“I find it hard to understand in my mind what it means to love you after you are dead—but I still want to comfort and take care of you – and I want you to love me and care for me.”
I t isn’t often that one of the most famous love letters ever penned is written sixteen months after the subject has died. In the case of Nobel Prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman (1918-1988), that was precisely the time it took to grasp the profound loss of his first wife and childhood sweetheart, Arline Greenbaum, to incurable tuberculosis when she was just twenty-five. They had met while in high school, spending summers on the beaches of Far Rockaway where Feynman grew up, and by junior year, he knew he wanted to marry Arline, a striking counterpart he would later call ‘his idea-woman.’
While he was a graduate student at Princeton – an institution that viewed marriage as a fatal distraction to serious academic pursuits – Feynman and Greenbaum became officially engaged. Around this time, Arline began to suffer recurrent symptoms of a mystery illness; fevers, pain and large lumps that would appear and then disappear. After the initial fear of a cancer prognosis, Arline was diagnosed with lymphatic tuberculosis in 1941, possibly contracted from unpasteurized milk. Doctors did not expect her to last more than two years. Feynman finished his Ph.D. in 1942, and, despite their parents’ protest (Feynman’s mother apparently remarked that such a union should be ‘illegal’), the couple married in a civil ceremony on Staten Island. With no friends or family present, the young couple embarked upon their ill-fated marriage, which could not even begin with a proper kiss for fear of Feynman falling ill himself. Directly after the ceremony, he took her to Deborah Hospital in New Jersey and visited her there every weekend.
In 1943, J. Robert Oppenheimer invited Feynman to join the team at Los Alamos Laboratory in New Mexico as part of the top-secret Manhattan Project that would see the development and eventual detonation of the first atomic bomb. Oppenheimer had been the scientific director of a uranium enrichment project at Princeton, of which Feynman took part after the attack on Pearl Harbor. While Arline was Feynman’s first love and soulmate, physics was his life’s calling, and the opportunity at Los Alamos was not one that he could pass up. “I have however, other desires and aims in the world. One of them is to contribute as much to physics as I can. This is, in my mind, of even more importance than my love for Arline.” (Perfectly Reasonable Deviations, p. 13)
Sotheby’s will be auctioning off both an archive of romantically wrenching and illuminating correspondence of Feynman’s to Arline as well as the single-page letter Feynman wrote to her all those months after her death – which remained sealed up and unknown after his passing in 1988 when the letter was found in a trove of papers by a biographer (28 April / New York).
The forty letters, written while Feynman was at Los Alamos and Arline was living at the Presbyterian Sanatorium in Albuquerque, offer a heartbreaking glimpse into an untenable situation. While the drier climate was thought to be better suited towards Arline’s recovery – recovery being the naïve hope against hope – Presbyterian was also one of the leading facilities of tuberculosis patients and only a two-hour drive from Los Alamos. A young Feynman believed, perhaps foolishly, that he could seize an invaluable scientific opportunity while also caring for his wife. Feynman wrote to Arline nearly every day, addressing his letters to “Putzi”, his secret pet-name for her, and closing each letter with assurances of his love: “I love you, RPF”, “I love you, Husband”, “I know I will love you forever too, RPF”, “I love you little Putzi”, “I love you sweetheart”, etc. As the correspondence progressed, his sign-offs are reflective of her declining health; “So long sweetheart, keep pushing”, “Keep fighting. RPF”. While the letters reveal the inner life of the future Nobel-prize laureate, they also give us glimpses into the security conditions at Los Alamos, the relentless work schedule, and more, and several important figures make an appearance, including “the boss” (Hans Bethe, head of the Theoretical Division at Los Alamos, who would in turn, receive his own Nobel lauds), and Klaus Fuchs, the German physicist who turned out to be a spy for the Russians.
Their arrangement, however, proved to be difficult. And after a year of separation, Feynman had Arline brought to Los Alamos to be cared for by the army nurses, who were simply ill-equipped to provide her with the level of care she so desperately needed at the grim stage of a painful illness. Some letters speak to Feynman’s frustration with Arline, imploring her to ‘be nicer’ and to stop crying, stop complaining, and to stay strong – a lack of tact that appears cruel but, on the other hand, speaks to his inability to see the whole of a more tragic picture. Feynman, a lover of rational thought and scientific explanation, could not reason his way out of the inevitable; his wife was dying, and there was nothing he could do about it.
Forced to compartmentalize his feelings in order to be able to continue meeting the demands of his work, it wasn’t until the very end that he seems to have finally accepted just how grave her condition was. His second-to-last letter to Arline reveals the deep regret he felt at finally realizing this once it was too late:
I am always too slow. I always make you miserable by not understanding soon enough. I understand now. I’ll make you happy now.
I understand at last how sick you are. I understand that this is not the time to ask you to make any effort to be less of a bother to others. It is not the time to ask any effort at all from you. It is a time to comfort you as you wish to be comforted, not as I think you should wish to be comforted. It is a time to love you in any way that you wish…
…I will understand darling, I will. I will understand everything because I know now that you are too sick to explain anything. I need no explanations. I love you, I adore you, I shall serve you without question, but with understanding.
I am sorry to have failed you, not to have provided the pillar you need to lean upon. Now, I am a man upon whom you can rely, have trust, faith, that I will not make you unhappy any longer when you are so sick. Use me as you will. I am your husband.
I adore a great and patient woman. Forgive me for my slowness to understand. I am your husband. I love you.”
Arline died just ten days after the last letter was written on June 16th, 1945, and a month before the first atomic bomb was detonated in the barren expanse of the New Mexican desert. Feynman had received a phone call while at Los Alamos that Arline was dying and, after borrowing the car of a colleague, raced to the sanatorium to be with her until she took her final breath at 9:21 PM – the clock itself had stopped in the room. Feynman recorded the time and date in a small notebook as simply “Death.”
“When you were sick you worried because you could not give me something that you wanted to and thought I needed. You needn't have worried. Just as I told you then there was no real need because I loved you in so many ways so much. And now it is clearly even more true—you can give me nothing now yet I love you so that you stand in my way of laving anyone else—but I want to stand there. You, dead, are so much better that anyone else alive.”
Arline's death occurred at a time of incredible pressure for Feynman. He returned to working on the project immediately, and didn't cry about her death until many months had passed, as he later recounted: "Maybe I was fooling myself, but I was surprised how I didn't feel what I thought people would expect to feel under the circumstances. I wasn't delighted, but I didn't feel terribly upset, perhaps because I had known for seven years that something like this was going to happen. I didn't know how I was going to face all of my friends up at Los Alamos. I didn't want people with long faces talking to me about it. When I got back... they asked me what happened. 'She's dead. And how's the program going?' They caught on right away that I didn't want to moon over it. (I had obviously done something to myself psychologically: Reality was so important - I had to understand what really happened to Arline, physiologically - that I didn't cry until a number of months later, when I was in Oak Ridge. I was walking past a department store with dresses in the window, and I thought Arline would like one of them. That was too much for me.)" ("Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman." Adventures of a Curious Character, 2018. pp. 151-152)
Feynman has become a larger than life character beyond the annals of science, known for his wise-cracking wit, love of bongo drums, painting and go-go dancers that run perfectly alongside his legendary contributions to theoretical physics and quantum computing. His observations on every day existence have been encapsulated in memoirs such as Surely, You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!, and the subsequent sequel, the title taken from a question Arline always posed: What Do You Care What Other People Think? His remarkable and celebrated career has inspired his students, young scientists, and others who dare to dream up the impossible in the face of the unthinkable. Yet once upon a time, he was simply a young man who had the courage to fall in love with a young woman who was brave enough to love him back.
“I know you will assure me that I am foolish and that you want me to have full happiness and don't want to be in my way. I'll bet that you are surprised that I don't even have a girlfriend (except you, sweetheart) after two years. But you can't help it darling, nor can I—I don't understand it, for I have met many girls and very nice ones and I don't want to remain alone—but in two or three meetings they all seem ashes. You only are left to me. You are real.
My darling wife, I do adore you. I love my wife. My wife is dead.
P.S. Please excuse my not mailing this—but I don't know your new address."