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Verna Hobson’s Interview – Part 2

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Verna Hobson worked as a secretary to J. Robert Oppenheimer during his time as director of the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton. Her tenure as secretary coincided with Oppenheimer’s security hearing by the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC). In this interview, she discusses the impact of Oppenheimer’s AEC hearing on his life at the Institute. She expresses frustration with the strategy adopted by his legal team, which she felt was far too lax. Hobson recalls how Oppenheimer navigated the often heated internal politics at the Institute, and his relations with the Institute’s professors and fellows including Albert Einstein, Oswald Veblen, and André Weil. She also gives her account of Oppenheimer’s distinctly poetic writing style.

Date of Interview:
July 31, 1979
Location of the Interview:


Martin Sherwin: Was there a lot of effort to trying to figure out the psychology that the people who were sitting in judgement [at J. Robert Oppenheimer’s security hearing] would have? That “They will probably be thinking this, so therefore we should do that?” Do you recall any of that?

Verna Hobson: No. I remember that after the first—they came back, I suppose, the weekend in the middle of the hearings. I think they had a few days, and then they came back, and then they went to Washington again for the rest of it.

What came out then was, that the only member of the Gray Board that they felt had any sympathy at all was [Ward V.] Evans. The others were closed minds and the enemy.

Sherwin: So was there any discussion of what to do in such a situation?

Hobson: No. I think by that time it was all rather, “Here it is, we have to live through it.”

Sherwin: What was Robert’s condition at the time?  

What was your impression of him, both physically and mentally? Did he look like he was holding up well?

Hobson: He looked as though he were holding up very well indeed. He had that fantastic stamina that people often have who had recovered from TB. Although he was incredibly skinny, he was incredibly tough. No, he held up very well indeed.

Sherwin: Was [Lloyd K] Garrison over at the house that weekend, or did he stay in Washington, or New York?

Hobson: I cannot remember if this was that weekend, but I remember a weekend that was either that weekend or the one just before, when Garrison was there and lots of people were there. Some of my cousins-in-law came to lunch. I had to leave after lunch to go. It was Saturday, and I could not make what seemed to me a reasonable or understandable excuse to my cousins for walking out on them like that.

But I know that it was very close to that time, because after the thing broke in the papers I had a letter from Isabelle saying, “Of course now we know why you could not stay.”

That was a big gathering, both down at the office and up at Olden Manor. And Garrison was definitely there.

Sherwin: What went on at that get-together?

Hobson: I think Garrison was still setting the tone of soft-pedaling. One of the things that I still feel outraged about is that after the whole was over, he made a speech about how kind the opposition had been. I mean, it was such utter nonsense, but the need to keep one’s cool and keep one’s courtesy.

Sherwin: Gracious. I think that speech—it was his closing remarks.

Hobson: Yeah.

Sherwin: But before the decision was handed down.

Hobson: Right.

Sherwin: There was a lot of activity in Princeton during this time. There was a fund that got started by, I think it was [Robert] Strunsky. Did you know him?

Hobson: Yes.

Sherwin: Was one of the two co-signors. He told me it was essentially a bank account, which really never got used.

Hobson: I think this must be the same one that I remember. The way that it came about was, that we had the most fantastic floods of mail. A lot of people sent money.

Sherwin: After?

Hobson: Yeah, after it broke.

Sherwin: After it broke.

Hobson: A lot of people sent money saying, “We know you must have had heavy legal expenses.” I guess we did not know what to do with it except put it in a fund, and I do not know whether that was used. Garrison’s firm did not charge anything for their time. But they did charge out-of-pocket expenses, and those were pretty heavy. I cannot remember how much now, but several thousand dollars certainly.

I don’t think that that fund ever got to be more than, oh, maybe two thousand. But maybe that was turned in against that. I do not remember that. But I think that would be right. I think they probably decided that it would be rude to send the money back, but did not quite know what to do with it. I think they would have asked Strunsky, who was a friend, and somebody else, to be the trustees for it, thus showing that they were keeping it clean.

Sherwin: Do you recall what was going on at the Institute [for Advanced Study] at the time?

Hobson: Yes. The place was absolutely stunned when the news broke, and there was a lot of rallying around. The faculty all got together and made a statement of support.

Sherwin: Do you remember any particular faculty members who were more in evidence than others?

Hobson: Well, some of them were very, very close friends of the Oppenheimers. You must have spoken with Harold Cherniss, for instance?

Sherwin: Cherniss, yes, I did.

Hobson: I would say that he and Francis Fergusson are probably Robert’s oldest, closest friends.

Sherwin: And Paul Hogan?

Hobson: Yes, although I never met him, so that shows that he was not seeing all that much of Robert for that. Although I guess Robert saw him when he went West, but not in Princeton. But Cherniss he would see like every day, practically.

Sherwin: In fact, I think that Cherniss was the other [trustee] with Strunsky.

Hobson: That’s very probable.

Sherwin: The other caretaker. Among the scientists, who was closest to [inaudible]?

Hobson: The physicists were then [Freeman] Dyson and [Abraham] Pais and [Chen-Ning] Yang, George Placzek, who died soon after that. Very close. He was not a professor, he was a permanent member. It was a small faculty. I am forgetting somebody. Oh, the Emeriti. [Albert] Einstein. That was an interesting exchange between Einstein and Oppenheimer.

Sherwin: I don’t know about that. Einstein died in ’55.

Hobson: Yeah. When after the thing broke, it was probably a Saturday, midday, and Robert and I had been in the office. I was going to drive him up to his house in the Rolls Royce. When we went out to the parking lot, Einstein suddenly appeared, and came up and wanted to talk with Robert. So I went and sat in the car, out of earshot.

They talked for perhaps five minutes. Then Einstein turned and went back into the building, and Robert came and got into the car. We started out and Robert said, “Einstein wants me to—.” This makes me think now. Was this before? Would Einstein have known? He must have. I believe this was before the hearings. Oh boy, I had better try to track that down.

Anyway, Robert said, “Einstein thinks that this attack on me is so outrageous that I should just resign,” that “I should just resign and say if you do not think any better of me than this, to hell with you.” He said that, “Einstein does not understand.”

I wrote that, and I wonder whether I remembered better when I wrote it and whether I made a reference to when it was. When the letter of charges came in, Robert had two choices. One was he could just resign.

Sherwin: But that was to resign quietly.

Hobson: Right.

Sherwin: And he was very much afraid it would then be leaked—quite correctly. He was afraid it would then be leaked, and it would look like he was guilty and had slunk out the back door. Or he could fight that.

Hobson: Yeah.

Sherwin: Now, you say you wrote that. Did you write this up somewhere?

Hobson: Do you know the Princeton Historical? This was its first issue. It is an annual, I think. I think I have got a copy right here.

Sherwin: Oh, terrific.

Hobson: This is actually the first thing I ever had published. I did not want to do it at first and my son said, “Come on, years have gone by, you can talk, you can do it.” So I did.

Sherwin: Is this an extra copy that I could borrow? Or is this your only copy?

Hobson: I will have to check.

Sherwin: What I could do, if I might borrow it and send it back

Hobson: Yeah, I think if you do not mind, yes you can certainly borrow it, but I would like to have it back.

Sherwin: Okay, great.

Hobson: It has got a stupid misprint in it. In fact, I think I corrected that in a copy. They left out a whole line, which makes a nonsense out of the paragraph. It’s in the back somewhere. Yeah, I said it was before the hearings. 

Sherwin: Have you written anything else about Oppenheimer?

Hobson: No. 

Sherwin: Do you know if Einstein ever involved himself with Oppenheimer and the hearings again, after this?

Hobson: I don’t think so.

Sherwin: Did Robert Oppenheimer ever look back and mention to you Einstein’s comment?

Hobson: No, I don’t think so. They were not in any sense close. I think he [Einstein] was already Emeritus when Robert came to the Institute. Not that being active faculty really involved one all that much anyway. They did not have any faculty meetings or things like that.

Einstein was a loner in his work. He liked to work with an assistant, but he did not sit around and talk physics with other physicists the way most of them do.

Sherwin: Did Oppenheimer ever say anything about his evaluation of Einstein or anything about Einstein to you?

Hobson: Yes. Although where did I read just recently a quote of something Robert said—not to me—about him? Oh, it was this Einstein statue that is to go up in Washington. Robert was quoted as saying to the sculptor at the time of the sketch or whatever: “Einstein is one of the most audacious men who ever lived, and you have made him look like a sad, tired old man.” That is not word perfect, but it is something like that. Oh, he had plenty of respect.

Sherwin: That is very interesting. There are both sides of those things. There’s a collection of Oppenheimer correspondence from his youth coming out by Alice Kimball Smith and Charles Weiner for Harvard Press. I think it will be out this fall. This is going to send the Einstein fans into a tailspin about Oppenheimer.

There’s one quote in it where Robert is writing to Frank in about 1936 or 1937. He makes a swing through Princeton and he meets Einstein. He writes back to Frank and says, “Einstein’s cuckoo.” He’s sort of characterizing all of Princeton, and he says that “Einstein’s a cuckoo.” You can imagine what that’s going to do to [inaudible]. Of course, he had some extraordinarily interesting and eloquent things to say about Einstein, in public addresses, [inaudible], things like that.

Back to the hearing period. Is there anyone else who passed on advice, either similar to the advice Einstein suggested or other kinds of advice, to Oppenheimer that you were witness to or you know about?

Hobson: It must have been thousands.

Sherwin: Yes.

Hobson: Thousands. And a lot of the letters had advice in them, too.

Sherwin: What happened to those letters?

Hobson: They should be in the Library of Congress with the rest.

Sherwin: Probably just a collection that I didn’t get to. While I am asking about letters: the Institute papers, the stuff that is in the Library of Congress is Oppenheimer’s personal correspondence minus stuff that was sorted through. Were you with him until he died, or until shortly before?

Hobson: I stopped working for him when he retired.

Sherwin: Which was ‘65?

Hobson: Which was ’66 in the summer, and I did not leave—I, to my astonishment, found myself working for his successor for six months. Then I left Princeton in January, and he died in February. But when he told me that he was going to ask the trustees for early retirement, it was by then about two years after my husband’s death. In fact, this was an occasion in which you do not know what you think until you hear what you say.

I said to his information to me by saying, “Oh well that is when I shall leave Princeton.” I intended to go in the summer, to come to Maine for the summer and then go to London in the fall.

But [Carl] Kaysen had trouble finding a secretary, and he twisted my arm and twisted my arm, and Robert and Kitty said they saw no harm in it. I finally ended up staying on with him until Christmastime. Then Robert had another secretary, who was still working at the Institute.

Sherwin: Who was that?

Hobson: Liz—oh my goodness. It will come to me. She works for one of the professors there now. Very nice woman.

That was strange. I suppose one reason I stayed on was because by then we knew he was sick. In fact, he did say just a week or two before I left, he said, “You must go now.”

I don’t know how specifically he said it. But I knew that what he was saying was, that he was dying soon and that if I did not go then it would be so difficult for me to leave Kitty that I would never make it.

Sherwin: Were you very close to Kitty?

Hobson: She was by then very dependent on me. Yeah, very.

Sherwin: So in a sense, you really had to get away to preserve your own life?

Hobson: Right. And having been recently widowed myself, I do not think I would have been strong enough to hold her hand. We knew it would be a great dramatic performance. I do not think I could have taken it.

Sherwin: Yeah. In terms of back in 1954, the bare outline of the facts of the hearing, I have been trying to fill those out with as much human understanding as I can possibly bring to it. Let me put it another way. If you were my editor, knowing what you know, what would be your strategy for this period? What would you suggest in terms of the kinds of things that I go after?

Hobson: I think in this case that the documents themselves are a good and true source. The ones that were produced from the Oppenheimer end were worked over incredibly hard. Drafts after draft after draft. A really painful attempt to be as clear and as true as possible. So I should think they are better than people’s memories.

Sherwin: Now you mean specifically the letter in response to the charges?

Hobson: Well that, and then there were other things. There was the brief statement that Robert made to the press after the end of the case. I cannot think how many hours he put into that, which if you remember was in effect saying, “Let’s not have this break up the house of science.”

Sherwin: Did he do that all himself? You say there were drafts. Who read the drafts?

Hobson: The way he worked was—depending on the length of things—he would think and he would make some notes, and then he would dictate. And he could dictate in rounded sentences and paragraphs for an hour straight. Just when your wrist was about to give way, he would say, “Let’s take a ten-minute break,” and then come back and go on again.

In the case of these documents about the hearings, it was Kay Russell who did that part and typed it up, double space or even triple space. Then he would go over it. It would probably be retyped from that, and then Kitty would go over it. Kay did a lot of editing herself. I used to do some.

He would not always accept the editing. He never accepted the editing of a comma from anyone outside his own family, things that got published. They would send him galley proofs and he would send it back with every single comma put back where he had had it.  

Sherwin: He had a thing about commas?

Hobson: He had a thing about semicolons. He had a very strong sense of style. I used to try to un-Germanize it. After a while, he asked me not to.

Sherwin: Did he ever talk to you about writing and rhythm? Why he spoke and wrote the way he did?

Hobson: I think maybe that one time he said, “I can see what you are doing here.” I think he said something like, “I do have German ways of thought and writing, and they are mine,” or something like that. He had a very intense relationship to the written word. He probably had read more poetry and could quote more poetry than most people you meet.

Sherwin: He also had written a great deal of poetry. I have gotten hold of some very early poems of his. Some of them are extraordinary. If he hadn’t such a good head for science, he no doubt would have been in an English Department, or out writing one way or another.

My sense of Oppenheimer’s style is that it is very much related to a poet’s sensibility. I think that is why I was very interested in your comments, and your comments about commas, because rather than following a set of grammatical rules, I think he was following, when he used commas, a certain melodic rhythm that was something of a poet’s prerogative.

I have never quite done this yet, although I might at one point, take some of the speeches that he clearly worked on carefully, and move the sentences from writing to poetry and see if more or less everything works out. I will bet you will find a lot of paragraphs where several of the sentences do fall into that. A very unconscious way of doing it. Did he ever talk about poetry to you?

Hobson: He would very often use a poem to express. It must be Herbert Marks. When he died, Robert wrote to Anne Marks a letter that he showed me. This was a letter that he did write in his own hand. instead of dictating it. He had quoted a poem and it was a Gerard Manley Hopkins, and I cannot remember the poem now. He used poetry in that way.

Once when he was very angry with André Weil, the mathematician, he asked me to copy out—it is one long Proustian sentence from the Cities of the Plain. It is about—what is her name, the lesbian daughter of the musician? It goes something like this, “She had not understood that final and unforgivable cruelty which is the inability to care about the suffering one causes to others.” I think I got it right.

But it was the way that he could channel, could control and could deal with his anger was to find a way to say it. In this case, somebody else’s words.

Sherwin: This is another subject that as long as we are on it, lest I forget to ask. Running the Institute, and the mathematicians, I gather that there were frequent differences of opinion with the mathematicians at the Institute.

Hobson: The mathematicians at the Institute have succeeded in unhorsing every director except Robert, and they came very close to unhorsing him. They are the biggest school. They are the closest to covering all fields of any of the schools. They are so jealous of their prerogatives. They feel anything that is not mathematics is downgrading mathematics. They would object to proposed appointments in the School of Historical Studies. They had no business passing judgement on a historian.

Sherwin: Can you remember specifically?

Hobson: There was a flap over that. There was a flap over the guy who in the end did not come. They threw [Abraham] Flexner out. [Frank] Aydelotte was really just a caretaker-director; he was not there all that long. Robert won a signal victory over them, he really did. People who said that he was no good as an administrator or a tactician should look to that.

Sherwin: Who says that? After the Los Alamos experience, how anybody could say he was no good as an administrator—

Hobson: Oh, lots of people said that.

Sherwin: This was during the Institute days, people criticized his directorship?

Hobson: Uh-huh. Probably mathematicians. Then the whole thing blew up of course with his successor, with Kaysen. Did you follow that?

Sherwin: With the [Robert N.] Bellah situation.

Hobson: Yeah, well that was just it. It was the same fight with a different man. This time Kaysen was not wise enough or strong enough, and they got him.

Sherwin: In a sense, it struck me as it was almost too strong. As I understand, what Kaysen did was that the mathematicians objected to Bellah’s appointment, arguing he wasn’t the right quality and sociology isn’t of any interest anyway, etc. Kaysen just said, “The hell with this,” and appointed Bellah anyway.  

Hobson: Well, he had the right to. The mathematicians had no veto over any of the appointments except in their own school.

Sherwin: But then it just became so bad that he resigned.

Hobson: Uh-huh. I don’t think he could function there anymore.

Sherwin: Who were the biggest troublemakers for Robert?

Hobson: Oswald Veblen, André Weil, Deane Montgomery. I think that they were the three most.

Sherwin: Did they have a different sense of what the Institute should be and how it should function than Robert had?

Hobson: No, they wanted everything for mathematics. Robert was very, very strong on trying to mix the schools and to get people to talk to each other, people of different disciplines. He even tried to do things like mixing up office buildings so that people would bump into each other in the corridors.

He never got very far with it, it’s an awfully difficult thing to do, but he did try. It was something that he thought could be fruitful. Of course, there was that one collaboration between an archeologist and a physicist on carbon dating, carbon dating shards from Turkey or somewhere. I think that was the first time it was really used for archeology.

Sherwin: I see.

Hobson: But that was really, as far as I know, the only time it ever really happened.

Sherwin: Do you recall any of the great battles?

Hobson: I recall one time when Veblen marched in and insisted on sitting in on a meeting. Robert told him he had to leave, and he would not go. So Robert adjourned the meeting and took the other people to another room. It was like little boys. It was very embarrassing.

Sherwin: This was after or before the hearings? Oh, it would have to be after, because he [Veblen] would not have been there.

Hobson: Right.

Sherwin: Was it late ’50s, early ’60s?

Hobson: It was probably early in the thirteen years I spent there. It was probably ’55, maybe.

Sherwin: What was the battle about?

Hobson: They were always about appointments in other schools.

Sherwin: I see.

Hobson: Veblen was a trustee. Not a voting trustee, but an honorary trustee.

Sherwin: Veblen was?

Hobson: Yeah.

Sherwin: As a result of being Emeritus?

Hobson: No, it was a special—I don’t know whether it had something to do with Flexner. I do not know. He was a difficult character.

Sherwin: Was he somebody who after a while wanted to unseat Robert as director?

Hobson: Yes. I think at first Robert had a great honeymoon with the mathematicians, because he was the first director who had been able to come anywhere close to talking their language. But then after a while, the old patterns reestablished themselves.

The Institute is an interesting paradise, ideal society. You remove all of the everyday frictions, and the frictions that are created to take their place are so much more cruel.

Sherwin: Is it something like somebody once said of the universities’ academia? He said, “The battles are so fierce because the stakes are so small.”

Hobson: Yeah.

Sherwin: Is that an apt characterization for the Institute? People have to assert their energy as opposed to their influence in certain ways. But you could look around all day at the Institute, there aren’t issues, so that if anything comes along that is potentially—one thing, I suppose, that really is an issue is where people vote on things. There is a difference between candidates A, B, and C, so you pick your horse and run very far with it.

Hobson: Yeah.

Sherwin: Did Robert, I gather, participate in all of the appointment meetings?

Hobson: Oh, yes.

Sherwin: Both for the annual faculty that comes through—

Hobson: No, he only went to the physics faculty meetings, for the temporary people. But the permanent people, very deeply involved. Yeah.

Sherwin: Did he ever talk to you or did you get a sense of what his vision of the Institute was, as compared to other visions that prevailed?

Hobson: He wrote an introduction to the little bulletin, which probably says that as well as anything. It is a very brief two or three pages.

Sherwin: Yes, I have read that.

Hobson: Otherwise, I would say that obviously it came up, but in so many ways. It pervaded so much. I used to calculate at that time that his directorship at the Institute took about a third of his time. Then traveling and making speeches, which often turned into publications, took about another third. Keeping up with physics took another third.

The directorship is not in fact a full-time job, or at least it wasn’t. He said when he was offered it that he would do nothing in the way of fundraising. Of course, it was not necessary then. But if you leave fundraising out, it is not a full-time job.

Sherwin: But now it is time and a half because of fundraising.

Hobson: I suppose. Yeah.

Sherwin: So he never, even by the mid-’60s, had any fundraising? Was there anyone else who took over that function?

Hobson: It did not exist.

Sherwin: Should it have existed?

Hobson: Uh-uh.

Sherwin: The Institute was not in trouble until about—

Hobson: Well it wasn’t in trouble. It did not need any more money until they wanted to form the new school. If it had stayed the same size—I don’t know. At that time, the portfolio was being very well managed and making lots and lots of money. I don’t know what has happened to that since. But if it had gone on at that rate, they would never have needed to raise money, and if they had not formed the other school.

Sherwin: The other school?

Hobson: The social sciences.

Sherwin: The social sciences. In terms of Robert’s dealing with the board of trustees, this became a particularly important aspect right after the hearing. The question was whether he was going to be kept on.

Hobson: Oh yeah.

Sherwin: Do you remember—

Hobson: Because [Lewis] Strauss, you see, was a trustee. I think the way it came out, I do not think that there was ever any question of their not keeping him on. But there certainly was a good deal of stuff that went on behind the scenes.

I do not think that Strauss would have actively tried to get him off there. I think Strauss would have liked to see himself as being magnanimous and saying, “He cannot do any harm at the Institute, do not take his job away from him.” But I think there was no doubt that there was a good deal of passion.

Sherwin: Were you privy to any of the behind the scenes?

Hobson: No, only as I might hear something here or there. But Kay Russell went to the meeting of the board that took place after the hearings. Mike Morgan took the minutes of the board. But Robert somehow got permission from the trustees for Kay to go. She took a full transcript of that whole meeting in shorthand. She had very good quick shorthand. I wonder what has ever happened to that. She certainly would have typed it up. God knows where it is.

Sherwin: One of the reasons I am asking you these kinds of questions is the question of the Institute papers. There are the minutes of the board—

Hobson: Well, it would not have been filed with that. It would have been filed with Robert’s papers. We certainly would not have made it a part of the Institute papers. They were quite separate, the two files. When I first started there, I did not realize how important that was. I used to make some effort to do cross-referencing between the two. But after a while, I realized belatedly that they did not belong together and that they would be separated in the future.

Sherwin: That is Robert’s personal papers and the Institute papers?

Hobson: Yeah.

Sherwin: How did the Institute papers break down? There are minutes of the board meetings.

Hobson: Uh-huh.

Sherwin: Were there minutes of faculty meetings?

Hobson: Well, there were not any full faculty meetings. Or maybe there were one or two, and there would be minutes of that, yeah.

Sherwin: Okay. Now how about departmental meetings? Were there minutes of those?

Hobson: There were minutes of those and the director had to get all of those, because they would include the decisions about who to invite. He wrote all the letters of appointment. Also, he had the right to attend those meetings, he just usually didn’t.

The biggest bulk of the Institute files is a file for every member, every temporary member, and of course a file for every faculty member. Then there are various administrative categories, all the financial statements. Then there would be special files on things like building the new library.

Sherwin: Now if I want to get a sense of Oppenheimer’s directorship, I want to write about his directorship, what are the issues that he faced, how did he go about doing it, how does one evaluate his administration of the Institute, etc.? Where do I go to find that out?

Hobson: Mike Morgan would have been a good person to talk to, but he is dead now. Kaysen.

Sherwin: Kaysen?

Hobson: Yeah. I have not talked with him since the big stink, and I do not know how that much may overlay anything he feels about the Institute. But he is very bright. He is very articulate. He obviously had a sense he wanted to be a director in his own way, but he had an interest in and a respect for what Robert had done.

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.