Never make the mistake of opening a reporter’s notebook inside the River Club. James Watson, the Nobel laureate who co-discovered the double-helical structure of DNA in 1953, which has been getting renewed attention with the release of a play and the publication of a trove of lost letters, is seated on a leather banquette in the posh Manhattan establishment. “People don’t do work here. It’s just not done,” he admonishes. Our companions grow jittery, and an awkward silence falls. I relent, tucking the notebook inside my purse. “These are just WASP conventions,” says Watson as we make our way from the cocktail lounge to the dining room, and all is well again.
Watson, now 82, is easily recognizable as the young upstart who, with co-conspirator Francis Crick, beat out a field of big-name scientists to what was then a holy grail in biology. (He succeeded because he had few distractions. “There was DNA and no girls,” he quipped.) In his book, The Double Helix, Watson described the events leading up to the discovery as a tense race among rival labs, an account that many had suspected was overdramatized and that Watson said over dinner was influenced by Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited. Watson was particularly excited about the collection of letters that belonged to Crick and were published in Nature in September, because they confirm his account of heightened emotions. In one, Maurice Wilkins, who was at first a rival but later shared their Nobel Prize, writes of feeling weighed down by inter-lab politics: “We are really between forces that may grind all of us into little pieces.” He wrote the letter after Watson and Crick built their first, incorrect, DNA model. Instead of feeling embarrassed, the duo wrote to Wilkins: “Cheer up.”
The play Photograph 51 focuses on x-ray crystallographer Rosalind Franklin, who worked with Wilkins and died before the Nobel was awarded. Watson noted that the Wilkins character “talked too much,” that the Crick character lacked charisma and that the Franklin character had perhaps too much of it.
As the dinner was winding down and waiters were serving profiteroles with silver pitchers of chocolate sauce, Watson mentioned that he was writing what he called his first scientific paper in 40 years. We can cure a major scourge of humankind (he wouldn’t say which) with the drugs we have now. The manuscript has been rejected once, but he is trying again. Fear of failure has never stopped Watson.