The Manhattan Project

Mildred Goldberger's Interview

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Mildred Goldberger was an American mathematician. She worked at the Metallurgical Laboratory at the University of Chicago during the Manhattan Project. She was married to Marvin “Murph” Goldberger, a physicist who taught at Princeton during J. Robert Oppenheimer’s tenure as Director of the Institute for Advanced Study. In this interview, she gives a glimpse into what life was like in Princeton during the 1950s-60s. She discusses her relationship with the Oppenheimer family during this period and notes the Oppenheimers’ struggles to fit in with the rest of the Princeton community.
Date of Interview: 
03/31/1983
Location of the Interview: 
Pasadena
Collections: 
Transcript: 

Martin Sherwin: You must have met the Oppenheimers when Murph [her husband, Marvin Goldberger] met them?

Mildred Goldberger: No.

Sherwin: No?

Goldberger: No, Murph met [J. Robert] Oppenheimer quite early on, I think. Not during the war. But he was an early invitee to the Rochester Conferences. I am sure Oppenheimer was there. In any case, they were known to one another.

Sherwin: Right, I had known that in ’48—

Goldberger: Yeah, right.

Sherwin: But it was ’57 when he first arrived at Princeton.

Goldberger: Right. Murph actually saw something of them, I think, in ’53. I did not. Murph was a visiting professor at Princeton.

Sherwin: I see.

Goldberger: We were in a very anomalous state. He was the age of Princeton assistant professors, but he was in fact a Chicago associate professor.

I honestly don’t remember whether I met them, but by that time, of course, one knew all about the Oppenheimers in physics. In fact, beginning in the ‘40s, when I was on the [Manhattan] Project, I was assigned to [Eugene] Wigner’s theoretical division. Given the title of physicist, although what I really did was to operate a Friden or Monroe calculator. My undergraduate degree was Mathematics.

Sid Dancoff, does that name mean anything to you?

Sherwin: Sure.

Goldberger: He was very much a loner. He really wasn’t part of any group, but they wanted to give him a promotion, so they had to give him a group. I was Sid Dancoff’s group. Among Sid’s very good friends were, of course, the Morrisons. By themselves, those people would already have begun to fill everyone in about the Oppenheimers.

They were at that time five years away from Berkeley. The Morrisons and the Dancoffs had been at [the University of Illinois] Urbana then. The Oppenheimers were already for me, a twenty-one year old, green-as-grass graduate of the University of Illinois, a grey eminence. I knew who he was. I knew sort of the Oppenheimer legends, the stories, and so on.

Goldberger: So that I knew who he was. In fact, the first Physical Society meeting after the war was in New York. We were there. We had not had a honeymoon, we had been married during that year. That was our first trip away. Murph had got out of the Army sort of in February or something. This was in September. We drove to Ohio to visit his family and then on to New York City.

I can remember walking toward the building, which was the New York Academy of Engineering, I think, quite near the library down there in that downtown part, with a friend. We said “Hello” to someone who was obviously Oppenheimer, complete to porkpie hat.

Sherwin: Yes. He was still wearing it?

Goldberger: Oh, yes. This would have been what, ’46?

Sherwin: Yes.

Goldberger: I can also remember at that meeting Charlotte Serber holding court like Madame de Maintenon or something, but all the people sort of gathered around her. I didn’t know her then, but I knew who she was. It’s hard to recapture exactly how you knew about it. You know, that was the matrix.

Sherwin: Yes.

Goldberger: All of those people were in the matrix of theoretical physics. But I don’t think I actually met the Oppenheimers in any significant way until ’57.

Sherwin: Do you remember that?

Goldberger: Oh, it was probably a big Institute [of Advanced Study] party. No, in fact, I think it was the visit of Niels Bohr, who was staying in one of the Institute houses. The Bohrs gave a cocktail party and invited us, I think. I wouldn’t even know why. Well, I mean it’s obvious why. Murph was a white hope in physics. There is the tradition that those people are counted as very valuable and included.

Sherwin: Yes, I saw some very nice recommendations that Oppenheimer wrote for him.

Goldberger: Yes. Let me tell you about Murph and Oppenheimer. I may be iterating, but after Oppenheimer got so very sick and he was still at the Institute but no longer of the Institute, Murph came, I think, to embody for him his whole past in physics. Murph became a kind of colleague/student/friend/intimate, whatever.

I have a feeling that Oppenheimer was very dependent on Murph. Murph, of course, was not very dependent on Oppenheimer. I can give you several bits of evidence. One is that Oppenheimer, over the announced policy of the Institute, offered Murph an appointment just like the one that was given to Jack Milnor in Mathematics, that sort of tore up the whole Mathematics department. You know about that?

Sherwin: It was a ten year—

Goldberger: It was a ten year, “Come when you like and we will pay you whatever you want” and so on. Murph had one of those. I remember when Carl Kaysen came, he said something to Murph about it. He said, “You know I am not renewing that.”

It made a lot of trouble. Murph’s appointment didn’t make that much trouble. Milnor’s did. But Oppenheimer was so attached to Murph and wanted so much—in fact, Oppenheimer pled with Murph to come to the Institute.

Sherwin: As a regular?

Goldberger: As a member, as a professor. I know why. Murph was really a splendid physicist. He was a splendid physicist of the second class. I mean, he did wonderful work. I think he really invented dispersion relations, which was red hot about twenty years ago and is now as dead as a doornail, essentially. I mean, people still work in it, but it’s not the cutting edge.

He has worked in other things, of course. He has very high standards for himself. He is not a bit lazy, which many very bright theoretical physicists are. Nor is he too dependent on calculation, which many very bright theoretical physicists are. He is really a good all-round, he can play in any position [laughter].

Sherwin: Just like Oppenheimer, in many respects.

Goldberger: Oppenheimer was lazy.

Sherwin: Well, I didn’t mean that. I meant, playing in any position. Oppenheimer, I mean the one thing everybody—

Goldberger: No, and let me tell you why I think you’re wrong. When Murph plays, he is a team player.

Sherwin: Okay.

Goldberger: When I say he plays in any position, I mean if there is a group that is doing—let me say dispersion relations, because that is the one thing I know—then Murph is a member of that group, doing dispersion relations with the rest of the group and working just like everybody else. Not issuing statements from on high to below. Not trying to forge ahead in a direction different from the direction of the rest of the group, and so on.

So that there was a good, practical reason for Oppenheimer to want Murph at the Institute. It was a pouring of oil on very troubled waters. But there was also, I think—I won’t call it sentimental, because he was not sentimental.

There was a dependency reason. Murph continued to take Oppenheimer seriously, which was something that very few people in Murph’s position bothered to do after a certain point. Murph continued to talk to him about physics long after it was really a bore to talk to him. Murph would come from these conversations very depressed and say to me—I don’t remember exactly, but the idea was “Gee, it’s sad to see somebody on the downslope.”

Sherwin: Do you remember about when this was? Was this from the beginning of ’57?

Goldberger: No, no, no, this was very much later.

Sherwin ’64? ’65?

Goldberger: What was the year that Oppenheimer died?

Sherwin: ’67.

Goldberger: Yeah, okay, so it would have been beginning about ’65.

Sherwin: He retired from the Institute probably about ’65.

Goldberger: Yeah, this would have been his last couple of years at the Institute and then the years after he left, which weren’t that large a number. But after he had left, Murph made a point of having lunch with him to talk physics, which was something that people weren’t bothering to do.

By that time, all of the people who had been “Oppenheimer’s boys” had gone. I mean, they were all professors elsewhere. It happened that none of them were in Princeton. Murph never was one, but he assumed that role. So that he was very important to Oppenheimer, way beyond the normal expectations.

Sherwin: The last generation, in a sense.

Goldberger: That’s right. That’s right.

Sherwin: Oppenheimer always needed that kind of relationship.

Goldberger: Yeah, yeah.

Sherwin: That’s interesting. It’s also sort of interesting and I suppose in some way—it is not ironic. It’s sort of a completion of the circle with him coming here as the President, because there were so many Oppenheimer boys who were senior physicists here.

Goldberger: That’s right, Bob Christy.

Sherwin: Christy and [Robert] Bacher.

Goldberger: Well, Bacher really was never an Oppenheimer boy. He was an academic—

Sherwin: Associate.

Goldberger: Partisan. I believe [Lee] DuBridge was never in the circuit at all.

Sherwin: No, he was part of the government advisory administrative.

Goldberger: Right, but Bacher is still an Oppenheimer person. Did you talk to him?

Sherwin: Yes.

Goldberger: Did he give you his little memoir?

Sherwin: Oh yes, of the American Physical Society.

Goldberger: Yeah, right.

Sherwin: Yes, I have read that.

Goldberger: Jean is to Bob as I am to Murph.

Sherwin: I spoke to her, too.

Goldberger: Okay.

Sherwin: I was in the [Ruth] Tolman house.

Goldberger: Oh, yes, yes. I don’t know whether Jean opened up to you or not.

Sherwin: We had a nice conversation. I don’t know how much she told me of what knows.

Goldberger: She hated Kitty, hated Kitty, loathed Kitty for a variety of reasons, some of which I don’t even know.

Sherwin: Well, it wasn’t quite that clear.

Goldberger: I wouldn’t think it would be. In fact, there were quite a good number of physics wives who have very strong feelings about Kitty. Less strong things about Oppenheimer.

I know personally women who have been almost irreparably injured by her. A broken marriage. A woman whose illness I think was, if not a result of her relationship with Kitty, was certainly—she was physically damaged by the relationship. She had an alcoholism problem.

Sherwin: Kitty did.

Goldberger: Kitty did and this friend did, another physics wife in Princeton. Kitty knew it and used this woman. I mean, not even used her. I don’t know what she did. It was as if she was a kid pulling wings off a fly. She tormented this poor alcoholic lady.

Sherwin: By?

Goldberger: Inviting her and saying with an excuse—Kitty, in this period of the mid to late ‘60s, had a ring of damaged women around her, all of them somewhat alcoholic. That was sort of an endemic condition among a certain kind of woman in Princeton.

Sherwin: Yes, some of the Institute wives.

Goldberger: Yeah.

Sherwin: I have talked to some of them. Some of them who have survived are, how shall I say, very frank in their assessments.

Goldberger: Right. This one woman that I know, who is now dead, but her husband is alive and could easily be very injured by any discussion of his wife by name. She anyway had terrible personality problems in addition to the obvious problem of alcoholism.

Kitty would take her up and then set her down very abruptly. She would take her up by saying, “Come over this afternoon,” you know, “Leona and Ruth are going to be here. We are going to do—” and then she would describe something interesting. In fact, what they would be doing would be drinking. This woman would have been just spend long period trying to dry out.

Sherwin: She gets [inaudible.]

Goldberger: Then inexplicably would not call her for months and months. The woman would get more and more depressed, and then hit the bottle. Obviously, those things were excuses. Kitty wasn’t responsible for the woman being an alcoholic. But knowing she that was an alcoholic, if she had any human decency, she wouldn’t have done what she did to this poor lady.

Sherwin: Let me ask you a question about that with respect to Robert.

Goldberger: Yeah.

Sherwin: Kitty was having all of these problems and had been having them for a long time in an increasingly difficult fashion. But as far as I can see, there was never any effort on Robert’s part to sort of not continue to mix the best martinis in the world and have terrific wines with dinner. There is a process there of even his contributing to her alcoholism.

Goldberger: Right, I never had the feeling that he had any feeling for her at all, except contempt. That was what he displayed.

Sherwin: Really?

Goldberger: Yeah.

Sherwin: Tell me about that, because other people have said that their relationship, private relationship, was a very close and intimate one.

Goldberger: I don’t know. I mean, I am very late on the scene, you understand.

Sherwin: Well, the process of this is to get huge amounts of data.

Goldberger: Okay, you will do the sorting, okay. Okay. All right, I will tell you my impression, which was, that he was a self-hating Jew who had to marry an anti-Semite to prove to himself that he was right. Helen Rabi confirms me on that.

Sherwin: As a matter of fact, [Isidor I.] Rabi did say to me once that Oppenheimer’s problem was that he didn’t know who he was.

Goldberger: Yeah.

Sherwin: I said, “What do you mean?” Then he went on to talk about it.

Goldberger: You know that was Rabi’s problem at one point.

Sherwin: Well, he insisted he never had that problem.

Goldberger: Not true. For years, when asked where he was born in Europe, he would say, “In Austria.” It was actually Galicia. It was only when he reached the age of wisdom, which was when I first knew him. His daughter is one of my best friends. There was a time when he was very reluctant to identify himself as a Jew. He never denied being Jewish, but he wasn’t as open about it as he is now. He wasn’t as accepting of it as he is now. 

Sherwin: Is that why he gives the initials I. I. Rab,i rather than Isidor?

Goldberger: I think so. I think so, and why he liked being called Rob. But that was all twenty years behind him when I met him. I know when I met him it was 1953. By that time, he was a grand old man—even though he was younger than we are at the moment, now that it comes to me.

Sherwin: He has had a very long reign as a grand old man.

Goldberger: He really has. Well, people were grand old men earlier then.

But Helen and I got to be good friends. The Oppenheimers were the topic of conversation in the physics world for many, many, many years, and still are as you know. There is a kind of final ineluctable puzzle about Oppenheimer himself, and about the Oppenheimers.

First of all, their marriage was a very peculiar one in physics. Physicists, even ones as wealthy and sophisticated as Oppenheimer, seldom marry women outside this rather narrow range, especially the Jewish ones. You know who they marry. They marry the women who were graduate students in the social sciences, in psychology, in social work, who are very serious, left-liberal, house-proud. I had a friend who used to say they knew the Bonnier’s catalogue by heart. There was certain style of good living that included Danish teak furniture and Le Creuset. Their dinner parties at Princeton, a friend described them as “cook-offs.”

Sherwin: Give me a little description on that one.

Goldberger: Well, you know there is a contest by Pillsbury that is called the National Bake-Off. The dinner parties were—if quiche was the dish of the year, than they would serve quiche as a first course, but it would be a quiche that you had never seen. You had never seen a walnut artichoke quiche before, and they would have gotten it from a recipe book not yet translated from the French. There was a pattern. You are probably too young to have—

Sherwin: Well, there was a bit of this. My first job was at Berkeley. This was the late ‘60s, in the History Department with sixty people or so. There was a lot of this. I guess most of the faculty were male, but the wives were getting PhDs or all had Master’s and spoke many foreign languages.

Goldberger: Right, and very serious.

Sherwin: Extraordinarily good cooks. The dinner parties were spectacular.

Goldberger: Fundamentally, they were all rebbetzin, right?

Sherwin: Yes [laughter.]

Goldberger: Well, I am one of them, which is why I can speak with such authority. Kitty, first of all, violated that pattern for a physics wife. It was okay to become in the end like Helen Rabi, that is, a woman of real distinction. If you have met her recently, you mustn’t go by what you see, because she was a real doyenne. When I was a younger physics wife in my thirties and forties, Helen was sort of the last word. She did things just right, in this intellectual, “sophisticated” in quotation marks.

Sherwin: Who would this community be that you are talking about? It’s not Oppenheimer’s students, but it is that generation?

Goldberger: It is that generation and the one just after that.

Sherwin: When we are talking about Rabi, and we are talking about Oppenheimer.

Goldberger: Rabi and Oppenheimer were contemporaries. In fact, Rabi I think was a bit older. The Rabis met Oppenheimer on their honeymoon. [Edward] Condon was of this older generation. Then among the students [Philip] Morrison and Dancoff, but they had less long run influence, I would say, than Bob Serber.

Sherwin: Serber, yes.

Goldberger: Yeah, Serber was active at the cutting edge much longer. Dancoff, of course, died early.

Sherwin: Yes.

Goldberger: Serber, much longer than Morrison, more powerfully than Christy.

Sherwin: You mean in physics?

Goldberger: In physics, as a theoretical physicist. I am thinking of the Oppenheimer students that I know. Serber was really not his student, you know.

Sherwin: I know.

Goldberger: He already had a Ph.D.

Sherwin: Yeah, yeah.

Goldberger: Murph claims that all of Oppenheimer’s best work was really done by Serber. Oppenheimer was not very nice to his students. David Bohm, for example, didn’t get much help from him. Rossi Lomanitz also didn’t get [help.] He was one of that gang, but he never got [help.] Joe Weinberg didn’t get any help from Oppenheimer in his hour of need. Frank Oppenheimer didn’t get any help.

Sherwin: Politically speaking, no, right.

Goldberger: Very peripheral people in the Physics Department at Princeton could depend on the Chairman of the Department for support, no matter what they were accused of doing.

Sherwin: Although there is the story of—who was it that was banned from the Princeton campus who I spoke to?

Goldberger: Well, they behaved badly about Dave Bohm, who was their—

Sherwin: Yeah, Bohm. 

Goldberger: By the time we were in Princeton, then the department would coalesce and make a solid shield around the weak member. There was no letting people sink or swim on their own. Oppenheimer was not notorious for protecting his people or getting them good jobs or taking care of them. An example is a physicist. I will give you his name, Hal Lewis. I don’t know if you have talk to him or not.

Sherwin: No, I haven’t talked to him.

Goldberger: He is in Santa Barbara. The year that Murph was getting his PhD in Chicago, Hal Lewis was the hottest thing going in physics. I remember with what sort of exquisite pain we were invited to meet Hal Lewis at the Fermi’s when he came to give the seminar that would precede his being offered the assistant professorship at Chicago. We were dying to stay. In fact, Murph then was invited back, but we couldn’t know at that time.

Hal was, Murph says, of that cohort, one of the best and the brightest. Oppenheimer just let him go down the drain. He went to Berkeley, left at the time of the [loyalty] oath, finished his degree with Oppenheimer, actually. I think he had started in Berkeley and then followed Oppie to the Institute. He was being offered jobs at the time that I was speaking of it then. Then later, when he left, he came to the Institute as a visitor and wound up at Bell Labs, which was not a good place for the theoretical physicist at that time, and especially not one of Hal’s particular set of interests. He just somehow got turned off.

Sherwin: Was he politically involved?

Goldberger: No, not a bit. Less political than any physicist I know. He has had a funny kind of career for the last twenty years, which should have included some of his most productive years, you know, when you start publishing the books based on your early insights and solidify things, was garbage for him. He was once very much liked. He is not even very much liked anymore.

Because of my prejudice probably more than the fact, I feel that there was an appropriate moment where Oppenheimer could have stepped in and gotten him the job that he should have had, instead of just sort of letting him flounder, which is more or less what happened.

Sherwin: I would like to go back to the sort of the community of dinner parties and the activities.

Goldberger: Yes.

Sherwin: Was this in Princeton?

Goldberger: Yes.

Sherwin: But Kitty never fit into this?

Goldberger: No. She had the enormous prestige of being Mrs. Robert Oppenheimer. Mostly she was feared, rather than disliked. Why she was feared, I have no idea, because should couldn’t touch anybody at the university. She didn’t swing that much weight in the community. In fact, Murph’s second job, post-doc, was a $3,000 a year research appointment at MIT. I had a one-year-old baby, whom I would walk in this carriage or in his stroller. Down the street was a couple named Compton, I think, Danforth Compton. He was an architect. She was the daughter of Luther P. Eisenhart, the algebraist who was Dean of the Graduate College at Princeton.

 We got into conversation with these two little babies in the cart. “Where are you from?”

 “Oh,” she said she was from Princeton.

I said, “Oh, gosh, we now a lot of people there, mostly at the Institute.” She said, “Oh, the Institute.” She said, “Princeton was once a lovely community, really, you have no idea. It was just a perfectly lovely community. And then [Abraham] Flexner arrived, putting his hands all over everybody as he talked.”

She said the worst thing, of course, was when they brought the Oppenheimers. She said, “Do you know that people left cards on them and they never returned the calls.”

But they never somehow cared about that part of Princeton, which in our experience was really the best part. People like Henry DeWolf Smyth and his wife Mary, who was an Armour, and Allen Shenstone.

Sherwin: Who is Armor?

Goldberger: Of the Armour family, something like that. Chicago blue blood.

Sherwin: I see.

Goldberger: Those people moved in an atmosphere as free as the one we felt we moved in, as unlimited with respect to race, status, and previous condition of servitude. They seemed, for example, not to notice whether people were Jewish or not. I am sure that’s a false impression.

It was the arriviste in Princeton who expressed the middle class prejudices. But the old Princetonians had their funny ways of calls with cards left and the corners bent down, and bread and butter letters on engraved stationary, and so on. But they were people of real character, intelligence, and accomplishment. Smyth was a very good example. A really good record on any critical issue.

Sherwin: Yes.

Goldberger: They never put a foot wrong, it seems to me. Maybe I am looking through glasses too rosy. It [00:33:00] seemed to me that Oppenheimer never understood those people and that they—the Oppenheimers, as a kind of social unit—never understand the deference that those people were owed from accomplishment.

Sherwin: Yes, that’s true. It goes back a long way. Oppenheimer once wrote a letter to a friend after visiting Princeton—this was in the 1930s—which was very disdainful of the whole atmosphere.

I would guess when that he arrived there triumphantly from having been the father of the atomic bomb and that sort of thing, the last thing in the world he was about to do was pay any deference to people because of social status.

Goldberger: Well they had social status, but that really wasn’t what mattered. What mattered about people like Smyth particularly—

Sherwin: I didn’t mean Smyth so much as—

Goldberger: Well, Smyth was in fact a member of that community by birth, and he moved in and out of it very freely.

Sherwin: I see.

Goldberger: And there were others of the same—I mean, there was a guy named Abbot Low Moffat, who had been in the Foreign Service. A lot of people like that came to Princeton. They were alumni. It was a good place to retire to. There were lots of their opposite numbers.

The Oppenheimers didn’t understand that there were variations among this crowd. The euphemism for “Jew” in Princeton was “New Yorker.” You talked about those people—

Sherwin: That’s true in the South, too.

Goldberger: Yeah. “Those people from New York.” The Oppenheimers were—without realizing at all—almost exactly what those people meant when they talked about “those people from New York,” that Princeton wasn’t good enough for them. They were always importing celebrities.

What I am giving you, of course, is at one remove. I was perfectly happy at the university, and never particularly wanted to be part of this old Princeton crowd. We never really were.

Again, Murph was very much loved by some of these older guys in Princeton. I don’t know how well you know him, but Murph is a wonderful man. He really is.

Sherwin: I don’t know him well, but I have always liked him. I guess for that reason.

Goldberger: In fact, I was reading a review of a biography of George Marshall published recently. He behaves the way Marshall is described as behaving. After all the trouble that [General George] Patton gave him, taking Patton’s part. After the really ugly way that [General Douglas] MacArthur behaved toward him, congratulating McArthur on triumphs and so on. After Eisenhower let Marshall be traduced by [Senator Joseph] McCarthy, writing him a congratulatory letter on his reelection.

That’s the way Murph behaves. But I am a good hater, and I don’t do that part. These old guys saw that quality in Murph and appreciated it. I don’t know how much effort it caused them to overlook his being a Jew born in Youngstown, Ohio. I never saw any evidence of that.

I am not talking about Oppenheimer. I am talking about Murph. But it is relevant because Oppenheimer in his rejection, overdid it, prevented those people from holding up the hand of friendship and so on and so on. Though Smyth, who is another hero, was a speaker at the memorial service for Oppenheimer and supported him, of course, in the hearings and took his part with wonderful dignity and sanity.

Sherwin: Of course, a lot of that was taking apart a certain vision of the science community.

Goldberger: Yes.

Sherwin: People supported Oppenheimer who didn’t even like him because he became a symbol of what they were trying to do to science.

Goldberger: This is completely irrelevant, but it’s a very funny story. Abe, the latex guy, Spinell—

Sherwin: Who I don’t know.

Goldberger: Do you remember those Latex International advertisements that were essentially editorials? Oh, it’s now fifteen, twenty years ago. They used to appear in the National Press, like the Mobile.

Sherwin: Yes, yes.

Goldberger: Those were all written by Spinell, even after he sold the company. He got them to support that as a public service. Spinell was a kind of patron of science, and [Leo] Szilard was a good friend of his. He used to come to Princeton to see him.

He gave a dinner party for Ed and Emily Condon one night that we were invited to. I was eager enough to see the Condons that I went by myself, which I usually often wouldn’t do. There was at the party a younger couple. I don’t know, they were probably friends of Condon’s son or something like that.

A young and very innocent faculty wife talking with Condon. In fact, the subject was the Condons' persecution by HUAC [House Un-American Activities Committee], which as you know went on for years and really made their lives very miserable. This woman said, “Professor Condon, you know, I never knew any of this. Well, my God!” she said, “They really practically crucified you.”

And Condon said, “I am too fat to crucify.”

That was very much to the point about Oppenheimer. Oppenheimer acted out with some attention to the details of the role. The crucified figure, the tragic figure. Condon never did. He just kept on doing physics.

Sherwin: Also kept on stating his views publicly. That is one of the greatest disappointments of Oppenheimer. He could have used what they did to him to advantage.

Goldberger: That’s right.

Sherwin: As a platform for, in a sense, going public on the arms issues and the arms races.

Goldberger: Exactly.

Sherwin: But in a sense, it’s a pattern. At each point where he was rejected, he, in a sense, crawled away. Earlier with his brother, Frank, you had mention that. It’s too bad, you know. You can have a lot of qualities, but nobody has all of them.

Goldberger: Right, yeah. He had to win. He had to win in a conversation by being more learned in your field if you were philologist or an economist or an Assyrian epigrapher. He had to show you how deep his insights were.

Sherwin: Did you have any sort of evenings with him where this quality came out?

Goldberger: One actually endearingly funny thing that he did once. After inevitably feeling as he did about Murph, the Oppenheimers and the Goldbergers saw something of one another, though we were never really—until the very end.

At the very end, Kitty in desperation would call Murph or me early in the morning and say, “Please, come over this afternoon. Robert is so low. And bring Joe.” We had one of those sunny, charming, little kids who just made people feel good. He was very darling and very well behaved, and very sensitive to other people. Kitty could pretend—

Sherwin: How old was he at this time?

Goldberger: Oh, nine, something like that. He was just adorable. Everybody loved him. Kitty would say, “Bring Joe.” Kitty could pretend to be Joe’s grandmother, aunt. I remember her teaching him to pot Cymbidium orchids, doing something really rather nice. He has a kind of funny thumb. She said, “That’s an orchid potter’s thumb. Look, I have one, too.” So maybe once or twice a week, in the last spring of his life, we would be told to bring our bathing suits.

Sherwin: That would be spring of ’66?

Goldberger: Something like that.

Sherwin: Or ’67.

Goldberger: That was the time when we saw—

Sherwin: Was he still living at the Institute?

Goldberger: He was still in, yeah, in Olden Manor. This was before they moved to the little house. He never lived in the little house, in fact.

Sherwin: No, I think he did.

Goldberger: No, I know where he went. He went to the house that had been built by Hermann Weyl.

Sherwin: I know he moved a lot.

Goldberger: On Mercer Street.

Sherwin: On Mercer?

Goldberger: Yeah.

Sherwin: Not Nassau? Mercer?

Goldberger: Mercer. It had been bought by [Chen-Ning] Frank Yang when Frank came to the Institute. The Yangs had lived there. Then it was used for distinguished visitors for a while. The Oppenheimers’ house on Institute grounds was still being built, and they had to leave Olden Manor so the Kaysens could move in.

Oppenheimer died in that little house. It is not such a little house anyway. It was a Bauhaus house with very severe—I guess it was stucco or concrete on the outside. Speaking of the 1930s with every view.

But this was the last spring and summer in Olden Manor. That was really the only time that we had what felt to me like a family friendship. But we saw them at dinner parties and things like that. They never came to our house, but we would go there for various kinds of mostly official occasions.

In Oppenheimer’s last years as director, when he was trying to hire some of the superstars of Murph’s generation—Francis Low and Murray Gell-Mann—the Oppenheimer’s would have small theoretical physics dinner parties for those people, and we would sometimes be there. But on this occasion, it was one of the larger parties for the visitors at the Institute.

It was, a lot of it, peripheral. I was standing in the hall talking to a Japanese couple. I have no idea what I was telling them. The line had thinned, and I hadn’t noticed it. Robert came along and said to me, “If you can tear yourself away from your role as a member of the Royal Household, you can go in and pick up some supper.” Which was right on the button. I mean, he was right about me. I was being “charming,” in quotation marks.

Sherwin: But he was being his usual, little cutting remarks?

Goldberger: Exactly, and it wasn’t right.

Sherwin: “Mildred,” you know.

Goldberger: Yeah, yeah, “Come off it.”

Sherwin: He gets it.

Goldberger: Right, but he didn’t like me well enough to do that, if you know what I mean. It’s the kind of thing you do to a very intimate friend of whom you are so fond that an insult is like a caress. He didn’t feel that way about me.

Sherwin: How about Kitty? Did you spend very much time with her?

Goldberger: No, not really. I didn’t want to. I thought she was pretentious and shallow. I had heard enough stories about her that I would—I wasn’t frightened. I mean, I knew she couldn’t hurt me, but she really was not by then attractive at all. I gather there were moments. Well, there must have been, because she had this crew of birds with broken wings, and you don’t attract that by being ugly and mean. She had to have offered them something. I never saw that something.

I never saw anything lovely or marvelous or attractive. The only thing I saw of her that had any glamour or interest was that she was Mrs. Robert Oppenheimer. I mean, we did share an interest in gardening, but hers was restricted to orchids and mine was directed to flowers that grow in the spring.

Sherwin: Well, she had a greenhouse.

Goldberger: Yeah.

Sherwin: As a matter of fact, some years ago at Princeton a neighbor of mine who is a geologist came across the street with a little pot, a clay pot, with a little flower growing out of it. I forget what it is. I’m looking around to see if you have one. It’s a very weird plant. It’s a leaf that looks almost like a large bay leaf.

Goldberger: Yes.

Sherwin: It grows roots and then more leaves come out of it. He said, “This is a grandson of an Oppenheimer plant,” that Kitty had given this plant to a friend of his. A friend of his had given him a plant. Now, he was giving me one. He realized I had just started this Oppenheimer project. I swept it up in Princeton and took it to Boston.

Goldberger: Mother of Millions?

Sherwin: I wouldn’t know, although my wife has recently gotten involved.

Goldberger: One of the things, as you speak, was Kitty’s lack of generosity. I mean, she was not. They were obviously much richer than any of the other physicists. Oppenheimer had been very generous with his students. But Oppenheimer hospitality and the Oppenheimers were not generous people.

This sounds like I am complaining about not receiving something from them, which is not what I mean at all. That kind of gift is no gift, is what I am saying. If someone gives you such a plant, you say “Thank you,” and you give it to the cleaning woman. I’m serious.

Sherwin: I don’t know how this plant eventually got, you know—

Goldberger: It would be embarrassing for someone with a greenhouse to give such a plant. It should have been.

Sherwin: I don’t know who she gave it to.

Goldberger: Yeah, exactly. Maybe it was somebody who snitched a leaf on the way through the greenhouse. But by the time I knew her, by the way, there wasn’t anything much left of the greenhouse.

Sherwin: It had petered out?

Goldberger: Yeah, well, let me tell you a funny story about Kitty, though. Not about Kitty. It’s really about Freeman Dyson’s mother, Lady Dyson, whose husband was the Director of the Royal College of Music, a famous organist, a British organist. Lady Dyson came to visit Freeman and I didn’t realize it until we saw them at a big Institute party. I said, “Freeman, I know you haven’t been taking your mother around to do any sightseeing. I will do that.” In fact, I think his mother and sister were both there.

So I did what one does, one did as the wife of the Chairman of the Physics Department for any distinguished visitor’s wife. I arranged a lunch party for her someplace, and then took a tour of the campus and so on and so on. As we were walking through the campus, we were on our way to the Graphic Arts collection in the library, which was then run by a very charming gent. You would ask him. You would say, “Do you have any Leonard Baskins?” He would bring you a folder like this of original lithographs and drawings.

That’s where we were going. As we were walking through the campus, I said, “That’s the Chapel that was built by imported Italian stonemasons in the ‘20s and ‘30s.” I said, “It has a rather well thought of organ, and the organist is Carl Weinrich.”

Lady Dyson said, “That’s a convincing name for an organist.”

But I had picked her up at the Oppenheimers’, because Kitty had been present when I said I wanted to do something for her. Kitty said she would like to join us. So she said, “You will come for coffee, and then we will go on.” I picked her up. Kitty said she wasn’t coming. She pulled out a drawing or a watercolor and put her thumb over the signature and asked Lady Dyson and me to guess who had painted it. Now, I don’t make myself out to be an art expert. I just gave up and so did Lady Dyson. She pulled up her thumb, and it was the A with the D inside, of [Albrecht] Durer. And it was a pastoral landscape, very unlike anything one thinks of as a Durer.

Then Lady Dyson and I went out to the car. Lady Dyson: “I don’t know how that woman expected us to recognize that as a Durer.” She said, “It looked like the sort of thing anyone’s maiden aunt might have done.” That’s really not a story about Kitty, except that it’s again this kind of taking every opportunity to do what? What is that? I don’t know what it [00:09:00] is.

Sherwin: Well, that’s sort of a Robert type of trick.

Goldberger: Right, right, but transmuted, because Robert was smart. Robert would have found a direct connection that would have made it important for that particular person to be shown that particular drawing. Kitty wasn’t smart enough. She let you see the machinery in a funny way. Does that give you the flavor of the relationship?

Sherwin: Yeah, it does. Were there occasions where Kitty was ever at a Princeton Physics Department activity?

Goldberger: I can’t remember their ever coming to our house. Although Murph and I felt that we were invited there so often, that we ought at least to make the effort. When we had a sufficiently distinguished group or party, we would invite them. Instead of picking up the phone, as I did with the other guests, I would pretend that I had sent out cards and write a card, to which we never got even the response of a secretary’s telephone call. In the end, we didn’t expect it.

But there was an occasion in which Murph had to go to Washington on a train about ten o’clock in the evening and had explained this to whoever called, the secretary or Kitty. It had been insisted that we should come anyway. I forget but it was some visitor from out of town, a physicist undoubtedly. There were tables in two rooms. There was a relatively large dinner party.

Murph said, “I am going to have to leave early.”

“Oh, that isn’t early. We will be through. It’s a very early dinner party. We will be through long before that.”

In fact, we got up when people were drinking coffee and went to the table where Kitty was sitting to tell her thank you. In a very loud voice, Kitty said to me, “You have a new house that everybody’s talking about. Why haven’t you invited me to see it?” Well, of course, she had by that time maybe four invitations. There is really nothing one can say.

If I hadn’t been sort of from the beginning not worried about her—I mean, I saw how people felt destroyed by her. If I had been what she thought I was—which was, you know, the sort of very undistinguished wife of a brilliant young physicist, married young, and beneath him in some way, and easily injured, and insecure about my social status—it would have wiped me out. 

I wouldn’t have known what to say. I had friends who had that experience. But when I say it didn’t bother me, it’s hard to describe. It bothers you to see malice, just pointless, unfocused malice. It’s like people walking on the street and seeing somebody mugged.

Sherwin: Just ignoring it.

Goldberger: You can’t trust your environment. So to that extent, that kind of behavior is very disturbing.

Sherwin: I think of her in this context as a coiled snake getting ready to strike.

Goldberger: Yeah, that’s right. In fact, she couldn’t get me. I was wearing snake proof boots, Kitty proof boots [laughter.] But to see somebody’s sort of willingness to injure—I guess I won’t say it didn’t bother me. It bothered me in a deep way. It didn’t bother me.

Sherwin: Did you ever know any of the secretaries that Oppenheimer had?

Goldberger: Yes, a couple of them. One was a good friend, Priscilla Duffield.

Sherwin: She’s in Colorado now, is she?

Goldberger: I don’t know where they are. She was, of course, there during the war and before the war. Then there was the woman who was his secretary during the time of the incident. I can’t remember her name, but one was aware of her. Priscilla was great.

Sherwin: Kate—

Goldberger: Murph would know.

Sherwin: Well, I spoke to one of them at great length. It was a very interesting conversation, who lives up in Maine. Priscilla Duffield is somebody who I would like to talk to.

Goldberger: I think he got along well with those women. Priscilla was very [inaudible]. I can’t believe that anybody gets pleasure from being close to the seat of power. It’s not anything to be ashamed of, nothing one can be critical about. It’s nice to know things that are interesting, to meet famous people, but not just to meet them, to have some interaction with them and see what they are like, and so on. I am as guilty of that as anybody else.