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Verna Hobson’s Interview – Part 3

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Verna Hobson worked as a secretary for J. Robert Oppenheimer at the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton University. Her tenure as his secretary coincided with Oppenheimer’s investigation by the Atomic Energy Commission. In this interview, she shares her interactions with the Oppenheimer family. As Robert Oppenheimer’s personal secretary, she maintained close relationships with him, his wife, and his children. She provides insight into Kitty Oppenheimer’s personality, and how Kitty and Robert interacted with each other and their children, Peter and Toni. She recalls what Peter and Toni were like as children, and how she cared for Peter when Kitty and Robert were abroad. Hobson gives particular insight to her relationship with Kitty Oppenheimer, whose struggles with alcoholism and depression were exacerbated by Robert’s death. She recalls some of the stories that Kitty shared with her during this period, as well as her own personal recollections about Robert’s bout with cancer.

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


Hobson: One thing that used to happen to particularly interesting and sensitive papers was that Kitty would take them home, and then they would get lost. Lots of things went that way, including a whole batch of interesting tapes. It was very embarrassing because we had promised [Dean] Acheson that only one copy would be made, and we made two copies and we kept them. When he found out he was quite angry. And he asked to have the second set sent to him, and we were unable to locate the whole batch, which had disappeared at Olden Manor.

Sherwin: When you say “disappeared,” is that sort of they were squirreled away, or they actually were lost?

Hobson: What happened was that Kitty would get the papers all over the house. Then there would be a party coming up and she would bundle them all up and put them in a drawer somewhere, or in a box somewhere, or in the bottom of a dark cupboard somewhere. They would just never come to light again.

Sherwin: “Lost” is not a euphemism?

Hobson: No, no.

Sherwin: I see. Do you have any other clues for this particular [inaudible]? I gather you didn’t sort through the papers that went to the Library of Congress?

Hobson: No. What I did was, when I did the handover with Liz— 

Sherwin: Liz?

Hobson: Who was Robert’s secretary for the last few months of his life. I have got it covered over with the name of the Liz in London, one of the secretary’s I hired there. There is a “z,” a zed. I went through and got everything filed up-to-date, and I checked them through, but I think Kitty is the one who did the sorting.

Sherwin: Do you know anything about the relationship between the Robert Oppenheimers and the Frank Oppenheimers?

Hobson: Yeah. Kitty didn’t get along with them, especially Jackie. There was never really a rift. There was a very, very deep bond between Robert and Frank, very deep. In fact, in some ways, Robert was a parent as well as a brother to Frank.

Sherwin: Oh, absolutely.

Hobson: As I say, never really a rift. They corresponded frequently, all the time I worked for Robert. But I do not think they saw as much of each other as they would have done, if it had not been for Kitty.

Sherwin: Did you know Frank and Jackie [Oppenheimer]?

Hobson: I never met Jackie. I met Frank three or four times. 

Hobson: They’re in San Francisco, aren’t they?

Sherwin: Yes. Frank runs a—

Hobson: He has a museum, a science museum.

Sherwin: A science museum.

Hobson: Interesting.

Sherwin: It’s a marvelous place.

Hobson: He founded it, didn’t he?

Sherwin: I know, yeah. He struck me as very different than Robert, however. I’m checking this with you, to get your impression. I never met Robert Oppenheimer, so I only know a lot of this secondhand. But Frank struck me as very shy and introspective, and not particularly articulate, from what I have gathered. Certainly someone without the sharp edge that Robert had.

People who knew them both earlier, some people have even said that Frank was a superb physicist in his own right, and in certain particular respects even better than Robert. So the capabilities were there, but the personalities seemed to be quite different.

Hobson: I would say yes. Of course, Robert had the most fantastic—in stage talk, you would say “projection.” I have never met a man who projected the way he did. It’s not surprising that a younger brother would tend to become tongue-tied.

 Sherwin: So it was strained—

Hobson: That could perhaps have been that Kitty felt that Frank’s claims on Robert were a threat to her dominance. I don’t know. She never showed any claws toward Frank. What a strange person she was.

Sherwin: How?

Hobson: Just all of that fury and soreness and intelligence and wit. She was like somebody who has a constant state of the hives. She was just like this all the time.

Sherwin: How could she be so intense, in the context of her drinking? I am trying to come to grips with this and first understand it as best as I can of how it affected her, and how it manifested itself during the day. I understand that certainly as early as the 1950s, a bottle of whiskey could disappear by one o’clock. That is pretty heavy. Yet, did she function?

Hobson: She would get drunk sometimes, to the point of falling down and not making much sense when she talked. Sometimes get maudlin, and sometimes she would pass out. But so many times, I have seen her pull herself together when you did not believe she possibly could, if there was some reason to.

Sherwin: How did Robert deal with it? Actually, I know how he dealt with it. Did he ever talk to you about it, or to other people? Was there any effort to get her help?

Hobson: He was advised—before I ever met them, so it was before the hearings—to have her committed as being committable, as being that emotionally unstable. He told me this, and he decided that he would not do so, that he would take the responsibility himself. He would be her doctor and her nurse and psychiatrist.

Sherwin: Who advised him?

Hobson: He advised himself.

Sherwin: No, I mean who advised him?

Hobson: I do not think that he told me who, and I think it was before they moved to Princeton. He said that he had taken the decision with his eyes open and he accepted the consequences of it, and that that was what he was doing.

Sherwin: When you say “committed,” do you mean to send her to a hospital to try and combat her alcoholism?

Hobson: No. I did not take it to mean that. I took it to mean that she was so emotionally unstable that she was not capable of taking care of herself in an ordinary life. Of course, that did not exactly turn out to be true. Boy, the history of accidents. Do you know about that?

Sherwin: I know that she would fall down and break an arm, and she had broken ribs, etc.

Hobson: And motor accidents and setting fire to the house and waving guns around.

Sherwin: No, I have no—

Hobson: In the Virgin Islands, she threw a bottle at Robert or a glass object, which broke and cut a tendon in his foot. They had to get over to the next island. The doctor had to reach way up inside his leg to pull the tendon down and reattach it, or he would have been lame for life.

Sherwin: When was that?

Hobson: That was probably in the early ’60’s.

Sherwin: Tell me about the house almost burning down.

Hobson: She said that she had woken up and found the fire, and had put it out with the fire extinguisher. Somehow in the course of it, she cracked her giant emerald ring. She used to fall asleep smoking, and actually her bedding was always full of cigarette holes. I do not know why it did not go up more often.

Sherwin: Here were all of these potentially disastrous things going on in his house, in his life, every single day. They were on very thin ice, walking a tightrope. She certainly was as you said, just falling asleep and the house could burn down at any time. But yet there was no—as I understand it so far—active intervention on his part, no laying down the law, “Kitty, this cannot be done,” or whatever.

Hobson: Uh-huh. No, that is right. No, that is not the way that he was looking after her. I am not sure that saying it would have made any difference. There was one exception to that. Once she took an overdose and had to be rushed to the Princeton Hospital.

Sherwin: Overdose of sleeping pills?

Hobson: Sleeping pills, yeah. She took lots and lots of painkillers and sleeping pills and all kinds of pills. After that, Robert got Ruth and me to go and buy a box with a lock to put the pills in, and he would have the key and she could only have them by asking him. I do not think that lasted very long. It somehow or other did not seem to have any real meaning to it at the time.

Sherwin: Ruth being?

Hobson: Ruth Barnett, who was Assistant General Manager at the Institute [for Advanced Study] and a very close friend of Kitty’s.

Kitty invented something, which used to be called “Club.” It was Monday afternoons, and it was Janie Green and Nancy Tomlinson, and sometimes Anna-Greta Wightman and Ruth and me.

Sherwin: Wightman?

Hobson: Arthur Wightman’s wife. Yes.

Sherwin: All right.

Hobson: We would go on Monday afternoons. The rest of them would get there by the middle of the afternoon, but I would come after I got through with work at five. We would sit around and drink and talk. After Robert and Kitty went to Japan and they came back Kitty, started calling it “Crub,” and that is what its named remained [laughter].

Why was I launching out on that? Oh, just that that was very much a part of all of our lives, every Monday afternoon. Kitty went in for things like that. She liked ceremonies that took place regularly.

Sherwin: It was like the boys getting together on Friday afternoon, happy hour?

Hobson: Yeah.

Sherwin: Okay.

Hobson: Robert would not join that. If he came home while it was going on, he would go upstairs and go somewhere else.

Sherwin: Let me pursue the question of Robert’s dealing with all of that. You had characterized his Institute job as one-third the directorship, one-third speech-making, somewhere around one-third physics. But how would you characterize his life as a whole in terms of family, the time the family took?

Hobson: That changed over the thirteen years that I was there. The children were still children when I started. They spent a lot of family time together, talking, riding horses. A swimming pool came later, but I think they all spent quite a lot of time in the pool. I would say that it had a very strong sense of family, with both parents involved with the children. Then they grew up, and started being away at school and so on.

Sherwin: How were Peter and Kitty alienated from each other so profoundly? 

Hobson: Robert thought that, in their highly charged, passionate, falling in love, that Peter had come too soon, and that Kitty resented him for that reason. Robert also thought that Kitty had some confusions about her own sex and perhaps was never really going to like a male, or was going to have some resentment toward a male.

She was so different in her attachment to Toni. That was so profound, and seemed to be so purely loving and admiring. She leaned on Toni an awful lot and it was difficult for her in that way, but she wanted only good and happiness for Toni. She really was just intolerable with Peter.

He put on some puppy fat when he got to be eleven or twelve, and the rest of them were all very skinny. They were terrible snobs about fat. They thought that if you weighed more than seventy-five pounds, you were a fat slob. She used to make Peter’s life just miserable, the way she went on about it.

Sherwin: She would harass him, publicly humiliate him?

Hobson: Yeah, yeah.

Sherwin: Again, this is something that I need to get clear. When you say that Kitty had some troubles with her own sex, do you mean that Robert thought that she might have had lesbian tendencies?

Hobson: Possibly, or which can be quite different, she might feel that she was in some sense a man. But since she was not fully a man, she resented men who were. I do not think I ever asked him to spell out just what he meant.

Sherwin: If she was married to a man who was less prominent and less successful in the eyes of the world and everybody else that surrounded him than he was, would she have been somebody who totally dominated a husband? What was her relationship? Obviously she was a very strong woman, who was frustrated in many respects.

Hobson: Yeah.

Sherwin: Where did she fit into running the house?

Hobson: You mean, as Mrs. Oppenheimer?

Sherwin: Yes.

Hobson: She ran it with her hands right on the reigns all the time.

Sherwin: Was he henpecked in any way? That’s a silly way to put it.

Hobson: No, I do not think so. But another man might have been. Possibly there were whole aspects of Robert, which were—possibly there were some human parts to him that were not functioning particularly strongly. I don’t think he would have noticed if he had been henpecked. I wonder if that is true.

Sherwin: Was she a woman who, when you characterize her with a personality type, was she someone who when she was angry she yelled and when she was morose where she drank, in other words, somebody with very strong and very obvious passions? Somebody who was not repressed?

Hobson: Yes, I would say she was not repressed. On the other hand, she was very capable of controlling her emotions if she had to. For instance—I guess there were no pictures taken of this, I would have liked to see it—she described her turn as a witness at the hearings. She said that she had been grateful for the training she had received as a child in how to sit still and not fidget and not move your hands about. She was able to do that throughout. In that way, she had tremendous self-control. In fact, I guess she had very strong self-control, she just did not always choose to exercise it.

Sherwin: Would you say that Robert was perhaps the antithesis of her as a personality? He certainly was repressed as a child.

Hobson: He must have been, yeah.

Sherwin: Did he ever lose his temper? I mean, aside from a cutting remark. Did he ever yell?

Hobson: Not when I knew him, no.

Sherwin: So in that sense of what to do with strong emotions, they both handled those things in very different ways?

Hobson: Yes

Sherwin: I am trying something out on you, and I would like to get your response. I am trying to understand—going back to an earlier remark–Kitty’s frustration and getting deeper and deeper involved with drinking.

You had said that one of the things that Robert suggested was, that the contrast in their lives where he was always in the limelight and she was only an extension of him, and that that was very frustrating. There was that tension that perhaps she did not even recognize on the surface that was making her so unhappy.

What seemed to me with her kind of personality, one of the most frustrating things to be up against is a man like Robert Oppenheimer. who is completely blasé about the things that you are charged up about. You want to have it out on a table, if you are somebody who has to have it out, who has to express their emotions or their anger. Then to be doing that and to get no rebound, just to have it all absorbed like a sponge, to lose it all into a void, almost.

Hobson: I am sure that is very true, very. It’s probably why she threw things at him.

Sherwin: Uh-huh, to try and get a reaction from him?

Hobson: Uh-huh.

Sherwin: Throwing things, is something that happened frequently?

Hobson: It was not unknown.

Sherwin: That is a very evasive answer.

Hobson: I never saw it happen. I am sure that it happened. Sometimes Robert would have contusions and abrasions that I did not ask him about. That happened more frequently toward the end of his life.

Sherwin: Was there ever a psychiatrist involved?

Hobson: No, he decided not.

Sherwin: You mean, for her?

Hobson: Uh-huh.

Sherwin: Any marriage counseling?

Hobson: No, I think this is very important to keep in mind about Robert. This, if you like, you can call arrogance. He would decide in this he would be the judge, the jury, and the law, and he would go ahead.

Sherwin: You probably do not know about it, but you will read about it in these letters that I told you about that are coming out, that the Harvard University Press is publishing. He went to a psychiatrist—he had a very rough time when he was in college, with all the problems that young men have going from a rather sheltered childhood at that time to the open world, etc.

He had I do not know if it was several meetings or more than that, with one or maybe more psychiatrists in London and I think even one in Paris, and found them just totally unsatisfactory. There was one incident where he just said, “I know more about myself more than psychiatrists.” Those experiences might have—

Hobson: They might have. Also, why didn’t he know better than to go to one in London or Paris? Even though this was some years ago, most of them are doctrinaire Freudians. Then the other part of all of this Robert-Kitty-Peter thing is that—I cannot remember now whether Robert told me this, or whether I just observed it myself. It was probably the second.

There came a time when Robert had to choose between Peter, for whom he was very fond, and Kitty. She made it so that it would have to be one or the other. Because of the compact that he had made with God or with himself, he chose Kitty and he let Peter go. That is when Peter went west, and Frank stepped into the breach.

Sherwin: Could you tell me more about that, because I really do not know—we are talking about what period of time?

Hobson: It certainly was leading up to it when they did not take Peter to Paris, and left me in loco parentis. I thought that was so terrible at the time. I guess I did say something to Robert about it.

Toni was going to Miss Fine’s School and she was doing all right in her studies, and Robert had an appointment for one semester at the University of Paris at the Sorbonne. I guess he was to go there by Easter probably, then the term would run into July or so.

So they took Toni out of Miss Fine’s School at Easter time, and they took her with them. That was fine with the school; she was going to learn some French. She was doing well enough in her studies, it would not make any problem. Peter was at George School. Peter never did well in his studies. He was floundering. So he could not go. Maybe he did not really want to go, but what a slap to leave him behind and take her.

Sherwin: Did he ever say anything to you?

Hobson: Not in so many words.

Sherwin: But he was clearly very sensitive?

Hobson: Enormously sensitive. I felt tremendously on his side. I obviously could not say anything, because after all, I worked for his father and, in fact, also worked for his mother. I couldn’t go around behind their back to make myself an ally of Peter. I could have said to them I am going to, but I do not think that I was tough enough to do that. But it just used to wring my heart to see it.

Sherwin: So he went out west. It must have been right after high school. He never went to college?

Hobson: No. When he went west, he had not finished high school.

Sherwin: Then there must have been a year in between.

Hobson: I know he lived with Frank for a while. I cannot remember—you say he came back and finished high school in Princeton?

Sherwin: I do not know what the relationship was exactly, the chronology between the George School and Princeton High School. But he told me a couple of weeks ago when I saw him that he spent one year in Princeton High School and finished up there. Whether there was a hiatus between the George School—did he have to leave the George School, did he cut up there? Didn’t do well enough, or it was his choice? 

Hobson: I ought to be able to answer that, because I know that while I was being in loco parentis I had to go and see the headmaster. I cannot remember whether it was that he was not working at his studies, or whether he had broken some rules. It did not result in his being expelled then, but he may have been expelled later.

Sherwin: But he did live with Frank?

Hobson: Yeah, he did for a while.

Sherwin: Did he ever come back to Princeton at all?

Hobson: He did, because he was living in Princeton when he married Diane.

Sherwin: Now Diane is a Princeton girl?

Hobson: Uh-huh.

Sherwin: What is her maiden name?

Hobson: She was a little girl who lived not far away and used to play with Toni. That is how they all met.

Sherwin: Do you know how long they have been out at Perro Caliente?

Hobson: He is not married to her now.

Sherwin: Yeah?

Hobson: No, this is his second wife.

Sherwin: This is Virginia, that’s right. I have lost track. The reason I said, “She is a Princeton girl,” the girl that he is now married to now, well, the setting is so un-Princeton. He was married and then divorced?

Hobson: They went west. Then Kitty told me that Diane had fallen in love with horses, and was leaving Peter to devote her life to horses.

Sherwin: They have three children, did you know?

Hobson: Three now?

Sherwin: They just had a baby three or four months ago. Everybody looks very healthy. One child is Dorothy, and I would not be surprised if she was named after Dorothy—

Hobson: McKibbin, yeah.

Sherwin: I think the little boy’s name was Charlie.

Hobson: I bet Peter is a fond and good father. 

Sherwin: Let’s change back to the Institute for a little bit. Over the course of those thirteen years, did you have a sense of changes in Robert’s directorship, how he handled things?

Hobson: Toward the end, he often did not even come into the office until almost noon, and sometimes not even until afternoon. There were some long, bad months in which Kitty had mixed up the hours of the day and would be up all night and keep him up, and then sleep all day. He seemed to be doing less and less, although he did not really need to do all that much. I do not think he neglected his directorship. I think maybe he was doing less writing.

Sherwin: Did he ever talk to you about the situation at home? You were obviously very close, in terms of—

Hobson: Well, he did. In fact, from the way I have been talking it sounds as though he did much more than he did. He didn’t very often. When he did, I always felt very moved and also very uncomfortable, because I knew that he would tell Kitty that he had done so. I think this is a most extraordinary thing about her: she never let that come between us. That is a most unusual character. Astonishing. 

Sherwin: But you had a good relationship with her, right?

Hobson: I did. I found her, of course, a fantastic drain on my energies, and a royal pain in the neck very often. I used to do a great deal of kitchen gossiping with Ruth Barnett about, “What is the new worst thing that Kitty has done?” I hope Robert never knew that we used to talk that way, because we needed to because we took so much. But it was not very attractive.

When Robert died, I had to face up to the future of my relationship with Kitty. I decided that it would be making a lie of the past years if I were to drop her. I really was a friend of hers, but I also was pretending to be a friend. If I stopped doing that then just because Robert was not around, that would be dishonest and would make me unhappy and would not do. So I continued to keep the same relationship with her.

The last time I saw her, she came and stayed with me for three days on my houseboat in London. Stayed up all night long, drank two or three bottles of vodka, smoked a carton of cigarettes. Used, for some reason, at least six rolls of toilet paper every day. Then she would sleep all day while I went to my office, and then I would come back and we would do it again. I did not sleep a wink for three days and three nights [laughter].

Sherwin: What were you doing? What work were you doing in London?

Hobson: I had an administrative secretarial job at a large partnership of architects and planners, designers. Very nice people.

Sherwin: I was just wondering how you got through it.

Hobson: On the third afternoon I said to my boss there—who became a very good friend, he is very different from Robert but it was a great treat to work with him, too. I said to him, “I have Kitty Oppenheimer with me. I have been up all night with her and I do not dare go to sleep, because I am afraid she will fall asleep and set fire to the houseboat.” I said, “I am beginning to hallucinate that she is doing it now while I am at the office.”

And he said, “You fool, why didn’t you say this before? Go on home.”

That was the occasion when she told me the true story about the Chevalier incident. Would you like to hear that?

Sherwin: Yes, please.

Hobson: Now, let’s see. The story as published is that [Haakon] Chevalier said to Robert, “I have ways of getting information to our allies, the Russians.” Robert said, “But that would be treason.” The subject was then dropped.

Kitty told me that the minute Chevalier came in the house, she could see that something was up and she made a point of not leaving them alone together. She was there. Chevalier, finally realizing that he could not get Robert off by himself, said this in front of her, and she is the one who said that that would be treason.

In fact, that rings true to me. It sounds like Kitty, and it does not sound like Robert. Robert was so determined to keep Kitty out of it that he took her words in his mouth and said that he and Chevalier had been alone when it happened. So for all the later tangles and the other layers of lies that were uncovered, according to Kitty, the first layer of lie was never uncovered.

Sherwin: That is interesting. A scoop!

Hobson: Right [laughter].

Sherwin: That is very interesting. Did she say anything more about that tangled mess that Robert—

Hobson: She did indeed. She said that she had seen all along that he was being a perfect fool in dealing with it the way he was. She told him not to, and he went ahead and did it anyway.

Sherwin: Did she say that before he finally got around to telling [General Leslie R.] Groves that, “There were these “X” number of people out there trying to get information, but I cannot give you any names, but I am worried about it, etc.” That he had discussed this with her—how did she put it?

Hobson: She said that she kept telling him, “You cannot do that. You’ll get into trouble. It will not work. You would be a fool to do it.” She said he went ahead and did it anyway.

Sherwin: Did she say anything about right after it happened, especially what went on between them?

Hobson: Oh, no, she did not.

Sherwin: That’s very interesting. What else did she say on the three most exhausting nights of your life?

Hobson: That is the only really new and startling thing that I remember. There was a lot of repetition. Not only repetition because one had been drinking for too long, but also because very naturally we were talking over things in the past and recalling things.

Sherwin: Did you keep any kind of a diary of those days? Did you take any correspondence or notes with you?

Hobson: Uh-uh, no. I had at that time a feeling that the role of actor and the role of observer are incompatible, and that in this I was an actor and I did not attempt to be an observer. Also, I would have felt that it was an improper thing for me to do. I would have been surprised if I had known that there would come a day while I was still alive when I felt free to talk about it at all, because that job was just keeping more secrets than you could shake a stick at.

Sherwin: You were not brought up in the John Adams, Henry Stimson diary tradition?

Hobson: No. Anybody’s diary is interesting. If you had a rather lively life, as I have, it certainly would have been worth doing, but I do not think that I could have done it. That would have been somebody else.

Sherwin: In the process of reviewing the things that we have gone over, is there anything that you feel that I should know that has not fit into the pattern of questions?

Hobson: I would like to say something, which in fact I tried to say in this piece, about what seemed to me to be the absolutely magic mellowing of Robert’s character in the last years of his life. I can imagine a pattern of somebody who is so highly charged, and sometimes scratchy from it. Over the course of his life, kind of growing into his skin, I found him really very exciting to be around when all this gentleness began to come out. Not that he didn’t have gentleness before. Here is an example of it. Did you ever meet Mike Morgan?

Sherwin: No.

Hobson: It is a shame that you didn’t, because I think he is an important symbol in Robert’s life. Mike was very much a rah-rah Princeton type. He was an active party politician. He was a Democratic mayor of Princeton Borough for a while. He was no intellectual. I mean, he had a perfectly good set of brains. He had no interest in culture, in the arts. He was overweight, had a beer belly.

His style was so different from Robert’s that you would have said that they were unable to see each other, hear each other. He adored Robert, and Robert adored him. Robert loved him for his goodness and his patience and his loyalty.

Sherwin: He was what, the associate director [of the Institute for Advanced Study]?

Hobson: No, he was the general manager, and he was the treasurer. He did the money and the staff and the grounds. He did go to the trustees meetings and write minutes at that. Except for looking after their houses and so on, he did not have anything to do with the academic side of the operation at all.

Robert admired him for having succeeded in getting elected on the Democratic ticket to be mayor of Princeton. Well, Robert chose him for the job, so perhaps he always appreciated him. But it came out so in the last years.

Sherwin: When did Robert Oppenheimer hire Morgan?

Hobson: He started about the time I did.

Sherwin: Around ’53?

Hobson: Yeah.

Sherwin: Did he know him before?

Hobson: No, they had advertised the job and Mike had applied.

Sherwin: There is something that I think is unfinished in this story here. The sense of appreciation and the importance of that appreciation that Robert Oppenheimer had for Morgan, is it because Morgan rubbed certain people the other way?

Hobson: No, no, not at all. No, even when I first met Robert, you said to yourself immediately, “He would not have the patience to appreciate somebody who could not talk his language.”

Sherwin: Uh-huh. How did all of this come out?

Hobson: It was a part of what I saw as a general mellowing, a developing of patience. Maybe it also had some quality—although he was not ill until suddenly he was ill. He was in perfectly good health up to that time. Maybe it was because he was so incredibly skinny, but he seemed to be becoming a little incorporeal and benign.

Sherwin: Uh-huh. It has been put a different way by some other people that he was getting thinner and thinner, I gather, in the ’60s. Whether or not it was some undetected cancer in the most early stages or just whatever, it seems to me that there was—as you talk and others have talked about these days, let’s say the last decade of his life, a little less than that—personal problems were mounting up. I gather quite clearly that Kitty was becoming more and more of a burden. There must have been more and more sleepless nights, and more and more accidents, and more and more near disasters, like cigarettes in the bed sheets.

Hobson: Uh-huh.

Sherwin: This must have taken a heavy toll.

Hobson: Yes.

Sherwin: Then it must have been breaking his heart to see the relationship between Kitty and Peter, which was worsening to the point where Peter was being—

Hobson: I think really that had happened before. Maybe it was still hurting, but the worst of it had been accepted before then.

He [J. Robert Oppenheimer] had a physical checkup, which was not something he did all that often. Now I would say that it was less than two months before the cancer was detected, which gave him a totally clean bill of health. He came back finally and said, “I am going to outlive every one of you.”

Sherwin: Uh-huh.

Hobson: Two months later, it was suddenly diagnosed that he had cancer.

Sherwin: Do you remember that diagnosis? Did you find out about it right away?

Hobson: Kitty told me.

Sherwin: Right away?

Hobson: She called me up and she whispered, whispered it, “Robert has cancer.”

I said, “It isn’t true.”

She said, “Yes.”

I thought, “Wait a minute, maybe it’s suspected or something.”

She said, “No, we have been to the doctor, and that’s it.”

He had had a cough that did not go away. She finally had taken him to New York to the doctor, and apparently just one look and that was it.

Sherwin: Did he ever talk about it with you?

Hobson: The cancer? Yes. He talked about the radiation treatment and how he felt, and the surgery that he had. He talked in the most extraordinary open way. I could not meet it. I was too frightened to honor the openness with which he was talking, but he certainly talked with Kitty. I think she was able to talk with him about it.

Sherwin: How was she in the last years? From the time it was discovered to his death was how long?

Hobson: Months. I think I would say it was discovered after he had decided to retire, and before he actually retired. It was in April that he went to the trustees and said, “I wish to retire,” and they accepted it. It was in June that he retired. So it was between those dates that it developed. He died the following February.

Sherwin: February of ’67?

Hobson: Uh-huh.

Sherwin: Do you remember the question of his moving and leaving Olden Farm? Now, I have seen some correspondence, I think some stuff that [Lewis] Strauss had written and maybe some of the other board members, about the discussion about whether he could stay there or that he couldn’t. Do you remember?

Hobson: I would have said that it was quite clear that they would not be staying there. But I think there was a certain amount of trouble about where they would move to. I think Kitty wanted to take part of that land and the swimming pool.

Sherwin: And build another house?

Hobson: And build another house. The trustees said no. There was a flack about that. But I do not think it was ever a question of their staying in the house.

Sherwin: Right. That is what I saw. Did you ever know or meet someone by the name of Hempelmann? Dr. Hempelmann?

Hobson: Louis Hempelmann and Elinor. Yeah. Uh-huh.

Sherwin: Did they visit with the Oppenheimers frequently?

Hobson: I think they were very close just before I started there. For instance, the Hempelmanns took the children in Rochester, I think, while the hearings were going on. I think they were named in Robert and Kitty’s will as guardians, should they die while their children were minors. But they kind of faded out. They did not seem to figure much in the last years.

Sherwin: He was the doctor at Los Alamos, and he was delivering all the babies of all the scientists. He was a pediatrician and everything else combined, I gather, and consequently became very close with the Oppenheimers. I would not be surprised [inaudible]. I just sort of rediscovered him, and I hope to have a chance to talk to him sometime in the next few weeks, so I was just wondering what you knew.

Hobson: Yes, I think it was much closer up to ’53 than it was after ’53.

Sherwin: Let’s see, who else is there that I particularly want to ask about? Well, [Robert] Serber, for example, who was very close to Kitty after Robert—

Hobson: Yes, and he and his wife, Charlotte, were old, old friends. I have forgotten now whether they met at Los Alamos or even before that.

Sherwin: Back in the ’30s, Robert Serber was a student of Robert Oppenheimer’s. He and Robert Serber and Charlotte were out in Berkeley in the 1930s. I gather he was one of the closest students, one of his best. Also they were together throughout the ’30s. They were together at Los Alamos, and Serber was at New York and Columbia during that whole period of time.

Hobson: Uh-huh. Have you talked with him?

Sherwin: Not yet.

Hobson: What a sweet fellow he is. He’s really a noble fellow. He took such wonderful care of Kitty. Gosh. He helped Toni, too.

Sherwin: Yeah. I gather he was in the Virgin house when she [Toni] committed suicide.

Hobson: He had just left there that afternoon and by the time he landed in New York, word had come through that she had killed herself.

Sherwin: Do you have any understanding of her situation?

Hobson: I can’t believe it to this day. I cannot believe it.

Sherwin: Was she, as opposed to Peter, a child who seemed right on top of things that had happened?

Hobson: Gee, what a front. If really that was a cry of pain, which I supposed it has to have been. She had a front that nothing could penetrate. She seemed to be serene. You would have said that serenity was her middle name. Sturdy. When she was six or seven years old, the rest of them were all relying on her to be sensible and solid and cheer them on, and the one you never worried about.

Sherwin: Now she had a couple of disastrous marriages.

Hobson: She had a couple of marriages that failed. I do not know how bad they were when they were going on. I did not see her in those years. Kitty did not think that the first marriage was going to last.

Sherwin: It was a much older person?

Hobson: Yeah. Uh-huh.

Sherwin: What I know about it is that it was an older person, and they went around the world sailing.

Hobson: Uh-huh.

Sherwin: Is it true that Kitty followed after them?

Hobson: When she came to see me in London, she had just come from being with them in the Canaries.

Sherwin: Canary Islands?

Hobson: Canary Islands, yeah. She had flown there and seen them. I do not think she followed them anywhere else.

Sherwin: [Inaudible]

Hobson: Oh, you mean in a sense that she was trying to break it up or to make it difficult?

Sherwin: No, no. It hadn’t been clear to me exactly what the person who told me this had said. It was to the effect of, they were in one boat going around the world, and it struck me that Kitty was in another boat twenty miles behind, whether out of motherly concern or what.

Hobson: I do not know where Toni was. She could have been on a boat somewhere on the other side of the world when Kitty set off in her boat. It’s possible.

Sherwin: Was that the boat that Robert and Kitty owned together?

Hobson: No, she [Kitty] owned it.

Sherwin: This was after Robert’s death?

Hobson: Uh-huh. She built the boat.

Sherwin: She built it herself?

Hobson: No. I think it was ninety feet long. It really was fabulous.

Sherwin: Oh, she had help?

Hobson: Yeah.

Sherwin: What was the name of it?

Hobson: Moonraker, which I always thought very strange. It didn’t sound like Kitty, it didn’t sound like Oppenheimer.

Sherwin: No. That’s the name of a new James Bond movie.

Hobson: Right.

Sherwin: That is interesting. Now she died in ’71, wasn’t it?

Hobson: Is that right? I do not remember. She died in the Canal Zone. She fell ill on the boat, and they took her off to the hospital and she died there. 

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.