Toni Oppenheimer

Katherine “Toni” Oppenheimer (1944-1977) was an American translator, and the daughter of J. Robert Oppenheimer.

 

Early Life

Toni Oppenheimer was one of the many children born at Los Alamos. When J. Robert Oppenheimer became the Director of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, the Oppenheimer family moved with him to New Jersey. Toni was 3 years old at the time. A few years later, she was enrolled at the Miss Fine’s School in Princeton, where she was an exemplary student. She was a shy girl who was admired for her level headedness. That emotional maturity made her the rock of a household that was frequently unstable.  

As a child, she was diagnosed with polio. The family brought her on a trip to St. John in the U.S. Virgin Islands to help her recovery. As she recovered from polio, she also developed an attachment to the secluded Caribbean island, beginning a lifelong relationship with the area.

 

Relationships with Her Parents

Robert Strunsky, who was a friend of the Oppenheimer family during their time in Princeton, was quite blunt about the unusual circumstances faced by the Oppenheimer children. He said that “to be a child of Robert and Kitty Oppenheimer is to have one of the greatest handicaps in the world.” Toni and her brother Peter were both certainly impacted by their parents’ unique eccentricities.

In particular, it was difficult for Toni to maintain a healthy relationship with her mother. After serving as the family’s sturdy voice of reason for much of her childhood, she began to feel immense pressure. After years of dutifully obeying her mother, picking up cigarettes and drinks for her around the house, Toni began to rebel as a teenager. Sis Frank, who lived near the family’s cottage on St. John, recalled that “Toni and her mother were at each other’s throats all the time.”

She also had a complicated relationship with her father. Though he recovered from the stressful environment at Los Alamos to become a very loving father, there are mixed accounts of his ability to actually communicate with either of his children. While some family friends thought that Oppenheimer did not pay enough attention to his daughter, others saw their relationship is very loving. What is known is that Robert’s death deeply unseated her mental health.

 

Later Years and Suicide

Robert Oppenheimer died of cancer in 1967. Soon after, in 1969, Toni Oppenheimer was denied a position as a translator for the United Nations because the FBI refused to grant her a security clearance. That process dredged up many of the communist charges that had been leveled at her father fifteen years before. Toni found herself unable to completely recover from the two events.

Soon after losing out on the U.N. position, and after two unsuccessful marriages, Toni permanently relocated to St. John. She became a recluse in her family’s old cottage, with few friends on the remote island. She committed suicide in January, 1977, a month after her 33rd birthday.

For more information on Toni Oppenheimer's life, read American Prometheus by Kai Bird and Martin Sherwin.

Toni Oppenheimer's Timeline

  • 1969 Denied a security clearance by the FBI, preventing her from working as a translator for the United Nations.
  • 1977 Jan 19th Died in Central, St. John, U.S. Virgin Islands.
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