The Manhattan Project

Mary Brennan's Interview

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Mary Brennan's Interview

Mary Brennan lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico. She and her husband, Curtiss, moved next door to Dorothy McKibbin, “the Gatekeeper to Los Alamos.” In this interview, Mary discusses her memories of Dorothy, how Dorothy ended up in New Mexico, and Dorothy’s relationship to J. Robert Oppenheimer and the Manhattan Project. In addition, she explains the specificities of the house and how it was a social destination for members of the project. The Brennans are the current owners of McKibbin's house and still reside next door.
Manhattan Project Location(s): 
Date of Interview: 
October 17, 2017
Location of the Interview: 
Santa Fe
Transcript: 

Cindy Kelly: I’m Cindy Kelly, Atomic Heritage Foundation. It is Tuesday, October 17, 2017. I am in Santa Fe with Mary Brennan. My first question for Mary is to say her full name and spell it.

Mary Brennan: I’m Mary Brennan, that’s B-R-E-N-N-A-N.

Kelly: Great, do you have a middle name?

Brennan: I use Godschalx, G-O-D-S-C-H-A-L-X. Mary Godschalx Brennan.

Kelly: Great. Thank you. Thank you very much. We are here in this wonderful house that Dorothy McKibbin built. Can you start by telling us something about Dorothy McKibbin and who she was?

Brennan: Well, Dorothy was a Midwestern girl who had the great fortune to go to Smith College. She graduated from Smith, and she was the daughter of a lawyer from Kansas City, very privileged. She enjoyed traveling. She told me that during World War I she had several boyfriends that she had lost, so she had kind of an independent life until she got married when she was 27.

She married Joseph McKibbin, who had been a stockbroker in New York City. He had decided to go back to work in Minnesota. When Dorothy was engaged to him, she contracted tuberculosis. She broke off the engagement, and she came here to Santa Fe to the Sunmount Sanitarium. She was there for one year. In that period, she just really fell in love with the culture – the Indian culture, the Spanish culture – of New Mexico.

This house, which replicates a rural New Mexico farm home, is an example of her aesthetic and an example of her great love of New Mexico.

She was interested in Spanish colonial arts. She worked in a store downtown for a while as a bookkeeper, and she collected. She collected the doors that are in this house. She collected the vigas and the corbels and all the wood pieces that you see on the portales.

She then proceeded to build a house with the assistance or the design work of Katherine Stinson Otero. That’s another really long story, but it really is part of the history of this house.

Anyway, Dorothy built this house for about $10,000. It’s in a little notebook of hers. To the great disapproval of her family because after her husband died – they were married three years and he died of Hodgkin’s disease – they expected her to resume her lifestyle in Kansas City. They were going to change the third floor ballroom into an apartment for her and Kevin, their son. I envision this woman going, “I’m outta here! I want to be independent. I want to go back to New Mexico.”

She set up life here to be on her own. The house – we’ll have to go back and find that date. It’s 1938 I think [misspoke: 1936]. She continued to work, and then she met Oppenheimer downtown at the La Fonda Hotel. Somebody introduced her to him. The person said, “This is the lady that you would want to work for you.” She was just so enamored with the way Oppenheimer looked, and she talked about his eyes and how she felt that he was like a ballroom dancer. He was just light on his feet – quite glamorous I think. So she went to work for him.

During the project years, this house became a venue for their parties. They had 30 weddings here. These were strangers in a town of about 12,000 people, so they would really stick out. So they came here.

This is a story that I love, and I heard it from a woman who got married here, Priscilla Duffield, who was Oppenheimer’s secretary. The bride would get dressed in Dorothy’s bedroom. She would crawl through on her hands and knees through the window to the front portal. Then she’d meet Oppenheimer outside, and Oppenheimer would escort her into this room in front of the fireplace where they would get married. The house would be stripped of all its furniture. The sofas and everything would be put out in the yard. Then, they would party. They’d dance. There is some footage of a wedding at that time. When Dorothy’s granddaughter, Karen, got married, we reenacted that. She came through the window, and her dad met her on the front porch and escorted her to the altar. To the fireplace. We think Dorothy would have approved of that.

Dorothy always gave people a little tour of the house. She told me that when she built the house, she took a stick and outlined what they wanted the shape of the house to be in the dirt. Then she brought in the local workers to build her an adobe house. After she died, I was in her papers, and we found the blueprints. The blueprints were drawn up by Katherine Stinson Otero.

She [Stinson Otero] flew airmail. She flew flying demonstrations in the Court of Japan and the Court of China, and when she tried to volunteer to fly combat in World War I, they turned her away. She contracted tuberculosis. She ended up at Sunmount. She married the son of one of our governors and went into the house designing business, replicating Spanish Colonial housing. Dorothy and Katherine really collaborated on developing this house with Dorothy’s collections of wood doors and materials. This house basically grew out of the earth.

There is a book called Earth and Timbers, and that’s what these houses are built out of. They’re built of earth – adobe – and they’re built of timbers – the pine, the wood, the aspen from surrounding mountains.

The other thing Dorothy did when she brought you in was that she would say that this was built on a crawl space. She’d stand right where we’re sitting and bang her foot on the ground and say, “This is such a well-built house. This floor won’t even crack.” Then she would take you into the bathroom, and she’d show you the back side of the door because of the way the artisan had designed and used all the wood to build a complete door.

Dorothy was married in 1927, and she was a widow by 1930. She had a little baby boy named Kevin. She was absolutely devoted to him. She has this little child, and she brings him here. This is the house he grew up in.

He had a great time here, and he had wonderful memories growing up here. One of the stories he told me was that he was with a friend in the house – his mother was gone – and these two boys started batting an orange around his bedroom. They realized there were these orange spots on the wall from the orange, and he was just petrified. But she came home, and she said, “Oh, honey. It’s okay.” All the walls were finished in calcimine, which is white wash, and she just covered them up. Everything was all right. She didn’t yell at him.

He had this menagerie. He had dogs. He had a tank out back that he kept his snakes in. There was a famous artist in town named Cady Wells. Cady Wells built Kevin a turtle compound, and the turtle summered up here and wintered down near El Castillo downtown where there was a greenhouse. I think they must have had just a great time together.

Dorothy loved to hike. She liked sports, so he enjoyed the outdoors. He always had a love for the outdoors. I think that’s one of the really nice things that they shared with each other. Kevin became a ranger at Bandelier [National Monument] and worked for the [National] Park Service.

I read this in an article from a magazine from the Los Alamos Historic Society or something in an interview that Dorothy gave. After the bomb was dropped, the scientists that were involved in the project gathered here for an all-day conference. Some of them came up from Washington, and some of them were from the Hill. The Fermi Institute was founded in this house because they decided that this would be an ideal thing to happen. They would get together and have a think tank having to do with atomic development. I think you might want to check on that. I don’t know how true that story is, but it’s something that I came across in reading about Dorothy.

During the project, as I said, they would party up here because they weren’t allowed into town. Kevin would talk about how he would have to go sleep in the automobile out in the back because the party was lasting so late, and he needed his sleep. He said, “I don’t think they wanted a kid around anyway.”

From what I understand, there were a few scientists that were allowed into downtown. They went to the bar at La Fonda. There’s a story that is told that they were trying to spread some rumors about what was happening up at the project, and they said that they were developing windshield wipers for submarines. They said nobody at the bar or anybody in the hotel would have cared. They just wasted their breath. They were just like, “Yeah, we know what’s going up there,” or, “We don’t care what’s going up there.”

My impression is that only a limited number of people were allowed downtown. They came up here for their celebrations and their parties. To get off the Hill, so to speak.

One of the things about Dorothy was that she was very motherly. She just had a really warm personality. Because she was the first contact person they had when they came off the train at Lamy, she gave them their ration tickets, their billet; she arranged for transportation. She became like a mother to them. The babies weren’t really officially born at Los Alamos. They were born in Dorothy’s mailbox down on 109 East Palace. There are some birth certificates that have that address on it.

She really took care of these ladies, and she was very compassionate. She was very discreet. That’s one of the things that people admired about her so much, and I’ve heard that from many people. She was very circumspect. They always describe her as the lady that could keep a secret. In my brief encounter with her, I never heard her really denigrate anybody.

Dorothy was very positive about people. The only person I really heard her be negative about would be Edward Teller. That was because of his role in depriving Robert Oppenheimer of his security clearance. That was a blow to everybody, and it remained something that people were very upset with in this area even to the time I came in the early 80s.

The other interesting thing – and this is my experience – was that in the early 80s, when Curt and I first got here, the people that worked at the project continued to come through to visit her. It was like they were coming back to relive those good times they had in this house. She’d always put out drinks for them, and they would socialize. She was well loved and remembered.

She was born in 1897. December of 1897. Dorothy was a voracious reader. She really loved her books. She knew a great deal of very famous people. May Sarton was a good friend of hers. The poet, May Sarton.

From what I understand, during the war and after the bomb was dropped, officials from Washington would come into Santa Fe, and scientists from Los Alamos would come down the Hill. They would meet here in this house – so they could be private – and discuss the issues revolving around the creation of the bomb and probably what they were going to do in the postwar period.

When you live here, you encounter all the Spanish Colonial art, the Indian art, and the Anglo history of the area. One of the incredible things about Dorothy was because of her experience at the Sunmount Sanitarium, she met really prominent New Mexico artists, like Cady Wells, and people who were working in the arts.

In addition, she was collecting Indian pottery and Spanish Colonial art. Her exposure to that came about by her stay at the sanitarium at Sunmount. The Sunmount was run by the Mera brothers. One was a physician, who was helping cure people of tuberculosis, and the other was his brother, who was an anthropologist. In order to entertain their patients and to keep them going, they would lecture them on art, expose them to the Indian Pueblo dances, and take them out on excursions. So many of them stayed here because they loved the area. That would be like Katherine Stinson Otero, who was the aviatrix later house designer, and John Gaw Meem, the architect.

This basically formed her love for this culture. She had such an inquisitive mind. She just loved all of it. When I first met her, she was so eager to get Curt and I out into New Mexico – to the dances, to the fairs, to the mountains. She just loved it all. I think, too, that probably when she met these young people coming from the east for the project, she was there to help entertain them and to expose them to some of the things that were happening here.

Kelly: By the time she started working on the project with Oppenheimer, she had been living here about ten years? Is that right?

Brennan: Yeah, easily.

Kelly:  How did that help her in her job of housing early on, for example?

Brennan: Well, that’s interesting. Dorothy was a doer. She was one of these people who could take charge and get things done. She just was. If you said to Dorothy, “You get housing for these people,” she’d say, “Fine.”

She would figure out where the billets were, and she would slot them in. If they needed ration tickets, if their babies needed medicine, if their babies needed doctors, she knew where to go. She knew who to contact. She was like the entree into Santa Fe for this group of strangers.

I think you can see how indispensable she was to the project. I hate to say mother figure because she was not that old. She was in her forties. When she was at Smith, she was known as a power girl. She was known as being a very capable person. It just transferred all through her life. You could see it when she was managing me when I first came into Santa Fe. “You are going to go up to St. John’s and you are going to take a seminar.” It’s just the way she was, and she had a great sense of humor. She could laugh easily, and she enjoyed people.

Kelly:  What a twist of fate. Many, many sad things happening. First going to the sanatorium and then losing her husband –

Brennan: About two or three years before Dorothy came here, her sister Frances died of tuberculosis. So the family was very panicked when Dorothy contracted it. I don’t know who made the decision to send her to Santa Fe or how they knew about Santa Fe, but she came as a young woman, and she really, really fell in love with the community.

Dorothy fell in love with Santa Fe, and after her husband, Joseph, died, she decided that this was going to be where she was going to live. I think she had gone what you call native. She didn’t want to be the lady that would put a hat on and wear white gloves and serve tea. She was looking for a new life, and Santa Fe had that informality. It also had a great culture. She had friends here already because of her stay at Sunmount.

I think one of the most telling things I’ve ever discovered about Dorothy was that after she died, I helped Mary McKibbin empty the house. In the back closet were all Dorothy’s wedding gifts from 1927. There was Limoges china. There was pink French crystal. It was all in its original wrappings. It had never been used.

In the closets was black Maria [Montoya Martínez] pottery. Maria was a very famous potter from San Ildefonso. Dorothy had a dinner set made by Maria. You could just see how there was this transition from an upper class, well-to-do, Victorian past to coming to Santa Fe. There’s a marvelous picture of Dorothy’s father standing on the front porch with the biggest frown on his face. He just looks so disapproving of her. But look what she accomplished. She had this fabulous house. She knew what she wanted, and she did it. And she did it at a time that was difficult because it was right during the Depression or at the aftermath of the Depression. And she was making her own living. She was making her way.

Kelly:  A single mother.

Brennan: Yeah, you could tell they were ready to run her life. “You’re going to live in this apartment we’re going to build for you, and we’ll take care of you.” A lot of life lessons there.