Who Was Florence Pugh’s Oppenheimer Character Jean Tatlock in Real Life?

Florence Pugh plays J. Robert Oppenheimer’s lover in Christopher Nolan’s epic, but who was she in real life?

This article has Oppenheimer spoilers.

At a whopping three hours and with a massively starry ensemble cast, Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer covers a lot of ground. The largest area of ground possible, in a way, since it charts the birth of humanity’s ability to completely wipe itself out. So it’s understandable why some of Oppenheimer’s real life characters don’t get the chance to be as filled out as they could be.

One notable example is Jean Tatlock, brought to vibrant life by Florence Pugh. Tatlock is a communist Oppenheimer meets at a party, and who becomes his lover. Later Oppenheimer marries Kitty (Emily Blunt), who, when they met, was married to Richard Stewart Harrison. Kitty and Oppenheimer have two children, but later Oppenheimer resumes an affair with Jean. It ends tragically when a troubled Jean takes her own life.

But who was she before she met Oppenheimer and what else is she known for?

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What was Jean Tatlock’s profession?

Tatlock was a smart woman who attended Williams College in Berkeley, Vassar college, and Stanford Medical School where she studied to become a psychiatrist. Nolan’s movie nods towards this when Oppenheimer and Tatlock discuss books and she tells him she identifies more with Jung than Freud.

In real life Tatlock was indeed more interested in Jung than Freud. After taking a year off pre-Vassar and traveling in Europe, she even stayed with a friend of her mother’s who was a follower of Jung, according to Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin’s American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer, which is the basis for the movie. 

When did she meet Oppenheimer?

Tatlock’s relationship with Oppenheimer began while she was still studying. They met at a party in 1936 while he was a professor at Berkeley. As in the movie, it was a fundraiser for Spanish Republicans during the Spanish Civil War held by Oppenheimer’s landlady Mary Ellen Washburn. During their relationship Oppenheimer proposed to Jean several times, but she declined and the two later broke up.

Oppenheimer married Kitty in 1940 and was picked to head up the Los Alamos project in 1943. He saw Tatlock for the last time in June of ‘43 when he went to recruit his administrative assistant. During this meeting they had dinner and he stayed the night with her—the two were being surveilled by U.S. Army agents. She told him then that she still loved him. They never saw each other again.

Tatlock and Communism

Tatlock reportedly got involved in communist meetings and rallies after she witnessed an altercation in San Francisco between police and striking longshore men in which two of the strikers were killed. She became a member of the communist party and while at Stanford was a writer and reporter for the Western Worker, the party’s West Coast paper.  

Her involvement in the Communist Party meant she was under surveillance until she died in 1944, and it also became a point of contention for Oppenheimer, though he never actually joined the party.

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Jean Tatlock’s Death

Tatlock had struggled with her mental health for some time and in 1944 she was found dead in her apartment by her father, having apparently drowned in her own bathtub. As in the film, she was found kneeling on some cushions with her head in the bath. An unsigned suicide note was found which read:

“I am disgusted with everything… To those who loved me and helped me, all love and courage. I wanted to live and to give and I got paralyzed somehow. I tried like hell to understand and couldn’t… I think I would have been a liability all my life—at least I could take away the burden of a paralyzed soul from a fighting world.” 

In the film we see two possible versions of her death—one in which she takes her own life, another in which black-gloved hands are seen holding her down. There has been speculation, including from Tatlock’s brother Hugh, that she was killed by intelligence officers. There were barbiturates found in her system but not a fatal dose, and there were traces of chloral hydrate (a sedative), prompting speculation that she might have been drugged and drowned, though others assumed that she’d taken the chloral hydrate and drowned herself. The formal verdict on her death was “suicide, motive unknown.”

Oppenheimer is in cinemas now.