Documentary explores radar innovator who helped change course of WWII
By LANA BELLAMY | The Times Herald-Record | Published: January 14, 2018
TUXEDO PARK, N.Y. (Tribune News Service) -- Documentarian Rob Rapley said that when he came across the story of reclusive Wall Street tycoon Alfred Loomis and the role he played in turning World War II in favor of the Allies, he was too fascinated with Loomis' character to resist his full story.
Rapley dove deep into Loomis' history and the scientific exploration he took on during his younger years that influenced him to get involved with the Allied Powers of the U.S., Great Britain, France and the former Soviet Union. Rapley's documentary, entitled "The Secret of Tuxedo Park," will air Tuesday on PBS.
Tucked away in Tuxedo Park, a gated village at the southern edge of Orange County, stands the famous Tower House mansion Loomis once owned. The mansion served as his laboratory and testing ground for radar innovations that helped turn the tide of the war. Loomis opened his lavish home to a research team of foreign refugee doctors and scientists, who also enjoyed the more-than-three-acres of rolling lawns and gardens, regular black-tie dinners parties and more brilliant minds than there was time to pick through them, as the documentary describes.
Rapley said the way Loomis welcomed brilliant scientists from around the world at a time when accepting refugees, particularly German Jews, was either illegal or looked down upon, invites comparisons to today's culture.
"The isolationism and the xenophobia that Loomis was fighting against in 1939 and in the months before the war, in the late 1930s, is very relevant," Rapley said in an interview last week.
"Life in the United States was enriched immeasurably by the refugees we welcomed from Nazi Germany ... It (the documentary) shows how much we do gain from not shutting the world out, and those refugee scientists helped save the world. If we had refused them entry, as we do now, that would never have happened."
The hour-long film starts from the ground up: showing rare footage and photos of Loomis as a child, when he first became interested in science. It then brings viewers into his adult life, when he worked in finance on Wall Street, but yearned to continue growing in the fields of research and innovation. The film emphasizes how Loomis' time in the military revealed to him the opportunity to help the greater good with his scientific experiments and inventions.
Rapley said getting ahold of video and photos of Loomis was especially challenging for him and his crew.
"He shunned publicity so much to the point he didn't like having his picture taken, and we needed to illustrate this film," Rapley explained. "(Archivist) Mattie Akers, who was just terrific, managed to dig these pictures up one at a time from the most remote archives, collections and personal collections. When you watch the movie, you wouldn't know there would have been a big problem in that direction."
Near the end of the war, when Loomis hit a temporary block in his research projects, he started disassembling his lab. Because of the secretive nature of his projects, coupled with his reclusive personality, Rapley said Loomis effectively turned his back on the world and kept cameras and outsiders at bay.
Loomis' granddaughter, Jacqueline Quillen, said Loomis wasn't as stony around his family as he appeared in public.
"He was really a very warm grandfather," she said. "And I remember he was always very interested in what we were doing. I pursued science, (as did my) older brother, at Harvard. He liked to have intelligent conversations, whether you were young or old, as long as you were at least moderately intelligent."
At one point in the film, family members discussed Loomis' affinity for chess and how he would mercilessly defeat his opponents in just a handful of moves.
"It's all true, what they say, that he could beat five people with his eyes closed from another room," Quillen said.
Rapley said the most important story in the life of Loomis is that he not only played an "outsized" role in the development of radar technology, but radar itself played an outsized role in the war.
"This heightened the impact of this character that nobody knew about and who played a central role in the Allied victory," Rapley said. "It's always nice to tell stories that are unfamiliar."
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