From the late 1930s to the early 1950s, Hollywood shone high-intensity celebrity light upon actress Hedy Lamarr. For good reason. Movie executives and moviegoers alike considered her to be one of the most beautiful women in the world. That she had arrived in Hollywood from Europe, spoke with an exotic accent and was so deeply captivating on camera added to the public’s obsessive attraction to her.
It has only been in the past decade, however, that new light has shone upon Hedy Kiesler, the woman inside the persona of Hedy Lamarr. Once Hedy Lamarr removed her makeup and cast aside her costumes from the day’s film-making, Hedy Kiesler emerged. Kiesler was an imaginative and creative scientist, inventor, explorer in the world of ideas and proposer of all manner of scientific possibilities.
Among the most noteworthy recent works about Lamarr are Hedy’s Folly: The Life and Breakthrough Inventions of Hedy Lamarr, the Most Beautiful Woman in the World by Richard Rhodes; Beautiful: The Life of Hedy Lamarr by Stephen Michael Shearer and the documentary Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story, directed by Alexandra Dean.
To the bookshelf of non-fiction books and documentaries about Lamarr, one can now add a novel by Marie Benedict, The Only Woman in the Room.
Lamarr is an apt subject for Benedict. This is Benedict’s third historical novel about women of considerable but unacknowledged character and talent who have been overlooked by history’s recorders. She has previously written about Mileva Maric, Albert Einstein’s wife (The Other Einstein), and Clara Kelley, a lady’s maid in the household of Andrew Carnegie (Carnegie’s Maid). Soon to be released is Darling Clementine, based on the life of Clementine Churchill, the English prime minister’s wife.
The Only Woman in the Room covers a span of nine years, from 1933-1942. It begins in the aftermath of Hedy’s controversial film debut in an avante-garde movie, Ecstasy. Hedy, still a teenager at this point, is receiving wide acclaim for her performance on the Viennese stage. The book ends with Hedy at the zenith of her film career in Hollywood helping the U.S. war effort.
Benedict tells Hedy’s story as a form of memoir. The narrative voice is always Hedy’s, relating the events and incidents unfolding around her. She shares with the reader unfiltered feelings and emotions and unabashed depictions of behaviours, including her own.
Hedy Lamarr was born Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler in Vienna at the outset of the First World War, an only child in a middle-class Jewish home. Her parents were well established in the Jewish community, although there were no outward expressions of their Judaism. With growing renown as a successful stage actress, Hedy is intensely courted by a man nearly twice her age. Fritz Mandl is widely known in Austria for his philandering, his business success and his political connections. He is an arms manufacturer who willingly sells his products to individuals and governments of any reputation. The fascist leader of Italy, Benito Mussolini, is one of his customers and one of his friends. Soon Nazi Germany will also buy his merchandise. In government and commercial circles, Mandl is referred to as “the merchant of death.”
Hedy and Fritz marry. But he is a brutal, possessive husband. He literally imprisons Hedy in their three palatial homes. To the outside world and to his frequent business, military and political guests, the couple lives a lifestyle of elegance and luxury. When the guests leave and the curtains are drawn, Hedy is held captive in a “gilded cage.”
She escapes and reaches London in 1937 and then, with the assistance of movie mogul Louis Mayer, she begins a new career in Hollywood, renamed Hedy Lamarr. Besides her talent, Hedy also brings with her bits of secret information she had overheard in her husband’s business discussions in their home regarding some of Germany’s war plans.
That she did not act immediately or more directly upon that information haunts Hedy throughout the story. The feelings of guilt become the driving force for Hedy’s subsequent dedication to participating in the war effort to vanquish the Nazis.
This participation includes trying to invent scientific mechanisms to thwart the Nazis. In Hollywood, Hedy actually had an inventor’s laboratory attached to her home. Benedict focuses only on the invention for which Hedy subsequently became most famous: a frequency-hopping radio signal known as spread-spectrum technology that was intended to protect Allied torpedoes from jamming by Nazi forces.
Hedy and her co-inventor George Antheil patented their technology. But as Benedict tells the reader, the U.S. military ignored the patent, the vast potential of the concept and the actual mechanism that Hedy and Antheil invented. After the patent expired, the military and private corporations took up the idea and developed it. Hedy never received any compensation.
Benedict notes that “today, aspects of (Hedy’s) frequency-hopping idea can be found in the wireless devices we use every day…. Whether Hedy’s work in spread-spectrum technology was purposefully disregarded or unconsciously forgotten, it appears that imbedded in that oversight were misconceptions about her abilities – about all women, really.” Hedy Kiesler/Lamarr’s abilities were the perfect refutation of such inexcusable ignorance. The Only Woman in the Room is Benedict’s laudable effort to help change these attitudes.
Through Hedy’s voice, the reader learns of the abject breakdown of tolerant, civil society in Austria in the years prior to the war. In addition, Benedict exposes the silence in mainstream American society regarding any news of the barbarities being perpetrated in Nazi-controlled areas. She also poignantly depicts the anxieties and fears of the European-émigré network in Hollywood at that time, frantically exchanging scraps of news of the old country.
Despite Hedy’s successful relocation to America, Benedict pointedly lets the reader know that the attendant Hollywood fame brought only fragmented happiness and peace to Hedy. “To everyone else, I was Hedy Lamarr, only a beautiful face and lissome body. I was never Hedy Kiesler, aspiring inventor, curious thinker and Jew. Never the self I really was underneath the many roles I’d played on – and off – the screen.”
The Only Woman in the Room successfully takes us behind the screen of the glamorous, dazzling Hedy Lamarr and introduces us to the driven, determined, brilliant Hedy Kiesler.