The Making of the Biography That Led to “Oppenheimer”

Martin Sherwin was not your typical block writer. Sociable, funny, and athletic, he is described by those who know him as the opposite of neurotic.

By the late 1990s, however, he was forced to admit that he was stuck. Sherwin, a history professor and former author of a book, had agreed to write a full-fledged biography of J. Robert Oppenheimer twenty years ago. Now he was wondering if he could finish it. He had done an enormous amount of research. In fact, about 50,000 pages of interviews, records, letters, diaries, declassified documents, and FBI dossiers were stored in seemingly endless boxes in basements, attics, and offices. But he hardly wrote a single word.

Sherwin initially tried to turn down the project, his wife told editor Angus Cameron, thinking she was not experienced enough to take on such a serious subject as Oppenheimer, the father of the atomic bomb. is recalled. . But Cameron, who published Sherwin’s first book at Knopf and, like Oppenheimer, was a victim of McCarthyism, argued.

So, on March 13, 1980, Sherwin signed Knopp to a $70,000 contract for the project. Having paid half the starting cost, he expected it to be completed within his five years.

After all, it took 25 years to write this book, but Sherwin didn’t do it alone.

In a Christopher Nolan movie “Oppenheimer” opens on July 21, many young Americans will be exposed to J. Robert Oppenheimer’s story for the first time. But the film rests on the shoulders of Sherwin and Kai Byrd’s 721-page, thorough and exhilarating Pulitzer Prize-winning biography, American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer. standing in

Knopp published this masterpiece in 2005. But An American Prometheus was completed thanks to a rare collaboration between two indomitable authors and a deep friendship built on a shared dedication to the art of biography as their life’s work. bottom. .

oppenheimer It would have been a difficult subject for any biographer.

An intellectual with a flair for dramatic production, he directs a top-secret laboratory in Los Alamos, New Mexico, where he takes the atomic bomb from theoretical possibility to terrifying reality in an incredibly short time frame. derived. He then emerged as something of a philosopher king of the post-war nuclear age, openly opposed the development of the hydrogen bomb, and a symbol of American technological genius and conscience.

That stance made Oppenheimer a target during the McCarthy era, prompting his opponents to portray him as a communist. He had his secrecy clearance revoked during a 1954 public hearing convened by the Atomic Energy Commission. He lived the rest of his life in decline, Died at age 62 1967, Princeton, New Jersey.

When Sherwin began interviewing people who knew him on the ground, he was amazed at the intensity of their emotions. The physicist and the physicist’s widow were still angry at Oppenheimer’s casual disregard for his family.

But after Sherwin moved his family to Boston for a job at Tufts University, he and his wife Susan met with scientists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who worked under Oppenheimer on the development of the atomic bomb. He shyly admitted that those years were the happiest years of his life.

Among the many people Sherwin interviewed was Oppenheimer’s former close friend Haakon Chevalier, whose communist ties formed the basis of the Inquisition against him, and testimony at the 1954 hearings. It also included Edward Teller, the catalyst that put an end to his career.

Oppenheimer’s son Peter refused a formal interview, so Sherwin took the family to the Pecos Wilderness near Santa Fe, saddled the horses and rode to the Oppenheimer family’s rustic hut, where they erected a fence. During his tenure, he scrambled for the opportunity to speak with the scientist’s son. . “Marty didn’t think he was a good interviewer,” said Susan Sherwin, who accompanied and survived many of Marty’s research trips. But he had a knack for dealing with people.

Sherwin’s deadline has passed. His editor retired and he did his best to avoid a new editor. He always had to interview another person or read another document.

This unfinished book became a constant joke in the Sherwin family.

“We had this new york cartoon It was in the fridge all the time when I was a kid,” his son Alex recalled. “A man at a typewriter surrounded by stacks of papers. His wife is far away, on the threshold of his office door. And he says,finish it? why do you want it to end? “

kai bird, former Collaborator I needed a job at The Nation. It was his 1999, and although Bird had written several moderately successful biographies as his 48-year-old historian without a PhD, he was too young to land a tenure-track position in college. I was unqualified, but more than qualified for almost every other position. His wife, Susan Goldmark, had a high-paying job at the World Bank, but she was fed up with life. main earner.

Byrd applied for a job at a newspaper company, but was unsuccessful when he was contacted by an old friend. Sherwin takes Bird out to dinner and offers to collaborate on the Oppenheimer case.

They had known each other for years, and their friendship cemented in the mid-1990s when Byrd published Sherwin’s essay. in the volume About the controversy surrounding the plans for the Smithsonian exhibition of the plane that dropped the first atomic bomb, the Enola Gay.

There was one problem though. “My first book started as a collaboration with a good friend,” writer Max Holland told Mr. Byrd. “And eight years later divorce.Things broke down in part because of disagreements about how much research was enough.

That episode was painful. Never again, his wife reminded him.

“I said to Marty, ‘No, I can’t do that. I love you too much,'” Byrd said.

So a year-long glamor campaign began to convince Bird, and Goldmark in particular, that this time was different. “I was watching very closely, watching them interact and finish each other’s sentences, as couples sometimes do,” she recalled. “We were both cute

Finally, Byrd’s agent, Gail Ross, worked with everyone to negotiate a new contract with Knopp, who agreed to pay an additional $290,000 to complete the book.

Sherwin warns Byrd that his research is flawed. But soon, according to Byrd’s wife, “countless boxes” began appearing at Byrd’s house. When Byrd began looking at everything, he realized how painstakingly detailed and dizzyingly extensive Sherwin’s research was. “There was no gap,” Byrd recalled.

It’s time to write. Bird started from scratch.

“I wrote an early childhood draft, and Marty took it and rewrote it,” he said. Sherwin sent the revised version back to Byrd, who was impressed. “He knew exactly what the anecdote was missing,” Byrd said.

Their process took shape. Bard ponders his research, synthesizes it into a draft, and sends it to Sherwin. Sherwin realizes what is missing, edits and rewrites it, and returns a copy to Byrd. Sherwin soon began drafting as well. “We wrote furiously for four years,” Byrd said.

According to Byrd, Sherwin always knew that the hearings that stripped Oppenheimer’s permission would be the “episode” of the biography. They discussed what the evidence suggested, but never the style, process, or form of the book itself. Susan Sherwin said, “It became almost magical.”

By the fall of 2004, nearly 25 years after Knopp had worked on the project, the manuscript was nearly complete. Byrd and Sherwin editor Anne Close vetoed their working title, “Oppy.” The scramble continued, and late at night something reached Goldmark. “Prometheus…fire…the bomb is this fire. You can put ‘American’ in there. ”

Byrd dismissed “An American Prometheus” as too obscure, but Sherwin called the next morning to tell him that his friend, biographer Ronald Steele, had suggested the same title at dinner the previous night. “It’s a big deal,” Byrd said. He felt that his wife was right.

Kai Byrd and Martin Sherwin, “American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer,” April 5, 2005. was published to great acclaim. The Boston Globe hailed it as “an achievement that is unlikely to be surpassed or matched by Mount Everest in the mountain of books on the atomic bomb program and Oppenheimer.”

Among his many accolades is the Pulitzer Prize for Biography. Byrd always thought the book was aimed at awards, but Sherwin was skeptical. “He always thought I was a hopeless optimist, so he was really surprised,” Byrd later said. “Actually, he looked very happy.”

by the time Collaborators learned in September 2021 that director Christopher Nolan was planning a movie adaptation of “American Prometheus,” and that Marty Sherwin had died of cancer.

Over the years, the two had read several unproduced scripts based on their books, and Sherwin questioned his chances in Hollywood. Nolan was too ill to attend, but Byrd and Goldmark met Nolan at a boutique hotel in Greenwich Village. Byrd then reported directly to Sherwin that the film was on track with Nolan as writer and director.

“Oppenheimer’s story is one of the most dramatic and complex I’ve ever come across,” Nolan said recently. “I don’t think I would have worked on this without Kai and Martin’s book.” )

On October 6, 2021, Byrd received word that his friend had died at the age of 84.

After seeing the film for the first time, Byrd said Sherwin “would have been really pleased” with the film’s accuracy. “I think he realized what an artistic achievement it was.”

He remembered the day when he and his wife spent a few hours on a movie set in Los Alamos. The crew shot in Oppenheimer’s original cabin, which has now been painstakingly restored. Byrd watched Cillian Murphy shoot Oppenheimer after role, and he was struck by the resemblance to a subject the actor had spent years researching.

At the end of the shoot, Murphy walked over to introduce himself. When an actor in a baggy Oppenheimer 1940s brown suit and wide necktie approaches, Byrd can’t help but feel impatient.

“Dr. Oppenheimer!” he cried. “I’ve been waiting for decades to see you!”

Byrd said Murphy was just laughing. “We were all reading your book,” the actor told him. “This is a must-read.”

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