Robert Oppenheimer Spent His Final Days On St. John

Robert Oppenheimer Spent His Final Days On St. John

It was a big weekend for films with two of the most highly anticipated movies of the summer releasing – the Barbie movie and Oppenheimer. Unfortunately, Barbie has no known connections to St. John, but Robert Oppenheimer and his family were home owners and frequent visitors!

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If you’ve been to Hawksnest Bay, you might have noticed Oppenheimer’s cottage, which has now been turned into an event center available for rent to the public.

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It all began in the late 1950s when Robert, his wife Kitty and daughter Toni would vacation to a guest house at Trunk Bay, and did so until the land was sold to the Virgin Island National Parks. After the sale of the guest house Robert and Kitty wanted a permanent residency on St. John. So eventually Robert and Kitty bought land from Nancy and Robert Gibney in order to build their own cottage.

So why did the Oppenheimers choose St. John as their place to escape, and why did they want to escape the fame that came to them after the success of the bomb? Shortly after the end of WWII the Russians were able to build and detonate an atomic bomb of their own. This would be the start of the “Cold War”.

During this time Robert Oppenheimer was asked to help build a hydrogen bomb, which would be way more devastating than the atomic bomb just used years ago. However, Oppenheimer declined the invitation on moral and practical grounds, saying “I feel I have blood on my hands”. Robert then started lobbying against the use of nuclear warfare, making the point that it needs to stop because once it starts where will it stop? This stance against what the US government was pushing and what he had once built put him under a microscope by the FBI. After an interrogation process in which Robert’s loyalty to the US was questioned and he was ultimately stripped of any security clearance he had. This was the final straw for Robert and his family, they needed a place where they could live the rest of their lives in peace. Leaving their home in Princeton, NJ they set sail for St. John.

St. John in the 1950s was very undeveloped and unpopulated, most people that lived on the island were descendants of people that had lived there in the past, and no one had any who Robert was nor did they care, which was perfect for the Oppenheimers. A place where no one knew who they were, the US government could not keep tabs on them, crystal clear blue water, sunshine and sunsets, you could not find a better place to escape to. During his time on the island, Oppenheimer loved writing poetry at his desk that overlooked the bay, and Kitty loved to sail and spend time with their daughter.

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Robert Oppenheimer spent a few years on St. John before he passed away from throat cancer in 1967. He left the cottage to his wife Kitty who loved sailing the blue waters of the Caribbean. Sadly, it was during one of those trips that Kitty passed away. She was attempting to sail from St. John to Japan via the Panama Canal. During the trip, she became ill and was taken to a hospital in Panama where she later passed away due to a blood clot in 1972.

After Kitty passed, the property was left to Toni. She lived there up until she took her own life in 1977. After all the Oppenheimers passed the question was who took control of the property? The Gibney family tried their best to get the land back, however, it ultimately was claimed by the Virgin Islands. The building has since been reconstructed due to damages from hurricanes and wind but the foundation and the location in which Robert Oppenheimer spent his last days are still on the shores of Oppenheimer Beach.

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10 thoughts on “Robert Oppenheimer Spent His Final Days On St. John”

  1. The man on the right in the picture with a Oppenheimer is my grandfather. He was the island doctor back then, Bill Applegate. He is buried in the cemetery on the island.

  2. The VI Dept of Sports, Parks, and Recreation supposedly manages the building now so google for contact info.

    But, a new Dept was created to manage Territorial Park and Katherine Edwards is in charge. Article was published recently online so her contact should be easy to find. Hopefully you can get a response from one of them.

  3. Recent press articles have said that Toni left a note giving the property to the people of St. John. That’s also a story we heard many times when we first started coming to St. John in the early 90s. Can anyone confirm this story? It might also be in St. John off the Beaten Path.

  4. Such a beautiful island, a beautiful beach. Thank you for this wonderful story that connects Oppenheimer to St. John. I really enjoyed the movie. What a difficult moral and professional conundrum!

  5. “St. John in the 1950s was very undeveloped and unpopulated, most people that lived on the island were descendants of people that had lived there in the past. “. Question ? We’re these “descendants” the descendants of the slaves that were taken to the island during then slave trade?

  6. I also visited in the 1980’s a beautiful stone/wood home on St Croix on a peninsula which was said to be owned by Oppenheimer. This house was destroyed by one of the big hurricanes later on. Do you have any information abotu this house? Thank You.

  7. Very interesting before his death John Gibney had told us the story, but for some reason we were told that Oppenheimer hung himself in that cottage. Thanks for clarifying. It looks like that Oppenheimer was his daughter.

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