She was hailed as the “Most Beautiful Woman In the World” and commanded a steep salary from MGM, but her value had nothing to do with the silver screen.
Hedy Lamarr lived many lives outside of Hollywood that are explored in "The Only Woman in the Room" by Marie Benedict.
Benedict will be at the Savannah Book Festival at 4 p.m. at Lutheran Church Sanctuary.
Benedict chose to write the story as a novel, rather than a straight biography. “When you are excavating these stories,” she says, “there is a limit to the material that’s available. I’m committed to deep research, and I found the anchors, but we can’t know all the finer points, and I want to be able to tell a fuller story.”
Benedict begins with a young Lamarr on stage in Vienna being wooed by a man twice her age. With a Jewish background and rising tensions in Europe, she marries the politically-connected arms dealer Fritz Mandl in hopes it will keep her safe. Nothing more than a trophy wife to Mandl, she plays the part of glamorous hostess while listening in on high-level meetings about the coming political storm.
“She was really at the epicenter of the pre-WWII era. I wanted to show Hedy’s history in the context of her environment.”
Lamarr disguised herself as a maid and escaped to London where she boarded a ship headed to America. She chose the ship because Louis B. Mayer would be traveling on it, as well. She negotiated a seven-year contract at four times the going rate and began a new life in Hollywood. But as Benedict suggests, she was unfulfilled.
“I love finding the ‘ah-ha’ moment for inventors. She wanted to create something useful. She met avant-garde composer George Antheil at a party and he became her inventing partner.”
Their invention randomized radio frequencies, so they couldn’t be jammed by the enemy. Despite receiving a patent, the U.S. Navy rejected their invention (years later, after the copyright protection ran out, they would implement the technology). The idea is now the basis for Bluetooth and Wi-Fi.
“We walk around with a piece of her work all day. Her work was not only useful then, but it’s so long-lasting.”
Benedict hopes her work reminds readers to take another look. “I want people to not just re-evaluate the past, but I hope they will think about the present. This idea that a woman invented Wi-Fi — why is that surprising to us? I hope these stories will help us realize there are Hedy Lamarrs out there today and their work is important.”