Behind 'Oppenheimer,' a Prizewinning Biography 25 Years in the … – The New York Times

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Martin Sherwin struck the deal and dived into the research. But it was only when Kai Bird joined as a collaborator that “American Prometheus” came to be.

Martin Sherwin was hardly your classic blocked writer. Outgoing, funny, and athletic, he is described by those who knew him as the opposite of neurotic.
But by the late 1990s, he had to admit he was stuck. Sherwin, a history professor and the author of one previous book, had agreed to write a full-scale biography of J. Robert Oppenheimer two decades earlier. Now he wondered if he would ever finish it. He’d done plenty of research — an extraordinary amount, actually, amassing some 50,000 pages of interviews, transcripts, letters, diaries, declassified documents and F.B.I. dossiers, stored in seemingly endless boxes in his basement, attic and office. But he’d barely written a word.
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Sherwin had originally tried to turn the project down, his wife remembered, telling his editor, Angus Cameron, that he didn’t think he was seasoned enough to take on such a consequential subject as Oppenheimer, the so-called father of the atomic bomb. But Cameron, who had published Sherwin’s first book at Knopf — and who, like Oppenheimer, had been a victim of McCarthyism — insisted.
So on March 13, 1980, Sherwin signed a $70,000 contract with Knopf for the project. Paid half to get started, he expected to finish it in five years.
In the end, the book took 25 years to write — and Sherwin didn’t do it alone.
When Christopher Nolan’s film “Oppenheimer” is released on July 21, it will be the first time many younger Americans encounter the story of J. Robert Oppenheimer. But that film stands on the shoulders of the exhaustive and exhilarating 721-page Pulitzer Prize-winning biography called “American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer,” co-written by Sherwin and Kai Bird.
Knopf published this masterwork in 2005. But it was only thanks to a rare collaboration between two indefatigable writers — and a deep friendship, built around a shared dedication to the art of biography as a life’s work — that “American Prometheus” got done at all.
OPPENHEIMER would have been a daunting subject for any biographer.
A public intellectual with a flair for the dramatic, he directed the top-secret lab at Los Alamos, New Mexico, taking the atomic bomb from theoretical possibility to terrifying reality in an impossibly short timeline. Later he emerged as a kind of philosopher king of the postwar nuclear era, publicly opposing the development of the hydrogen bomb and becoming a symbol both of America’s technological genius and of its conscience.
That stance made Oppenheimer a target in the McCarthy era, spurring his enemies to paint him as a Communist sympathizer. He was stripped of his security clearance during a 1954 hearing convened by the Atomic Energy Commission. He lived the rest of his life diminished, and died at 62 in 1967, in Princeton, New Jersey.
When Sherwin began interviewing people there who had known him, he was taken aback by the intensity of their feelings. Physicists, and the widows of physicists, were still angry for the casual neglect Oppenheimer had shown to his family.
Yet after Sherwin moved his own family to Boston for a job at Tufts University, he and his wife Susan met Massachusetts Institute of Technology scientists, who admitted with embarrassment that their years working under Oppenheimer on the bomb were some of the happiest of their lives.
Among the scores of people Sherwin also interviewed were Haakon Chevalier, Oppenheimer’s onetime best friend whose Communist ties in part formed the basis of the inquisition against him, and Edward Teller, whose testimony at the 1954 hearing helped end his career.
Oppenheimer’s son Peter refused a formal interview, so Sherwin brought his family to the Pecos Wilderness near Santa Fe, saddled up a horse and rode to the Oppenheimers’ rustic cabin, wrangling a chance to talk to the scientist’s son as the two men built a fence. “Marty never thought he was a great interviewer,” said Susan Sherwin, who accompanied him on many research trips, and survives him. But he had a knack for connecting with people.
Sherwin’s deadline came and went. His editor retired, and he did his best to avoid his new one. There was always another person to interview, or another document to read.
The unfinished book became a running joke in the Sherwin household.
“We had this New Yorker cartoon on our refrigerator my entire childhood,” his son Alex remembered. “It’s a guy at a typewriter, and he’s surrounded by stacks of papers. His wife is in the distance, in the threshold of the door to his office. And he says, ‘Finish it? Why would I want to finish it?’”
KAI BIRD, A FORMER associate editor at The Nation, needed a job. It was 1999, and while Bird had written a couple of modestly successful biographies, as a 48-year-old historian without a Ph.D. he was underqualified for a tenure-track university position and overqualified for nearly everything else. His wife, Susan Goldmark, who held a lucrative job at the World Bank, was getting tired of being the main breadwinner.
Bird was unsuccessfully applying for jobs at newspapers when he heard from an old friend. Sherwin took Bird out to dinner, and suggested they join forces on Oppenheimer.
They had known each other for years, and their friendship had solidified in the mid-1990s, when Bird included Sherwin’s essays in a volume about the controversy surrounding a planned Smithsonian exhibit of the Enola Gay, the plane that dropped the first atomic bomb.
But there was one complication. “My first book started out as a collaboration with my best friend,” the writer Max Holland, Bird said, “and eight years later ended in divorce.” Things broke down, in part, over disagreements about how much research was enough.
The episode had been painful. Never again, his wife reminded him.
“I told Marty, ‘No, I can’t. I like you too much,’ ” Bird said.
So began a yearlong charm campaign to convince Bird, but especially Goldmark, that this time would be different. “I was watching very carefully, looking at them interacting and finishing each other’s sentences the way couples sometimes do,” she recalled. “They were both so cute.”
Finally, with everyone on board, Gail Ross, Bird’s agent, negotiated a new contract with Knopf, which agreed to pay the pair an additional $290,000 to finish the book.
Sherwin cautioned Bird that there were gaps in his research. But soon “untold numbers of boxes” started showing up at Bird’s home, according to his wife. As Bird began to sift through everything, he recognized how painstakingly detailed and dizzyingly broad Sherwin’s research was. “There were no gaps,” Bird remembered.
It was time to write. Bird started at the beginning.
“I wrote a draft of the early childhood years,” he said, “and Marty took it and rewrote it.” Sherwin sent the revision back to Bird, who was impressed. “He knew exactly what was missing in the anecdotes,” Bird said.
Their process took shape: Bird would pore over the research, synthesize it, and produce a draft which he’d send to Sherwin, who would recognize what was missing, edit and rewrite, and return the copy to Bird. Soon Sherwin was drafting as well. “We wrote furiously for four years,” Bird said.
Sherwin always knew that the hearing that stripped Oppenheimer of his clearance would be the “epicenter” of the biography, Bird said. They argued about what the evidence might suggest, but never about style, process, or the shape of the book itself. “It became,” Susan Sherwin said, “almost a magical thing.”
By fall 2004, nearly 25 years after Knopf committed to the project, the manuscript was almost ready. Bird and Sherwin’s editor Ann Close vetoed “Oppie,” the pair’s working title. A scramble ensued, until something came to Goldmark late at night: “Prometheus … fire … the bomb is this fire. And you could put ‘American’ there.’ ”
Bird dismissed “American Prometheus” as too obscure, until Sherwin called the next morning to tell him that a friend, the biographer Ronald Steel, had suggested the same title over dinner the night before. “I’m in big trouble,” said Bird. His wife felt vindicated.
On April 5, 2005, Kai Bird and Martin Sherwin’s “American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer” was published to enormous acclaim. The Boston Globe raved that it “stands as an Everest among the mountains of books on the bomb project and Oppenheimer, and is an achievement not likely to be surpassed or equaled.”
Among its numerous accolades was the Pulitzer Prize for Biography. Bird always thought the book had an outside shot at the prize, but Sherwin had been skeptical. “He always thought I was an incorrigible optimist. So he was genuinely astonished,” Bird would later say. “He was, in fact, sweetly elated.”
BY THE TIME the collaborators learned in September 2021 that Christopher Nolan planned to turn “American Prometheus” into a film, Marty Sherwin was dying of cancer.
The pair had read several unmade scripts based on their book over the years, so Sherwin was doubtful of its chances in Hollywood. He was too sick to join, but Bird and Goldmark met Nolan at a boutique hotel in Greenwich Village. Bird reported to Sherwin in person afterward that, with Nolan as writer and director, their work was in good hands.
“Oppenheimer’s story is one of the most dramatic and complex that I’ve ever encountered,” Nolan said recently. “I don’t think I ever would have taken this on without Kai and Martin’s book.” (Anticipation for the movie has put the biography on the New York Times best-seller list for nonfiction paperbacks.)
On Oct. 6, 2021, Bird received word that his friend had died at the age of 84.
Sherwin “would have been deeply pleased,” by the film’s accuracy, Bird said after seeing the film for the first time. “I think he would have appreciated what an artistic achievement it is.”
He recalled the day he and his wife spent a few hours on the film’s set in Los Alamos. The crew was filming in Oppenheimer’s original cabin, now painstakingly restored. Bird watched Cillian Murphy do take after take as Oppenheimer, astonished at the actor’s resemblance to the subject he’d spent years studying.
Finally, there was a break in filming, and Murphy walked over to introduce himself. As the actor approached — dressed in Oppenheimer’s brown, baggy 1940s-era suit and wide tie — Bird couldn’t help himself.
“Dr. Oppenheimer!” he shouted. “I’ve been waiting decades to meet you!”
Bird said Murphy just laughed. “We’ve all been reading your book,” the actor told him. “It’s mandatory reading around here.”
Audio produced by Adrienne Hurst.
A caption accompanying a 1957 photo of J. Robert Oppenheimer misstated the connection between the Institute for Advanced Study and Princeton University. The Institute is in Princeton, New Jersey, but is not part of the university there.
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