Swinging old-style doors with friezes flanked by bookshelves
The living room of 1 Eagle Hill Road in Kensington, which the Oppenheimers bought in 1941. “This is where all the physics people who made nukes, eventually, had their little parties,” says Anna Myles, whose mother, Kristin Linsley, has owned the home since the late 1990s. Credit: Ximena Natera, Berkeleyside/CatchLight

This Friday, the Christopher Nolan film Oppenheimer will open in theaters nationwide. The film examines the outsized life of the theoretical physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer, the so-called father of the atomic bomb, who taught at UC Berkeley from 1929 to 1943, when he left to head the government’s top secret Manhattan Project in Los Alamos, New Mexico, tasked with developing the first nuclear weapons.  

A photo of Oppenheimer, a handsome man with high cheekbones, in a suit looking off in the distance indecipherably
J. Robert Oppenheimer. Credit: U.S. Department of Energy

From enthusiastic UC Berkeley professors to ordinary Berkeleyans, the anticipation surrounding the film is palpable. 

The Pulitzer-winning 2005 book American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer, by Martin Sherwin and Kai Bird, on which the film is based, has sold out at many local bookstores, requiring many to reorder them. At press time, 22 patrons were still waiting on the two copies of the book the Berkeley Public Library has in circulation. 

And at UC Berkeley, the Physics South building (formerly LeConte Hall), where Oppenheimer taught from 1929 to 1943, has been fielding inquiries from enthusiasts hoping to glimpse the famous physicist’s former office. 

He may be long gone (he died in 1967), but his legacy and that of Berkeley’s influential atomic past lives on in the buildings where the physicist lived, worked and, yes, partied.

Three white men in a black and white photo with a panel with lots of toggles and gages
J. Robert Oppenheimer, Glenn T. Seaborg and Ernest O. Lawrence in early 1946 at the controls to the magnet of the 184-inch cyclotron, which was being converted from its wartime use to its original purpose as a cyclotron. Courtesy: Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory
Black and white photo of three men in suits
J. Robert Oppenheimer, Enrico Fermi and Ernest O. Lawrence at UC Berkeley in 1940. Courtesy: Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory

Oppenheimer is a figure of profound moral ambiguity — a brilliant scientist who raised alarm about the grave dangers and ethical dilemmas posed by his life’s work, though he did so only after the bombs he developed were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, killing and injuring hundreds of thousands of Japanese civilians.

In the 1930s and early ’40s, Oppenheimer and colleague Ernest Lawrence — the experimental physicist, Nobel laureate and inventor of the cyclotron after whom Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory is named — were part of a brainy crew of UC Berkeley physicists known for martini-laced dinner parties, where Oppenheimer held forth on subjects ranging from the leftist politics of the day to the Bhagavad Gita, which he read in the original Sanskrit and would later quote from while grappling with the magnitude of what he had unleashed on the world. 

UC Berkeley faculty will discuss Oppenheimer’s Berkeley years and personal legacy in a panel discussion later this month.

Friday, July 28, 11:30 a.m., I-House Chevron Auditorium, 2299 Piedmont Ave. RSVP required

Historian David Hollinger, a retired UC Berkeley professor who, with fellow Cal historian Cathryn Carson, hosted a centennial conference in celebration of Oppenheimer’s birth in 2004, described Oppenheimer as “a world historical figure of the very first order.”

“His life was a site on which many of the great events of the middle of the 20th century took place: the development of atomic energy, the development of the national security state, the experience of Communism and what was right and wrong about it, the problem of international control, the problem of war reached to the point where it could destroy thousands of people in an instant —  he was in the middle of all of it,” Hollinger said. 

As part of his research for his 2002 book on Oppenheimer, Brotherhood of the Bomb: The Tangled Lives and Loyalties of Robert Oppenheimer, Ernest Lawrence and Edward Teller, Cold War historian Gregg Herken took a tour of “all the places where Oppenheimer lived or had dealings with various people” and took pictures. 

“It was great to see the places where the ‘action’ happened,” Herken said. “It gave me a sense of the times, too.”

Herken’s tour forms the basis of this one, with additional notes provided by various experts and sources.

Oppenheimer’s office on the UC Berkeley campus

A small messy office with double-paned windows opening to a balcony
J. Robert Oppenheimer’s fourth floor office in the Physics South building on the UC Berkeley campus. Credit: Zac Farber

Physics South, (formerly LeConte Hall), Oppenheimer Way, UC Berkeley

Oppenheimer’s corner office on the fourth floor does not contain artifacts from Oppenheimer’s time, but does contain the office of a current physics professor. 

In summer 1942 Oppenheimer convened in his office a team of top theoretical physicists — Hans Bethe, Felix Bloch, Emil Konopinski, Edward Teller, John Van Vleck — to confirm the feasibility of building a nuclear weapon.

Raymond Birge, the chair of the Physics Department at the time, later recalled the security procedures that took place behind the office’s black-painted windows:

This office, like others on the top floor, has glass doors opening out onto a balcony. This balcony is readily accessible from the roof. To prevent this method of entry, a very heavy iron netting was placed over the balcony. A special lock was placed on the door to the office and only Oppenheimer had the key. No janitor could enter the office, nor could I, as chairman of the department. Dr. Oppenheimer was a chain smoker and if a fire had ever broken out in that office during his absence, the results might have been disastrous.

All the papers on this secret project were kept in a huge iron safe in the office, which reminds me that, when this heavy safe was placed in the elevator on the first floor to carry it to the [fourth] floor, the elevator, instead of rising, sank down to the basement!

In May 2022, film crews transported the physics building’s exterior and other nearby parts of the Cal campus back to the 1940s, removing “Oppenheimer Way” signs, hiding bike racks and disabled parking signs with potted plants and trees and placing wooden sheds over trash and recycling bins. 

Cillian Murphy, who plays Oppenheimer in the film, was seen outside Wheeler Hall and the Bancroft Library, which was retrofitted with period lampposts. 

brick steps leading up to old oak door and the word Physics
The steps leading up to the the Physics South building were among the places used for filming the movie Oppenheimer on the UC Berkeley campus. Credit: Zac Farber

In the 1920s, the Berkeley physics department realized that if it wanted to attain national prominence it was going to have to “hire adventurously and hire young,” said Carson, who chairs UC Berkeley’s history department and is an expert in 20th century physics history. “So they went with Lawrence and Oppenheimer and boy did they pick well.” 

Oppenheimer, looking dashing, like Bob Dylan, and Lawrence outside in scrubland with an old-style car
Robert Oppenheimer and Ernest O. Lawrence at Oppenheimer’s New Mexico ranch, 1931. Courtesy: Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory
Vintage cars are pictured on the UC Berkeley campus, with Doe Library and the Campanile in the background.
The Christopher Nolan film Oppenheimer was partially shot on the UC Berkeley campus. Credit: Dan Vaccaro/UC Berkeley Library

Lawrence arrived in 1928 and Oppenheimer a year later, at the age of 25. When he burst on the scene in the U.S. at the end of the ’20s, he was “the most well-trained theoretical physicist in this new discipline of quantum mechanics,” Carson said. She credits him with creating “the American school of theoretical physics in part because he was really great working with his students.”

Oppenheimer insisted on teaching both at UC Berkeley and the California Institute of Technology, an unusual arrangement. Oppenheimer divided his time between the two universities, bringing many of his associates and students with him.

“Students wanted to be around him. They flocked to Berkeley to do their Ph.D.s or post-doctoral training,” Carson said. “That made Berkeley the central proving ground of theoretical physics in the United States in the 1930s.”

A plaque that reads "In these Corner Offices Oppenheimer created the greatest school of theoretical physics the United states has ever known. A quote attributable to Hans Bethe
A plaque outside Oppenheimer’s office in the Physics South building. Credit: Zac Farber
A glass-and-wood case on the with photos and documents, including famous photos of Oppenheimer and a movie poster
A display case in the Physics building documenting the work of Oppenheimer and fellow physicist Ernest O. Lawrence. Courtesy: Physics department, UC Berkeley

Despite his charm and popularity, Oppenheimer was also known for having a mean streak. 

“He could be needlessly cruel,” Herken noted, citing an incident involving an old Berkeley physicist who would give a public lecture, relying on his notes. “Oppenheimer would go to the lecture and interrupt the professor, who would fluster and have to start all over again.” 

The incident was typical of what Herken discovered in his research. Students even created a nickname for the condescending stare Oppenheimer might deliver after someone asked a question he considered stupid. They called it “the Blue Glare treatment,” after his bright blue eyes. 

Oppenheimer’s home when he was a bachelor

Photo of the faculty club
The Berkeley Faculty Club. Courtesy: UC Berkeley

The Berkeley Faculty Club, Minor Lane, UC Berkeley

Both Oppenheimer and Lawrence lived in the club as bachelors. They “became very close friends” and even double-dated, wrote Jeremy Bernstein in his 2004 book Oppenheimer: Portrait of an Enigma

At the club, Oppenheimer befriended UC Berkeley Professor John Tatlock, where “Oppie,” as he was known on campus, showed off his wide-ranging knowledge of literature and ability to recite passages from memory, according to SF Gate

Around 1932, Oppenheimer began auditing Sanskrit classes in an attempt to learn the Hindu classics. Oppenheimer studied under the renowned Sanskrit expert Arthur William Ryder. 

Oppenheimer “went to Ryder’s house every Thursday night for a couple of years and really learned Sanskrit so well he could do his own translations,” Hollinger said. It is from the Bhagavad Gita that Oppenheimer quoted, “Now I become death, the destroyer of worlds,” after witnessing the first successful detonation of a nuclear bomb on July 16, 1945. 

Oppenheimer’s rented home, where physicists pulled all-nighters

2665 Shasta Road, Berkeley 

In 1934, Oppenheimer rented the lower level of this rambling Berkeley Hills Craftsman-style home owned by Mary Ellen Washburn, according to Herken. In Brotherhood of the Bomb, Herken described Oppenheimer writing to his brother that his rooms afforded “a view of the city and the most beautiful harbor in the world.”

“Oppie’s simple flat soon became the scene of riotous parties, fueled by the host’s trademark 4:1 frozen martinis, served in glasses whose rims were dipped in lime juice and honey,” Herken wrote. Parties would go late into the night, requiring Oppenheimer to avoid teaching before 11 a.m.

“Latecomers were amused to find those who would become the top physicists of their generation, drunk and crouched on all fours, playing a version of tiddlywinks on the geometric patterns of Oppenheimer’s Navajo rug,” Herken wrote.

Furthering his students’ admiration, Oppenheimer often hired grad students to bartend at his parties. 


One of those women was the trailblazing psychiatrist Jean Tatlock, the daughter of the Berkeley Old English professor Oppenheimer charmed at the Faculty Club. Oppenheimer met her in the spring of 1936. The two ended up having a long and tumultuous relationship and later an affair, while Oppenheimer was married. She died from suicide in her Telegraph Hill apartment in San Francisco in early 1944. 

Robert and Kitty Oppenheimer’s home as newlyweds

An old sign reading Kenilworth Court
The Oppenheimers lived briefly on Kenilworth Court, near the site of the Coventry Grove amphitheater today. Credit: Ximena Natera, Berkeleyside/CatchLight

10 Kenilworth Court, Kensington

A year after his relationship with Tatlock ended, Oppenheimer became involved with Kitty Harrison. When she met Oppenheimer she had been married less than a year to her third husband, according to The General and the Genius, by James Kunetka, yet “fell in love with Robert that day.” They married on Nov. 1, 1940, the day her divorce was final. The Oppenheimers’ first child, Peter, arrived seven months later. 

A two-story house at Kenilworth Court
The home at 10 Kenilworth Court was fully remodeled by the current owners. Credit: Ximena Natera, Berkeleyside/CatchLight

The house provided the couple with the space they needed. Oppenheimer “was no longer a bachelor,” Herken said. “He was a family man.” 

The then two-bedroom house, built around 1938, was owned by Erle Loran, a UC Berkeley art professor and artist, who was away for a period of time, according to the present owner. 

The Oppenheimers’ home that was the site of the ‘Chevalier incident’

A white fence and a red-roofed home behind
The Oppenheimers’ home at 1 Eagle Hill Road. “Structurally it has changed but it’s stayed true to the original,” says Anna Myles, who now lives in the house with their mother, Kristin Linsley, and two siblings. Credit: Ximena Natera, Berkeleyside/CatchLight

1 Eagle Hill Road, Kensington

The Oppenheimers bought this residence in 1941, according to a 1990s University Archives interview with Jean Pitzer, the wife of UC Berkeley chemist Kenneth Sanborn Pitzer. The Pitzers were neighbors at 12 Eagle Hill and their sons were the same age and played together. Physicist Robert Serber and his wife, Charlotte, lived in an apartment above the Oppenheimers’ garage.

“Eagle Hill became the place to gather,” Jennet Conant wrote in the 2007 book 109 East Palace: Robert Oppenheimer and the Secret City of Los Alamos. “Much of the early planning for [Los Alamos] was done there over Oppie’s superb ‘Vodkatinis,’ which were expertly prepared and generously distributed.”

The Oppenheimers lived at 1 Eagle Hill until the couple moved to Los Alamos in March 1943, according to Herken. By that time, Oppenheimer had been appointed director of the Manhattan Project’s Los Alamos Laboratory. 

The Oppenheimers rented the home to Emil Mrak, a UC Berkeley food scientist who later became chancellor of UC Davis, before selling it in 1951 to Lina and Spencer Browne.

Deed for 1 Eagle Hill Road
Kristin Linsley came into possession of this deed — as well as several letters and telegrams from the Oppenheimers — when she and her then-husband bought the home at 1 Eagle Hill Road in 1998. Courtesy: Kristin Linsley
Western Union Telegram from Kitty and Robert Oppenheimer about objects in the house
A telegram from Kitty and Robert Oppenheimer. Courtesy: Kristin Linsley
A letter from Oppenheimer to the woman he's selling the home to expressing warm sentiments and promising to visit someday
A letter from Robert Oppenheimer. Courtesy: Kristin Linsley

Eagle Hill Road became the backdrop for two notorious conversations that took place between Oppenheimer and his friend, UC Berkeley professor of French literature Haaken Chevalier, the first of which would be known as the “Chevalier incident.” 

Both were involved in leftist causes and sponsored benefits such as for the Spanish Loyalists during the Spanish Civil War and California farmworkers. Together they founded the Berkeley branch of a local teachers union.

A view of a tall-ceilinged room with a huge window and large bookcases
The large, airy living room at 1 Eagle Hill Road was built for entertaining and made up nearly half the size of the original house. Credit: Ximena Natera, Berkeleyside/CatchLight

In his 1965 memoir, Oppenheimer: The Story of a Friendship, Chevalier wrote about going into the kitchen to fetch the ice and mixings for a martini in 1942 and telling Oppenheimer about a conversation he had had with George Eltenton, a British scientist working with Shell Oil in Berkeley. According to many accounts, Eltenton offered to pass along any technical or scientific information to the Soviets. 

Oppenheimer kept the encounter secret until after the war, according to Herken, when the FBI took over counter-intelligence from the Army. “Oppenheimer told Chevalier, basically, bug off. I’m not going to pass secrets to the Russians.”

Oppenheimer’s belated reporting of this incident and his attempt to obscure the identity of Chevalier led to accusations of his having Communist sympathies during the height of the McCarthy era. That, and Oppenheimer’s opposition to the hydrogen bomb, became the basis of the 1954 hearings before the Atomic Energy Commission, which resulted in the revocation of Oppenheimer’s security clearance. At the hearings, neighbor Kenneth Pitzer was a hostile witness for Oppenheimer.  

A second incident occurred at the house in 1946, when Chevalier went to a party at the home and told Oppenheimer he’d been approached by the FBI and wanted to know what’s going on, according to Herken. Oppenheimer, who suspected that his house was bugged, suggested that the two continue their conversation outdoors.

The two then left the house and went “up to a patch of weeds at the top of the property,” Herken said. “Oppenheimer is obviously upset. Now he realizes the FBI is on his case. It’s not over. Kitty comes over and says guests are arriving, come back to the house, and he snaps at her.”

Oppenheimer was eventually cleared of any wrongdoing by the government in 2022, when Energy Secretary Jennifer M. Granholm described the ruling as the result of a “flawed process.” As time passed, “more evidence has come to light of the bias and unfairness of the process that Dr. Oppenheimer was subjected to while the evidence of his loyalty and love of country have only been further affirmed,” Granholm wrote in a statement.

When the Oppenheimers lived in the home, the kitchen and dining rooms had marble floors, according to Herken, and a van Gogh painting, “Enclosed Field with Rising Sun,” which hung above the fireplace.

An impressionist painting of a field, a fence, the hills and the sun
A reproduction of the van Gogh painting, “Enclosed Field with Rising Sun,” that hung over the Oppenheimers’ fireplace. Courtesy: Gregg Herken

Herken said Oppenheimer would eventually sell the painting in order to build his house in Princeton, New Jersey, where he moved in 1947 after becoming the director of the Institute for Advanced Study and chair of the General Advisory Committee of the Atomic Energy Commission. 

“This house was built to be a place to entertain people,” said Anna Myles, 24, who’s lived in the house their whole life.

Myles’ parents bought the home in the late ’90s. Their mother, the attorney Kristin Linsley, clerked at the Supreme Court for Antonin Scalia and is now a partner at a San Francisco law firm. Their father, David Myles, works in biotech.

Profile of Myles, a 24-year-old, sitting in her living room in a plush chair with books in the background
Anna Myles and their dog Teddy. “I read a book about Oppenheimer when I was in fourth grade [that mentioned] the Eagle Hill Road house,” Myles remembered. “I’m like, ‘That’s my house.” Credit: Ximena Natera, Berkeleyside/CatchLight

On Nov. 18, 2021, a location scout visited the home and declared unexpectedly that Christopher Nolan would be there in 10 minutes. “That was the full extent of the warning we got and then he rolled up in a giant black SUV,” Myles said. 

Myles described Nolan as being “nice” during his tour of the house. 

Christopher nolan in a large coat on the steps of the house
Director Christopher Nolan toured the 1 Eagle Hill Road home in November 2021 during location scouting. He didn’t end up filming at the house for his movie. Credit: Anna Myles

“He had a pretty good grounding in the historical facts and was more looking to connect some of the things that are known to have happened at the house to where they happened — to get the visual of where this was taking place, and to get the vibe of the house,” Myles said.

The production, however, ended up shooting elsewhere and Myles acknowledged being a little disappointed. “It would be really cool to have Robert Downey Jr. show up at your house,” they said. In the film, Downey plays the role of Lewis Strauss, who viewed Oppenheimer as a threat to U.S. security. 

A bookshelf with books about Oppenheimer and a bobblehead of Antonin Scalia
A bobblehead of former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia serves as a bookend for the collection of books about the Manhattan Project that attorney Kristin Linsley keeps in the living room of her home at 1 Eagle Hill Road. Credit: Ximena Natera, Berkeleyside/CatchLight

The place where the second Chevalier conversation took place is now home to a chicken coop. 

And Myles said the home contained some strange features.

“My dad redid the doorbell for the house when I was in early elementary school, and there were a lot of wires that were very much unexplained for the actual electrical wiring of the house — in the attic, in the kitchen,” they said. “We’re pretty sure it was wiretaps in the ceiling of the kitchen.”

The owners have been generous about opening the place to historians and authors, even hosting a publishing party for Herken’s Brotherhood of the Bomb and an event tied to Oppenheimer’s centennial, which was attended by much of the UC Berkeley Physics department. Chevalier’s widow, Barbara, came to the home in the early 2000s, Linsley said, and remembered how music from the Oppenheimers’ piano used to fill the room.)

Old black and white photo of dressed up people posing for a picture at a dinner party
An undated photo of a dinner party held at 1 Eagle Hill Road. Courtesy: Anna Myles

Today, a living room bookshelf includes two rows of books about Oppenheimer and the Manhattan Project. Myles shared with Berkeleyside some photos of the home’s early days. 

“This is where all the physics people who made nukes, eventually, had their little parties,” Myles said while standing in her living room. “It’s pretty weird.”

The house in Claremont that the Army rented as a base for spying — on scientists

Old brick gateway with Forest Ave. sign
A brick gate stands in front of the Claremont home that the U.S. Army rented to spy on nuclear scientists. Credit: Ximena Natera, Berkeleyside/CatchLight

2900 Forest Ave., Berkeley 

According to Herken, this Claremont home was rented by the U.S. Army from around 1943 to 1945 to spy on the activities of the scientists who were working on the bomb project at Lawrence’s radiation laboratory or “rad lab.” 

Though the listening post was meant to be secret, Leslie Groves — the Army officer who had overseen the Manhattan Project, played by Matt Damon in the new film — once showed up there in full uniform.  

“When it was pointed out that the neighbors might wonder why an Army general was there,” Herken said, “he borrowed a raincoat too small for him and ran back to the car.”

The home of Ernest and Molly Lawrence

Two-toned big house
The home on Tamalpais Road where the Lawrences would often host the Oppenheimers and friends. The home is currently for rent. Credit: Ximena Natera, Berkeleyside/CatchLight

111 Tamalpais Road, Berkeley

Ernest Lawrence and his wife, Molly, were married in May 1932 and likely moved into this two-story house shortly after. They lived in the home until Ernest Lawrence’s death.

Lawrence holds a baby while his wife Molly watches
Ernest O. Lawrence with wife, Molly, and son Eric in 1935. Courtesy: Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory

Oppenheimer would often go there for dinner, bringing a gift of orchids to Molly. Oppenheimer was such a frequent and beloved visitor, he was known to Lawrence’s children as “Uncle Robert.” 

The home of Frank and Jackie Oppenheimer

Two-story boxy house
Oppenheimer’s brother Frank lived in this home on Parker Street. Credit: Ximena Natera, Berkeleyside/CatchLight

2237 Parker St., Berkeley

The home of Oppenheimer’s brother Frank, a card-carrying member of the Communist party, and his wife, Jackie, also a party member. According to Herken, the couple rented the home. Their St. Bernard was named Pushkin. 

Frank Oppenheimer, also a physicist, would go on to found San Francisco’s Exploratorium in 1969. 

The home of Haakon Chevalier

House obscured by trees
The home on Woodmont Avenue rented by Haakon and Barbara Chevalier. Credit: Ximena Natera, Berkeleyside/CatchLight

605 Woodmont Ave., Berkeley

Haakon and Barbara Chevalier rented this Berkeley Hills home in the mid-1930s. 

Herken described the house as “gorgeous” and “the perfect place to have the parties to benefit the Spanish loyalists. Looking at the huge lawn, for example, you can imagine the partygoers wearing orchid corsages and drinking martinis,” he said. “Wish I had been there.”

Berkeleyside Managing Editor Zac Farber contributed reporting to this story.

Joanne Furio is a longtime journalist and writer of creative nonfiction. Originally from New York, she has been a staff writer, an editor and a freelance magazine writer. More recently, she was a contributing...