With today’s release of the new Oppenheimer movie, there will likely be a renewed interest in Robert Oppenheimer’s life on St. John. For those of you who have visited the island, you have likely passed, or perhaps visited, Oppenheimer beach, which is located on Hawknest Bay on St. John’s North Shore. It is the same stretch of sand that is widely referred to as Gibney beach.
Robert Oppenheimer, known as the father of the atomic bomb, found solace in St. John beginning in the late 1950s. Oppenheimer, his wife Kitty, and their daughter Toni began vacationing at a guest house on Trunk Bay, which closed when Trunk was sold to the Virgin Islands National Park. The Oppenheimers subsequently purchased land from Robert and Nancy Gibney in 1957 and began building a small cottage for themselves.
Like many things here in St. John, construction didn’t occur in a timely fashion. Therefore Kitty desperately asked Nancy if she could spend some time at the family’s home during the summer of 1959, so she could check on the cottage’s progress. This story is hilariously retold by the late Nancy Gibney in the book “St. John People.”
In her essay, Nancy Gibney recalls her frustration over the number of times the Oppenheimer’s daughter Toni and her friend washed their hair, using the island’s precious water, and how Kitty would rummage through the ice chest at all hours of the night so she could chill her cocktails. This summer, described by Nancy as “seven hideous and hilarious weeks” led to a well-documented feud between the Gibneys and Oppenheimers.
Alas, construction at the Oppenheimer’s cottage was eventually completed on the east end of Hawksnest Bay.
The Oppenheimers were known to throw parties at their cottage and began renting it out to vacationers, further fueling the feud with the Gibney family.
The Oppenheimers spent several years on St. John, where Robert was presumably able to escape media attention. Robert, a chain smoker, ultimately died of throat cancer in Princeton, New Jersey in 1967. Kitty spread his ashes at sea.
Oppenheimer left the cottage to his wife Kitty, who died in 1972 during a sailing trip from St. John to Panama. Their daughter Toni inherited the cottage and lived there until her death in 1977. Toni took her own life at the cottage, and on a note, left the home to “the people of St. John.”
No money was left for the home’s upkeep, so it quickly fell into disrepair. The Virgin Island’s government subsequently took control of the land and refurbished the cottage. That building is available to rent for events through the Department of Sports, Parks & Recreation.
A tire swing used to hang from a palm tree at Oppenheimer that stretched over the bay’s turquoise waters. The swing was removed during the summer of 2017, and sadly the palm fell during Hurricane Irma.
And this is what Oppenheimer looks like today:
If you would like to read Nancy Gibney’s essay about her summer with Robert Oppenheimer in its entirety, you can purchase St. John People in several stores on St. John. You can also click here to purchase a paperback or Kindle version on Amazon. The book includes numerous stories about St. John residents told by St. John residents. It’s a very good read.