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THE ONLY WOMAN IN THE ROOM

If Hedy [Lamarr]’s society had viewed her not simply as a blindingly beautiful creature, but as a human being with a sharp mind capable of significant contributions, they might have learned that her interior life was more interesting and fruitful than her exterior. – Author, Marie Benedict

Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler  was born on November 9, 1914, into an upper-crust Jewish family in Vienna, Austria. Her father, Emil, a successful banker, was frequently absent on business none-the-less he spoiled Hedy when he was home. He encouraged her education and her love of the arts. Her mother was caustic and critical of her father’s attentions and left Hedy to the care of tutors and nannies.

Hedwig was a very smart and lonely child. She found a way to mask her loneliness by creating alternate worlds expressed in little plays where she entertained her dolls. A childish habit that eventually lead to her internationally renowned acting career.

Europe,1933.
While a malevolence festered in Germany, on the stage in Vienna, Austria, Hedy, now a 19-year-old stunning beauty, had moved from dolls to become a well-known stage actress. In the audience at one of her performances was Friedrich (Fritz) Mandl, a shady Austrian arms dealer, known as the “Merchant of Death.” Mandl decided a stunning young wife accompanying him to lavish political dinners would be an advantage.  He possessively pursued her. Her parents, sensing the danger of displeasing this distasteful older suitor, advised her to marry him – ending her career as an actress. If rumors were true about the dangers for Jews in Europe, he might prove her family’s savior. Or so they thought.

Her marriage with Fritz began as a fairy tale but swiftly transitioned into a nightmare as her husband became obsessive, abusive, and controlling. Trapped into this bed of isolation and cruelty as her nation struggled to survive annexation by the Nazis, Hedy found she could use her beauty as a mask.

Behind the quiet bejeweled exterior, an active mind was engaged in learning secrets of the coming Anschluss and the annexation of Austria. It never occurred to her husband’s loyal servants or the powerful political figures, that this gorgeous woman sitting like a potted plant by her husband’s side, actually understood everything they discussed openly in front of her. Smiling demurely, wearing her mask of vapid airhead, she learned of weaknesses in the weapons of war sold by her husband and the plans for removing the Jews from society.

As Nazi troops gathered on Austria’s border, Hedy knew it was time to play her greatest performance. Using her contacts in the entertainment industry, she disguised herself and escaped her husband and the Nazis by emigrating to the United States – taking with her Nazi secrets. Unsure what to do with this knowledge.

In October, 1937, Hedy Kiesler Mandl stepped off a train in Hollywood as Hedy Lamarr. Once more, relying on her well-honed skills as an actress, she enchants Louis B. Mayer from MGM Studios. She quickly becomes an internationally loved movie star. And once again, she finds herself controlled by men.

A chance meeting with the  avant-garde composer and pianist, George Antheil, led to Hedy making a friend who could look beyond the pretty face. Hedy, having spent hours in her husband’s personal library had amassed specific knowledge of torpedoes technology. Still struggling with what to do with her knowledge of the weaknesses in Nazi weaponry, she enlists Antheil’s help in creating technology that would improve the American Navy’s accuracy in torpedo accuracy.

They are successful. The patent office approves her invention and forwards the information to the Navy – who promptly refuses to take seriously anything invented by a woman. Yet, she had the last laugh. You can thank, Hedy Lamarr, for your cell phone. Her invention was instrumental in its development.

I am glad I read the book. It wasn’t a perfectly crafted book. The character development was weak. Some instances were covered poorly; while in America Hedy was approached to help orphaned European children by adopting. We see her reach for an application but we don’t learn until later that she did adopt a child.

Personally, I feel that the book would have been better if it was less a recitation and more invested in Hedy herself. Sadly, it came across to me as though we never really got behind Hedy’s mask. Perhaps that was intentional? It’s a good book. Just not great.

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