Marie Benedict, http://www.authormariebenedict.com/, was a 24-year-old corporate lawyer in NYC in the mid-1990s. As a result, Benedict was often the only woman in the room. Thus readers can understand the title of her most recent book, The Only Woman in the Room about Hedy Lamarr, bio-fiction.
The only woman in the room has a dual meaning to me. First, Hedy Lamarr would be the only woman in the room because of her beauty and presence. Second, she was often the only woman in the room of men because of her first husband’s business dealings. She was the ornament; little did Friedrich Mandl know of her superior intellect and her ability to remember conversations. Mandl was interested in possessing her because of her beauty.
Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler was born in Vienna, Austria-Hungary in 1914. Her parents were well-to-do; her father was a banker. Her mother, Gertrud Lichtwitz Kiesler, gave up a promising career as a concert pianist when she married Emil Kiesler, a banker. Hedy was their only child, doted upon by her father while her mother kept Hedy in check with her negative comments. As a result, Hedy felt a chasm between her and her mother.
Benedict begins the book with Hedy on stage starring as the nineteenth-century Bavarian empress Elizabeth. At the end of the performance, a parade of ushers starts toward the stage, all of the ushers holding bouquets of flowers. Hedy feels quite alarmed by the “grandiose gesture with its inappropriate, very public timing.” She cannot think who would be so unwise as to single her out in such a public way. She is not only alarmed, but also embarrassed. Hedy realizes too that the flowers are hothouse flowers, obviously expensive. Below is a picture of Empress Elizabeth.
When the audience sits down after a thunderous standing ovation, one man is left standing “in the center of the third row, the most prized seat in the theater.” He is staring at Hedy. She presumes the flowers are his ostentatious gift to her.
The card on the flowers let Hedy know they are from Friedrich Mandl, a wealthy munitions manufacturer. Mandl is heavy-handed and knows what he wants. He wants Hedy Kiesler, so he pursues her in this showy manner. He continues sending flowers, but after the first night, the flowers go direclty to fill Hedy’s dressing room. Mandl asks to take Hedy to dinner, but she does not answer him; she knows Mandl’s chauffer is waiting at the stage door, so she slips out another door.
Soon, Mandl sends a letter to Hedy’s parents asking for the opportunity to dine with their daughter. Reluctantly, Emil, Hedy’s father, tells Hedy that she must have dinner with Mandl. Emil fears the growing unrest in Europe and the strikes against Jews will be coming closer and closer to Austria. He knows that Mandl can protect Hedy and possibly her Jewish parents. Emil also fears the repercussions that Mandl could wield against him and his bank if Hedy refuses to dine with him. The family is in an intolerable position. And did I mention that Hedy is only 19 years old?
Hedy does have dinner with Mandl and then more dinners follow. Quite soon, he asks her to marry him. She is captivated by his charm and wealth; he treats her well. She finds herself attracted to him despite the age difference and the fact that he is not really a handsome man. She agrees to marry him, so he takes her and her mother to Paris to buy a wedding gown and other dresses. She finds a wedding gown she thinks is perfect, but he refuses it and chooses another one himself, one in black and white. Anything is lovely on Hedy, so she agrees to the dress.
Early in the book, Hedy reveals she has made a movie, Ecstasy, in which she is nude and plays a vividly realistic love scene. She regrets having made the movie even though at the time she thought the nudity and love scene fit the script. In returning to live theater, Hedy hopes to put Ecstasy behind her. She almost succeeds until one evening when she and Mandl are entertaining some high-powered business associates, Mandl decides to show Ecstasy over Hedy’s protests. Mandl does not know about the nude love scene.
When that scene comes on, Mandl is apoplectic and turns the projector off. From that moment on, Hedy is his prisoner. He has extra locks put on the doors and she has no access to keys. He allows her out only with him or only when he has advance notice that she will visit her parents or go shopping, but always chaperoned.
As readers can imagine, Hedy chafes at this imprisonment and her feelings for Mandl change. Not only does he keep her a prisoner, but his attitude toward her has changed. He regards her as his possession and rapes her, treating her savagely. Naturally, Hedy plots to escape from him. Her first attempt fails, mainly because the servants are spies and they betray her.
With her intellect, however, Hedy will not be denied. She plans more carefully, even hiring a young maid who, in certain lights, will look like Hedy. Before she can put the plans into effect, Mandl hosts a dinner to which Hedy is not invited, but she slips into the hallway and determines who some of the guests are; one of them is Hitler.
Hiding in the hallway, Hedy overhears a conversation between Hitler and Mandl when Hitler says, “I alone decide whether someone is Jewish. I have decided that you will be granted the title ‘Honorary Aryan,’ which means that whatever Semitic blood stains you bear have been washed clean. You are no longer a Jew. I feel certain that, without the besmirchment of that blood, you can, and indeed, have, fully adopted our faith in one Germanic country.”
Outraged that Mandl has sold out to Hitler, Hedy realizes she must set her plan into action. When Mandl is out of Austria on a business trip, Hedy drugs her young maid who resembles Hedy, grabs a hastily packed small bag with only a few of the gorgeous dresses she owns and a set of Cartier jewelry Mandl purchased in Paris as a surprise for Hedy on that wedding dress shopping trip.
Taking the maid’s car keys, to a car Hedy had purchased for the maid to use for shopping errands, and dressed in a maid’s uniform, Hedy grabs her bag and slips out the back of the house. She escapes to Paris and then to London and on to the US. Before leaving, she had visited her mother and begged her to go along, but her mother refused. By this time, Emil, Hedy’s beloved father, had died.
In Los Angeles, Hedy quickly finds success. In London, she meets Louis B. Mayer and his wife; they are also on the ship to the US together. Hedy negotiates a contract with Mayer, refusing his first lowball offer; not surprisingly, Mayer acquiesces to Hedy’s higher salary demands because he can see she will be a star and make him a great deal of money. Mayer says she must have a new name though because anything sounding Germanic would not be acceptable. Mrs. Mayer suggests Hedy Lamarr, so thus the name was chosen. Below is a publicity photo of Hedy Lamarr.
Hedy Lamarr quickly became a star in Hollywood, but she wanted more than the fame of being a movie star. She had overheard many conversations while married to Mandl about munitions and particularly about radio-controlled torpedoes and how the enemy could jam radio frequencies, thus throwing the torpedoes off course.
In Los Angeles, Hedy meets composer George Antheil and persuades him to join her in inventing a way to stop the enemy from jamming the radio signals. When he goes to Hedy’s home to work with her on the project, Antheil is surprised to see Hedy reading Radiodynamics: The Wireless Control of Torpedoesand Other Mechanisms by B. F. Miessner. He confesses, “I confess that I thought the place would be scattered with pots of makeup, jewelry, and gowns.” Instead, he finds Hedy has spread the table with notes she has been developing for the project.
Antheil and Lamarr DO develop a way to stop the enemy from jamming the radio-controlled torpedoes by making the frequency hop. They received a patent on frequency-hopping spread spectrum, US Patent 2,292,387 on 11 August 1942. They took the idea to the US Navy and they were rejected.
Hedy responds: “No matter the sexism that I knew well permeated the very fiber of my world, I couldn’t believe [the Navy Commander’s] words. These men were rejecting a system that would enable a plane or ship to steer a whole fleet of torpedoes against the enemy vessels with perfect accuracy, without any capacity on the enemy’s part to jam the necessary radio signals.” And why? Because Hedy Lamarr is a woman.
Only in the 1960s did the Navy incorporate the technology that Lamarr and Antheil had developed. However, Bluetooth technology uses a similar method, so many devices today rely on Lamarr and Antheil’s invention.
The Only Woman in the Room captivated my interest from the first page. Benedict starts each chapter with a date and place. That technique helps ground the story in time and space. Readers follow Hedy through that disastrous first marriage in Austria into to Hollywood and her ultimate success as a star. Hedy Lamarr, though, is much more than a pretty face. Her intellect knew no bounds.
Not only did she and Antheil receive a patent for their work on radio-hopping frequencies, she suggested to Howard Hughes that airplanes be streamlined instead of being made in a square formation so that they would have greater thrust and be more efficient.
Kirkus Reviews includes this statement about The Only Woman in the Room: “A captivating story of a complicated woman blazing new trails.” That is a good way to sum up the story of Hedy Lamarr.
Oct 14, 1939 Los Angeles CA: “My European friends and I assembled not to drink away our distress, but to share information. We’d learned that little of the truth was reported in the newspapers.”
Marie Benedict, a lawyer by education, has turned to full-time fiction writing. She published The Other Einstein about Mileva Maric, Albert Einstein’s first wife who was also a physicist. Her next book was Carnegie’s Maid about the woman “who may have spurred Andrew Carnegie toward philanthropy.”