Martin Sherwin was hardly your classic writer’s block. Quirky, funny, and sporty, he is described by those who knew him as the opposite of neurotic.
But by the late 1990s, he had to admit that he was stuck. Sherwin, a history professor and the author of one previous book, had agreed to write a full-scale biography of J. Robert Oppenheimer two decades earlier. Now he wondered if he would ever finish it. He did a lot of research—an extraordinary amount, in fact, amassing some 50,000 pages of interviews, transcripts, letters, diaries, declassified documents, and FBI files, stored in seemingly endless boxes in his basement, attic, and office. But he barely wrote a word.
Sherwin originally tried to turn down the project, his wife recalled, telling his editor, Angus Cameron, that he didn’t think he was experienced enough to take on such a consequential subject as Oppenheimer, the so-called father of the atomic bomb. . But Cameron, who published Sherwin’s first book at Knopf – and who, like Oppenheimer, was a victim of McCarthyism – insisted.
So on March 13, 1980, Sherwin signed a $70,000 contract with Knopf for the project. Paid half to start, he expected to finish it in five years.
In the end, the book took 25 years to write — and Sherwin didn’t do it alone.
When Christopher Nolan’s film “Oppenheimer” is released on July 21, it will be the first time many younger Americans will encounter the story of J. Robert Oppenheimer. But that film stands on the shoulders of the thorough and exciting 721-page Pulitzer Prize-winning biography called “American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer,” co-written by Sherwin and Kai Bird.
Knopf published this masterpiece in 2005. But it was only thanks to a rare collaboration between two indefatigable writers – and a deep friendship, built around a shared dedication to the art of biography as a work of life – that “American Prometheus” was made at all. .
Oppenheimer would be a scary subject for any cinema.
A public intellectual with a flair for the dramatic, he directed the top-secret laboratory in Los Alamos, New Mexico, taking the atomic bomb from theoretical possibility to terrifying reality in an impossibly short timeline. Later he emerged as a kind of philosopher king of the post-war nuclear age, publicly opposing the development of the hydrogen bomb and becoming a symbol of both America’s technological genius and its conscience.
This attitude made Oppenheimer a target in the McCarthy era, spurring his enemies to paint him as a communist sympathizer. He was stripped of his security clearance during a 1954 hearing convened by the Atomic Energy Commission. He lived the rest of his life diminished, and died at 62 in 1967, in Princeton, New Jersey.
When Sherwin began interviewing people there who knew him, he was surprised by the intensity of their feelings. Physicists, and the widows of physicists, were still angry at the casual neglect Oppenheimer had shown his family.
Even after Sherwin moved his own family to Boston for a job at Tufts University, he and his wife Susan met Massachusetts Institute of Technology scientists who admitted with embarrassment that their years working under Oppenheimer on the bomb were some of the happiest of theirs. lives
Among the scores of people Sherwin also interviewed were Haakon Chevalier, Oppenheimer’s former best friend whose Communist ties partly formed the basis of the inquisition against him, and Edward Teller, whose testimony at the 1954 hearing helped end his career.
Oppenheimer’s son Peter refused a formal interview, so Sherwin brought his family to the Pecos Wilderness near Santa Fe, saddled up a horse and rode to the Oppenheimers’ rustic cabin, wrangling an opportunity to speak with the scientist’s son when the two men built a fence. . “Marty never thought he was a great interviewer,” said Susan Sherwin, who accompanied him on many research trips, and survives him. But he had a knack for connecting with people.
Sherwin’s deadline has come and gone. His editor retired, and he did his best to avoid his new one. There was always another person to interview, or another document to read.
The unfinished book became a running joke in the Sherwin household.
“We had this New Yorker cartoon on our fridge my whole childhood,” recalled his son Alex. “It’s a guy at a typewriter, and he’s surrounded by stacks of papers. His wife is far away, in the doorway of his office. And he says, ‘End it? Why would I want to end it?’”
KAI BIRD, HERACULUS assistant editor at The Nation, needed a job. It was 1999, and while Bird had written some modestly successful biographies, as a 48-year-old historian without a Ph.D. he was underqualified for a tenured university position and overqualified for almost everything else. His wife, Susan Goldmark, who had a lucrative job at the World Bank, was tired of being the main breadwinner.
Bird was unsuccessfully applying for newspaper jobs when he heard from an old friend. Sherwin took Bird to dinner, and suggested they join forces on Oppenheimer.
They had known each other for years, and their friendship solidified in the mid-1990s, when Bird included Sherwin’s essays. in volume about the controversy surrounding a planned Smithsonian exhibit of the Enola Gay, the plane that dropped the first atomic bomb.
But there was one complication. “My first book started as a collaboration with my best friend,” the writer Max Holland, Bird said, “and eight years later ended up in divorce” Things broke down, in part, over disagreements about how much research was enough.
The episode was painful. Never again, his wife reminded him.
“I told Marty, ‘No, I can’t. I like you too much,'” Bird said.
So began a year-long charming campaign to convince Bird, but especially Goldmark, that this time would be different. “I watched very closely, watching them interact and finish each other’s sentences as couples sometimes do,” she recalled. “They were both like that beautiful.”
Finally, with everyone on board, Gail Ross, Bird’s agent, negotiated a new contract with Knopf, who agreed to pay the pair an additional $290,000 to finish the book.
Sherwin warned Bird that there were gaps in his research. But soon “countless numbers of boxes” started showing up at Bird’s home, according to his wife. As Bird began to sift through it all, he recognized how painstakingly detailed and dizzyingly broad Sherwin’s research was. “There were no gaps,” Bird recalled.
It was time to write. Bird started at the beginning.
“I wrote a draft from the early childhood years,” he said, “and Marty took it and rewrote it.” Sherwin sent the review back to Bird, who was impressed. “He knew exactly what was missing in the anecdotes,” Bird said.
Their process took shape: Bird would reflect on the research, synthesize it, and produce a draft that he would send to Sherwin, who would recognize what was missing, edit and rewrite, and send the copy back to Bird. Soon Sherwin was also editing. “We wrote furiously for four years,” Bird said.
Sherwin always knew that the hearing that stripped Oppenheimer of his permit would be the “epicenter” of the biography, Bird said. They argued about what the evidence might suggest, but never about style, process, or the form of the book itself. “It became,” said Susan Sherwin, “almost a magical thing.”
By autumn 2004, almost 25 years after Knopf committed to the project, the script was almost ready. Bird and Sherwin editor Ann Close vetoed “Oppie,” the couple’s working title. A commotion ensued, until something came to Goldmark late at night: “Prometheus … fire … the bomb is this fire. And you could put ‘American’ in there.’ “
Bird dismissed “American Prometheus” as too obscure, until Sherwin called the next morning to tell him that a friend, the biographer Ronald Steel, had suggested the same title over dinner the night before. “I have a big problem,” said Bird. His wife felt vindicated.
April 5, 2005, Kai Bird and Martin Sherwin “American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer” was published to huge acclaim. The Boston Globe raved that it “stands like Everest among the mountains of books about the bomb project and Oppenheimer, and is an achievement unlikely to be surpassed or equaled.”
Among its many accolades was the Pulitzer Prize for Biography. Bird always thought the book had an outside shot at the prize, but Sherwin was skeptical. “He always thought I was an incorrigible optimist. So he was really amazed,” Bird would say later. “He was, in fact, sweetly delighted.”
THE TIME the collaborators learned in September 2021 that Christopher Nolan planned to turn “American Prometheus” into a film, Marty Sherwin died of cancer.
The pair had read several unfinished scripts based on his book over the years, so Sherwin was dubious about its chances in Hollywood. He was too ill to join, but Bird and Goldmark met Nolan at a boutique hotel in Greenwich Village. Bird reported to Sherwin in person later that, with Nolan as writer and director, their work was in good hands.
“Oppenheimer’s story is one of the most dramatic and complex I have ever come across,” Nolan said recently. “I don’t think I would have ever picked that up without Kai and Martin’s book.” (Anticipation for the film placed the biography on the New York Times bestseller list for non-fiction paperbacks.)
On October 6, 2021, Bird received word that his friend had died at the age of 84.
Sherwin “would have been deeply pleased,” because of the film’s accuracy, Bird said after seeing the film for the first time. “I think he would have been, what an artistic achievement it is.”
He recalled the day he and his wife spent a few hours on the set of the movie in Los Alamos. The crew filmed in Oppenheimer’s original cabin, now painstakingly restored. Bird watched Cillian Murphy take after take as Oppenheimer, struck by the actor’s resemblance to the subject he had spent years studying.
Finally, there was a break in filming, and Murphy walked over to introduce himself. As the actor approached – dressed in Oppenheimer’s brown, baggy 1940s-era suit and broad tie – Bird couldn’t help himself.
“Dr. Oppenheimer!” he shouted. “I’ve waited decades to meet you!”
Bird said Murphy just laughed. “We’ve all read your book,” the actor told him. “It’s mandatory reading here.”