as a contract worker, not as that. He did some elementary school teaching. He never really did find out how to do something that I think he felt he would be rewarded for. I think he spent his life trying to please Dad, and therefore really couldn’t because he didn’t like to do the kind of things that Dad wanted him to do. He ended up doing what he wanted to do, but never taking it to the level which would have given him his own self-satisfaction. It was kind of difficult. It was really kind of difficult for him. The rest of us—Eric just was not quite with the rest of them, the next three. He had a different set of friends that were kind of the same way he was.

But myself and my next sister Mary and Robert, the three of us, we were all kind of the bumpy, running up and down, keeping the place noisy, having all kinds of friends over. The rambunctious, the Lawrence kids. We were known all over as “the Lawrence kids” because we were very active and running around doing things all the time, and collecting friends and collecting people and just doing what we want.

Mom was great in the sense that her idea of raising children was allowing them to do what they wanted to do, unless there was a real reason that they shouldn’t do it. We would say, “We’re going to go downtown, we’re going to do this, we’re going to do that.”

She would say, “Okay, when will you be home?” That kind of thing. I don’t think she ever said no. But of course, that was another funny instance. I forgot about that instance of growing up with Dad. Because he didn’t come home that often he really didn’t know what our life routines were, because he wasn’t there so much of the time.

One Sunday morning we were down in the kitchen asking Mom for—I think it was a dime or fifteen cents. We were going to walk downtown and go see a movie. Dad came down to the kitchen, saw what was going on, and he said, “Margaret, you’re not going to the movie today.”

I said, “Why not?”

“It’s the Sabbath.”

I said, “It’s the what?”

“It’s the Sabbath.”

He grew up in a very strict religious family, but he didn’t follow the religion in his own life, but he expected us to. I never knew it at that juncture, but Mom always had to get all of us up and go to Sunday school, get us down to Sunday school on Sunday morning. He didn’t go, but we had to go.

I finally got fed up with it. I think I was about nine years old, and we had to go to Sunday school, and then you could go into the church afterwards. We were Episcopalian. They were telling a story about the Bible and about Jesus parting the ocean, and Jesus doing this, and Jesus doing that.

I said, “You can’t part the ocean.”

She said, “Well, Jesus just parted the ocean.”

I said, “No, no, no, no, Jesus didn’t part the ocean.” This is the rationality of the Lawrence family. We just said, “No, that’s impossible, that’s not scientific, that’s not possible.”

She said, “Margaret, you have to have faith.”

I said, “No, I don’t. That’s impossible.” Well, that was it for me and Sunday school. I said, “Forget about this,” and I didn’t even tell Dad. But about that time I think it was that he finally decided that Sunday school was enough, we’d had enough Sunday school. We wouldn’t have to keep on going, and Mother wouldn’t have to keep getting up early and making breakfast and taking us down there.

That was another thing, that he still had that Norwegian traditions in his sense of what the world should be like and how people should act. Not that he was following them, but he felt that children should go to Sunday school, children should have religion, children should do all these things. We had to go by his wishes. Then he left, and we didn’t have to go by his wishes. We had the best of both worlds, I guess.

Kelly:  When you say he wasn’t there much, what was he up to? Was he at the lab? Was he traveling?

Norman: He was traveling. During those prewar and war years, he was going from place to place. Then you read the books, and now I know where he was going. He was going to D.C. He was going to Los Alamos, Tennessee. He was going to all those different places during the war, of course.

But then we also had some connection with a lot of that, but didn’t know what it was all about because Mom and Dad would often have cocktail parties. They were always of lab people and scientific people. Any scientist who came to the lab, Dad would call—if she [Molly] knew about it, she would know that he would set up a dinner or do something at the house, and she would do it.

Though every once in a while, she would get the phone call at 5:00. “Oh, Molly, so and so is here. [Hans] Bethe is here, or so and so is here. I’m bringing him home to dinner.”

“Oh, okay, right.” She would always come through. It was amazing. I don’t know how she did it. But she would figure out some really nice dinner that she would cook and get it done.

So we met and knew most of the scientists and most of the people. We knew the Russians. When they came, they came to our house for dinner, and we went out with them, I think it was over to Redwood Woods, or something like that. We were involved—only in a social way—knowing all those people. My childhood was populated with the people in the books.

But we were totally unaware until—well, that’s kind of an interesting story. The first A-bomb that was dropped—we, of course, didn’t know this was going on, had no idea. It was on August 8, I think it was. August 6? August 6. Dad’s birthday was August 8. If I can remember the gentleman’s name—Reg Tibbetts.

Reg Tibbetts was a gentleman who was quite wealthy, had a house in Orinda, California, which was about a forty-five minute drive from Berkeley. You would go out through the tunnel and come out the other end, which is east in Orinda. He had a really lovely house with a pool and a bunch of kids. So we loved to go out and see the Tibbetts, because they had a lot of kids too, and we would all go swimming. So Dad said, “Molly, I’d like to go out to the Tibbetts house for the evening—for the day, for whatever it was. The kids can come. We’ll all go.” We all went out there.

One of the fun things about the Tibbetts place is that this gentleman had communication systems for all over the world. He had clocks all the way along the top of his work area, which was quite a large room on the outside of the house, another area almost like where the swimming pool was. It had clocks from every country you could think of, all the main: Japan, China, France, England, Russia, showing what the time was in these places.

The rest of the room was filled with electronic—well, it wasn’t electronic then. I don’t know what you want to call it, but it was machines, communications machines. There were not only telephones, but ticker tapes things—what did you call those things? I can’t remember what you call them. But there was always, “Tst, tst, tst, tst,” where news comes in over a ticker tape thing.

He would get news from all over the world. He would send news all over the world. He had all this equipment there. I think it was all amateur type stuff. But then he had a huge antenna outside the house, so he could communicate worldwide.

We went out there. I guess it was the sixth of August. The kids were in the pool. I used to like to go in and sit and watch all the stuff going on in Reg’s room where the men were. As a matter of fact, I always used to like what was going on where the men were, because I figured they were where all that interesting stuff is. I would go in, and I’d ask Dad questions: “What’s this, and what’s that, and what’s this, and what’s that?”

All of a sudden, there was a “Whoopee!” and a screaming and a yelling and a jumping around and stuff. The news had just come in over the ticker tape that the bomb had gone off, and that it was a success, and stuff like this. We still had no idea what in the world they were talking about. I can’t remember how it was all explained later as to what it was.

Oh, I remember. Somebody asked Dad, “My God.” Maybe it was a reporter had called. Oh course, the reporters were after him like crazy as soon as that bomb was dropped. I don’t know if it was on the phone, or whether it was out at the Tibbetts place or what, but they found him, and they said, “How many do you have?”

He said, “Well, that’s one.” That’s all he said, because of course they didn’t want people to know if there was more than one. So that was Hiroshima. He said, “That was one.” Of course, we all know now there was another one. But the whole point was, that there were not a lot of stored bombs waiting to be blown off. The hope obviously was that that first one would end the war.

That was the other thing that Dad was very, very clear about in this later period, when we knew about the atomic bombs and stuff like that. Because I asked him, because I was going to Stanford, and there were a lot of people at Stanford who were opposed to the whole idea of what had happened. I really didn’t know what to think. I had to feel that it was good, because my father was so involved in it. But I remember having discussions with him when I could come home from school, Stanford, a couple of times. I said, “Dad, how do you feel about this?”

He said, “You know, Margaret, this is the kind of energy that really have a positive effect in this world. The bomb,” he said, “It took a long time to figure out what to do about it. There was a lot of discussions.” Oppie [J. Robert Oppenheimer] was his best friend. Oppie was his best man at my parents’ wedding. He said, “There have been a lot of discussions about whether this should be dropped, whether there should be a test of it, what we should do.”

I said, “But all these people got killed.”

He said, “I know, that’s the hard part.” But he said, “I think this will end war.”

He really did believe that those bombs would make it so clear to the world that we just can’t have war any longer. Unfortunately, it’s probably he wasn’t right. But we haven’t had a nuclear war, but it doesn’t seem to me that we have solved the problem.

It was a tough time for all those us people, I believe, that were in on trying to make that decision. I think it was an awful decision to have to make. I felt ambivalent about it myself, and I still wonder, maybe we shouldn’t have done it. I don’t know.

Kelly:  That’s one conversation you can remember on point with your Dad. But then after the end of the war, there was the question of the hydrogen bomb. Do you remember how he felt about that?

Norman: I’m trying to remember. We knew [Edward] Teller quite well, the kids, we did. He was a funny guy. But we didn’t know any of the politics of that situation, I don’t think. We really didn’t realize the politics of the situation. But by that time, we were, as I say, in college. I was college age, so I knew there was a lot of politics going on. Then I began to learn about the politics of the situation, and who’s who in the zoo, who’s on which side and who’s on one side or the other side.

I think I became more and more convinced that, we don’t want to keep going on with bigger and bigger and bigger and bigger. I think there was a reticence among a lot of the community, that we shouldn’t develop the hydrogen bomb.

To be honest, I don’t remember whether Dad was still alive during some of that. I’m trying to remember the timeframe. But I remember something about him saying that what Teller was up to, and I think he put it in that term. Something, “Teller being up to this, this hydrogen bomb.”

I don’t think he felt terrific about it, but I can’t swear to that. But I don’t think he was necessarily in favor of it. I don’t know if he was against it, but I don’t know if he was in favor of it. My memory’s not good enough to say one way or another. But I know it was very controversial.

 Kelly:  Describe Teller. You said you got to know him as a child?

Norman: Oh, yeah. He used to read Dr. Seuss stories. Oh, that was hysterical with that accent that he had. Heavy, heavy, heavy accent. We laughed and laughed, because he was so funny telling those—he would tell those stories. It was a riot.

He was this kind of frumpy, chunky guy who would come down the chair and plop down and sit down and talk, and half the time it was hard to understand what he was saying. But he was kind of like a munchkin, you know. An interesting guy. You had no idea how intelligent some of these people were. They were just people. It’s only when you start reading the books you went, “Oh, my God. Oh, this and that and the other thing.”

Growing up, I think we kind of knew Dad was famous. We knew he was a physicist, and we knew that was really pretty complicated stuff. We knew all of that. But we really didn’t take it to heart in the sense of saying—we didn’t think he was famous. I don’t think we thought he was famous. We thought he was well known, certainly, in the community. When we went to school and stuff, we knew that the teachers knew who our father was. But I don’t think many of us ever traded on it. Except for Eric, he kind of traded on it. But the rest of us, we were too independent. That’s another thing too, was that we were brought up to be independent.

The other thing about Dad was—I forgot about this, because it’s so true—he was not at all a decision maker who made decisions based upon who he was talking to. In other words, if you were a woman, if you were Chinese, Japanese, Russian, whatever you were, if you were a graduate of Harvard, if you graduated from elementary school, whatever, if you didn’t, it didn’t make any difference. It’s what you were as a person, and what you knew, and what you could offer.

If you had intelligence and he felt that you were a good person, he would treat you just as well as he would treat the most famous scientist in the world. In other words, he respected people for their abilities and gave them credit for anything that they did. But he didn’t suffer fools. He did not suffer fools. As I said, if you asked a stupid question, don’t ask it again.

During the hearings, the Communist hearings, he went to bat for everybody when they tried to rack people over the coals. Martin Kamen was brought in front of the committee, and some of the other scientists were. Dad was appalled, absolutely appalled. He just defended his people like crazy.

Oppie, oh, my God. That was the saddest part of the whole story, when Oppie and Dad kind of split a little bit on a lot of the issues, the political issues. That was sad because they were such good friends, and they both respected each other.

I don’t know, at the end, whether or not things were mended or not. I wasn’t that close to what was going on. But I hope that was amended, because they were really best friends and both brilliant people and different people, very different.

I thought Oppie was strange, really strange, when we were growing up. He would be in the house too a lot, and he was just this kind of eerie guy. You would look at him. He’s tall, skinny, and sort of hunched, and his hands in his pockets and kind of looking around. I thought, “He scares me a little bit.” But apparently, he was really a nice person, but brilliant, I guess.

Dad was a country boy, in many ways. He was not a terribly sophisticated person but that was part of his charm, because he’d ask you any question that he wanted to know. He’d say, “Why are you wearing that?” He wouldn’t say something like this, but I’m just saying from the point of view if I— he would say, “Well, why are you wearing that scarf?”

If the scarf he thought was interesting, he would ask you that. For some women, that would be like, “You’re not supposed to ask me that, you know.” I never heard him being denied.

I know at the lab too, he would not feel reticent to ask questions of people who you would think that he wouldn’t want to suggest to, that he didn’t know the answer more than they did. For instance, when we were up at the lab one time, we were walking to the control room and Tom Ypsilantis, I think was there, one of the most intelligent of the graduate students. They were running some kind of an experiment. Dad said, “What are you doing, Tom?” Tom started explaining. Every time he would say something that Dad didn’t get, Dad said, “Wait, wait, what do you mean by that?” Here Tom was educating Dad, but that was fine with Dad. He didn’t have any problem with not knowing everything.

But his real goal was to keep learning, to keep knowing. He would put that in his brain, and there it would be, and it would stay. It was amazing, I think, how much he had in that brain. He remembered. Now, that’s scientific stuff. On this other part, no. He didn’t remember our birthdays, he didn’t remember our friend’s names. But he really did have a flair about not worrying about being not knowledgeable about things. If he didn’t know, he’ll ask.

I think my husband would say I inherited that, but it’s probably true. A lot of those things come down through the family. We all tend to be a little assertive, aggressive—assertive, not aggressive. Assertive people. We’ll ask questions that sometimes people maybe didn’t want to answer. I’ll say, “Well, if you don’t want to answer, don’t answer, but where did you get that scarf ,or where did you do this, or how did that happen?”

Kelly:  It’s interesting, because he had the rule for you, you could ask a question once. Of course, he had a steel trap mind, and he would always remember the answer if you asked once. Is what I’m getting here?

Norman: Well, I’m assuming he would. See, I don’t know that. I really don’t know that. I’m just assuming that. He didn’t ask of others things that he wouldn’t do himself. That was true too.

But his expectations of others—for instance, colleagues—were very, very, very high. When he was developing a color television tube, we had a house out in—what was it? Now I can’t remember the name of the place.

Kelly:  Diablo?

Norman: Diablo. They built this little lab there. He was having these engineers come out there all weekend, from 8:00 in the morning until whenever they were finished with what they were working on. When he was working on something he wasn’t working, he was playing. He loved it, absolutely loved it, and he assumed that everybody else that was working there was similarly in love with everything they were doing, and they didn’t have any families. They didn’t have any people who wanted them home for dinner. They would be loving to stay out here all night working on this darn color television tube, or whatever it was.

He was absolutely opaque in his understanding of what other people, what their lives were really like. He just assumed that everybody would be fascinated with the things that he was fascinated with.

Kelly:  Did you mother try to gently remind him that they may not be as enamored of this?

Norman: She didn’t have much control. She didn’t have much opportunity, because she really didn’t put herself in a situation. She never went up to the lab with us. It was always Dad took us up to the lab, so we don’t know what Mother would have said. I think she probably got the break, “Oh good, Ernest is taking the kinds, whew. I’ll have half an hour.” I don’t know whether she tried.

I do remember one of her sayings, “Now, Ernest.” I do remember that as being one of her sayings and one of the things that she would talk about, and how she would tell him to slow down and things like that. But they had another sort of thing between the two of them about child rearing and that was, you don’t discuss it in front of the children.

I have no idea whether there had big fights. They certainly didn’t have big fights, in the sense that you didn’t ever hear any. They never used bad language. They never criticized in front of us. If there was any kind of criticism or any kind of disagreements, they were keep behind closed doors. We didn’t know what their relationship was in that sense. I really don’t know how she handled him, or whether she could handle him. She couldn’t, in the sense of any visible reduction in the things he was doing.

We used to try and sneak and find out what was going on, because we knew things that had to be going on with Dad, because he wouldn’t tell us where he went, he wouldn’t tell us what he did. I remember one time, I opened the top drawer in his dresser drawer, and there were two brand new women’s watches.

I was old enough—I probably was four—I thought, “Uh-oh.” I thought, “Uh-oh.” So I pull these watches out. I said, “Dad, what are these watches, women’s watches”—because he had given mother a really nice watch—“What are these for?”

Turned out, he had bought them when he was on the aircraft carrier on the way, I think it was, to see some test or something. I don’t know what it was. But he had bought them there, because he had thought they were pretty or something. Never even thought about what he was going to do with them. I found them. I said, “Dad, you got two of them. One’s for me and one’s for Mary, right?”

He said, “Oh, I suppose so.” Once he got them I don’t think he cared what happened to them.

So I said, “Hey, Mary, we got two watches!” He was just funny about that stuff.

But the other thing too is, I also must say, he was totally faithful to mom. I remember the book that [Herbert] Childs wrote, on the biography of Dad, where he told Mother, very purposely told Mother, “Mrs. Lawrence. I want to let you know, your husband has been”—I don’t know what the words were, what he said. But the indication of what he was saying is, he could find no evidence of any kind of dilly-dallying ever in his life.

I think that he definitely was that kind of a person too, that he just did not countenance any kind of being funny around with women. Not at all. He was black and white. This is right, this is wrong. This is right, this is wrong. No grey. No greys.

He really was a very interesting person, who had, as we all have, flaws. But I think that his personality and his abilities and his ethics served him well. I really think that he is an example of success that is based on a very strong foundation—moral foundation, ethical foundation, intelligence foundation. I think that’s a model for success, and he did it quite well. 

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