October, 1949: Oppenheimer is on the cover of LIFE, and cigarettes are still cool

Back in the good old days of the late 1940s, the age of innocence still writ large on this country's lifeline, LIFE magazine was a microcosm of American life, a daily staple that brought the leading lights and events of the country into the living rooms of the middle class. When readers received the October, 1949 issue in their mail they found the godlike face of American science and technology gazing beneficently at them from the cover. Thanks to the substantial capabilities of eBAY I was able to retrieve a copy.

J. Robert Oppenheimer had already become a household name because of his leadership of the atomic bomb project, and now he seemed to have outdone himself by becoming the director of the Institute of Advanced Study in Princeton, effectively making himself the boss of Albert Einstein, John von Neumann and Kurt Gödel. The 1949 issue paints a picture of Oppenheimer as the quintessential polymath genius and new frontiersman, with a healthy contribution from Oppenheimer the Family Man making the picture complete. There are also other goodies in the installment, with a cheerful smattering of old-fashioned 1940s sexism advertising household products for men and their doting wives. And yes, the biggest concern about cigarettes is throat irritation, a myth reassuringly dismissed by Camel.

The good old times.

First, the father of the atomic bomb inspiring readers with his steel-blue eyes, thoughtful gaze and ever-present cigarette.

Oppenheimer was regarded as the quintessential intellectual plumbing the intricate depths of physics. His signature porkpie hat, cigarette, dazzling mastery of topics as far-flung as French poetry and Sanskrit literature made him the poster boy for the rarefied American intellectual, a species which until then had largely seemed endemic to Europe.

Daddy's Home!: The glowing, breathless profile packed with quotes from Oppie painted Oppenheimer as that rare combination of ivory tower genius and everyman with a great family life who enjoyed romping around with his kids when he returned from work. Reality was different: his wife Kitty was given to bouts of heavy drinking even during the day, and she could be a very unpleasant person in personal interactions. His children Toni and Peter lived in the shadow of their often acerbic and absent father, and both their lives ended in tragedy: Toni committed suicide after her parents' deaths, and Peter Oppenheimer is a recluse who very rarely talks about his father.

But enough about Oppie. Nothing says class and poise better than Van Heusen shirts for the modern American man, worn especially when his wife lovingly bathes him.

Finally, a piece of good news to divert readers' minds from all that heavy mathematical physics and philosophizing. Camel cigarettes don't cause any throat irritation! (only lung cancer).


  1. Is there any biopic movie of Oppenheimer (Hollywood) out there? Given his steely blue eyes and am thinking Paul Newman could have ideally portrayed him. But, neither are alive. Thanks for throwback article from "Life" on Bob Oppenheimer.

  2. @Shankar: PBS did a good miniseries years ago (with Sam Waterston as Oppenheimer): https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Oppenheimer_(miniseries).

  3. It was a BBC series, and Waterston is marvelous in it. Ironically, Paul Newman plays General Groves in the execrable "Fat Man and Little Boy", with Dwight Schultz playing an acceptable Oppenheimer.


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