You didn’t get into the Manhattan Project without meeting Dorothy McKibben, a widow with attitude who was the “gatekeeper” at Los Alamos, holding court in a little office known as 109 Palace. On this fact, whittled down to human scale, Jennet Conant (whose grandfather was an administrator of the Project) hangs her history of the intimate side of the development of the Bomb. It was Dorothy who issued passes and screened not only the greatest scientists of the twentieth century and their families, but a throng of “maids and janitors, waitresses and cooks.”
For more than two years, a group of people who had little in common lived together in a mysterious science-fact world of national secrecy. “The men were consumed with the grim task of beating the Germans to the draw” by developing a nuclear bomb, while the women were faced with trying to build a social life in cramped quarters with limited provisions in the town described as “an amazing cross between an alpine resort and mining camp.” Still, the rough surroundings were more than made up for when “it wasn’t unusual to have three or four Nobel Prize winners to dinner.”
Primitive conditions included intermittent electricity, worms in the critically low water supply, and a “chronic shortage of diapers and formula” at the commissary, a problem when the birth rate was escalating. Seems there were few activities as popular as love-making in the desert, and sex was one area of personal life that the government just couldn’t control.
Dorothy McKibben was there throughout it all, including the bomb test. The event that reminded the project’s pivotal scientist, Robert Oppenheimer, of the Bhagavad Gita (“I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds”) made Mckibben sense that “everything was different. The world had changed.”
Taking the personal threads of the Los Alamos stories to the deaths of several of its protagonists including Dorothy herself, 109 Palace is more a kitchen tale than a behind-the-scenes expose. There is a satisfying balance between the relatively simple rulebook existence of of McKibben and the grand scale on which Oppenheimer and his cohorts were deciding the fate of the world. No wonder Dorothy fell under the sway of the great man’s charisma, and that became an important element in the larger game. His Communist leanings, his cold, manipulative wife, and the gatekeeper’s unquestioning devotion all played out against the backdrop of the New Mexico desert and the development of the most deadly weapon known to mankind.
Conant had the contacts to put this chronicle together, and it is to her credit that she has done so with such an historian’s care for detail, from the minutiae of daily life to the larger and universal moments.