Eliot at the Institute for Advanced Study

Finally there was T. S. Eliot, who had long been both Oppenheimer’s favorite poet and [Oppenheimer’s old friend Francis] Fergusson’s. Indeed, over the years Fergusson had published many essays about various aspects of Eliot’s work. Eliot, too, came in 1948, arriving while Oppenheimer was still in Europe. [Freeman] Dyson remembers him as being “prim and shy.” Eliot, he says, “appeared each day in the lounge at teatime, sitting by himself with a newspaper and a teacup.” Neither Dyson nor any of his contemporaries could muster the courage to approach him. “None of our gang of young scientists,” Dyson recalls, “succeeded in penetrating the barrier of fame and reserve that surrounded Eliot like a glass case around a mummy.” [Abraham] Pais says he “was dying to have conversations with Eliot but refrained from approaching him, less out of shyness than from an ingrained sense not to bother him with trivia.” He did, however, have one conversation with the great poet, when they happened to share a lift. “This is a nice elevator,” Eliot remarked, to which Pais replied: “Yes, this is a nice elevator.” “That,” Pais writes, “was all the conversation with Eliot I ever had.”

— Ray Monk, Robert Oppenheimer: A Life Inside the Center