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Writing for Life

Pulitzer-winning historian Richard Rhodes learned to accept his past (and The Bomb).

Story by Elizabeth Langton

Photographs by Josh Pherigo


Violence visited Richard Rhodes before he could talk. He was barely a year old, still in a crib, when his mother wrapped her lips around a 12-gauge shotgun and pulled the trigger using a rod from the bathroom window blinds. His 2-year-old brother found their mother’s bleeding body. Nine years later, violence called again. Their new stepmother beat and starved the boys while their father did nothing. To save his little brother, 13-year-old Stanley walked into a police station and begged for help.

Richard Rhodes turned his life around. He earned a scholarship to Yale, married, had two children, launched an enviable writing career and won a Pulitzer Prize. A storybook tale of triumph over tragedy. But storybook tales are for children. He drank too much, turned anorexic, divorced twice and spent years in psychotherapy unable to write, fearful of his own emotions. “I wanted to write,” he says, “but I felt if I really let it all out, I would blow up the world.”

There is nothing fearful in the man sitting down for an interview now. He looks much younger than his 75 years. His appearance implies college professor – the round, tortoise-shell glasses, the khaki slacks, the blazer with a silk handkerchief peeking out of the breast pocket. The surroundings suggest success: California’s Half Moon Bay out the window beyond the tree line. Mementos of his writing career everywhere – an Audubon painting, photos of nuclear bombs exploding, his Pulitzer Prize certificate. Personal stuff, too: pictures of his wife, Ginger, and his brother Stanley, a large poster depicting “Penises of the Animal Kingdom.” (Man’s is the smallest.) “Ginger thinks that’s just a hoot,” he says. He chats easily, answers questions as if he prepped with anecdotes and annotations. “Am I going on at too great a length about this?” he asks halfway through, knowing the answer, knowing a writer’s needs. He looks comfortable in his chair with its beat-up sheepskin cover held on by elastic bands and safety pins. It could be a symbol of the life he’s put together over the last four decades: tattered but whole.

Richard Rhodes is the bomb guy. Except he only goes by Richard on his book covers. Please call him Dick. You might know him by his four-book series chronicling the nuclear age. He scored a publishing hat trick with his first volume – 1987’s The Making of the Atomic Bomb – which won him the Pulitzer, the National Book Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award. That cemented his reputation. He would say it “typecast” him. He’s more than the bomb guy. He’s written about mad cow disease and cannibalism, serial killers and sex, farming and technology. He penned the definitive biography of ornithologist and painter John James Audubon. The New York Times praised him for his scholarly research and for bringing “a novelist’s devotion to character and pacing” into his nonfiction. The Dictionary of Literary Biography considers Rhodes “one of the preeminent talents in contemporary American literature, a lyrical voice sounding unmistakable echoes of Herman Melville, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Joseph Conrad” – heady company for a 21st century writer.

Since 1970, he has written 24 titles, including A Hole in the World: An American Boyhood in 1990, a tell-all memoir exposing his brutal childhood. In 1992, he pushed the memoir boundaries again with Making Love: An Erotic Odyssey. A ghostwriter on two sex manuals, Rhodes delved into his own sex life in explicit detail: losing his virginity with a prostitute, his masturbation techniques, his fantasies, his love of pornography and his pursuit of ESO or extended sexual orgasm. His latest work, Hedy’s Folly, chronicles 1940s Hollywood starlet Hedy Lamarr (dubbed the most beautiful woman in the world) and her invention of a frequency-hopping radio that inspired Bluetooth, GPS and cellular telephone technology. Add to this list of accomplishments four novels plus a play, which debuted in May, about the Gorbachev-Reagan Reykjavik summit. But try to research Richard Rhodes, the writer, and you find Richard Rhodes, the bomb guy, the guy called up by Harvard, MIT, Google and the Los Alamos National Laboratory to lecture about man’s instinct for war. “The notion that I had ever been anyone who could write about something else,” he says, “was lost in the noise.”

Rhodes is off to San Francisco today to visit the California Historical Society museum. He is researching for a book about the year 1937, the year the Golden Gate Bridge opened, the Hindenburg exploded, SPAM debuted, Amelia Earhart disappeared, and he was born. San Francisco calendars are crowded with events celebrating the bridge’s 75th anniversary. “I’m intrigued with the sheer density of events in any given year in the human experience,” he says. Before stepping out into the morning rain, he dons a baseball cap from Roswell, New Mexico – alien-adorned, of course. Richard Rhodes is not without a sense of humor. He almost forgets his maps.

You don’t need to ask him what drives him. He knows the question is coming. He’d ask it, too. “There’s always been a sense for me where writing had to do with exploring the deep questions of the world, particularly the questions of human suffering and human violence,” he says. He has a desperate need to understand violence and to write about it, to share it, to alleviate the pain. Silence is the enemy. He peppers his conversation with the terminology of explosions. He even dreams of nuclear annihilation. When he talks about his long years in purgatory, unable to write, afraid of failing, afraid of the emotions inside him, he admits he was worried about an explosion of emotion. “Sounds like nuclear war,” he muses. It doesn’t take a psychologist like his wife, Ginger, to know that the sound of his mother’s shotgun still resonates in his soul.

He was just a baby, still in the crib, when his mother, Georgia, killed herself in 1938. Dick remembers nothing, but he says her suicide left “a hole in the world” that nothing could fill. Adrift for nine years, Dick and his brother moved with their father, Arthur, from boardinghouse to boardinghouse. Their eldest brother, Mack, went to live with relatives. Then their father, a boilermaker’s assistant with a third-grade education, married Anne. Their new stepmother was malevolent, the kind of evil psychologists would call a sociopath. Satanic might be better.

In A Hole in the World, Dick likens their childhood with their stepmom to “a concentration camp.” It began in 1947. For 28 months, she terrorized the two boys both physically and psychologically. She beat them, starved them and kept them unwashed and in dirty clothes. On Arthur’s days off, the family took drives in the countryside outside Kansas City, Missouri. While Anne and Arthur waited in the car up the road, the boys collected bottles from the roadside for hours. Back home, they worked all week washing the bottles in hopes of getting the 2-cent refunds. Sometimes, the boys collected bittersweet vine and black walnuts, which they sold door-to-door. They shoveled snow for money. They collected foil. No matter how well they did, Anne kept all the money. During the night, she forbid the boys from using the bathroom because, she said, it disturbed her sleep. Dick, a former bed-wetter, suffered painfully. He sometimes urinated into Mason jars and hid them in a closet. His father never intervened. “Our final year with her was an all-out war,” Dick writes, “a war we almost lost.”

Her abuse carried over to food. In the best of times, she fed the boys bologna and hotdogs. Later, while the couple ate pork chops and the occasional steak, Dick and Stanley ate black-eyed peas. Every day.  At first, they each got a peanut butter sandwich with grainy jelly for school lunches. She reduced that to a single glob of jelly – no spreading allowed – on stale bread. Hard-boiled eggs, sometimes spoiled, later replaced the sandwiches. On summer days and weekends, she regularly pushed the boys out of the house. Dick remembers visiting Katz drugstore one morning and watching as the doughnut-making machine plopped dough into hot lard and a worker coated the pastries with chocolate, cherry, vanilla and coconut icing. She finally passed four doughnuts stealthily to the starving boys. Years later, Dick would write about that moment in loving detail: “The doughnuts were still hot, sweet with grainy icing, heavy with lard. Nothing in all the years since that day ever filled my mouth that gave me such ecstasy, not even the soft, warm breast of a lover.”

Their “imprisonment,” as Dick calls it, lasted more than two years. When Stanley, then 13, finally sought help from police, he was 5-foot-4 and weighed 97 pounds. Twelve-year-old Dick had withered to just 80 pounds on his 4-foot-11 frame. A judge sent the boys to the Andrew Drumm Institute, a boys’ home located on a working farm outside Independence, Missouri. No one took legal action against Anne and Arthur. “Drumm was our refuge and rescue, Stanley and I,” Dick says. “It was the place where I escaped my stepmother; it was the place where I got enough to eat.” At the farm, they milked cows, mucked stalls, grew potatoes and slaughtered livestock. Their bellies were full. While the farm saved them physically, it couldn’t fix the scars inside. Stanley’s gruff manner earned him few friends. He isolated himself from the other boys, including his brother. Dick sought answers in religion. He contemplated becoming a Methodist minister after high school. “I actually delivered a sermon in church while I was in high school,” he says. “But as soon as I got to college and discovered philosophy and history and all the other rich worlds that you could discover, I realized that religion was just superstructure. I just tossed it out a window and kept the rest.”

The early violence would impact Dick’s life, personally and professionally, for the next 60-plus years. A counselor encouraged him to dream big and apply to Yale University. He couldn’t afford to go. He didn’t even meet the entrance requirements, but he won a local scholarship and teachers tutored him in math and science. In 1955, he started Yale – and discovered he had a talent for writing. “It was something of a shock to go from the boys’ home in Missouri to Yale,” he admits, “and to discover that I had to turn out three five-page papers a week in three different subjects about which I knew less than nothing. But I persevered.” Though he had never written much (except for love letters), Dick had always been a reader, digging into comic books, science fiction novels such as Isaac Asimov’s I, Robot and Albert Schweitzer’s autobiography, Out of My Life and Thought.

Yale had no journalism courses, but it did offer “Daily Themes” – “an interesting little torture that I didn’t take,” Dick says. “You had to turn in one page of prose every day, five days a week, for an entire term. Which to me now sounds kind of psssh.” He waves his hand dismissively. “But you can imagine how much people agonized over it.” If you wanted to do journalism at Yale, he says, you worked on the student paper, the Yale Daily News. “You learned on the job.” He served as features editor and wrote the usual stories, including a series on the Ivy League colleges. He earned $5 a night to paste up the paper.

He took a trainee reporting job at Newsweek after college but to avoid getting drafted, he voluntarily entered the Air Force Reserve. With a new wife and a child on the way, he got back into writing by taking a public relations job at Hallmark Cards in Kansas City, Missouri, producing the daily employee newspaper. Again he was learning writing on the job. “There’s a lot you can learn about writing in school. There’s a lot you can learn by reading books. But ultimately … you learn by doing,” he says. He really wanted to write novels but didn’t know how to start. He looked to his boss, who wrote book reviews and fiction in his spare time. How do you become a writer, Dick had timidly asked public relations manager Conrad Knickerbocker. “Rhodes,” Knickerbocker replied, “you apply ass to chair.”

Dick still lives by the Knickerbocker Rule, reporting to his home office each day like an obedient office worker, punching in from 9 to 5 (or 6), five days a week, no matter the project’s progress. He regards emails as a “real plague” and will ignore them for days while he writes. He gets his sleep, knowing inspiration won’t come if he’s tired. “People crash and burn and turn into drunks and all sorts of things,” he says, “but that’s not a very healthy way to manage your life as you saw with poor Mr. Hemingway.”

Writing draft after draft, he says, is a “half-assed way to write a book.” He works in stages: research and interviews first, then the writing. “I know there are people who work a chapter at a time or a draft at a time,” he says. “But either because of my personal quirks or because it either seems more proficient, I try to get all the interviewing and all the reading and all the document research done, organized and laid out in a way that makes some sense.” He constructs an annotated timeline of his research – what he calls “an armature,” like that used by sculptors molding clay – including quotes and facts from interviews, documents and books. “Let me pull up one of these things,” he says, hauling over a second chair to his computer. Once he’s got the facts in place, he typically writes a chapter a week. “So if a book is 16 chapters long, it will take 16 weeks, more or less. And I can focus on the writing,” he says. “I don’t have to focus on Do I have that information? I can focus on How am I telling the story? I can write a work of verity, nonfiction, as if it were a work of fiction almost, because everything’s organized around me.”

It’s not often that Dick gets to talk about his writing life — the bomb business always gets in the way — so he’s enjoying the retelling of his journey to the Pulitzer. At Hallmark, he says, he started writing book reviews for the Kansas City Star, then The New York Times and magazines. An editor liked his writing and proposed he write a book about the Middle West. Parts of that first book, 1970’s The Inland Ground, broke off into magazine stories. For 10 years, he worked full-time at Hallmark, churning out two pages each day filled with employee happenings while writing on the side. It paid the bills while he started writing fiction. “I was writing novels and publishing novels,” he says. “But they weren’t making any money and the question is how do you support yourself?” For his first novel, money was so tight he gave himself just six weeks to finish – the longest he could afford without the magazine work. With two small children at home, he rented a mobile home in a trailer park to serve as his office, staying each day until he accumulated 12 pages, the minimum required to meet his six-week deadline.

Violence shows up in these early works. “Death All Day in Kansas,” an Esquire piece included in The Inland Ground, explores the bloody sports of coyote hunting and cockfighting. His first novel, The Ungodly, fictionalizes the Donner party’s real descent into cannibalism. He didn’t see the pattern in those days. “Each of my books felt different to write,” he says in A Hole in the World. “Each is set in a different milieu and tells a different story, in a different voice, in a different prose style. Yet I see now that they are all repetitions. They all repeat the same story. Each focuses on one or several men of character who confront violence, resist or endure it and discover beyond its inhumanity a narrow margin of hope.” He returned to the theme of death and violence again with 2000’s Why They Kill: The Discoveries of a Maverick Criminologist and 2003’s Masters of Death: The SS-Einsatzgruppen and the Invention of the Holocaust.

In his early 30s, he often wrote drunk and with an angry rant-at-the-world’s-horrors tone that mimicked the prophet Jeremiah. Understanding came years later, after therapy and sobriety. “I started out trying to drink in order to get started writing, which was not very productive in the long run,” he says. “I remember once in my endless therapy, my shrink saying, ‘Boy, it’s hard enough to write when you’re sober. It must be really hard to write when you’re drunk.’ But there were so many consuming fears and so many inhibitions about opening up my feelings, it seemed to me then the only way to get going.”

Dick’s breakthrough success, his Pulitzer-winning exploration of human violence, was The Making of the Atomic Bomb. He planned it as a novel about a nuclear scientist who, because of sexual abuse as a child, broke with reality and constructed an elaborate fantasy life – “kind of like Star Wars,” says Dick. The premise was based a true account, but it just wouldn’t fly on the page. “I couldn’t make the novel work,” Dick says. “I did write it. I had a contract … and I turned it in.” It’s the only time, he says, he couldn’t make a book work. “I realized the real reason I couldn’t make it work — above and beyond any emotional problems I might have with the story that intersected with my own in some curious ways — was that the back story, the story of the Manhattan project and building of the nuclear bomb, overwhelmed this little story of one person’s mental health problems.” With huge amounts of classified material newly available, Dick turned over the novel to the John Simon Guggenheim Foundation, which had given him a grant to write it, and pitched a change in focus to his publisher.

The Making of the Atomic Bomb took five years to research and write. The story that would turn him into a respected man of letters, a Pulitzer winner and a sought-after speaker put him through financial hell. Dick originally conceived of telling the nuclear story in one book. He ended up with a quartet, and almost went broke in the process – using up his advance and Ford Foundation funds, remortgaging his house. A last-minute grant from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation allowed him to finish and paid his children’s private school tuition. (Grants, he says, are what saved him from financial ruin in those early years. He still relies on them to fund projects.) Once he finished, however, his editor shelved the book for a year. The editor had another author writing on the same topic and released that book first. It became a bestseller. “This guy made all the money and I got the Pulitzer,” Dick says. “That was OK in the long run. The Making of the Atomic Bomb is still selling.” Simon & Schuster released a 25th anniversary edition with a new foreword in June. “It’s been a very good investment of five, six years of my life. But at that time, it was just the maddest insane scramble just to support yourself to write a book. But I think that’s pretty much the story of people writing books. I think it’s going to be even more so in the future.” The average income for writers these days, he notes, is $6,000 a year and declining.

“The Pulitzer changed everything,” he says. Paying the bills got easier. First he wrote Farm, a year-in-the-life account of a farming family’s life. Finally ready to bare the horrors of his childhood, he penned A Hole in the World. He followed that with a second memoir – the widely panned Making Love: An Erotic Odyssey. “That was a noble disaster wasn’t it?” he says now two decades later. He described his activities in exhaustive detail. (He masturbated to porn. A lot.) But he revealed nothing about the nonsexual aspects of his relationships. “I wanted to focus on this particular aspect of human experience, which is hidden, not talked about, lied about,” Dick says. “And I had the naïveté to think that that would be a welcome kind of book.” Women accused him of misogyny. Novelist Martin Amis called it a “cataract of embarrassment” in The New York Times review. “It was vicious,” Dick says of the review. “It killed the book.” It’s still on library shelves. “I’m still glad I did it,” he says. “If you’re going to write books for a reason other than to make a living, it’s so that people will read them. And this one is out there.” His one regret, he says, is the attacks that Ginger had to endure because of it.

At lunch in San Francisco, Dick greets Ginger with a “Hi, sweetheart,” and a peck on the lips. They sit side by side in the noisy cafe, his hand caressing her knee. After his meal, Dick returns to the counter for dessert. Ginger smiles when he returns to the table, puts away his credit cards and looks fruitlessly for his cookie. He’s left it at the counter. He’s the absent-minded professor again.

Dick and Ginger married 18 years ago – her first marriage, his third. “Ginger does things right the first time,” he quips. Dick credits meeting her for his sobriety. They met during a radio interview: He was the interviewee; she was the producer. After they met, Ginger, 20 years Dick’s junior, returned to school for her doctorate in clinical psychology and started a practice focused on trauma victims. Ginger acts as recording technician and research assistant when Dick takes reporting trips. The couple co-authored Trying to Get Some Dignity: Stories of Triumph over Child Abuse, which featured interviews with readers of A Hole in the Wall who contacted Dick about their own abusive childhoods.

After lunch, Dick wanders through the California Historical Society, eyeing a collection of photos and mementos of the Golden Gate Bridge’s construction. He closely examines each exhibit tag in the small hall, occasionally scratching notes on the back of a Google map with directions to the museum. “One of the first construction projects to require hard hats,” he writes. Dick relishes such tiny details. The pivotal scene that ends the first section of The Making of the Atomic Bomb – when physicist Enrico Fermi makes the intellectual leap from the discovery of fission to a city-leveling bomb – came from a footnote.

Back in his office on the top floor of a split-level home clinging to a California hillside, Dick sits in front of his hulking iMac. He turned 75 on July 4 and feels like time is running short. “Which is probably why right now I’m flowing with the novel off in one direction, and the play in that direction, and another nonfiction book over here and who knows what else,” he says, “just because there’s not as much time left as there was 30 years ago, by a long shot.”

On the desktop, his black cat, Tikal, lies atop a fluffy bathmat and snoozes in the warm glow of a gooseneck desk lamp placed there just for him. Books on Picasso, SPAM and violence – all related to his current research interests – fill a floor-to-ceiling bookshelf behind him. He scans the obituaries, pondering his legacy. He has a contract to write a book on the writers and artists involved in the Spanish Civil War. The 1937 book and a memoir of his writing life simmer on the backburner. “One of things that maybe gets lost in writing and learning to write is the deeper part of what writing is,” he says. “I think of it as a way to explore the world.” It’s not about selling books, but “writing as a way of knowing.”

Need you wonder what subject fascinates him still? “As the clock ticks, and I realize that my age is becoming something I need to think about,” he says, “I feel more and more that I have got to get going if I’m ever going to write a large book on the subject of human violence.” 

Pulitzer-winning historian Richard Rhodes learned to accept his past (and The Bomb).
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