You’re probably wondering what do Barbie, Oppenheimer, and St Croix have in common? It’s a fair question!
Even here on our little rock in the Caribbean Sea, we’ve been hit by the summer’s biggest phenomenon, the release of two very different blockbusters on the same day. And being a movie buff myself, I couldn’t miss out on taking part in the craze. So, I hit “Barbie” on opening weekend and “Oppenheimer” a few days later.
Barbie and Me
Growing up in the 70s, I had quite a collection of Barbies that traveled in style in my coveted Barbie camper van. Though being a feminist and rather independent (#girlboss), I personally never felt that playing with my Barbie dolls affected my sense of self. Admittedly, she looked like me – blonde, blue-eyed – so I can absolutely appreciate that I was likely among the minority of girls who weren’t affected by the ideals portrayed by her.
However, I did think I could be anything I wanted when I grew up. Just like Barbie. She got that chutzpah from her inventor, Ruth Handler. Ruth was a pioneering businesswoman in her own right at a time when women couldn’t even have credit cards in their own names. (it’s true! Google it.) But, of course, there were those issues of Barbie’s unrealistic physique. So, as I grew into adulthood, I saw both sides of the argument and understand those of my friends who “would never” let their daughters play with Barbies.
What I really loved about the movie was the way it addressed all sides of the issue in a fun, kitschy (and sometimes serious) way. And I appreciated that it addressed feminism in its various forms. You can wear makeup and pink clothes and still be a feminist. And Honestly, who didn’t love seeing Barbie Land come to life?! Ok, maybe Ken. For me, it was a nostalgic trip through my childhood and the feminist journey.
The Father of the Atomic Bomb
Oppenheimer, on the other hand, was much deeper. As I expected it to be. And what a cast!
I grew up during the Cold War Era with a mother who had been born in the Netherlands at the end of the Nazi occupation. My Grandpa on my Father’s side was a WAG (wireless air gunner). He was trained in underwater sound (sonar buoys) and his crew flew missions over the North Atlantic for the Royal Canadian Airforce taking out Nazi U-boats. So, I was aware of the atomic bomb effectively ending WWII. History class taught me about The Manhattan Project and the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. But not the political backstory. And I vividly remember growing up aware of the threats of nuclear war. And the fear of it after watching “The Day After” with my parents as a young teen. For you younger readers – “The Day After” was a controversial television special (fictional) about the aftermath of a nuclear holocaust on US soil in Kansas. It was a big deal in 1983.
But, I never realized the entire backstory of the Manhattan Project and the political fallout that followed as a result of the 1949 McCarthy era “House UnAmerican Activities Committee” hearings and his subsequent secret hearing that stripped him of his security clearance. It was interesting to me that Oppenheimer was vilified not for leading the team that killed over a hundred thousand people at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan but because he *may* have been a communist at one time. Watching the film was powerful. And it left me with a lot of mixed feelings as I walked out of the theater. As I said to my friend, Michael, “all the feels”.
Ok Cindy, but what does all that have to do with St Croix? … stay with me, I’m getting there!
After being stripped of his security clearances and effectively being ostracized politically, Oppenheimer looked for an escape from the chaos. He found it here in the U.S. Virgin Islands aka “America’s Paradise.” In 2002, I worked as the wedding and events coordinator at The Buccaneer Hotel on St Croix.
The Buccaneer Hotel Greathouse is the perfect fit for Barbie!
Coordinating both leisure and corporate groups, I often spent time welcoming them to the property and sharing its history. This included many notable guests from the past. I remember that J. Robert Oppenheimer was on that list. I often felt funny, like should we really be proud that the “Father of the Atomic Bomb” hung out here? Recently, I noticed that he’s no longer on that list. So, maybe I wasn’t the only one? After watching the movie, I may feel a little more empathy for him. Though I still have mixed feelings knowing how many innocent Japanese citizens lost their lives as a result of his leadership.
Oppenheimer on St Croix
While a lot of his time in the USVI isn’t as well documented online, there are still families here on St Croix who have memories of the Oppenheimer family on our island.
Recently, my friend and celebrated Crucian photographer, Tina Henle, shared some photographs from the archives of her famous father, Fritz Henle. He photographed the Oppenheimer family enjoying the beach on St Croix. Others have shared stories of the time that the Oppenheimers spent staying at one of the smaller homes on the Pull Point property East of Chenay Bay.
The Cottage on St John
Eventually, in 1957 they settled over on St John in a small cottage right on Gibney aka Oppenheimer Beach on Hawksnest Bay. There they spent several months of the year (as snowbirds would be my guess). This was a vastly different environment from his Princeton, New Jersey home adorned with French antique furniture and works of art by some of the greats including Cézanne, Picasso, Rembrandt, Renoir, and Van Gogh. The Caribbean was a true retreat.
Robert, his wife Kitty, and their daughter, Toni, spent much of their time sailing throughout the Virgin Islands. They most likely visited friends on St Croix from time to time. I can’t help but wonder if some of that time was spent visiting his political allies, including John F. Kennedy and Ted Kennedy, who often vacationed on St Croix. In 1961, President John F. Kennedy established Buck Island Reef National Monument. He fell in love with the island and coral reefs while vacationing and wanted to ensure their preservation.
J. Robert Oppenheimer passed away from throat cancer at his home in Princeton, New Jersey in 1967. Kitty spread his ashes in Hawksnest Bay in front of their beach home. In 1972, Kitty passed away on a sailing trip. Daughter Toni inherited the home on St John. She experienced her own career difficulties as a result of continued suspicions around her father and sadly took her own life at the beach cottage in 1977 shortly after a divorce. She willed the 2-acre property to the residents of St John. The original home was destroyed in a hurricane, but a community center now stands on the beach they all loved.
St Croix’s Barbenheimer
It’s no wonder that Oppenheimer and his family sought refuge and a sense of peace in a beautiful place like the US Virgin Islands. I’ve never felt more peaceful than I do when sitting on the bow of a sailboat as it soars over the crystal blue Caribbean waters. That beautiful soft shade of blue just offshore has always been my favorite color because it coordinates so well with pink. My other favorite color. *wink* And with all the pastel and pink buildings and flowers across St Croix, including the great house at the historic Buccaneer Hotel, I’m pretty sure that Barbie would love a vacation here. Ok, Ken too.
The Henle Gallery
Fritz Henle’s career spanned over six decades. He was a famed photojournalist for Life Magazine, a sought-after fashion photographer, and well-known for his portraits of notable celebrities like Frida Kahlo. He settled on St Croix in 1958 and raised a family here. Historic images from the Fritz Henle Archive were graciously provided by the Henle Gallery. Prints can be purchased online including many that offer glimpses of vintage St Croix. I love browsing through the gallery to see images of buildings and places that I recognize today. You’ll also find prints from his talented daughters. Photographer Tina Henle and artist Maria Henle. One of my most prized possessions is a framed giclée of Maria’s, “Dominica”.
If you’re here on the island, you can browse Fritz Henle’s work on the walls of the former Henle Gallery at 55 Company Street, now the home of FantaSea Jewelry. You can also browse vintage Fritz Henle prints at Virgin Islands Coffee Roasters on King Street. In fact, I wrote most of this article sitting under two of his prints. Thanks for the inspiration, Mr. Henle!