When the editor of Harvard University Press acquired Watson’s memoir, Crick and Wilkins both campaigned to block its publication. In the spring of 1967, Crick composed a furious six-page letter addressed to Watson, the editor of the press, the president of Harvard, and others, writing, “Should you persist in regarding your book as history I should add that it shows such a naive and egotistical view of the subject as to be scarcely credible.” He said Watson had omitted “any intellectual content….Your view of history is that found in the lower class of women’s magazines.” In the end, Harvard rejected the manuscript, which Watson promptly gave to a commercial publisher. On February 15, 1968, the story hit the front page of The New York Times, under the headline, “A Book That Couldn’t Go to Harvard.”
The Double Helix was published on February 26, 1968, 15 years after Watson’s eureka moment, almost to the day. As a high school freshman, I thought the story was purely terrific. Watson was smart and talented, he knew what his elders didn’t, and he won the prize. I’m sure even his trouble with girls seemed sympathetic. He holds onto the box of chocolates at the party? Sure. He likes to imagine himself becoming famous? Of course. He has to fight to keep Hedy Lamarr out of his mind while he studies? Naturally.
Long ago, unfortunately, I lost my copy of whatever it was I wrote for The Laureate. But many of the other reviews that appeared that year have been collected and preserved in the Norton Critical Edition of The Double Helix. I find it interesting now to see what reviewers were thinking on higher floors in the towers of academia. Most of them were outraged. The molecular biologist Robert L. Sinsheimer found Watson’s worldview “unbelievably mean in spirit, filled with the distorted and cruel perceptions of childish insecurity.” The evolutionary biologist Richard S. Lewontin called the book a paradox. “The Nobel Prize has acquired virtue by being awarded to virtuous men by virtuous men. Its total value is in its image. Yet, having craved and acquired it, Watson devalues it, debasing the currency of his own life.”
Not every reviewer was angry. The physicist who reviewed the book for Life wrote that Watson’s book “should kill the myth that great science must be cold, impersonal or detached.” On the other hand, the physiologist who reviewed the book for Scientific American declared that Watson had proven himself to be just that: “His characteristics are essentially cold logic, hypersensitivity and lack of affectivity.” He added, “May God protect us from such friends.”
Both of those reviews mentioned the scene in the Alps, and both quoted Seeds’s line, “How is Honest Jim?” One reviewer concluded, “How’s Honest Jim? Fine, just fine.” The other reviewer ended cuttingly: “Yes, how is Honest Jim?”
The book made Watson a celebrity. It spent 18 weeks on The New York Times best-seller list; it was translated into at least 17 languages. Watson left Harvard to direct the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, on Long Island, and turned it into one of the world’s great research centers. Meanwhile, many of the people he’d offended back in Cambridge were mad all over again.
Crick had come off pretty well in the book, though he didn’t think so himself. He hated the way Watson had framed their story as a sordid race for fame and glory, and spent years plotting revenge with his lab mates, dreaming up titles and zingers for his own memoir. He thought he might call it The Loose Screw, and joked about how he might start his Chapter One, “Jim was always clumsy with his hands. One had only to see him peel an orange….” (When Crick finally got around to writing his own memoir, What Mad Pursuit, he chose a quiet, restrained beginning. You realize how much you love a good story like Watson’s when you read Crick’s doggedly plain first line: “The main purpose of this book is to set out some of my experiences before and during the classical period of molecular biology….”)