I feel really bad about this. Really I do. I don’t like not liking a book. I start off every book wanting to not be able to put it down, to miss my train stop because I’m so into it, to fall in love with it. When I don’t like a book—especially one that has been really well reviewed—I tend to blame myself more than the author. I usually think that if the book was good enough to be published, it must be good, so if I have trouble with it, then there must be something wrong with me.
I say all this because after reading Tuxedo Park: A Wall Street Tycoon and the Secret Palace of Science That Changed the Course of World War II, by Jennet Conant, I went back and reread the NY Times review, which was very positive and had alerted me to the book in the first place. I had read the review when the book was published in 2002, thought it sounded like something I would want to read, then forgot about it until I stumbled upon the title again a few weeks ago while looking for something else. I was glad to find it, but am sorry to say that it didn’t live up to the billing. For me at least (there I go with the qualifiers).
Alfred Lee Loomis always loved science, but dutifully became a lawyer in order to take care of his family after his father died. During World War I, he was assigned to a ballistics unit where he was able to use his science skills to develop a chronograph that provided accurate measurements of bullets’ velocity and striking power. After the war, he quit the law and went into investment banking with his brother-in-law, with an eye on making enough money to allow him to pursue science.
He succeeded. Loomis and his partner made a killing on utilities throughout the 1920s, and were savvy enough to get their money out of the market before it crashed. While still working at the bank, Loomis bought a mansion in Tuxedo Park, a gated community of the very, very rich and very, very proper, not far from New York City. He built a lab and began to pursue amateur science projects. He employed lab assistants, invited scientists for conferences, and gave money and lab space to scientists whose projects he thought were worth pursuing.
Alfred Lee Loomis
Loomis soon became known in scientific circles as not just a rich dilettante, but someone with serious ideas and serious money to investigate them. His own work in the lab included studies of brain waves, sound waves, and time measurement. He became good friends with Ernest Lawrence and helped finance his cyclotron at Berkeley; with his financial savvy and big business connections, Loomis helped many other scientists find money or sponsorships.
With World War II approaching, Loomis became convinced that science and new weapons technology would win the war over sheer force or manpower. He helped organize and run the National Defense Research Committee, an organization that brought private sector scientists together to work for the military. The NDRC worked on a number of projects, most notably radar; their work on creating practical, portable radar equipment was crucial to Britain especially in the early part of the war. The NDRC also worked on the initial stages of what eventually became its most famous work, the Manhattan Project and the atomic bomb (the prominence of which many felt overshadowed the importance of radar; Physicist Lee DuBridge summed it up thusly: “Radar won the war; the atomic bomb finished it.”).
The NDRC was eventually folded into another committee, and the Radiation Lab in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where Loomis and his team did most of their work was dissolved by the end of the war. Loomis went on to do many other things, including divorcing his sickly wife of thirty some years and marrying his lab assistant’s much younger wife, scandalizing New York society. He also….
Sorry, here is where things get foggy. Actually they began to cloud up quite a while ago. See, I found the first 100-150 pages of this book quite interesting. This was the part where we learn who Loomis is, his interest in science, how he made his money, and how he built his lab and became a private, millionaire scientist, all of which is rather Bruce Wayne like. But somewhere around the beginning of the war section, the book lost me. This is quite odd, because as you know, I am quite fond of military history. Throw in a hush hush, clandestine operation, some science and I’m usually overjoyed. But in this case, I could not for the life of me pay attention or get interested in anything on the page; I read the last 150 pages or so of this book, but have almost zero memory of them. I dutifully read the words but the whole time my mind was wandering: “What if Indy 4 isn’t any good?...Why do I keep blowing that line at the beginning of the second act…It really hurts that editors don’t like dreaded novel’s main character…Do I need to stop at the grocery store?...I need to start that song at the end of the play on a higher note…” And of course, that little four word sentence that is always insistently running through my head.
I found myself thinking of other things while trying to read Tuxedo Park.
Conant has a personal connection to the material—her grandfather, James Conant, was president of Harvard, and very heavily involved in the development of the Manhattan Project. Her great-uncle worked in Loomis’s lab at Tuxedo Park; he committed suicide, but left behind a novel and short stories that were obviously very thinly disguised accounts of life in the lab. Conant introduces that information at the beginning of the book, and occasionally calls on it in other places to make a point or support a guess, but it doesn't seem to deliver the kind of expose you (or at least I) expect from its dramatic intro on page one. The rest of the book, especially once we get into the NDRC and Radiation Lab section, lacks any kind of personal feeling or characteristic; I guess this may be the result of material being classified or destroyed. It all read to me (as little as I noticed) like a blur of, “And then they went here. Loomis raised the money to do this. Then they worked on this. Loomis called these people and set up that. Maybe behind the scenes there was more going on—rivalries, friendships, stories, suspicion, humor, I don’t know. But it didn’t come through here and I missed that something something.
Again, though, I am reluctant to say my experience with this book is the same others would have. I would not tell anyone to absolutely skip it. Maybe someone else would be absolutely enchanted by it. Maybe I was just not in the mood, or going through some kind of phase, or just too busy thinking about other things to read well. Whatever the cause, though, I was not enchanted, and that is always my hope whenever I turn to the first page of any book.