History of Science & Technology, Including the World of Richard Feynman, and Natural History

History of Science & Technology, Including the World of Richard Feynman, and Natural History

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Feynman, Richard P.

Los Alamos Letters to Feynman's First Wife, Arline Feynman, March—June 1945

Lot Closed

December 13, 07:10 PM GMT


100,000 - 200,000 USD

Lot Details



40 autograph letters signed (most "RPF", one "Husband", one "R P Feynman"), to Arline Feynman (née Greenbaum), Los Alamos, New Mexico, 2 March—14 June 1945.

88 pages (most 6 1/4 x 9 1/2 inches), some on letterhead of "Dr. Richard P. Feynman", others on letterhead of "Mrs. Richard P. Feynman", one on lined notebook paper, 1 in blue ink, the rest in pencil, nearly all in original cancelled covers, addressed in manuscript in Feynman's distinct double-lined capital letter script favored by him during this period. 


Richard Feynman and Arline Greenbaum first met when they were young teenagers, and by his junior year in high school, he suggested that they become engaged to be married. The pair were inseparable, and her impact and influence could be seen upon him throughout his life. While Feynman would at times be worried what others thought of him, Arline would ask “What do you care what other people think?” (This favorite question of hers would become the title of the sequel to Feynman’s wildly popular “Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman?”) She was his first love, his best friend, his soulmate. While he was a graduate student at Princeton, they became officially engaged, and it was around this period that Arline began to suffer recurrent symptoms of a mystery illness; large lumps that would appear and then disappear; fevers; pain. Eventually, Arline was diagnosed with lymphatic tuberculosis; doctors did not expect her to last more than two years. Feynman finished his Ph.D. in 1942, and despite their parents’ protest, the couple married in a civil ceremony on Staten Island. With no friends or family present the childhood sweethearts embarked upon their ill-fated marriage, which could not even begin with a proper kiss, with Feynman applying a careful kiss to his bride’s cheek, for fear of falling ill himself. Directly after the ceremony, he took her to Deborah Hospital in New Jersey, and visited her there every weekend.

All of this was happening against the backdrop of World War II, and after the attack on Pearl Harbor, Feynman, while still a graduate student, was recruited to work on a uranium enrichment project at Princeton University. The scientific director of the project was J. Robert Oppenheimer, and in 1943, Oppenheimer invited Feynman to join him and the rest of the Princeton team to work at the Los Alamos laboratory in New Mexico, on the top-secret Manhattan Project.

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.” (Perfect Reasonable Deviations, p. 13) After much deliberation, Feynman and Arline decided to go to New Mexico together, with the rationalization that the benefits to this arrangement were many; it was thought that the drier climate in New Mexico would help support Arline’s recovery, and the Southwest Presbyterian Sanatorium, a leading facility for tuberculosis patients, was less than a 2-hour drive from the lab at Los Alamos. Feynman could still take care of his sweetheart, without having to give up the opportunity at Los Alamos, or so it seemed.

The arrangement was difficult, and after a year, Feynman tried to have Arline brought from Albuquerque to Los Alamos, arranging for the Army nurses there to take care of her. This proved disastrous, and only lasted a few days, the nurses simply unable to provide the level of care and attention Arline needed at this point in her illness. With her constantly in tears, begging to be returned immediately to the Sanatorium, Feynman relented, though unhappily.

The 40 remarkable letters here were written by Feynman to Arline after her return to the Sanatorium, with the first penned on March 2, 1945, and the last, June 14, 1945, just two days before her death; it is unknown if she received and read this final letter. 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.

One can only imagine the extreme duress Feynman was under during this period, working around the clock to develop the atom bomb and stop the war, while the seconds ticked away on his sweetheart’s life. A brilliant young man, torn between the two things he held dearest, the earliest letters seemed at times at bit uncaring, but when understood within the context of what was going on around him, they reveal a young man in denial about the severity of his wife’s illness. 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 her reveals the deep regret he felt at finally realizing this once it was too late:

 “My Wife:

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 Feynman died just 10 days after the above letter was written, and the world’s first atom bomb, developed by Richard Feynman and the rest of the team at Los Alamos, was detonated a month later, on July 16, 1945.

REFERENCES: 30 of the 40 letters published in: Michelle Feynman, ed. Perfectly Reasonable Deviations From the Beaten Track. The Letters of Richard P. Feynman, 2005. pp. 40-42, 43-54, & 57-64 (letters 2-9, 11-15, 18-21, 23-26, 28-31, 33-34, 36, 38-39)