Oppenheimer’s Tragedy Turns into a Triumph

The Pulitzer Prize-winning biography becomes a big-screen blockbuster.

Oppenheimer’s Tragedy Turns into a Triumph

The story of Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin and the biography of Robert Oppenheimer they co-authored, American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer, is well known to Washington, DC, readers. That Pulitzer Prize-winning biography has now been turned into the summer blockbuster movie “Oppenheimer,” which is likely to win many awards as well.

Bird, too, has been a Washington fixture, and I had the good fortune when he still lived here to belong to a writers’ lunch that he also attended. When my niece got her first Foreign Service assignment to Kathmandu, Bird, who’d lived in Nepal for two years when his wife, Susan Goldmark, was posted there for the World Bank, was very helpful with advice.

The working title for the book was Oppie, which, when you see the movie, kind of makes sense, as a crowd stamps its feet and chants a thundering, “Oppie, Oppie, Oppie.” But the editor wanted a weightier title, and Goldmark suggested linking it to the myth of Prometheus.

Drawing on the power of myth, the title American Prometheus no doubt helped the biography of the father of the atomic bomb, but it is a story and a book that would have triumphed in any case. Oppenheimer was always ambivalent about the bomb, but the book and the movie focus rightly on the McCarthy-era decision to deprive Oppenheimer of his security clearance because of alleged links to the Communist Party.

It is truly a tragic tale, and both the book and the movie are to be highly recommended. Bird went on to write other notable books, however. His autobiographical Crossing Mandelbaum Gate: Coming of Age Between Arabs and Israelis 1956-78 is a masterpiece in its own right and as timely as ever today. Bird spent those formative years in Israel, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Lebanon and provides firsthand accounts of the tortured events in that period.

Before Oppenheimer, Bird had written biographies of McGeorge and William Bundy and John J. McCloy. Since then, he has written the life stories of CIA officer Robert Ames (The Good Spy) and, most recently, The Outlier: The Unfinished Presidency of Jimmy Carter.

Writing biographies is hard work; writing definitive ones is even harder. The collaboration between Sherwin and Bird on American Prometheus was a match made in heaven, because Sherwin had conducted relevant interviews over many years, and then Bird brought his literary skills to assembling and drafting the biography.

The result of their effort is a 722-page book that never bogs down, nor does the three-hour movie. There’s a special talent to making a long biography about as controversial a figure as Oppenheimer not only readable but gripping. Both Sherwin and Bird have it.

Darrell Delamaide is author of the novels The Grand Mirage and Gold.

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