Ol’ Blue Eyes

by Alex Wellerstein, published May 4th, 2012

J. Robert Oppenheimer had famously blue eyes. From Bird and Sherwin's American Prometheus:

  • "His eyes were the brightest pale blue, but his eyebrows were glossy black."
  • "...a Jewish Pan with his blue eyes and wild Einstein hair."
  • " 'He had the bluest eyes I've ever seen,' McKibben said, 'very clear blue.'"
  • " '...something about his eyes gave him a certain aura.'"
  • " 'My feeling was,' Robb recalled, 'that he was just a brain and as cold as a fish, and he had the iciest pair of blue eyes I ever saw.'"

People clearly responded to them, though differently. (Roger Robb was the "prosecutor" in the Oppenheimer security hearings, so it's no surprise he saw them in the most negative way possible.)

But it's hard to get a sense of those eyes these days — there just simply isn't that much by way of color photography of Oppenheimer. We have that wonderful Time magazine cover, which conveys something of them:

Which does have more life than similar photographs of him that are in grayscale:

Oppenheimer by Alfred Eisenstaedt, November 1947

But it's still hard to get a handle on those eyes.

There is another Eisenstaedt photo set of Oppenheimer from 1963 which conveys some of the eyes' majesty:

Oppenheimer by Alfred Eisenstaedt, 1963

One wonders if the eyes were the entire point of Eisenstaedt's 1963 session with Oppenheimer: they seem to be the focal point, the entire goal of the photo set. The 1963 Oppenheimer is the Oppenheimer who stares you down, with a martyred look upon his face, all of the sins of the world on his back, etcetera.

Does this matter? Only in the sense that it reminds us how hard to can be to conjure up the "living image" of a long dead historical figure. It's easy to see that Oppenheimer's eyes affected the memories of those around him (as did his famously ice-cold martinis). It's harder to re-create that affectation later, to really see Oppenheimer as a flesh-and-blood human being, rather than a character in a story. 

Seeing historical actors as real people, and not "characters in a story," is tough. It has its ups and its down, methodologically. If we get too sentimental, we become blinded to the big picture, and our analytical knives can get dull. On the other hand, viewing people in the past as being ontologically on par with fictional creations can lead us to make them too rational, too un-real — we forget about all of the messiness that makes people essentially humanwarts and all.

So I do strive for these little details, not because history is made up of the little details — a common fallacy, and one that distinguishes "history buffs" from "historians" — but because the details do help you assemble something that feels a bit more like a re-creation of the past, and that's a hard thing to come by.

In NUKEMAP news, I've written up an analysis of who-bombed-where for the online journal WMD Junction. Check it out.

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2 Responses to “Ol’ Blue Eyes”

  1. […] rare color photograph of Oppenheimer from October 1945, with General Groves and University of California President Robert […]