Conversation: Tuxedo Park

July 22, 2002 at 12:00 AM EDT


MARGARET WARNER: The book is “Tuxedo Park: A Wall Street Tycoon and the Secret Palace of Science that Changed the Course of War World II.” The author is journalist Jennet Conant. Her book tells the largely forgotten story of Alfred Lee Loomis, a Wall Street financial genius and an amateur scientist. Beginning in the 1920s, Loomis attracted many of the world’s greatest scientists to a mansion he purchased in the aristocratic enclave of Tuxedo Park, New York, and converted into a world-class laboratory. The brain trust he assembled would ultimately develop radar and the atomic bomb. Jennet Conant, welcome.


MARGARET WARNER: Let’s start by having you talk a little bit about Alfred Lee Loomis, who began in finance, not in science at all.

JENNET CONANT: Corporate lawyer, really. He started in law at a very proper law firm, Winthrop and Stinson…


JENNET CONANT: His first cousin was Henry Stinson who was already a very well known figure by then. He’d been secretary of war, secretary of state in the Taft administration, and was a, you know, a very highly regarded lawyer. That was his first cousin. He was 20 years older than Alfred and his mentor. Alfred Loomis’ father had died when he was very young, and Henry Stimson really raised him. So he went into law, got bored with law very quickly, and right after World War I, went into business with his brother-in- law, who was a very flashy bond salesman. And they took over, in kind of a Wall Street coup, this moribund firm called Bonbright and Company, and they turned it into the hot boutique firm of the 1920s, and they made a fortune.

MARGARET WARNER: And they anticipated the market crash.

JENNET CONANT: They did. They made their money in power. They wired America. It was rural electrification. And they really perfected the holding company for financing the giant generators that would bring power to the countryside, and they made a lot of money and they sat on every bank board and every railroad board, and were among the most powerful men on Wall Street and he did some of the biggest deals. And he would later say that he had these mathematical charts that he used to follow industries, and that he saw that the bubble was going to burst. And very quietly in 1928, they started pulling out of every stock that they had. They put it all in long-term government bonds and cash, and when Black Thursday came– October 24, 1929– they were sitting on a mountain of cash. And they did very, very well.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, he put a lot of this cash, of course, to this whole other enterprise he had, in Tuxedo Park. Tell us about this world he created up there, how he attracted these incredible scientists, what they found when they got there.

JENNET CONANT: Well, he bought the mansion next to his at Tuxedo Park, which at that time was the elite community in America. All the Wall Street rich– the Vanderbilts, the Astors, the Mortimers, it was… you know, Mrs. Astor’s 400 lived in Tuxedo Park in these enormous mansions that looked like Versailles on the cliff sides of Tuxedo Park on the lake. And he had a mansion like that of his own, but he bought a second mansion, a huge white elephant, in 1926 which he gutted and turned into a deluxe private laboratory. It was the best of its kind and it had equipment that no university could afford.

And so very quickly the reputation spread, particularly in Europe where money was very scarce for science, and he would send first-class tickets and Einstein and Heisenberg and Enrico Fermi, they would come over and be picked up by his Rolls Royce, and whisked off to Tuxedo Park where there would be a black tie dinner every night. Averell Harriman would come over from his estate, Arden. There’d be, you know, politicians and heads of state– very important conversations about science and scientific policy, but by day, in the laboratory downstairs in this mansion, they would be doing first-rate scientific work. Many papers were published and his reputation became very well known, and it became one of the leading places for scientists to meet and give papers in the United States. And that went on all through the ’20s, and he worked on Wall Street during the day, and he did this on weekends and in the evenings. It was sort of a grand hobby.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, we’re going to fast-forward. We’re going to skip the ’30s, where he bankrolled all the important work, I know, in atom smashers and pre-radar, microwave and so on, to the day in 1940 when suddenly this hobby became a dead serious part of the American war effort.

JENNET CONANT: Well, what happened was he did have this reputation, and in 1940, Hitler had succeeded in marching through Europe. And all that lay before Hitler was the Channel and England and victory, and he had already devastated France, and the British knew that they were next, and there was nothing really to protect them. They had a primitive radar system called the chain home system, which were these giant stations that lined the coast, that gave them some warning of the Luftwaffe’s arrival and it did help them withstand the Battle of Britain, but they knew that they would soon be brought to their knees.

And Churchill, in one of the greatest gambles of the war, appointed a scientific mission, and it secretly smuggled all of England’s greatest wartime secrets to America. And among them was a tiny object. They called it a pearl beyond price. It was called the cavity magnetron. You could hold it in the palm of your hand, and it was a powerful little generator, which would allow them for the first time to develop a weapon that would change all warfare, and it was called microwave radar. Today, it’s just known as radar, but it was very high frequency, a narrow beam radar that was very precise. For the first time, you could put a radar detector in the nose of an airplane and that airplane could detect a submarine cresting above the waves. It could detect other planes behind clouds, in darkness; it could, for the first time, find a group of planes and know that it was 12 flying in formation, and not one. It changed all warfare.

MARGARET WARNER: But as you point out, the British just had this device and they needed the Americans to actually produce it, and Loomis was a key… was the key figure in doing that.

JENNET CONANT: They knew him, they knew of his work, they knew him personally– he had been to England and looked at their radar factories. He knew many of the British citizens, they trusted him, and they had no men, no manpower, and no metal to build the kind of devices that they needed. America had money and men and could build it quickly, and they came to Loomis, to Tuxedo Park, and they unveiled this device in his living room. And Loomis got on the phone to Roosevelt and said, “let me build it, and let me build it now, because it will make all the difference.” Remember, this is before Pearl Harbor, before we’re in the war.

In 1940, 2.5 percent of Americans were in favor of going to war against Nazi Germany. People forget that overwhelmingly, Americans did not want to get involved in the European conflict, as they called it. So this was a very secret undertaking, it did not have popular support, and Loomis started the radar lab at MIT– they hid it in the middle of the campus– with his own money. And then Congress came in with money and it became, of course, the largest wartime lab of the war, and many people believe that it won the war.

MARGARET WARNER: And then, as you also detail, a lot of the people from this so-called rag lab, Oppenheimer stole or took to go with the Manhattan Project.

JENNET CONANT: Well, the rag lab was a smashing success. They built these devices in record time. They went on every airplane and every submarine. They destroyed the Luftwaffe; they sunk the U-2 boat. It was an enormous success. By 1943, when General Leslie Groves and Oppenheimer were sitting around trying to figure out, “How do we build a bomb and build it quickly?” Where did they look? They looked at Loomis’ rag lab and went, “this guy did it right. Not only are we going to make our Manhattan project look like his, we are going to get some of the same guys.” Sure enough, very quickly they would secretly drop out of Cambridge, one by one. Under assumed names, they would take the train to the desert, and build a bomb.

MARGARET WARNER: One reviewer said after finishing your book he was ready to anoint Alfred Lee Loomis as “the most interesting person I never knew anything about.” Why do you think history has not given him the recognition until now?

JENNET CONANT: Well, he didn’t want it. He was a little bit like Howard Hughes in that he was very much a loner. He was fabulously wealthy, so he could afford to buy his privacy. He really did shutter himself away. He retired to East Hampton quite young, never gave an interview, hated the press, loathed historians, thought even less of economists. He really only wanted to associate with the scientists that he liked, the Nobel Laureates that were his best friends. He had very little time or interest in public recognition. He had a very scandalous personal life. He tried to shut his wife into an insane asylum, essentially, to run off with a colleague’s much younger wife. In 1945, this was not done. It was made much of in the tabloids, which were as bad then as they are now, and he was very much stung by that kind of publicity and gossip and he became really a social pariah in New York. The proper people that were his friends turned their backs on him and he became very bitter about that, and something of a recluse in later life.

MARGARET WARNER: And briefly, before we go, what do you think it was about him, his personality, his mind, that made him what he was?

JENNET CONANT: Well, genius is an overused term, but he was certainly a mathematical whiz. I think he was also very much an American entrepreneur who had a certain kind of can-do mentality that meant that he was hugely successful on Wall Street and brought that combination of mathematical ability, and “we can do it and we can do it here better than anyone and faster than anyone” to the war, and that combination was enormously beneficial in the war.

MARGARET WARNER: Jennet Conant, thanks so much.

JENNET CONANT: You’re welcome.