“This is the coast the lemmings reached. They did not drown, they simply beached. ” Rita Bronowski reads a poem her late husband, Jacob Bronowski, wrote more than 30 years ago.
Jacob Bronowski is best known for his epic PBS science series and book The Ascent of Man, which he completed in 1973. He’d been living in La Jolla for nine years, after spending most of his life in England. A Polish Jew who’d moved there as a child from Germany just after World War I, Bronowski won a mathematics scholarship to Cambridge, where he penetrated the largely gentile scientific and literary elite. While earning a Ph.D. in an arcane branch of geometry, he wrote poetry and founded a radical literary magazine that published such writers as William Empson and Malcolm Lowry.
Rita stands in the living room of the house she and Bruno, as his friends knew him, shared above Black’s Beach. It's a smoggy late-summer afternoon.
“Here, after agonies, and less,” she continues in her English-accented voice, her shoulders drawn up, her small body erect, her white hair swept up, “they found the go-go star success, / the goddess in the wilderness / who shook her breast and blessed the west.
“She beckons from the burning glass, / Medusa with a face of brass, / and lucid as magnesium strip / writes with her sunset fingertip / a rain check to the hall of fame. / Make a cross and put your name.
“That is the first one he wrote after coming to America,” she says, lifting her eyes from the page. She and Bruno used the poem for a Christmas card, which was decorated with a woodblock print by Rita. (A London art school graduate, she regularly exhibited her sculpture until she retired in the mid-’50s to raise their four daughters.) Their Christmas collaboration became a yearly ritual, two (albeit non-observant) Jews’ tribute to the season.
Bruno didn’t live to enjoy his own membership in the hall of fame. In August of 1974, with no previous symptoms of disease, he died of a heart attack. The Ascent of Man was shown in the U.S. four years later.
“He just sat up in bed and died. Had a tremendous heart attack” while they were visiting friends in East Hampton, Long Island. “For the first time in a long time, he was not overworked. We would sit on the beach, and there were teenagers and there were games at night, the sort of things you do at somebody’s house. It was a terrible shock, of course. I was in shock for months.”
The timing “was so sad, because he was absolutely at the peak of his thoughts and possibilities. He was studying how the brain works and how, oh, Darwin’s theory is still continuing in human beings. How [evolution] didn’t stop when we became two-legged people. He was calling his subject ‘human specificity,’ how we differ from the animals.
“What makes the human cultural advance go so quickly is the human imagination. One of his last scientific papers was called ‘Time, the Barbed Arrow,’ how every advance humans make stays in and can’t be pulled out. Of course, it’s very subtle where these moments are, but they go on continuously.”
Unlike their Christmas-card lemmings, Bruno and Rita moved here by choice. His circle — and audience — had widened from his Cambridge days, thanks to his well-promoted popularization of science. In Britain he had produced radio and TV programs for the BBC. Once he was in the U.S., large crowds attended his campus lectures about the morality of post-nuclear scientific research. His dozen or so books of essays earned him attention from academics, among them Jonas Salk, who invited him to be a fellow at his four-year-old Salk Institute.
Bronowski was the institute’s first and last full-time humanist. “When he accepted the job,” Rita explains, “there was still a possibility that the institute would [concern itself with] biology and the arts.” It didn’t work out that way, though, because “the scientists who got the first jobs were all high-powered biologists, and they hated anything we tried to do with art.”
Bruno and Rita staged art shows at the institute. One exhibit “had all sorts of terrible repercussions.” The works were “risqué in a political sense. It was the ’60s, and the young artists were, oh, pretty outrageous.” The institute’s then-president (not Salk) objected. One of the fellows, whose wife had helped organize the show, resigned. Under public pressure, the president allowed the paintings to go up, but “they put all the salacious ones in one room with a Pinkerton guard.” The most controversial piece was “antiwar. This was during Vietnam. It was a soldier bleeding and draped in the American flag.”
Bruno was “disappointed,” she says, as he watched the Salk become “a complete biological institute.” Each fellow set up his own department. Bronowski’s was “the origins of language, which is still there. He was looking for the differences between humans and animals in a Darwinian sense.”
When he died, “Everyone dropped him as if he’d never existed. I was absolutely shocked. As far as his work, he absolutely disappeared. I didn’t go near the place after that.”
Rita explains it by saying, “There were so many egos. If you weren’t around to argue your own case...” she shrugs. “Everybody was too interested in his own little corner of the world.
Although Bruno was a scientist by profession, “He was always harking back to wanting to be a poet,” Rita says. “He could have become just a poet after his Ph.D. and all that, but with the situation in Germany and then the Spanish war, he thought there was no way a poet could justify his existence. He could not just be a poet in isolation. That was what sent him back to being a mathematician.”
Throughout his career, however, Bronowski continued to study and write about poetry. His second book was The Poet’s Defence, published in 1939. In it he wrote about A.E. Housman, Percy Bysshe Shelley, John Dryden, William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Algernon Charles Swinburne, as well as one of his favorites, William Butler Yeats.
He admired Yeats because “Yeats was always looking over his shoulder at all the rich ladies,” Rita recalls. She reads from a passage in The Poet’s Defence in which Bronowski quotes Yeats on how “the intellect of man is forced to choose between the life and the work” and muses on “that old perplexity, the empty purse.”
While he was still at Cambridge, Bronowski befriended Robert Graves, the expatriate British writer, a few years after the publication of Graves’s-outspoken 1929 memoir-cum-social satire, Good-bye to All That. Bronowski also got to know Graves’s companion/muse/handler Laura Riding, an obscure American poet with grand illusions about her work. Riding and Graves had set up a sexually charged literary ménage in Deya, a village on the Spanish island of Majorca.
(Graves had not yet written the two works for which he would become even better known, the I, Claudius books that were made into a PBS series and The White Goddess, his sprawling mythological survey that argued for the presence of an all-powerful female deity. In the ’60s, The White Goddess revived Graves’s reputation, and his presence on Majorca enhanced it as a destination for socialites, bohemians, and hippies.)
Rita recalls Graves’s and Riding’s central place in Bronowski’s complex social circuit. “There were groups of friends, like the poet groups and the science groups and the math groups and the Cambridge groups. And almost all of them had been out to Deya. Except me. I used to hear the most hair-raising stories about what went on out there.”
Riding starred in most of them. “I can’t say she was a mad lady, but she easily erupted. She had terrible rows. She tried to commit suicide on two different occasions. On the first one, it’s amazing that she survived. She was in England while Robert Graves was in England, and she threw herself from a second- or third-story window onto the pavement below. She was terribly wrecked.” Graves had followed her out a lower window because he feared he wouldn’t be able to live without her. He was only slightly injured. “It took her a long, long time to walk again.”
Bronowski traveled to Deya with his then-girl-friend Eirlys Roberts, a Cambridge classicist who later became editor of the influential British consumer-advocacy magazine Which. Riding attracted them more than Graves, who financed the Deya sojourn with the profits from Good-bye to All That. He had set up Riding and himself in a small house on a large parcel of land for which they had ambitious, ever-changing, development plans.
The money was almost exhausted when Riding started courting Bronowski and Roberts in 1933. Graves and Riding were looking for literary projects that would earn them large advances. One scheme of Riding’s, which was never realized, was a periodic “joint thing,” as she described it, which would appear “every so often and deal in an uncompromisingly authoritative way with the values of things.” She was calling it The Critical Vulgate.
Riding intended to use Vulgate as a pretense for recruiting a permanent group of acolytes. After Bronowski and Roberts visited her briefly, she convinced them to return the next year and work on it with her. Bronowski would be the “the glossarian.” Her collaborators — Riding didn’t like to call them “contributors,” but their exact status was never made clear — were required to submit any possible Vulgate material to Riding for first refusal.
As he did throughout their relationship, Graves deferred to Riding on this project. Graves was so smitten with Riding that when they first met in England, he set up a “trinity” among himself, Riding, and his then-wife Nancy Nicholson. Nicholson left him for good soon after.
English writer Alastair Reid described Graves’s and Riding’s different natures in a reminiscence of Graves in the September 4, 1995 New Yorker. “Where Graves wrestled with dualities, Laura was single-mindedly certain. The ferocity of her judgment occasionally verged on cruelty.”
Graves could be cruel himself. Bronowski was “a short, black-bearded man of 26...who cannot pronounce his Rs,” Graves wrote in a letter from that time. In another he revealed a casual anti-Semitism. Bronowski was “a young Polish Jew who is really a geometrician at Cambridge and,” he adds condescendingly, “has a very good mind.”
Bronowski and Roberts eventually tired of Riding’s imperiousness. A mutual acquaintance said the conflict was inevitable, as far as Bronowski was concerned. He and Riding were the only “mono” (single-minded) people this mutual acquaintance had known.
To effect a final break, Bronowski picked a fight with Riding. He accused her of being “no lily-white angel.” This seemingly, bland remark so scandalized Riding’s cowed friends that it became part of the Riding/Graves biographical canon.
In Robert Graves: The Years with Laura 1926-1940, part two of Richard Perceval Graves’s three-volume biography of his uncle, Richard wrote that the short exposure to Riding was “formative” for Bronowski. Riding’s snobbery led him to “reject the kind of elitism which she represented.” Richard Graves sees an echo in “a highly autobiographical passage” in The Ascent of Man “in which Bronowski talks about the dangers of becoming caught up in an intellectually arrogant view of the universe.”
Yet Bronowski wasn’t without arrogance — or ambition — himself. Graves lampooned that side of him in a spiteful poem he wrote after the breakup. It appeared under the title “Dream of a Climber” in Graves’s Poems, 1938-1945.
A friend of both men thought it was so mean-spirited, he asked to be left out of a later anthology that was to contain the work. Although it is obviously colored by Graves’s animosity toward an enemy of his beloved Riding, the poem is prescient. It also contains an unintended pun on Bronowski’s yet-to-be-written final work.
Watch how this climber raises his own ladder
From earth to heaven, and not in a night
Not from the secret, stony pillow.
(World patents pending; tested in the shops.)
Here’s quality timber, nosings of pure brass,
The perfect phallo-spiritual tilt,
A fuzzy puff of cloud on top —
Excellent lure for angels and archangels!
Come, climber, with your scientific hat
And beady gambler’s eye, ascend!
He pauses, poses for his camera-man:
“Well-Known Climber About to Ascend.”
But in the published print, we may be sure.
He will appear, not on the lowest rung
But nearly out of view, almost in the cloud,
Leaning aside for an angel to pass.
His muscular broad hands a-glint in the sun.
And crampons on his feet.
For all Graves’s scorn for anyone who “poses for his camera-man,” he, too, profited from a popular TV show, his I, Claudius series. In another eerie link, Graves’s increasing senility forced him to stop writing in 1975, the year after Bronowski died.
When he returned from Deya, Bronowski, 26, took up his scientific work again. Two years later, in 1936, after he and Eirlys had parted, he met Rita. (Rita and Eirlys would later become friends.)
“I was very much involved with the Spanish war,” Rita recalls. “My boyfriend — he was not much older than me, we were both 18 or 19 — went out to fight in the International Brigade and got killed more or less immediately. I went into a real black despondency. My friends said, ‘There are all kinds of committees doing work for Spain, and that will get you out of this.’ ”
One of them was run by Bruno’s mother, Celia Bronowski. “I was introduced to her, and I got very close to her. We got along very well together. She talked of nothing but her older son; the younger one she never mentioned. It’s really rather sad. She put her whole life into [Bruno] as a bright young man, a bright boy getting scholarships to school.”
The Bronowskis had come to England in 1920 in flight from Germany, where they’d lived during World War I. As Polish Jews, they’d been considered enemy aliens there. Peace hadn’t brought much improvement. “They’d had a terrible time, little food and no blankets.”
Bruno was 12. He spoke only German, having forgotten all his Polish when he started school in Germany. “He was completely bilingual in German,” Rita recalls.
Rita met Bruno’s younger brother Leo first. He was born in England and was closer to her age. “I wouldn’t say we dated, but we went to the movies and went out together. Meanwhile, every once in a while, this image (Bruno] would appear. It wore a little black beard and shabby, shabby clothes. He never had a penny to spend. Very romantic looking. Then he would leave again.
“I got on with my committee and found another job. It was Christmas of’38. I’d had dinner with his mother. He turned up. He’d had his dinner. We started talking.” At 11:00 p.m. Celia went to bed. Bruno and Rita stayed up until 2:00 in the morning.
“I said I had to go home. I had my hand on the other side of the door to close it, and it was Christmas Day, and I said, ‘You know, it’s Christmas Day, and I bet you don’t have anything to do.’ His was a Jewish family just like my own. But I had this great party I was going to,” given by a theater group she worked with, “a mad, three-day party we had every year.” She told him to meet her at the underground station that afternoon if he’d like to come.
“We went to this party. It was in a beautiful old house on the edge of Green Park. It belonged to some rich friend of the theater. There was just no looking back. We didn’t see anybody else. We walked out into the fresh snow of Green Park. And we just never looked back.
“It was such a shock to me, because I’d been in love with him for quite a while, but he never looked at me. He did write me a letter once, which I kept for years and years and years.”
She and Bruno lived together for a couple of years, discreetly. Her mother never found out. Then they married.
“My husband had finished his Ph.D. and had done three or four years, maybe more, of research in his field of mathematics, which was a kind of geometry. He was first wrangler,” winner of highest honors in mathematics at Cambridge, “he was the top one.”
His work centered on “the geometry of multiple planes, a form of mathematical topology, very high class. Only a couple of dozen people in the world, mainly Italians, were doing work on the same subject, and he learned Italian entirely to be able to read their papers.
“We had lots of lovely holidays in Italy. Living in England, it’s just down the road; and you’ve had a terrible wet summer, and you jump in the car and hare through France, and then you really slow down and you putter around. It was wonderful.”
However, the academic life soured. “It suddenly dawned on him there was some block to him. Bruno’s professor said to him finally, ‘You realize you have as much chance of becoming a professor at this college as you have of becoming Archbishop of Canterbury,’ ” because Bronowski was Jewish.
“It shows what a minority these boys were among the rich, upper-class aristocrats.” He eventually earned the largely honorary position of fellow “very late in his career. But all is forgiven, kind of like Galileo.” (Rita adds that his eldest daughter faced a similar barrier at Cambridge because she was a woman, although she became the first woman fellow of Cambridge’s Jesus College. She eventually took a professorship at London University, where she was recently made a fellow of Kings College.)
During the Second World War, Bronowski did what Rita calls “hush-hush” work. He would determine “the best way to bomb things. He hated it. They didn’t have smart bombs then. The bombing error rate in World War II was very high. They could be off by 100 miles.”
Twenty years later, in the introduction to his book William Blake and the Age of Revolution, Bronowski described his work then as “the tasks of destruction which war sets for a scientist.” At night he wrote about Blake as a form of “commentary on my own day — a testament of what I valued at a time when I feared that it would be destroyed.”
The 18th-century poet’s ideas about science, industry, and imagination are a recurring touchstone in Bronowski’s writings. He argued that Blake should be taken seriously as a thinker and philosopher and not dismissed as a crank spinner of dense allegories.
“When I wrote my book in 1942,” Bronowski explains in his 1965 introduction, “Blake was regarded as an untaught and remote mystic whose poems lay quite outside his times and our tradition. I showed, in his life and writings, that his inspiration was both more robust and more universal than this and that his vision never missed the meaning of the tremendous years through which he lived.”
Blake is pertinent to modern readers, Bronowski argued, because “he felt the coming disasters of war, empire, and industry in his bloodstream, long before politicians and economists shivered at their shadows.”
When World War II was over, Bronowski went into what Rita calls “building research. Then he went into coal research.” He invented a “smokeless” coal concoction for the government-owned coal board. It was eventually widely promoted and distributed as part of an effort to reduce air pollution. Although it was named for him — "Bronowski’s brick,” it was called — he never made any money from it. The coal board owned the rights. “Among his friends, they called them ‘Bruno’s balls.’
“He worked on them for a long time, longer than other people would have done. He knew it wouldn’t get off the ground if he didn’t stay around and see the pilot plant and then the plant [finished]. He knew that all those fuddy-duddies at the coal board would undermine everything.”
While Bronowski was still involved on the coal project, Salk came to visit them in London. He had read some of Bronowski’s “little books,” as Rita calls the more scholarly works. “It was perfect timing.” Bronowski was already mulling offers to leave, including overtures from critic and philosopher C.F. Snow. “We used to tease C.P. Snow a lot, because he was in charge of university appointments at a very high level. And he kept offering Bruno things like a vice chancellorship, which is like the top man in an English university. But Bruno said, ‘I want to teach philosophy.’ ”
Salk was piqued by Bronowski’s wrestling with science and ethics. In The Face of Violence, a play and an essay published in 1955, Bronowski wrote:
There is a special unhappiness about the way in which we have come to roll all the weight of civilization upon the stooping shoulders, lightly powdered with dandruff, of the scientist....
Senators vote him credits to make a hydrogen bomb and in the same breath accuse him of being a public hangman.... If he likes his work, he is a philistine: if he likes reading, he is a highbrow and probably a red. In short, he is educated, serious and indispensable; and these sins of hubris make him the popular scapegoat for our loss of nerve....
Science in the popular mind is not a share of human knowledge but a conspiracy of power.
“So,” Rita explains, “he got himself talked into coming out to this new institute with a bunch of very interesting scientists that he’d gotten to know.”
Quite a few “very interesting” people were in his orbit by then, and London was at the height of “mod” fashions. Rita recalls “all the mad things people were wearing, colored hair.” Rita and Bruno mingled with intellectuals, artists, and writers, many of the friendships dating back to his student days at Cambridge.
He “went to the first lecture when they’d discovered the neutron. This is why he was excited by science. He really laughed at people who talked about the good old days, because those were the bad old days.” He was friends with Francis Crick, co-discoverer of the structure of DNA. “He hadn’t got his Nobel Prize yet. He’s still one of my best friends,” Rita says.
Bronowski had already published several books, had written a radio play that was broadcast in Britain, and had produced programs for radio and TV. Meanwhile, Rita worked in the London equivalent of “off-off-off-Broadway” and, until her fourth daughter was born, sculpted in a studio behind the house.
It wasn’t all high culture. Rita also liked to go to the track. “We used to live next to Cheltenham, [where they hold] the Cheltenham Gold Cup. It’s even been heard of over here. That was over the sticks [fences], like the Grand National. There was always a long, cold winter season.
“Of course, Bruno was always working, so I had lots of chances to make pals with neighbors who were horse bettors. One of them allowed me to use his bookie.” Rita followed the jockeys rather than the horses, and she won often.
“In fact, our house backed onto a huge meadow where they exercised the horses in the morning. And [the riders] would walk by the back gate, and I would chat with them. But I never put much money on; and that would infuriate my friend, because he would put (the British equivalent of] $100 on and I would put $10, and mine would come in and his wouldn’t. It became embarrassing to stand with him at the rail, because my horse would come in ahead of his. And I knew that he was betting so much more.
“My friend’s wife was always showing me huge boxes of chocolates and things she’d gotten from the bookie. And I said, ‘He’s never sent me anything.’ And she started laughing. ‘You’re forgetting, you’ve never sent him a check.’ ”
Rita “managed to survive” the move to La Jolla “because I had just enough friends, and I had the two kids going to school. [The youngest was about eight years old.] And we traveled a lot. One way or another, I was able to pretend it wasn’t permanent.
“If anyone had told me that anything would keep me here except my husband’s job, I would have thought they were mad,” she says. In the original arrangement with Salk, “Jonas paid him to think.” Soon, however, Bronowski was forced to take over the administrative tasks Salk couldn’t or wouldn’t see to.
“Jonas had no idea of how to run anything,” Rita recalls fondly. He made Bronowski, who had managed his own lab for eight or nine years, his deputy director. The first big problem was the budget for the institute’s buildings.
Salk had $25 million from the National Foundation and hired American architect Louis Kahn to design it. “My husband, who had built a modest laboratory for himself, looked at the plans and asked, ‘What is this going to cost you?’ and Jonas said, 'We’ll be lucky if we get out for $5 million.’ And Bruno laughed. For years they only had one building with the electricity and stuff on. The twin building was completely empty, and they had to keep on raising money and raising money.” By the time construction stopped in 1965 for lack of funds, Salk had spent $15 million on the North Building and the shell of the South Building. Still unbuilt were the fellows’ residences, meeting house, and administrative building.
Salk was paying Bronowski to do more than think, of course. The fellows were meant to get together outside their laboratories and seminars. Parties were a regular part of the routine.
“Bruno was cuddly. Actually, women threw themselves at him. It wasn’t so bad in England, where women don’t have this edge. It’s very American, particularly for educated women, to make a beeline for what they want. I used to giggle, because at parties there’d be some woman flirting with him like mad, and I’d think, ‘That’s very nice. At least I’m taking him home.’ ”
Bruno had his own strategy for mixing. “When we went into a party, particularly a big party, he would never circulate, which is my impression of what you do. He would find himself a corner and sit. And everyone would come to him.”
One of the anchors keeping Rita here now, so many years later, is the house she had built for them while they were still in London. They moved into it shortly after their arrival.
It’s so low-key from the outside, especially compared to its newer, showy neighbors, that I stumbled around a garden path and got lost trying to find the entrance. Inside the garage, when I pressed what I thought was the bell, the overhead garage door started to move. When she let me in, Rita chuckled at my nonintuitive response to the home she shared with her very intuitive husband.
“He was offered enough money, and I, in my innocence, said, ‘I’m not coming unless I can build my own house. I hate every house I’ve seen.’ We had come out for a week to buy a house, and I hated everything I saw. They were ugly, big stone fireplaces and beams.”
She grimaces. “My real estate lady said, ‘You’ve only liked one house, but it was too small.’ I said, ‘Oh, that was a beauty.’ ” The designer turned out to be a local architect, Russell Forester. The real estate agent said, “ ‘Why don’t we go find you a lot and we’ll go see Russell Forrester?’ Which we did.”
The joint design process was “a trans-Atlantic game. He’d send me the drawings, and I’d scribble on them. I said, ‘You put in the California. This is the way we live.’
“We’d had a very spectacular house in London, which I had a lot to do with. I had found a developer who was going to build six houses, and he hadn’t started yet. So every time he was going to do something I didn’t like, I said, ‘No, no, no wall through there.’ So we had a big open house, rather like this. Of course, the bedrooms were upstairs, five of them because we had four kids.”
For the “California” element, “The front is completely blank, which is why you couldn’t find the door. There are these little inside gardens, which are completely sheltered and, I was thinking, noise-proof, but that fight,” she nods toward the workmen next door, whom we couldn’t see, but whose argument we could hear through the open glass door.
“But they are wonderful places to sit. There’re three of them. There’s a kitchen garden” whose plants have gone to weeds over the past few years, because Rita’s bad hip kept her from tending it. (The hip was recently repaired and is “better than the old one.”)
It is a “lovely lot. We were the first to build here. This was the Blacks’ estate.” Black, Rita explains later, “was an oil man, very rich, who bought up all this land” and built what is now the UCSD chancellor’s house. “After he died, they subdivided the land and sold all the lots. It was a very good deal.”
Black’s Beach is just below us. “I’m sure it wasn’t a nude beach when we came. My daughters, who don’t like to have a tan mark, probably started it all. I remember it well.”
The house is taut and modern, minus the blond wood and the barren, museum feel of too many ’60s “designer” houses. The open floor plan is scaled to domestic life. In the equivalent of the living room, the furniture is stripped down but comfortable. Four metal Bauhaus-style chairs are grouped in front of the floor-to-ceiling window.
The view opens onto Rita’s back lawn, which is edged by old trees. “I planted them from tiny seedlings,” she points out. To the rear of the sitting area is a semidetached brick fireplace painted a deep, restful purple. “That was my idea. I’m a purple lady. I’ve always had one or two colored walls. With all the glass in the house, there was no place to have colored walls,” so she painted the fireplace.
High bookshelves act as a room divider partly closing off the corner space that was Bruno’s study. What had been his desk looks onto one of the enclosed gardens. Paintings and sculptures decorate most of the walls. “It’s a good thing I stopped collecting art after Bruno died,” Rita says. “I’d have run out of room.”
Rita designed around Bruno’s working habits. “In the London house I’d built him a study at ground level, with a little view, books on three sides, and a big heavy table. He never went in there. He liked to be in the living room with everybody coming and going. He had a wonderful sense of concentration, and he hated feeling that he was closed away in a little room. So instead of making him a little room, I just put this divider here.”
He would dictate into a tape recorder, pacing back and forth “like a polar bear,” his imaginary audience supplemented by whoever happened to be home at the time. “It was nice to hear his voice all day.”
Rita has jokingly referred to life with Bruno as having a “live-in professor.” He was constantly trying out his theories and explanations on his family. When the girls were small, Rita would be his “man on the street.” As she grew too knowledgeable, he turned to his daughters.
Bronowski almost abandoned science when nuclear weapons were developed. His faith was shaken after he visited Hiroshima and Nagasaki as one of a small group of scientists, three months after the cities were bombed. His daughter Nicole Plett, a dance critic who lives in Princeton, New Jersey, wrote about her memories of his trip for a New Jersey paper as part of an issue about the 50th anniversary of the atomic bomb.
One of Plett’s strongest recollections is “my father’s description of coming upon the remains of a baker who had climbed into his own brick oven in a futile attempt to escape."
In 1946 Bronowski had a chance to share his doubts about nuclear arms with a huge audience. The BBC was preparing a live broadcast of Operation Crossroads, the U.S.’s first major postwar atomic test on Bikini atoll. Bronowski was to be a standby commentator in case static wiped out radio transmissions from the site.
When signal problems did occur, listeners received a spontaneous lecture from Bronowski. The detonation was “not an academic exercise to determine whether battleships have become obsolete,” which was the official rationale for the explosion. “It is we who are at the crossroads, and the decision is whether mankind shall become obsolete.”
“I really wondered whether he’d been shattered by it,” Rita says now of the Nagasaki-Hiroshima visit. “Physics had played itself out in a sense, culminating with the bomb.” It led him to a “deliberate dropping of physics. The next obvious thing was to look into the origins of life and the origins of language.” He also sought to bridge the gap between scientist and layman, which he had described earlier in The Face of Violence.
During the ’60s and early 70s, he lectured at places like the American Museum of Natural History, York University in Toronto, a Nobel conference in Minnesota, Smith College, and Yale University. His topics included “The Identity of Man,” “Imagination and the University,” “Nature and Knowledge — the Philosophy of Contemporary Science,” “On Being an Intellectual” and “The Origins of Knowledge and Imagination.” He also edited The Western Intellectual Tradition, from Leonardo to Hegel.
All of these could be seen as rehearsals for the biggest audience of his life. When the BBC approached him about The Ascent of Man, he was initially reluctant. Rita recalls how they lured him into the project by asking him what he thought of rough-cuts of Kenneth Clark’s Civilisation, which would soon be shown on the BBC to great acclaim. “It was a great history of art,” Rita recalls him thinking. Then he ticked off everything that was left out. That became his working outline.
The Ascent of Man is stark compared to today’s science and nature shows. It consists of 13 one-hour segments narrated by Bronowski from various exotic locales, with no props other than those he found on location. The series is one long lecture, the natural climax to his lifetime of musing out loud about science and culture.
“The thing that he learned that so few people realize is that television is not a mass medium. You are not talking to a million people. He realized you are speaking to one person sitting in their living room. When he looks at you, you feel this. This was the perfect way to get people to be not afraid of science and to listen with pleasure to scientific things.
“When he first came out here, he gave three public talks in the art gallery in La Jolla. It held about 500 people. The chancellor invited us for dinner, but Bruno never ate dinner before a lecture. So the chancellor said, ‘Come over for coffee, and we’ll take you down.’
“So we arrived rather late, and none of us had realized that this was the only really democratic thing that happens here. Nobody queues in line or saves seats. There were hordes of people milling around outside who couldn’t get in, including half the people I knew, including Jonas.” They finally got a scat after the organizers set up more chairs on the stage.
In anticipation of the success of his TV series and the harder-to-predict future popularity of videotapes and VCRs, Bronowski made a point of giving the BBC “only the rights for TV showings. In a few years he was going to set up a private business that was going to market the tapes.” Unfortunately, Bruno placed so many restrictions on their reproduction and distribution that even Rita has been unable to sell very many copies.
“There is a company in New York that is in charge of selling them,” but only to nonprofit and educational institutions. “We were lucky, because the MacArthur Foundation bought up lots of them and distributed them to libraries all over the country. So that was a little jump in my royalties. Most of the time I get a miserable amount, a few hundred dollars.
“But now people tell me, ‘Oh, we borrowed them from the library, and they’re so beat up.’ I have a set of my own, but I won’t let anybody but my best friends” take them.
For years Rita had been Bruno’s silent partner, keeping track of his suits and ties for continuity during filming of The Ascent of Man and hearing out his latest theories. Widowhood made her a public figure. After his death, “I got used to the idea that I had to do something about all these kids who had questions that he would have answered. Actually, I’d heard a lot of the questions, and I knew how he’d answer them.”
She gave her first speech when The Ascent of Man was given the Commonwealth of California Award in San Francisco a few years after Bruno died. “I can only tell you that up until about five years ago,” when hip problems made her unable to drive, “I was running around the countryside lecturing about his work. He would be amazed, because I had never lectured in my life. But I knew his work so well, it wasn’t too hard for me.”
She also became Bruno’s literary executor, taking control of The Ascent of Man and overseeing its broadcast in the U.S. To do so, she applied for a fictitious business name and hired a secretary. “I needed to from a tax point of view. I had to get my expenses somehow.”
Boston public television station WGBH had bought the rights to the film, and Rita negotiated with them about how it would be shown here. She also kept track of the substantial royalties from The Ascent of Man book, which is still in print. It’s been published in many languages and was a college syllabus staple for years.
She culled the best of Bruno’s papers and saw two posthumous books of essays to publication. She catalogued the remainder, which still sit in his office. Rita yanks open a file drawer and flips through the folders. “ ‘Six Points in Space of Four Dimensions,’ ” she reads from a title page. “We used to giggle about it. I thought I was doing pretty well with my three dimensions. I cannot imagine a fourth dimension.”
Rita’s pleased to have been recognized for her effort. “I was made woman of the year by the Charter 100 Society,” a group of professional women, founded in the late 70s in San Diego. “I was, first of all, quite glad they let me in. But I did have a company, and I had secretaries and things.”
Rita was also busy with the La Jolla Playhouse, which she helped revive. Her house became a regular place for their meetings. She points in the direction of someone’s new house going up nearby. “What do you do in a house that’s 30,000 square feet?” she asks. “The nicest thing about my outside, since I didn’t build 30,000 square feet” to the edge of the lot, “is, you can park 12 cars there. There’s nowhere on campus where you can meet and where everyone can park.
“When I first came out here, I got involved with a lovely young director. He wanted to do his own thing, and we put him into a tiny little theater. I must have painted every inch of that black box myself from time to time. We were doing absolutely wonderful stuff, better than anything I’ve done anywhere else. It was in the ’60s. It was a workshop group. Nobody got paid anything. The rent came out of donations, and I was busy getting members at $25 a go.
“It was a time when people were inclined to be doing drugs and so on. In the end it finished them off, because some kid committed suicide under the influence of something awful. That was the end of that. Then I threw in my lot with the Old Globe, which was the only theater around.
“They had this little theater-in-the-round, the Cassius Carter. They all are at the [La Jolla Playhouse] and have been at every other theater I’ve been with.” Just as the smaller theater was to be converted into a paying venue, the Globe burned down. "By the time they got themselves together, there was no question of another theater.
“Fortunately, just at that time, I was asked to join the board of the old playhouse, which had been a summer theater. It had all the famous film stars coming and doing shows, with Gregory Peck in charge. I was invited by these funny old boys, about five men, who had been on the original board of the playhouse. They had been hanging in there because there was money due the nonprofit organization that somebody was trying to diddle them out of. They went through years of litigation, but we came out with the land. And when we sold it, we got $5 million, and then we built the playhouse.
“I’m having a really nice time now, though I lost out on all the things I really cared about. I was a minority of one. Like the fact that we were bullied into building on campus. The only thing I succeeded with all my shouting and yelling was to make sure we built on the very edge of campus."
They’re in negotiations with the university to build a third theater, another of her black boxes. She finds the relationship too one-sided, though. “It’s a wonderful arrangement for them, because we use 20 students and graduate students in the company every summer. We call them interns. They do everything—assistant directors, lighting, acting, and everything. They get that advantage. Once you’ve worked at the playhouse, you can work anywhere in the world. It’s a very professional group.
“I’m their best cheerleader. I would love to have more to say in what we put on, just for the fun of it, but there’s no pretending. We had the same artistic director for 10 or 11 years [Des McAnuff]. My claim to fame is, I hired him. I thought they’d never let me have him, because he was my kind of director. Then I thought we’d never keep him with our budget problems, but we did.
“He directed [The Who’s] Tommy and How to Succeed in Business (Without Really Trying), A Walk in the Woods, and all sorts of other plays that went to Broadway. He has three Tonys. In fact, our playhouse won the Tony [in 1993] for best regional theater. That was really nice. We had a little party here. I had no idea this was coming up. We were drinking and watching the awards and so on, and they came out with this special award. The new director, Michael Greif,” she adds, “is wonderful, too.”
The English-Speaking Union, Physicians for Social Responsibility, and Planned Parenthood are among other groups that Rita has helped out. “I even had a big Clinton party here. I think he let us all down, don’t you? Funnily enough, it’s only been in the last five years or so that I’ve met liberals of my kind. I’ve always been just faking it.”
With her conservative American friends, “One didn’t talk,” because “they don’t.” I ask her about Clinton’s reelection odds. “I don’t bet — on politics at any rate.” She still likes to go to Hollywood Park — it’s “rather fun” — and Del Mar.
“They have wonderful boxes that my rich, conservative friends invite me into. Unfortunately, I’ve become so outspoken, I don’t have any rich friends anymore, which is bad for the theater. They know who I am.”
I mention a rich Democrat I know. “There are a few,” she says, pauses, and then asks, “Who is he?”
When The Ascent of Man finally aired on U.S. public television, the BBC-length segments came up seven minutes short. After protracted discussions between Rita and WGBH, British actor Anthony Hopkins, an old friend of Rita’s and Bruno’s, was hired to ask questions of other scientists, whose answers were later spliced onto the end. She didn’t like the result. Hopkins told her he was taped alone in a room, without benefit of answers to his questions.
When San Diego’s KPBS-TV decided to show the series again in 1984, Rita convinced them to let her make some new fillers in the form of short Q&As with Gloria Penner.
Rita still has the tapes. She pops one into the VCR, and there she is on the screen of her modest set. The TV-Rita is ten years younger than the one beside me, but her voice sounds more quavery, her presence is spectral. We watch all 13 chats, one after another, without any of the intervening segments.
On the tape, Penner asks about Bruno’s Jewishness. He was descended from Talmudic scholars, Rita explains. He lost relatives in the Nazi Holocaust. But “he came to believe that you could not, in the 20th Century, live your life by a series of dogmas.... You had to be responsible for your own actions. You had to make your own ethics. You have imagination, foresight, therefore you could imagine the result of your actions. You were responsible for right and wrong. You could make your own ethical decisions.”
On Bruno's politics, Rita comments, “It was hard to be an intellectual in the ’30s and not be aware of the impending doom. Hitler in Germany, Mussolini in Italy, and then the war in Spain. To be an activist in those days was much easier. The problems were much more black and white. It was so easy to see the Spanish war was not a civil war, but really a dress rehearsal for World War II, that the Russians were using all their new weapons in Spain, as were the Germans.”
Rita and Penner talk about the Watts Towers, which Bruno included in a segment. “It was one of the first things I saw in this country. It just struck a note of the single-mindedness of this individual. This was long before any thoughts of including it in his beautiful essay on structure, but I knew as soon as he started talking about places like Machu Picchu and the architecture of structure, I guessed he would go to the Watts Towers.
“I still get excited when I see that particular sequence. The idea that man is a tool-using hand. My favorite quotation from that is. The hand is the cutting edge of the mind,’ which I use frequently. It’s so important to understanding human beings. Whenever I rewatch the programs, I realize he is speaking poetry. His command of the English language is not just good. He really fell in love with the language. It sounds to me like poetry. It is round and clear and whole the way poetry is.”
One show in particular leaves her bereft. “It’s hard to follow,” she tells Penner. “There he is talking about mating and children. And I’m here with my beautiful four girls, and he is not. Television is so immediate. He is just in my room, and I want to say, Come home.’ ” I ask the Rita sitting beside me about that. “He was not an actor. That was what he was like all the time. I know enough actors. You couldn't even recognize them in your own home once they step out of their role.”
The Bronowski of the tapes is a kindly, professorial figure, musing and gently probing. His progress from point to point is a spiral rather than a straight line. He coaxes his audience into sharing his erudition. He’s happy peering at the impassive Neolithic faces of the Easter Island statues or gazing up at the ceiling of a 600-year-old mosque.
Yet in his books, Bronowski is worldlier, more knowing. To make his point that good art is deliberately provocative, in an essay in The Visionary Eye, which MIT Press published after his death, he cites “Provide, Provide,” an extremely bitter Robert Frost poem. Its main concern is people who chase fame.
- The witch that came (the withered hag)
- To wash the steps with pail and rag
- Was once the beauty Abishag,
- The picture pride of Hollywood.
- Too many fall from great and good
- For you to doubt the likelihood.
- Die early and avoid the fate.
- Or if predestined to die late,
- Make up your mind to die in state.
- Make the whole stock exchange your own!
- If need be occupy a throne,
- Where nobody can call you crone.
- Some have relied on what they knew,
- Others on being simply true.
- What worked for them might work for you.
- No memory of having starred
- Atones for later disregard
- Or keeps the end from being hard.
- Better to go down dignified
- With boughten friendship at your side
- Than none at all. Provide, Provide!
Later in the book, Bronowski teases out the tension between trying “to live out the extravagance [of life] directly” and the banal demands of everyday existence. He quotes from his own verse play in The Face of Violence.
- Will a man be content,
- After navigation of trumpets,
- To ride home on his bicycle
- Down the hill into the little yard below the grocer’s?
“His whole work," Rita says, “was about how you never reach the end. Newton is outmoded now, though he was right for his time.
“I’ve tried all kinds of friends to try and get them interested in doing something with me" on developing Bronowski’s ideas further, but no one can figure out how. “I’ve sort of given up.”
To cap a long afternoon of memories, Rita turns to the never-published Christmas poems.
“They’re all very Christmas-y, of course. But this one gives me goose bumps even now,” she says as she pages through the slim clothbound book. (They had a few copies privately printed.)
“A landscape where the scrub disdains / the mountain. Hunger licks the plains. / Across the frontier barbed, the spivs / jostle with the fugitives. / How could the hunted girl resist? / (Blood in her eyes and amethyst.) / The child’s impatience to be born. / She saw too late his hands were torn. / Happy passionate and come / headlong from his mother’s womb, / he thought the glowing barn was home / and never guessed its friendly smells / were breathed by animals. / Men waited for him with long nails.”
Rita pauses, “If that doesn’t make you religious.” She flips the page. There is “a real flower-child one,” in which Jesus’ message has “not been cleared” and he is “drugged...with parable...a gypsy leading a crusade of children.”
The next one commemorates the birth of their first grandson, as well as another war in the Middle East.
“Again the desert redeploys / its haunted armies of despair / and conjures from the trembling air / the ancient madness to destroy. / We wait upon the imminent / massacre of the innocents. On such a night a frightened fate / tipped off the Holy surrogate / and luckily no patriot men / highjacked the flight to Egypt then. / Yet when Joseph had that dream, / he heard a thousand infants scream. / We celebrate a child’s escape / from the carnage and the rape. / What became of all the rest? / Providence no doubt knew best. / Now we wait for Providence / to save the other innocents.
“Oh, God. I used to cry a lot. I haven’t cried a lot lately. The fact is, you get to a stage where it’s all so hopeless,” she breaks the mood and laughs and turns to the book again.
“This is 1973, the year [before] he died.... We looked up 'water-gate' in the dictionary, and one of the definitions is, ‘an act of voiding urine.’ This was a Scottish dictionary,” she adds.
“With what contempt the Scots defined the sly betrayal of their kind, blasted with prophetic rage the desecration of the age. Some electric Pharisee, having bugged the Christmas tree or muzzled them with privilege gave their tongue an acid edge to fix a synonym for ‘rape’ without benefit of tape and assure posterity no mincing prince will go scot-free.”
Echoing that first American poem of Bruno’s, she sighs, “I’m beached here, washed up like an old whale.” If she moved somewhere new, “people wouldn’t take any notice.” Here in La Jolla, “I’m really considered a standing object. It makes it all just possible.”