The Only Wo­man in the Room

Be­fore she was a movie star and in­ven­tor, Hedy La­marr es­caped from a mar­riage to Aus­tria’s ‘Mer­chant of Death.’ A new novel imag­ines those years

Newsweek International - - CONTENTS - By MARY KAYE SCHILLING

Look­ing at them, you wouldn’t think Mil­eva Maric and ac­tress Hedy La­marr had much in com­mon. Maric, Al­bert Ein­stein’s first wife, was a re­served and bril­liant math­e­ma­ti­cian. La­marr was, at one time, known as “the most beau­ti­ful wo­man in the world,” cast as the ex­otic se­duc­tress op­po­site top male stars like Clark Gable dur­ing Hol­ly­wood’s Golden Age.

But Marie Bene­dict saw as many sim­i­lar­i­ties as dif­fer­ences. The com­mer­cial lit­i­ga­tor turned au­thor has writ­ten nov­els about each—2016’s The Other

Ein­stein and The Only Wo­man in the Room (Source­books Land­mark, Jan­uary 8)—and sees par­al­lels in their un­com­mon tenac­ity and will­ing­ness to buck norms, as well as a fate shared by so many women through­out his­tory: in­vis­i­bil­ity.

In writ­ing her nar­ra­tively con­nected, fic­tion­al­ized bi­ogra­phies, Bene­dict is not un­like an ar­chae­ol­o­gist dig­ging up clues to mo­ments of epiphany. For Maric, it was “an in­cred­i­ble rise from a back­wa­ter in 19th-cen­tury Siberia, where it was il­le­gal for girls to at­tend high school, to be­come one of the first women in a univer­sity physics pro­gram.” Soon af­ter mar­ry­ing Ein­stein, he in­tro­duced his the­ory of rel­a­tiv­ity, and Bene­dict is not alone in think­ing Maric de­serves some of the credit. For La­marr, it was a fre­quency-hop­ping weaponry sys­tem that ul­ti­mately led to cell­phone, Wi-fi and GPS tech­nol­ogy.

The 2018 doc­u­men­tary Bomb­shell show­cased La­marr’s ta­lent as an in­ven­tor. She was al­ready an in­ter­na­tional star in 1942 when she pa­tented what she called her “se­cret com­mu­ni­ca­tion sys­tem,” but Bene­dict was more in­ter­ested in the years be­fore, when the Aus­trian Jew was still in Vi­enna. “My books are al­most like ori­gin sto­ries,” says the au­thor, whose next book will be about Win­ston Churchill’s wife, Cle­men­tine. “Hedy the film star wasn’t in­vis­i­ble, of course. But the young Hed­wig Kiesler—no­body knew her.”

Kiesler was 18 when she be­gan act­ing; a scan­dalous (for the times) nude scene in the 1933 Czech film

Ec­stasy made her an in­stant sen­sa­tion. But when Fritz Mandl, one of Aus­tria’s rich­est men, pro­posed later in 1933, she ac­cepted. “Her life with Fritz was mind-bog­gling,” says Bene­dict. He was a no­to­ri­ous mu­ni­tions man­u­fac­turer—the “Mer­chant of Death”—with ties to Mus­solini and Hitler. At their var­i­ous homes and at Nazi con­fer­ences, the young Mrs. Mandl was privy to the Third Re­ich’s ma­jor play­ers, in­clud­ing sci­en­tists talk­ing about se­cret weapons. La­marr, al­ways in­ter­ested in build­ing things, used the meet­ings to de­velop her la­tent ap­ti­tude for ap­plied science.

But she soon tired of Mandl’s ob­ses­sive need to con­trol her, and in 1937 she flew her gilded coop, im­per­son­at­ing her maid to es­cape. She ended up in Lon­don, where MGM’S Louis B. Mayer of­fered the 22-yearold a con­tract and a new last name. As Bene­dict was writ­ing The Only

Wo­man in the Room, she was as­ton­ished at how lit­tle had changed. “I had writ­ten sev­eral scenes over six months when the Har­vey We­in­stein al­le­ga­tions sur­faced, which pre­cip­i­tated the #Metoo move­ment,” she says. “And those scenes—where she’s meet­ing Mayer and be­ing re­cruited into Hol­ly­wood? They could have been taken from a cur­rent head­line.”

La­marr was an op­por­tunist who “uti­lized her beauty as a tool,” says Bene­dict. “I don’t think she thought of her looks neg­a­tively, but she wished peo­ple would see be­yond that. In her life­time, I think that was im­pos­si­ble for her.”

And would it be pos­si­ble to­day? “One of the things I asked early read­ers was ‘Did it sur­prise you that Hedy La­marr was ca­pa­ble of such an in­ven­tion? And what does that say about neg­a­tive per­cep­tions of women that linger to­day?’ Hope­fully, that might stim­u­late some ques­tions and con­ver­sa­tions among read­ers, about be­ing hon­est about how we view our­selves and oth­ers.”

La­marr never cared for Hol­ly­wood life. “A per­fect night was at home, tinker­ing with her in­ven­tions,” says Bene­dict. “Hedy lived in a box—she couldn’t get out of it.” The ac­tress grew frus­trated by the arm-candy roles of­fered her, and even­tu­ally the parts dried up.

But The Only Wo­man in the Room isn’t the story of a movie star. “It’s a World War II story, an im­mi­gra­tion story and a pa­triot’s story,” says Bene­dict. “Her Jewish sur­vivor guilt com­pelled her to con­trib­ute to the war ef­fort af­ter she ar­rived in Amer­ica.”

La­marr saw the fre­quency-hop­ping sys­tem—her idea but co-in­vented with com­poser Ge­orge An­theil—as the true ex­pres­sion of who she was, says the au­thor. The Navy ul­ti­mately re­jected the patent for rea­sons never spelled out. It was a big im­prove­ment over the eas­ily jammed tor­pedo sys­tems the U.S. was us­ing but prob­a­bly too ad­vanced to im­ple­ment. The Navy and oth­ers would later re­pur­pose the tech­nol­ogy af­ter the patent ex­pired; in 1962, an up­dated ver­sion ap­peared on Navy ships.

La­marr died in 2000 and was posthu­mously in­ducted, with An­theil, into the Na­tional In­ven­tors Hall of Fame in 2014. “I write fic­tion, so this is my per­cep­tion,” says Bene­dict, “but I think the mo­ment her patent was re­jected was the be­gin­ning of the loss of her real self.”

“Hedy meet­ing Mayer and be­ing re­cruited into Hol­ly­wood could have been taken from a cur­rent head­line.”

READY FOR HER CLOSE-UP At left, La­marr in 1940. Next page, Mandl, left, and MGM co-founder Mayer, who gave the ac­tress a con­tract in 1937.

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