Did Oppenheimer Cheat on His Wife?

Helmed by Christopher Nolan, ‘Oppenheimer’ is a biographical drama movie that delves into the life of the titular physicist, a man who ushered humanity into the Atomic Age. Based on the 2005 biography ‘American Prometheus’ by Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin, the narrative chronicles how J. Robert Oppenheimer, a brilliant American physicist, is assigned to develop and test the world’s first atomic bomb, which would prove pivotal in ending World War II.

Apart from delving into Oppenheimer’s challenges and dilemmas while executing such a monumental task, the war drama movie subtly touches upon his personal life. The depiction of certain events and characters has made people wonder if the renowned physicist actually had extramarital affairs in real life. If you are curious about the same, here’s what we learned!

The Mystery of Oppenheimer’s Alleged Infidelity

J. Robert Oppenheimer had several girlfriends before marriage, but the one with the most prominence in his life was undeniably Jean Tatlock. The daughter of a University of Michigan professor was a graduate student studying psychiatry at Stanford Medical School when she first met Oppenheimer, a physics professor at the University of California, Berkeley. The latter’s landlady introduced the couple at a fundraiser in the spring of 1936, and by the autumn of that year, the two were passionately in love.

Jean Tatlock // Image Credit: Library of Congress

Tatlock and Oppenheimer were so deeply involved that twice they were on the verge of being engaged, and she apparently even introduced him to radical politics and Communism. While their turbulent relationship didn’t culminate in marriage, and they broke up in 1939 when she turned down his proposal, the physicist continued seeing her till long after. Oppenheimer actually tied the knot with Katherine “Kitty” Puening in November 1940. Though how they fell for each other and tied the knot is pretty interesting, as it was her fourth marriage.

In fact, Kitty was married to her third husband, Richard Stewart Harrison, when she met Oppenheimer at a garden party in Caltech in August 1939. At that time, the latter used to teach at the university for a stipulated time each year, and she was doing her postgraduate research fellowship there. Since Kitty was married and her romance with Oppenheimer was considered an extramarital affair, they raised many eyebrows. Regardless, when she became pregnant with his child in 1940, she obtained a quick divorce from Harrison and married the physicist. The couple welcomed their son, Peter, in May 1941, and daughter, Katherine, in December 1944.

As stated above, Oppenheimer continued to meet Jean Tatlock long after marriage, which he later admitted during his federal security hearing in 1954. It was actually one particular rendezvous in June 1943 that was highly scrutinized during this hearing. That’s because he candidly confessed that they held a deep attachment toward one another throughout the years. “Our meetings were rare. I do not think it would be right to say our acquaintance was casual. We had been very much involved with one another, and there was still very deep feeling when we saw each other. … I visited her, as I think I said earlier, in June or July of 1943,” Oppenheimer conceded.

Katherine “Kitty” Oppenheimer//Image Credit: Atomic Heritage Foundation

The physicist continued, “She had indicated a great desire to see me before we left [for Los Alamos]. At that time I couldn’t go. For one thing, I wasn’t supposed to say where we were going or anything. I felt that she had to see me. She was undergoing psychiatric treatment. She was extremely unhappy…Because she was still in love with me.” Oppenheimer confessed that he had spent the night at Tatlock’s San Francisco apartment, and intelligence officials who accompanied him on the trip waited outside. Since he was married to Kitty then, many believed his relationship with his former girlfriend was extramarital.

However, Oppenheimer never openly stated that he cheated on his wife with Tatlock. Unfortunately, their 1943 meeting was their last, as the gifted psychiatrist was found dead in her apartment on January 4, 1944. While most believed she died by suicide, some also speculated she was allegedly killed by intelligence agents. Still, such was Tatlock’s influence on Oppenheimer’s views and work that he named the first explosion site for the Manhattan Project after one of John Donne’s poems she dearly loved — Trinity.

According to sources, Tatlock was not the only lady in the physicist’s life he romanced after his marriage. Many historians claim he was deeply involved with Ruth Sherman Tolman, a noted psychologist and professor. The wife of Richard Tolman, his close friend who was a scientific advisor on the Manhattan Project, she worked for the Office of Strategic Services. Ruth was ten years older than Oppenheimer, and they allegedly began an affair sometime during World War II.

Ruth Sherman Tolman//Image Credit: Bancroft Library/UC Berkeley

Although, according to the 2013 book, ‘An Atomic Love Story: The Extraordinary Women in Robert Oppenheimer’s Life,’ the nature of the physicist and Ruth’s relationship was more emotional than sexual. They reportedly continued seeing each other after the war until her husband died in 1948. Incidentally, some even allege that Richard Tolman was aware of his wife and friend’s love affair and died of a broken heart. However, we must also consider that Oppenheimer himself never shared much about his association with Ruth, and most of the information about their supposed affair is based on hearsay.

Despite all the speculations surrounding his infidelity, the physicist and Kitty remained married for 26 years till his death in January 1967. Besides, she never openly stated much about her husband’s reported extramarital affairs, even though she knew of his association with Tatlock. Hence, while a lot of historical evidence hints that J. Robert Oppenheimer indulged in other relationships while married, the accuracy of such statements must be taken with a pinch of salt.

Read More: Did Truman Call Oppenheimer a Crybaby?