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109 East Palace: Robert Oppenheimer and the Secret City of Los Alamos [Paperback]

by Jennet Conant
4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (82 customer reviews)

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Book Description

May 8, 2006 0743250087 978-0743250085 Reprint
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.

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

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. Agent, Christine Dahl. (May)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From The New Yorker

In 1943, a young widow named Dorothy McKibbin was hired as Oppenheimer's assistant to run the Santa Fe office of the secret weapons laboratory at Los Alamos. At 109 East Palace Avenue, she greeted newly arrived scientists, reminding them to use their aliases while in town and never to identify themselves as physicists. Conant, whose grandfather was a Manhattan Project administrator, mostly sidesteps political issues to focus on the absurdities of day-to-day life at the desert lab. McKibbin fielded numerous complaints from the scientists' wives, who had to struggle with massive coal-belching stoves, hand-churned washing machines, and a chronic shortage of diapers. Meanwhile, their husbands, when not handling plutonium, drank heavily and played pranks: once, the operator of the P.A. system was heard paging Werner Heisenberg, who was otherwise engaged, in Germany, designing the Nazi bomb.
Copyright © 2005 The New Yorker --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

Product Details

  • Paperback: 448 pages
  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster; Reprint edition (May 8, 2006)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0743250087
  • ISBN-13: 978-0743250085
  • Product Dimensions: 8.4 x 5.6 x 1.1 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 13.4 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (82 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #61,781 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More 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.

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
95 of 97 people found the following review helpful
Everybody knows J. Robert Oppenheimer, Edward Teller and many of the military minds that directed the effort to develop the atomic bomb. Nobody outside of Los Alamos knew Dorothy McKibben. McKibben who ran 109 East Palace was like the Rosencrantz and Guildenstern of this war time "Hamlet"-like drama; she viewed the action not from the heart of the research but from the outside at the gateway where she issued security passes, helped new personnel settle in, dealt with complaints about water pressure, food supplies, etc. She knew everything and nothing about the community she helped as she wasn't privy to the secret goal of the Los Alamos community.

While author Jennet Conant doesn't ignore the work they were trying to accomplish, she focuses on the human element that made it possible for the work to occur. Conant provides a detailed and intimate look into the insular community that labored to build the ultimate bomb to finish the "ultimate war". One of the most fascinating sections of the book called "Summer Lighning" deals with Klaus Fuchs who arrived at Los Alamos after doing research for the Manhattan Project on gaseous diffusion. He came to help figure out the implosion problem at the request of Peierls a German physcist working in the US. McKibben never had a suspicion that Fuchs might be betraying the secret work at Los Alamos to the Soviets until it was too late.

Conant who it is noted is the granddaughter of James B. Conant (the chief administrator on the Manhattan Project)has a unique insider's perspective. Conant doesn't shy away from the issue about Oppenheimer's loyalty; she reports that Captain Peer de Silva took an immediate dislike to Oppenheimer and believed, based on his file, that Oppenheimer would betray the United States in a hot second.
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45 of 46 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The human dynamics of the Manhattan Project October 7, 2005
Ten years ago, I taught part-time at the University of New Mexico's small Los Alamos campus. One day a huge thunderstorm marooned me in the lobby of the building along with a cheerful elderly woman who, I soon learned, had come to Los Alamos as a WAC to work on the Manhattan Project. For the next half-hour, I heard her fascinating stories about the laboratory and the community during the early years. When the rain finally stopped and we parted, I reflected that, although the scientific aspects of the project had been amply documented, there was another human story still waiting to be written.

I'm glad that Jennet Conant has written that story. Besides having an "inside track" through her grandfather's involvement in the Manhattan Project, she was able to access Dorothy McKibbin's memoirs, and she also makes good use of other unpublished materials as well as interviewing the people involved. This isn't a scientific account of the project, it's the story of the people behind it: from the unlikely team of Oppenheimer and Gen. Groves, to the locals who worked as maids and construction workers in the secret community on the hill -- and Dorothy, who held it all together, and whose story is used to structure the book.

Bringing together a motley collection of physicists, engineers, and military experts to construct "the Gadget" was impressive enough -- but the project didn't exist in a vacuum. The technical staff were people who had to be housed, fed, and clothed, and many of them brought families and children whose needs had to be accommodated too. As director, Oppenheimer had to deal with both the scientific and the personal aspects of the project, and this book well describes the human dynamics that he contended with on both fronts.
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24 of 24 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The fascinating tale of Los Alamos July 28, 2005
109 East Palace presents a surprisingly engaging story about the members of the atomic bomb project in Los Alamos. The author, Jennet Conant, states early on that she is focusing on the human side of project's history: the technical aspects have been well covered elsewhere. The brilliant and colorful denizens of Los Alamos threw wild parties, worked long hours, and chafed under mandates of government secrecy.

In the midst of World War II, an undertaking this monumental had to remain strictly secret. The community was built atop a small school in the middle of the desert. The only link to civilization was across a long, unreliable road and an inadequate bridge. Naturally, logistics were strained. An entire town was built from scratch, and it was in constant construction for years. Scientists, engineers, their families, and soldiers streamed into Los Alamos. They crammed into small apartments with thin walls, and all housing for miles around was filled. Electricity was usually unavailable, and cooking took hours using ancient stoves. Rules limited their ability to leave town or communicate with the outside world.

Although these conditions caused some conflict, the citizens responded amazingly well. The insular community became very intimate. They worked at an exhausting pace, anxious to develop the bomb that could end the war and save American lives, and then released their tension by engaging in wild parties. Entranced with their beautiful environment, they went on long hikes and skied in the winter. Los Alamos became a wonderful and sociable place to live.

Although Conant describes many people, she focuses mainly on Robert Oppenheimer and Dorothy McKibbin. Oppenheimer was the intensely charismatic director of Los Alamos.
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars The Human Story of the Los Alamos Laboratory
A great short history of the Los Alamos Laboratory and the Manhattan Project. The book capably covers all the main characters, events, technical challenges and scientific... Read more
Published 8 days ago by Michael A. Gist
5.0 out of 5 stars GOOD READ
Very good insights iinto the personal relationships and conflicts during the Manhattan Project. I've been to Los Alamos and the story makes those visits more meaningful.
Published 8 days ago by Good Food Fan
4.0 out of 5 stars Los Alamos Revisited
I enjoyed reading about this period of history that I lived through as a young college student and appreciated the many facts and details about living in Los Alamos and the... Read more
Published 8 days ago by Joan C. Gendreau
5.0 out of 5 stars Great Book
This is the most definitive book that I have read of the personalities, struggles and commitment that mproject.any had to make to accomplish this
Published 19 days ago by Ronald P. Hamilton
5.0 out of 5 stars Excelent
Excellent book. Great insight in to the people working on the bomb. I can not put it down.

Dr. Art
Published 2 months ago by Dr. Art
5.0 out of 5 stars Stranger Than Fiction
The book was an epic story of the real players in the making of a turning point in American history.
Published 2 months ago by Jean H
5.0 out of 5 stars A Great Story
For anyone who lived through WWII this is a must-read. It's the human side of the making of the A Bomb and I found it enthralling, not to mention enlightening.
Published 2 months ago by Doting grandma
4.0 out of 5 stars A Roaring Good Read
I tend not to read nonfiction on a regular basis, but the book was well-written and not overtly biased. I couldn't put it down.
Published 3 months ago by Lindy P Riley
5.0 out of 5 stars Great read
Gift for husband, who could not put it down.
About personalities who worked in development of atom bomb in NM
Published 3 months ago by Trish
4.0 out of 5 stars Los Alamos history
Well written book about a crucial time in our history. Combines humor, heartbreak, difficult decisions and success. Excellent character portrayals. Read more
Published 3 months ago by Bo F Craddock
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