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The True Story of Oppenheimer’s First Love, Jean Tatlock, And How She Shaped His Views

Actress Florence Pugh plays the woman J. Robert Oppenheimer couldn't forget, Jean Tatlock. What was their real story?

By Tara Bennett

In Christopher Nolan's Oppenheimer (now streaming exclusively on Peacock), two women are shown as having the most impact on J. Robert Oppenheimer's life: his wife, Kitty (Emily Blunt), and his lover, Jean Tatlock (Florence Pugh). The former gets the majority of screen time in the film as they were married for 27 years and had two children together. But the enigmatic presentation of Oppenheimer's emotional and physical affair with Tatlock implies, quite rightly, that she remained a towering figure in his private life.

As documented in the  Pulitzer Prize-winning book upon which the film is primarily based, American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer by Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin, Tatlock was 10-years younger than Oppenheimer but she has a huge influence on his evolving empathetic view of the world, his interest in the idealistic tenets of communism, and his heart. Both suffered from depression and both were extremely well-educated by some of the most celebrated universities in America; they had a lot in common, but ultimately their timing was never right. 

The True Story of J. Robert Oppenheimer's Affair with Jean Tatlock

How They Met

Jean Tatlock and J. Robert Oppenheimer appear during a scene in Oppenheimer.

In the film, Jean and Robert meet at a fundraising party thrown by his landlady, Mary Ellen Washburn, who was a member of the Communist Party. At the time, Tatlock was a graduate psychiatry student at Stanford Medical School and a dedicated member of the Communist Party. Oppenheimer was a professor of physics at Berkeley. In Robert's written testimony to the General Manager of United States Atomic Energy Commission for his 1954 security clearance review panel, he says they began dating in the autumn after that party and were very close. He admitted, "We were at least twice close enough to marriage to think of ourselves as engaged."

RELATED: Why Did Oppenheimer Say, "Now I am Death, the Destroyer of Worlds" And What Did it Mean?

But their romance was also tempestuous. In the film and in American Prometheus, Tatlock is portrayed as being mercurial with Robert. She often rejected his more romantic tendencies, such as when he brought her flowers that she threw away, which is featured in a scene in the film and confirmed in the book. However, there was far more to her behavior rather than what might be interpreted as being fickle. Tatlock was diagnosed with severe clinical depression that she actively sought treatment for at Mount Zion Hospital in San Francisco. In her personal correspondence with a friend, she also questioned her own sexuality. At the time, homosexuality was not an accepted lifestyle and was considered a pathology in her chosen field of study, psychiatry. That conflict is often cited as one of the core conflicts in Tatlock's life that furthered her depression. 

A Brief Affair

Emily Blunt and Cillian Murphy in a still from Christopher Nolan's "Oppenheimer"

By all accounts, including his own, Oppenheimer was in love with Jean. But she did not accept his proposals to marry, despite their passionate affair. They were together from 1936 to 1941, including several months after Oppenheimer married Kitty Harrison in November 1940, as it was documented that they spent New Years Eve together. While he says they saw one another rarely from '39 to Jean's death in '44, his actual testimony in 1954 confirmed they reunited during one of his business trips away from Los Alamos.

During a recruitment trip to Berkley, California, he was surveilled as meeting Tatlock in June of 1943; they went to dinner and then he stayed overnight at her apartment. That reunion was portrayed in the film as well, with Nolan framing the two as having an intimacy that was not reflected in his marriage to Kitty. After that night, the two did not connect again but Tatlock became an ongoing target of FBI surveillance because of her connection to Oppenheimer and her continued involvement with the Communist Party. 

A Tragic End

Cillian Murphy and Emily Blunt in a still from Christopher Nolan's "Oppenheimer"

In the film, Oppenheimer is told about Tatlock's suicide while deep into his work on the Manhattan Project in New Mexico. Despondent with grief, he disappears into the woods where Kitty finds him and he shares what happened. 

RELATED: Why Oppenheimer Didn't Show the Bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki

In real life, Tatlock committed suicide at age 29 on January 4, 1944. She wasn't found until January 5, by her father. Doing an emergency wellness check, he entered her apartment and found her head submerged in the bathtub. She drowned and left an unsigned suicide note. In it she wrote: "I am disgusted with everything... To those who loved me and helped me, all love and courage. I wanted to live and to give and I got paralyzed somehow. I tried like hell to understand and couldn't... I think I would have been a liability all my life—at least I could take away the burden of a paralyzed soul from a fighting world."

Oppenheimer has attested that Tatlock opened his eyes to many social issues that he was not aware of due to his affluent upbringing. It was through her tutelage and participation in socialist pursuits that he came to also have sympathetic leanings and donated money to the Spanish Civil War. He also had a deep affinity for Jean as a scholar and a person, which is why he was so pulled to her throughout their brief affair, and after. As a doctor of psychiatry, Tatlock's intelligence and passion could have positioned her as a great in her field. Tragically, how she would have charted her own path in history as an academic, doctor, and potential political figure remains forever unknown. 

How To Stream Oppenheimer?

Oppenheimer is now streaming exclusively on Peacock alongside a slew of behind-the-scenes featurettes.

The NBCUniversal platform currently offers two monthly subscription plans: Premium ($5.99 a month with ads) and Premium Plus ($11.99 a month with no ads and download access for certain titles). If you're a student, you can enjoy the Premium plan for just $1.99 for an entire year!

Looking for some theatrical action in the meantime? The HoldoversMy Big Fat Greek Wedding 3The Exorcist: BelieverFast XRuby Gillman, Teenage KrakenFive Nights at Freddy's, and Strays are all streaming on Peacock!

Originally published Jul 24, 2023.