LAFAYETTE -- What do you do when you discover J. Robert Oppenheimer, the famous physicist you believe would make a terrific subject for a book, has already been exhaustively profiled by countless nonfiction science writers and historians?
Confronted with that dilemma, a Kensington author wrote about three women who lived with Oppenheimer, moved him and got lost in the shadows of his limelight.
Historical fiction and nonfiction author Shirley Streshinsky, along with Patricia Klaus, a Petaluma-based researcher and expert in women's studies and war history, bring their voluminous energy to "An Atomic Love Story: The Extraordinary Women in Robert Oppenheimer's Life" to the Lafayette Library and Learning Center for a Jan. 16 "Sweet Thursday" event.
The deeply-researched book plumbs the lives of Kitty Harrison (Oppenheimer's wife), Jean Tatlock (his great love) and Ruth Sherman Tolman (a colleague).
Prospecting for golden nuggets -- hoping to shine fresh light on the mercurial, adventuresome scientist's biographical whys and wherefores -- the two women turned their focus to Oppenheimer's most intimate relationships.
Readers in the Bay Area are particularly fascinated, with strong ties between Oppenheimer and the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and UC Berkeley (where he was a physics professor), the authors say. But interest in the book spans the globe.
"The most joyful part is opening doors and making the people alive," Klaus says.
Three months after their book's publication, Streshinsky and Klaus participated in separate, back-to-back interviews.
"I've been fascinated with Oppenheimer for 30 years," Streshinsky confesses. "I heard one of his last speeches at Berkeley. Thousands of people showed up and I didn't understand anything he said, but I understood I was watching history."
Oppenheimer, who famously changed the lives of every generation after his own by helping launch the world into the Atomic Age, captured the imagination of Klaus, too. But it was the women surrounding him who drew her in.
"We had to address these women as pioneers," Klaus says, "women trying to have a profession and a personal life. It would be lovely to say that's an issue that's over with, but it's not."
Interestingly, Klaus says the book's modern-day appeal to women struggling to combine marriage, children and career is no greater than its appeal to male readers she and Streshinsky encounter at book signings.
"At readings, men have been asking most of the questions," Klaus said. "They enjoy the sense of the time, learning another aspect of Oppenheimer -- and they like the counterintelligence people."
Streshinsky has discovered a surprising, personal connection to the FBI surveillance and anti-communist aggression coloring the lives of their book's characters and intriguing readers. Her late husband Ted came to Berkeley from China on a Soviet passport. "After he died, I got the FBI's file on him. It was 1,000 pages. A lot of the agents that were following Robert were following my husband," she says. That subject, spying on civilians, is likely to become the focus of her next writing project.
As for their current subject, "Our own Bay Area contains rich resources for any Oppenheimer study," they write. UC Berkeley's Bancroft Library and Stanford's Hoover Institute, along with scholars, family members and colleagues with Bay Area connections, were essential.
"If you do historical fiction, (you) get to make up things," Streshinsky says, "but we decided we would have everything sourced."
The women admit, there were occasions when they disagreed, but working together helped make them close. "We both knew how it would work. My background is writing, hers is research. It was a treasure hunt -- we had to fill in the gaps. She'd call and ask if I was sitting down and I'd know it would be exciting," says Streshinsky.
"An Atomic Love Story" carries underlying messages about the female characters' sexuality and intellect. The 1920s, like the 1960s, was a time of sexual experimentation. "Freud was starting and this was a social class that dealt with these issues" of lesbianism, marital fidelity and whether men can have a close, non-sexual relationships with women, Streshinsky says.
Klaus says the mid-1920s into the 1950s was "a male world" and admits that exploring the women's intellectual lives was challenging, due to the dearth of material. Like Streshinsky, she's found the kernel of her next subject in the groundwork of Oppenheimer's time.