I was reading a recent article in The New York Times about what swing voters think. One sentence came to mind: “[Key swing] voters like these would say that political correctness has gone too far”. When it comes to what some people on the far left have to say about Richard Feynman, I am forced to agree.
For people who are familiar with the great scientists of the 20th century, Richard Feynman needs no introduction. He has been ranked as one of the 10 greatest physicists of all time. He also suffered a profound tragedy, losing his first love and wife, one Arline Greenbaum, when he was only 27 years old.
One year later, he ended up picking up girls at a nightclub. While I myself have not reacted to the loss of my wife the same way, having experienced the same grief myself, I can understand why he went that route. The story of how he learned to seduce women at that bar is one of over three dozen stories in his national bestseller, “Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!”
Feynman’s seduction lessons began when he met a husband-and-wife team, Gloria and her husband who Feynman simply calls “the master”. This husband taught him how to get women: He told Feynman to ask a woman if she would sleep with him before buying her anything.
After learning this, Feynman tried changing his attitude towards women at the bar. He spends a day thinking of women as “bitches” in his internal dialog, and convinces himself to no longer buy ladies drinks at the bar. That evening, he meets a pretty lady named Ann at the nightclub. While Ann was being very gracious with Feynman, he pretty much ignored her throughout the evening.
As Ann was leaving the bar, she announced to everyone that she wanted someone to walk with her, which Feynman decided to do. After they walked out of the bar together, Ann convinced Feynman to buy some sandwiches and coffee for her, saying that they would eat them at her place. After he bought her the sandwiches and coffee, for $1.10 (approximately $14 in 2019 dollars), Ann told him that they wouldn’t be able to eat the sandwiches together after all because another man was going to arrive at her place to visit her. Feynman, angry and frustrated at Ann’s deception, flat out says “You are worse than a whore!” Ann respected Feynman for his blunt honesty: Not only does she pays back Feynman for the sandwiches, but also, later on that same evening, Ann returned to the bar to take Feynman to her place.
After finding out he could bed girls by not buying them anything before directly asking them if they wanted sex, Feynman decided he didn’t like that approach, writing that “But no matter how effective the lesson was, I never really used it after that. I didn’t enjoy doing it that way.”
There are, as far as I can tell, no contempoary reviews of the book that considered Feynman a “misogynist” or “sexist” for this chapter in the book; the chapter on his seduction of women at bars was, at the time, described as being “off-key”, which was my general impression of that chapter when I read the book cover to cover many years ago; I felt back then (and still feel now) that the book would had been better if it had omitted the entire chapter.
The radical left, decades after the fact, finally discovered this chapter and decided that Feynman was a horrible misogynist for writing this story. These hateful people are either unable to understand the context of the story or wish to discard the truth, implying that Feynman called women “bitches” without clarifying he only did so in his thinking without saying that word out loud, or that he called a woman a “whore” without pointing out that said woman in fact ended up spending the night with Feynman.
I will not dignify these kinds of resentful people trying to tarnish the legacy of a great scientist by linking directly to their dishonest and hateful screeds. I will instead link to a post from an online discussion a couple years ago where a woman defends Feynman’s actions that evening, as well as a blog post defending Feynman’s legacy.
I should clarify here, for the kinds of radicals who would quote me out of context, that I, like Feynman, have no problem with equality for women. But I have no place for the kind of radical “feminism” which wishes to slander a great man who has been dead for over three decades.
The issue Feynman had with this lady, Ann, was not that she didn’t “put out” (which was, by the time the evening was over, a non-issue), but that she was dishonest with him: She manipulated him to buy her sandwiches by telling him they would eat them together when she had no intention of eating the sandwiches with Feynman.
I wish we could know more about Ann. What kind of relationship did she have with her father? Did she ever have any children and did she ever get married? What did she do with her life after this encounter with Feynman? Did she want to continue the relationship with Feynman, or was she content with a one-night fling? Did she remember Feynman fondly, or did she later on regret their encounter?
We will never know any of these things. Feynman went to a lot of effort to respect Ann’s anonymity. He describes nothing about her except her first name (a common name) and a note that she is “pretty”. Knowing that the events happened in an era when young women were locked up for being pregnant outside of wedlock, and keeping in mind it was an era when a gentleman would never “kiss and tell”, Feynman was right in keeping Ann anonymous.
Considering how much time has passed, it is unlikely that Ann is even alive today.
I believe that Ann was a good woman. She did pay Feynman back for the sandwiches when confronted about her behavior, and she was friendly to Feynman throughout the evening.
As I was researching this essay, I went to the trouble of finding out when Feynman’s night with Ann occurred. A careful reading of the chapter and looking over Feynman’s biography places these events in the summer of 1946.
These events happened after his wife died but before Feynman wrote the letter to his deceased wife saying he still loved her.
Point being, while Feynman slept with other women he met at that nightclub a year after Arlene died, it did not take away the pain he had from losing his wife.
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