Inside Robert And Katherine Oppenheimer's Troubled Family Life

J. Robert Oppenheimer is best remembered for his contributions to nuclear physics (via the Atomic Heritage Foundation). Britannica writes that the Harvard-educated physicist, born in 1904, specialized in atomic research. With Hitler's rise to power, Biography explains, Oppenheimer and his fellow scientists feared that Germany would create a nuclear bomb. Thus, he began to research how to create his own nuclear weapon. In 1942, Oppenheimer and other physicists were appointed to the Manhattan Project to develop a nuclear bomb to be used during World War II. According to the Institute for Advanced Study, the project utilized various labs across the United States.

Per Biography, Oppenheimer was head of the Los Alamos laboratory in New Mexico and became known as the "father of the atomic bomb." However, by 1949, Oppenheimer was against the creation of a hydrogen bomb (via Britannica). This led to rumors that he was a communist supporter. He was eventually called to a security hearing to be questioned about his possible involvement with the Soviets.

Although Oppenheimer's wife, Katherine "Kitty" Oppenheimer, is not as revered, the Atomic Heritage Foundation states that she played a significant role in his life and at his hearing. Born Katherine Puening Harrison, she has been described as a free-spirit and a nonconforming woman (via "Oppenheimer: a Life"). The pair reportedly met at a party in 1939 and married in 1940.

He had affairs

According to the Atomic Heritage Foundation, Kitty was a botanist who had already been married three times before marrying Robert. In fact, she was married to her third husband, Richard Harrison, when she met her future fourth husband. At the time, Spartacus Educational reported, Robert himself was in a relationship with a woman named Jean Tatlock. Tatlock, per another article from the Atomic Heritage Foundation, was a psychologist and a known communist party member. Kitty herself also had communist ties. Her second husband, Joe Dallet, was a member of the American Communist Party. Kitty reportedly tried to join the party but instead joined the Young Communist League (YCL).

The Mercury News states that despite the marriage between Robert and Kitty, he continued to have relationships with other women, including with Tatlock. Per The Atlantic, the affair continued even when Robert and Kitty moved from Pasadena, California to Los Alamos in 1943. In 1944, Tatlock died (via the Atomic Heritage Foundation). Many believe that she decided to end her life after suffering from depression. Whatever the case, Robert's affair with her came to light during his 1954 security hearing. When asked why he continued to see Tatlock, he replied, "Because she was still in love with me" (per The Atlantic).

Spartacus Educational explains that the trial resulted in Robert Oppenheimer being found not guilty of treason. Both he and Kitty stated they were loyal to the United States. Nevertheless, he was stripped of his security clearance (via Britannica). The Atomic Energy Commission found that through Kitty and Tatlock, Robert was too closely associated with communism.

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Their relationships with their children were fraught

Despite their strained relationship, The Mercury News writes, Robert and Kitty remained together until his death in 1967. Shirley Streshinsky, co-author of "An Atomic Love Story: The Extraordinary Women in Robert Oppenheimer's Life," revealed that Kitty "didn't like the duties of a wife." Even so, Spartacus Educational states, an article from Time Magazine notes that Kitty provided her husband with stability. The article related that Robert "started eating three meals a day and stopped staying up all night except on rare occasions." Per the Atomic Heritage Foundation, the pair also had two children together: a son, Peter, and a daughter, Toni.

In an interview posted at Voices of the Manhattan Project, Verna Hobson, secretary to Robert Oppenheimer, revealed that the family was tight-knit when the children were still young. Hobson explained that things seem to change once the kids went off to school. In her words, Kitty was "intolerable" to her son. She reportedly "resented" him, possibly due to being born so early on in her relationship with Robert.

The Atomic Heritage Foundation goes so far as to describe Hobson as Peter's "surrogate mother." Kitty, however, doted on her daughter and was "purely loving" towards her. Peter (via another post at the Atomic Heritage Foundation) reportedly had a better relationship with his father. As for Toni's relationship with Robert, the Atomic Heritage Foundation reports that it was more complex. Per The New York Times, Kitty Oppenheimer died in 1972 at the age of 62. Robert also died at age 62.