Book review: Tuxedo Park : A Wall Street Tycoon and the Secret Palace of Science That Changed the Course of World War II, by Jennet Conant

originally posted elsewhere: November 8, 2003

tl;dr: Fascinating portrait of a brilliant man of science & business....

The subject of Tuxedo Park, Alfred Loomis, is an absolutely fascinating individual whose life story is so unique and so amazing that, were this book fiction, the reader would likely not believe it. Loomis, who undoubtedly was a brilliant left-brained rational thinker, was educated as a lawyer, rose through the ranks of a law firm, then quit to become one of the wealthiest bankers on Wall Street. He foresaw the 1929 stock market crash and cashed out beforehand, and then gave up his finance career to educate himself so that he could work on the very leading edge of scientific research in multiple fields, including biology, physics, astronomy, and (at the very end of his life), computer science. Because he possessed immense wealth, brains, and leadership qualities, as well as patriotism and a savvy understanding of geopolitics, he became a key individual who put together the multiple scientific labs and projects that helped the Allies win World War II.

Jennet Conant succeeds admirably in the primary objective of her book: to describe the many technical and leadership contributions Loomis made to the scientific efforts, especially the development of radar systems, that ultimately produced victory for the Allies in World War II. She makes a very strong case that without Loomis's leadership, the development of both radar and the atomic bomb would have been delayed, endangering the Allies' chances of success and resulting in many more lives lost. Loomis's World War II efforts and achievements occupy half the book; the remainder covers the rest of his biography.

A book cover with the title, author's name, and subtitle, superimposed over a monochrome photo of the upper half of a man in business attire, also containing a small picture of a large multistory house

Besides being a fascinating, engrossing story, Tuxedo Park has much to teach the reader. The common impression is that the development of the atomic bomb was the greatest scientific achievement in the Allies' victory; however, as one of the scientists says, "radar won the war, and the atomic bomb ended it". Radar was the weapon the Allies used to defeat the Germans' submarines, superior air force, and rocketry. Tuxedo Park also shows the interconnected web of relationships at the pinnacles of the worlds of science, academia, government, and business in the mid twentieth century. Rational thought alone does not produce results; all accomplishments involve humans, and Loomis was able to navigate these worlds and relationships with remarkable aplomb. The book also shows the negative side of Loomis and genius in general: the toll it exacts on family life, and the depression and suicide that plagues certain families.

I have only minor quibbles with Tuxedo Park. Loomis's pre-World War II achievements were so impressive and interesting that I would have enjoyed more detail about those years. When Conant describes the many inventions of Loomis and others, I often had difficulty visualizing them; some line drawings would have helped. And there are a few errors in the book, such as referring to the RAF when the author means the USAF.

I would recommend Tuxedo Park to anyone interested in biographies of scientific figures, as well as anyone who would appreciate a history lesson on the role science played in winning the last major world war.