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109 East Palace: Robert Oppenheimer and the Secret City of Los Alamosby Jennet Conant
Synopses & Reviews
They were told as little as possible.
Their orders were to go to Santa Fe, New Mexico, and report for work at a classified Manhattan Project site, a location so covert it was known to them only by the mysterious address: 109 East Palace. There, behind a wrought-iron gate and narrow passageway just off the touristy old plaza, they were greeted by Dorothy McKibbin, an attractive widow who was the least likely person imaginable to run a front for a clandestine defense laboratory. They stepped across her threshold into a parallel universe — the desert hideaway where Robert Oppenheimer and a team of world-famous scientists raced to build the first atomic bomb before Germany and bring World War II to an end.
Brilliant, handsome, extraordinarily charismatic, Oppenheimer based his unprecedented scientific enterprise in the high reaches of the Sangre de Cristo mountains, hoping that the land of enchantment would conceal and inspire their bold mission. Oppenheimer was as arrogant as he was inexperienced, and few believed the thirty-eight-year-old theoretical physicist would succeed.
Jennet Conant captures all the exhilaration and drama of those perilous twenty-seven months at Los Alamos, a secret city cut off from the rest of society, ringed by barbed wire, where Oppenheimer and his young recruits lived as virtual prisoners of the U.S. government. With her dry humor and eye for detail, Conant chronicles the chaotic beginnings of Oppenheimer's by-the-seat-of-his-pants operation, where freshly minted secretaries and worldly scientists had to contend with living conditions straight out of pioneer days. Despite all the obstacles, Oppie managed to forge a vibrant community at Los Alamos through the sheer force of his personality. Dorothy, who fell for him at first sight, devoted herself to taking care of him and his crew and supported him through the terrifying preparations for the test explosion at Trinity and the harrowing aftermath of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Less than a decade later, Oppenheimer became the focus of suspicion during the McCarthy witch hunts. When he and James B. Conant, one of the top administrators of the Manhattan Project (and the author's grandfather), led the campaign against the hydrogen bomb, Oppenheimer's past left-wing sympathies were used against him, and he was found to be a security risk and stripped of his clearance. Though Dorothy tried to help clear his name, she saw the man she loved disgraced.
In this riveting and deeply moving account, drawing on a wealth of research and interviews with close family and colleagues, Jennet Conant reveals an exceptionally gifted and enigmatic man who served his country at tremendous personal cost and whose singular achievement, and subsequent undoing, is at the root of our present nuclear predicament.
"Conant, author of the bestselling Tuxedo Park, offers a human look at the brilliant physicists who for more than two years, along with their families, lived, laughed, despaired and rejoiced in a secret, sequestered, for some claustrophobic city in the New Mexico desert. Despite its grand name, 109 East Palace was the nondescript office in Santa Fe that served as a gateway to the Los Alamos complex. The narrative is framed by the perspective of Dorothy McKibben, who, in running that office, issuing security passes and coordinating logistics, was, says Conant, the 'gatekeeper' to the hidden world of Los Alamos. Conant focuses on the day-to-day experience of the scientists, technicians and families stationed at Los Alamos, fleshing out their history in unexpected ways. While her protagonists are brilliant men and women, they're also vibrant characters who chafe at authority, fall in love, argue over housing and drink to excess. Less about the science of building the bomb, the book highlights the creation of a unique place and time in which that bomb could be built, and Conant (the granddaughter of a Manhattan Project administrator) brings to life the colorful, eccentric town of thousands that sprang up on a New Mexico mesa and achieved the unthinkable." Publishers Weekly (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
"This account...is invaluable for its glimpse of the quotidian during an extraordinary time and for its resurrection of [Dorothy] McKibben, 'who knew everyone in the project and virtually everything about it, except what they were making.'" Booklist
"Vividly told, the interplay of personalities that would ultimately transform the world." Kirkus Reviews
"Conant has created an interesting and exciting portrait of the secret city of Los Alamos and its people." San Antonio Express-News
"Much has been written about both Los Alamos and Oppenheimer, but no one has put together so well the tensions of birthing the bomb with the everyday life of dirty diapers and little bath water." Kansas City Star
"An engaging portrait of life on the remote mesa that served as backdrop for the world's most audacious scientific enterprise..." Baltimore Sun
"The Manhattan Project was a chapter of history rich in the drama of human strengths and frailties, as Jennet Conant chronicles in her illuminating 109 East Palace....Yet, for all the doubts and hardships, the scientists and workers at Los Alamos were part of something extraordinary....Thanks to Conant's vivid book, we understand why." BusinessWeek
"A haunting, beautifully realized and highly entertaining story....A stunning accomplishment." Edmonton Journal
"Terrifically engaging reading....A story that, especially in times of uncertain security, we should read and heed." San Jose Mercury News
"Bears the weight of inexorable drama....Excels in showing how bedeviled the brilliant, oddly spineless but extraordinarily powerful Oppenheimer was." St. Petersburg Times
"More than any other account of Los Alamos that I've read, Conant's narrative evokes the texture of life there....A well-told narrative of daily life in a top-secret operation." Newsday
From the author of the bestselling Tuxedo Park comes the story of those thousands who came to a secret desert Shangri La, where the world's leading physicists raced to invent the atomic bomb and bring World War II to an end.
In 1943, J. Robert Oppenheimer, the brilliant, charismatic head of the Manhattan Project, recruited scientists to live as virtual prisoners of the U.S. government at Los Alamos, a barren mesa thirty-five miles outside Santa Fe, New Mexico. Thousands of men, women, and children spent the war years sequestered in this top-secret military facility. They lied to friends and family about where they were going and what they were doing, and then disappeared into the desert. Through the eyes of a young Santa Fe widow who was one of Oppenheimer's first recruits, we see how, for all his flaws, he developed into an inspiring leader and motivated all those involved in the Los Alamos project to make a supreme effort and achieve the unthinkable.
About the Author
Jennet Conant is the author of the 2002 New York Times bestseller Tuxedo Park: A Wall Street Tycoon and the Secret Palace of Science That Changed the Course of World War II. A former journalist, she has written for Vanity Fair, Esquire, GQ, Newsweek, and the New York Times. She lives in New York City and Sag Harbor, New York.
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