If Kitty Oppenheimer were immortalized as a paper doll in the manner of Mary Todd Lincoln, Pin-up Girls of World War II, or Ladies of the Titanic, her costumes and props might include:
• Boots, jodhpurs, a handsome horse
By age fourteen, German-born Kitty Puening, resident of Aspinwall, Pennsylvania, had already distinguished herself as an accomplished—and fearless—equestrian.
• Daily Worker
Emblem of her one-time Communist Party affiliation and hawking-copies duties as a Party member in Youngstown, Ohio.
• Cigarettes (pack or carton)
A nicotine assist for trying days, first to last.
• Jeans and Brooks Brothers shirt
Everyday wear during her two-year, four-month stint on a New Mexico mesa.
• Blue Cadillac
Notice-me wheels shared with husband Oppie in Los Alamos.
• Martini glass
—And a spare, to cover breakage.
• Plaster cast, crutches
To treat the results of multiple trips and falls.
• Black suit, black hat, white gloves
For somber occasions, such as the 1963 White House ceremony in which her politically persecuted husband, as a token of amends, received the Fermi Award for his service to science.
• Potted orchid
A product of her Princeton greenhouse and grievance token of the professional botanist she never became.
• Sailing togs, sunglasses
For those joyful occasions when the Oppenheimers escaped physics and politics and took to the sea from their second home on St. John, U.S. Virgin Islands; to represent the Widow Oppenheimer’s unvarying outfit as she sailed her fifty-two-foot ketch Moonraker in the company of her late husband’s best pal, Robert Serber.
Rounding off the paper doll effects, there might also be a neck placard bearing the words “Wife of,” because had Katherine Puening Ramseyer Dallet Harrison Oppenheimer not in her fourth marital adventure become the spouse of the theoretical physicist considered the “father of the atomic bomb,” few would recognize her name or have the opportunity as readers to presume they understood the dips and swerves of her particular personality as posterity records it.
In kinder treatments, Kitty Oppenheimer is judged an unhappy, unfulfilled woman. The kindly do not carry the day. By and large those who revered Robert Oppenheimer thought much less of Kitty. For the contingent who considered Oppie a tortured saint, Kitty failed to measure up. In their view, more harm-mate than helpmate, Kitty’s behavior and demands further taxed Oppie’s already overtaxed organism, brilliant mind, and sensitive nature. Rather than comfort on the home front, she offered chaos. Other strikes against her: volatility, snootiness, selfishness, insobriety. She was a bad mother, a bad daughter. She had a scathing tongue. She abused friendships. She could never be without a man. She had been a Communist, thereby imperiling, throughout the Oppenheimers’ relationship, the career and effectiveness of her philosopher/scientist/statesman mate. All in all: not the life partner their Robert deserved. On the other hand, Kitty’s few defenders describe her as vivacious, quick-witted, bracingly intelligent—a fun gal to be around. Matters on which both sides agree: Kitty’s supreme devotion to Oppie, the ferocity of her loyalty and support during the Atomic Energy Commission’s battering of her husband and revocation of his security clearance, and her deep, abiding hatred for all who contributed to Oppie’s takedown, physicist Edward Teller prime among that batch. And because in any compilation there is always a minority-minority opinion, representing those who disliked the Oppenheimers equally, mathematician Mildred Goldberger, who labeled Oppie “a self-hating Jew who had to marry an anti-Semite to prove to himself that he was right” (“Manhattan Project Voices”).
But before there existed a Robert and Kitty alliance to defend or disparage, there was Kitty the only child, Kitty the school girl, Kitty in marriages one, two, and three. With engineer father Franz and mother Kaethe Vissering Puening, Kitty crossed the Atlantic by ship as a toddler in 1912 or 1913 (accounts differ). Left behind were such relatives as Kaethe’s sister Hilde, who would work on Nazi propaganda films, and first cousin once removed Wilhelm Keitel, who would lead the German Armed Forces High Command, a fanatical Hitlerite to the end. Kitty’s immediate family of three immigrated to America for reasons of opportunity. The inventor of a new model of blast furnace, Franz believed he would prosper financially in the United States and did so, first at Koppers, a chemical and material company in Pittsburgh. In the Pittsburgh suburb of Aspinwall, young Kitty mastered a second language with ease, competed in horse shows, met with both social and academic success, and returned to Europe regularly with her parents, a cosmopolitan child. Commentators disagree about which parent fed Kitty tales of her royal heritage; those commentators also disagree about the legitimacy of the claim. In any event, Kitty Puening came of age believing in her blue blood lineage and all-around specialness. In 1928, she entered the University of Pittsburgh but continued to live at home. Bored or restless or both, she convinced her parents to fund a solo trip to Europe in 1930, where she may or may not have continued her studies (accounts differ) and met the man who would become her first groom: Frank Ramseyer, Harvard grad, jazz enthusiast, musician. Their whirlwind Parisian romance ended in a whirlwind divorce. After reading her new husband’s diary, Kitty concluded she’d married a drug-addicted homosexual and made haste to extract herself from the union. Back in Pittsburgh, she met husband number two: Dartmouth dropout, committed Communist Joe Dallet, a handsome, poetry-quoting union organizer for whom she felt immediate “awe” and “instantly…turned on whatever it is that makes some women irresistible to men,” according to biographers Shirley Streshinsky and Patricia Klaus. If, at the start of their relationship, Dallet felt similarly enthralled, he hid the sentiment well. His clinical rundown of Kitty’s attributes in a 1934 letter to his mother (after his mother inquired): “Pretty good head. Plays good bridge. Rather slight of build, tho well-proportioned. Weight about 112” (Streshinsky and Klaus, An Atomic Love Story). As Dallet’s legal, or, in the FBI’s classification, common-law wife, Kitty lived with Dallet for two years in an Ohio rooming house, adopted her mate’s politics, joined the Communist Party, distributed agitprop at factory gates and on the streets, taught English to workers, and served as Dallet’s gofer. Then she tired of the setup, announcing to Dallet and their comrade Steve Nelson that she could “no longer live under such conditions.” Her parents had relocated to England, and she joined them there. Although she’d taken a break from the relationship, she wasn’t done with it. Nor was Dallet. He sent numerous letters that, for a time, Kaethe successfully intercepted. (As reported by Jennet Conant in 109 East Palace, Anne Wilson, one of Oppie’s secretaries and no great fan of Kitty’s, had worse to say of Kaethe: “She was a real dragon, a very hard, repressive woman.”) Having discovered her mother’s meddling—and infuriated by it—Kitty opted to return to Joe. After a brief reunion in Paris, he left to fight the fascists in Spain. Absence made his heart grow fonder. “Each time up in the lines that I see a fascist, I am sure that I’ll be more effective if I say to myself: ‘That bastard is trying to keep you away from Kitty.’ So I’ll say it and do my job right” (Letters from Spain, May 18, 1937). It was Kitty’s intention to join him, the plan in play, when Dallet was killed. Streshinsky and Klaus report that Kitty told unnamed “friends…she would never stop loving Joe.” Biographer Conant offers up a specific source, Kitty’s Los Alamos drinking buddy Shirley Barnett. Dallet, Barnett believed, “was the great love of her life,” his death a shock Kitty “never really got over.” A case might be made that Joe Dallet was for Kitty what Jean Tatlock, physician, psychiatrist, and Communist Party member, was for Oppie: the love that got, or was taken, away: Dallet by war, Tatlock by suicidal depression.
Following Dallet’s death, the worse for wear, Kitty returned to the U.S. Finally on track to finish her undergraduate degree—this go-around as a student at the University of Pennsylvania—she reconnected with Stewart Harrison, Oxford grad, radiologist, and Caltech researcher, when he blew through town. Harrison proposed; twenty-eight-year-old Kitty negotiated. She’d agree to another name change if he agreed to her remaining in Pennsylvania for the duration of her undergraduate work and thereafter to her pursuing a doctorate at UCLA. Harrison accepted Kitty’s terms, and for the first six months of the ill-starred match lived apart from his wife. Once in California, per the agreed-upon agenda, Kitty entered graduate school. Harrison’s friends and colleagues, eager to meet the new missus at last, hosted an August garden party. And there, in the bright Pasadena sun, Kitty encountered her fourth and final husband, the very tall, very slim, wunderkind physicist who held a dual professorship at Caltech and UC Berkeley, a man of such personal charm and magnetism that “male, female, almost everybody,” in the words of his Berkeley colleague Harold Cherniss, “fell in love with him” (Streshinsky and Klaus). Mrs. Harrison followed suit, her PhD goal put on permanent hold.
Accounts of Kitty and Oppie’s fast-paced affair, Kitty’s pregnancy, her Reno divorce from Harrison and same day exchange of I do’s with Oppie, range from judicious (“The involvement was apparently immediate and intense.”—biographer Richard Rhodes) to exasperated (“It was such a bad, stupid marriage…. I don’t think he had terribly good taste in women.”—another of Oppie’s secretaries, Priscilla Greene) to sexist (i.e., the successful manipulations of a conniving woman). “People,” writes biographer Conant, “were moved to judge [Kitty] more harshly…because of the way she threw herself across [Oppie’s] path and forced his hand in marriage” (109 East Palace). In the Oppenheimer biography American Prometheus, Kai Bird and Martin Sherwin describe the object of Kitty’s pursuit—also known for getting his way—dialing up Stewart Harrison to announce Kitty’s pregnancy and, at the end of that chat, securing Harrison’s pledge “to divorce Kitty” so that Oppie “could marry her. It was all very civilized.” Civilized, perhaps, but without protest? Conant in 109 East Palace reports that Harrison feared “a divorce might ruin a rising doctor,” suggesting that his professional, if not personal, preference might have been to drag his heels. However smooth or bumpy the process, Kitty scored another divorce. A single lass for mere hours, she then wed the man she’d stick by for better (American hero) and worse (American scapegoat) in the Virginia City, Nevada, courthouse, their marriage vows witnessed by a court janitor and local clerk, Kitty’s baby bump on proud display (Streshinsky and Klaus).
In their first joint home at 1 Eagle Hill in the Berkeley Hills, Kitty settled into the role of wife of an academic star, thrilled by her husband’s status and success, less thrilled with motherhood. Peter Oppenheimer, born in 1941, would not be the focus of either of his parents’ lives. The new couple entertained often and well, pre-dinner drinks a round of Robert’s potent and legendary martinis. Several biographers enthuse about both Kitty’s and Robert’s culinary talents, but not everyone left the table happy. In Something Incredibly Wonderful Happens: Frank Oppenheimer and His Astonishing Exploratorium, K.C. Cole records Frank’s wife’s complaint that “there was never enough to eat” at her brother-in-law’s dinners. The Oppenheimer wives did not bond. Like her husband, Jackie Oppenheimer was a Communist Party member; Kitty’s “aristocratic pretensions” pissed her off (Streshinsky and Klaus). In J. Robert Oppenheimer, the Cold War and the Atomic West, Jon Hunner replays a lengthier Jackie rant: “Kitty was a schemer…. She was a phony. All her political convictions were phony, all her ideas borrowed.” For the still un-persuaded, Kitty’s sister-in-law kicked her criticism up another notch: “She’s one of the few really evil people I’ve known in my life.”
At Eagle Hill, the Oppenheimers welcomed such guests as Steve Nelson—Joe Dallet’s comrade, Kitty’s friend, and soon Oppie’s friend. They contributed to various “leftwing” causes, including aid to California’s migrant workers. They were put under surveillance by the U.S. government, and Robert continued to visit Jean Tatlock—with Kitty’s knowledge, if not enthusiastic consent, according to Robert Serber (“Manhattan Project Voices”). Oppie also maintained what Streshinsky and Klaus label a “close emotional bond”—other biographers have labeled it an affair—with clinical psychologist Ruth Tolman, wife of friend and Caltech colleague Richard Tolman. Despite having to share her husband’s affections, Kitty, for once, seemed relatively content. And when General Leslie Groves came calling, convinced, despite Oppie’s Communist associations, that Oppie was the man to direct the Los Alamos Laboratory in its race to build an atomic bomb, Kitty shared her husband’s enthusiasm and ambition, delighted at the bounce in prestige and Oppie’s ascendancy to the world stage. As far as Army base accommodations, hadn’t they always enjoyed roughing it at Oppie’s primitive cabin in the Pecos Mountains, not far, as the crow flew, from the mesa they’d now be calling home? How bad could it be, living in Los Alamos?
Already occupying the soon to be top-secret site: the Los Alamos Ranch School, founded in 1917 to toughen up rich, frail boys not unlike the rich, frail boy Robert Oppenheimer had been. Twelve years before the U.S. government commandeered the school and its property, fifteen-year-old William Burroughs counted as one of the students required to wear shorts year round, hike, camp, build trails, clean his room, and make his bed at a tuition cost of $2,400 per year. Burroughs’s dis of the institution appears in his essay collection The Adding Machine:
Far away and high on the mesa’s crest I was forced to become a Boy Scout, eat everything on my plate, exercise before breakfast, sleep on a porch in zero weather, stay outside all afternoon, ride a sullen, spiteful, recalcitrant horse twice a week and all day on Saturday…. I was always cold and hated my horse.
Subsequent targets of Burroughs’s hatred: Robert Oppenheimer and the man, from Burroughs’s home state, who gave the executive order to deploy what the Los Alamos Laboratory produced.
In April 1943, the director’s family moved into what would be their home until October 1945: a log and stone cottage previously assigned to Ranch School faculty, Master’s Cottage #2, renamed T-111 by the Army. To “facilitate the social role of the director,” the Army Corps of Engineers slightly enlarged the original 1,200-square-foot house, adding a new kitchen and converting the old kitchen into a dining room (“Historic Structure Report for the J. Robert Oppenheimer House”). The Oppenheimers whitewashed the walls and, as they had in Berkeley and would again in Princeton, took a less-is-more approach to décor. To the eye of Louis Hempelmann, the Oppenheimers’ close friend and physician, “all of their places were always very stark. They both had marvelous taste and they had marvelous things, but (their homes) were just as stark as they could be” (“Manhattan Project Voices”). At T-111 cocktail parties, as elsewhere on the mesa, drinkers got drunk faster due to the mesa’s 7,500-foot altitude.
Restricted and restrictive, Los Alamos forms the backdrop of much of Kitty’s negative press. Kitty “would pick a pet, one of the wives, and be extraordinarily friendly with her, and then drop her for no reason,” recalled Emily Morrison, wife of physicist Philip Morrison. “She could be a very bewitching person, but she was someone to be wary of” (Conant). Kitty did not thrive in what biographer Conant describes as the “small-town clubbiness that characterized life on an isolated army post.” Kitty and Oppie had brought their horses with them, and Kitty rode often but less than she would have liked with her preoccupied and overworked husband. She had time on her hands—too much time. Bored or lonely or antsy—or a combination of the three—Kitty ignored gas-rationing edicts and fled gated Los Alamos in a pickup truck, driving full-throttle down the switchback mountain road and on to Santa Fe, a thirty-five-mile, one-way journey. Destination: La Fonda Hotel bar.
What might have seemed in theory a grand adventure, day in and out proved challenging. Water was scarce on the mesa, electrical power uncertain. The commissary stocked less-than-fresh fruits and veggies. The secrecy of the project meant husbands couldn’t talk about their work with wives, wives couldn’t reveal to relatives where they lived. No outsiders were allowed to visit “The Hill.” All mail was censored. Kitty was far from the only wife feeling besieged and struggling to adjust. In her essay from the book she co-edited, Standing By and Making Do: Women of Wartime Los Alamos, Jane Wilson lays bare the situation:
In the mountains of New Mexico the women aged. We aged from day to day…. We had few of the conveniences which most of us had taken for granted in the past. No mailman, no milkman, no laundryman, no paper boy knocked at our doors…. Everything had to be reported to the Security Officer. Living at Los Alamos was something like living in jail.
When Kitty got sloshed, she would “divulge extremely personal details about her sex life” to other women, including how she had to “teach” her husband the art of foreplay and encourage him to treat sex as “fun” (Streshinsky and Klaus). Having fun while having sex or just having sex, the Oppenheimers, like many couples cooped up on The Hill, conceived a wartime child. Katherine, known as Toni, was born in the Los Alamos hospital in December 1944. After the births of both her children, Kitty exhibited symptoms that suggest postpartum depression. In Berkeley, Kitty had experienced “a bad pregnancy and delivery” with Peter that left her “exhausted,” according to Haakon Chevalier (“Manhattan Project Voices”). Chevalier gives further details in his book Story of a Friendship: Oppie “felt that Kitty badly needed a thorough rest” at Perro Caliente, Robert’s New Mexico ranch. Assisted by a nurse hired by the Oppenheimers, the Chevaliers stepped in and took care of infant Peter in his parents’ absence. Following Toni’s birth in Los Alamos, Kitty also struggled to regain equilibrium. “The pediatrician’s wife came to visit and was alarmed by Kitty’s languour. The house seemed morose,” reports Streshinsky and Klaus. “Kitty spent her days with drapes drawn, stretched out on the sofa.” Eventually Kitty, with Peter in tow, went to stay with her parents in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. During Kitty’s three-month absence, Toni lived with and was cared for by Pat Sherr, another Los Alamos wife and mother. Visiting his daughter, Robert asked whether Sherr might like to adopt Toni; appalled, Sherr refused. In the opinion of Robert Strunsky, a later acquaintance of the Oppenheimers: “I think to be a child of Robert and Kitty Oppenheimer is to have one of the greatest handicaps in the world” (Hunner).
At the end of the war, disinclined to return to teaching, Robert accepted the directorship of Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Study, and the family, horses, and dog moved to a three-story colonial house with gardens known as Olden Manor, a short stroll from Robert’s new office. Simultaneously serving as chair of the General Advisory Committee of the Atomic Energy Commission, Oppenheimer would run increasingly afoul of those who believed the more bombs the better as he argued against building a hydrogen bomb and in favor of international arms control. However beloved by a certain set of scientists, academics, and government officials, another set (J. Edgar Hoover, Lewis Strauss et al.), incensed by Robert Oppenheimer’s beliefs and offended by his personal arrogance, formed an enemy bloc that ultimately resulted in the revocation of security clearance for the former director of top-secret Los Alamos Laboratory.
With her husband and his lawyer, Kitty attended the first morning session of the security hearings on crutches, her “face splotched from a recent outbreak of measles” (Streshinsky and Klaus). Thereafter she would be allowed in only as testifying witness. Asked by panel chair Gordon Gray: “Mrs. Oppenheimer, how did you leave the Communist Party?”, Kitty answered: “By walking away.” Pressed to explain, why then, she continued to be seen in the company of Communists, Kitty answered: “I left the Communist Party. I did not leave my past, the friendships, just like that.” It was a friendship tutorial that failed to persuade the panel but won her points outside those chambers. In a break from the usual pattern, during this extended patch of stressful reality, Kitty drew praise from Oppie’s circle. Princeton mathematician Freeman Dyson described her as “a tower of strength to us as she was to Robert” (Hunner). Physicist Rudolf Peierls described her as “a person of great courage,” particularly when “facing enemies” (Streshinsky and Klaus).
That was the public face. Behind closed doors, Kitty was in bad shape and getting worse. She drank copiously, injured herself often. In almost constant pain from pancreatitis, she took massive quantities of pills—for pain relief and to sleep. Nodding off holding lit cigarettes, she burned holes in the sheets and her nightclothes and on at least one occasion, according to Oppie’s Princeton secretary Verna Hobson, set fire to the house. And yet, “if there was some reason” to do so, Hobson continued, “I have seen her pull herself together when you did not believe she possibly could” (“Manhattan Project Voices”). What Kitty could not do, drunk or sober, was overturn the security panel’s decision or buck up the spirits of her disheartened spouse. The hearings left both Oppenheimers angry and deeply bitter. In those reactions, they were not alone.
Their respite was the island of St. John, where in 1957 they built a simple beach house on two acres off Hawksnest Bay, property purchased from Robert and Nancy Gibney. There the Oppenheimer family swam, fished, sailed, went barefoot, and tried to forget the recent past. On St. John, Kitty had great success cultivating orchids, less success in charming her Gibney neighbors. Like many a woman before her, initially Nancy Gibney was drawn to Robert but not to his wife. Time and proximity reversed the preference. “I came to have a sneaking fondness and respect for Kitty,” Gibney confessed. “At her worst, she was absolutely without guile, brave as a little lion, and fiercely loyal to her own team.” Robert Oppenheimer, Gibney ultimately decided, was the “devious one” (Bird and Sherwin).
To judge by an account published by evolutionary biologist Lynn Margulis, during this phase of his life, Oppenheimer could also be tauntingly cruel to his wife while playing up to a worshipful student. During her spring break from college in 1955, on an Oppenheimer pilgrimage, Margulis showed up unannounced at Olden Manor. Despite Kitty’s obvious displeasure, Robert insisted Margulis accompany the family of four on a trip to town and afterwards return to the house, where he showed off his art collection and chided his “tight-lipped” wife for “not being very entertaining.” Oppie’s entertaining ways, described at length by Margulis, included pressing his guest’s hand and gazing upon her “affectionately…with his melancholy gleaming blue eyes”—special attentions that caused Margulis to “tingle with pleasure” and feel “drunk with Dr. O and scents of spring.” Although Margulis’s “Sunday Morning with Robert Oppenheimer” was published as nonfiction, the encounter has the trappings of a one-act play: possessive wife, passive aggressive husband, the arrival of an unexpected guest.
Still alive when the first of his stage incarnations came into being, Oppenheimer threatened to sue playwright Heinar Kipphardt for the 1964 drama In the Matter of J. Robert Oppenheimer. Despite stellar reviews and audiences “mesmerized by Kipphardt’s portrayal of Oppenheimer standing frail and lean before his accusers, like a modern Galileo,” Oppie intensely disliked the play (Bird and Sherwin). The hearings, he fumed, were not the stuff of tragedy as presented by Kipphardt; they were the stuff of farce.
Characterizations of Kitty on stage and screen are, to date, the characterizations of a lowly supporting player. In none does she come close to co-star billing. In Carson Kreitzer’s play The Love Song of J. Robert Oppenheimer, both Kitty and Jean Tatlock are overshadowed by “pre-Biblical demon/first woman” Lilith, a character only Oppenheimer can see. In Tom Morton-Smith’s drama Oppenheimer, Kitty drinks (Kitty characters always drink), makes her play for Oppie at the Pasadena garden party by offering him a Scotch and soda, and as a first-time unmotherly mother whines: “I smell of sick, off-milk and baby-shit.” As to why composer John Adams and librettist Peter Sellars had Kitty sing Muriel Rukeyser’s poems in the opera Doctor Atomic, the reason was dearth. They were no Kitty “quotes” to draw on, Adams explained (“Manhattan Project Voices”).
In Oppenheimer, the BBC’s seven-episode series starring Sam Waterston as Oppie, Kitty, portrayed by Jana Sheldon, has a feistier presence. As in other portrayals, few are the scenes in which Kitty is not clutching a drink—usually a drink and a cigarette—and during those exceptions her hands are on a steering wheel. The script soft pedals Oppie’s well-documented impatience and displays of superiority; Kitty fills in the slack, calling General Groves a “fat idiot” and Edward Teller “a creep.” When Lt. Col. John Lansdale, head of security for the Manhattan Project, quizzes Kitty about her Communist past, she cuts him off with a well-timed: “We know you’ve been spooking us.” But those are the highlights. Otherwise the Kitty character berates the help, argues with Oppie’s lawyers, drinks more while enjoying it less, and gets summed up by sister-in-law Jackie as “the same unhappy bitch” she’d always been.
Although Kitty’s parents lived within an hour’s drive of the Oppenheimers in Princeton, Kitty saw little of them. There had been a further rift between parents and daughter. Franz died in 1955. In 1956, Kaethe decided to return to Germany to live with sister Hilde and booked passage on the Norwegian freighter Concordia Fjord. During the crossing, she stripped naked, placed a chair beneath the porthole, and crawled out. Her body was never found. Despite evidence reported in the ship’s log and the U.S. State Department’s conclusion of suicide, Hilde convinced herself her sister’s death had been an accident, and Kitty, in a telegram to her aunt, reprinted in An Atomic Love Story, pretended to agree:
I believe you are correct that it was an accident. You’ve done everything you could do and you shouldn’t let it torment you. Mutti gives you everything that is left, about $9,000 and her clothes. I had hoped in the end that you would get everything and now it’s true.
Closer to home, Kitty must have assumed, given the state of her own health, that Oppie would outlast her. A malignant growth in his throat was discovered in January 1966. Despite surgery and a course of radiation treatments, the cancer returned a year later, this time inoperable. In keeping with Robert’s wishes, Kitty distributed his ashes in Hawksnest Bay within sight of their beach house. “Within a year or two of Oppie’s death,” biographers Bird and Sherwin write, seemingly uninterested in nailing down the timeframe specifics, the focus of their book departed, “Kitty began living with Bob Serber, Robert’s close friend and former student.” Biographers Streshinsky and Klaus introduce the Kitty/Serber relationship with this judgment: “Kitty did what she had always done when she found herself without a man. She looked around and saw that another was available, this time Robert Serber.” Though the couple intended to sail around the world, Kitty became ill off the coast of Colombia and died of an embolism on October 27, 1972, in a Panama City hospital. Her ashes were also scattered in Hawksnest Bay. Robert Serber moved on with Toni Oppenheimer’s friend and contemporary, the significantly younger Fiona St. Clair, whom he married in 1979. Of note: no source accuses Robert Serber of an inability to be without a woman; no source accuses Robert Serber of attaching himself to the female nearest at hand.
At the current moment, to believe history has treated Kitty Oppenheimer well is to believe the adage that there is no such thing as bad publicity. Peter Oppenheimer’s daughter Dorothy Vanderford chooses to take the longer view. In a “Manhattan Project Voices” interview, Vanderford says of the grandmother she never knew: “She was a colorful, outspoken person…when women weren’t necessarily outspoken and colorful. We read things differently over time.”