“The Only Woman in the Room,” by Marie Benedict, is a fascinating story of Hedy Lamarr, most famous for being a 1940s movie star. Because of recent publications and documentaries, many people know now that Lamarr also was an inventor of the scientific process of “frequency hopping” which was the basis for inventions involving radio and satellite signals used for cell phones and GPS.
Her invention was designed originally for the purpose of jamming signals guiding torpedoes. She presented the final plans to the United States Navy in the late 1940s.
Lamarr was born and raised in Austria, of Jewish heritage, and was a victim of her times. Just 19 in 1934, Lamarr was persuaded by her parents to marry her suitor, Friedrich Mandl, a much older man. They felt her life would be spared if Germany annexed Austria and Hitler invaded the country.
Mandl made weapons used by the German army prior to and during World War II. Her parents thought his wealth and connections would provide security for them and their daughter. Eastern Europe was already feeling the devastating effects of anti-Semitism.
Mandl was abusive, but his extreme wealth introduced Hedy to a life of complete luxury. She was frustrated by not being allowed to act or work at all after her marriage. Mandl made it clear that her sole purpose was to impress his potential clients with her charm and beauty. Those clients included Mussolini and Hitler, acquaintances of Mandl because of their business connections.
When Lamarr realized the strategies that were being put in place to annihilate Jews, she made plans to escape. During one attempt, when she was caught by her husband, she was beaten and locked in a room for months, able to leave only for errands sanctioned by him. She finally managed to flee to London. Her mother would not go with her, and her father had died so she was literally alone in the world.
In London, she met Louis B. Mayer, head of MGM studios and already powerful. Mayer took Lamarr to Hollywood where she became one of his starlets. Her beauty ensured favoritism with movie audiences. Her wealth increased. Her German accent lessened.
Lamarr, along with her peers including Judy Garland, became a victim of Mayer and other studio heads drugging their stars to stay energized for long hours on film sets. (Lamarr endured complications from this abuse for the rest of her life.)
She also suffered from what we now know as survivor’s guilt. She was aware that she was able to flee Hitler’s carnage because of her intuition and wealth. She knew millions of humans were being exterminated, but in the 1930s, there was little American press coverage.
Lamarr learned from Mayer to keep her Jewish heritage a secret. However, during her second marriage, she adopted a baby boy who was a Jewish refugee from abroad. His parents had been killed by Hitler’s men or were in the camps. She admitted that this adoption made her feel as though she was doing something to help those who had been left behind to die.
Lamarr always had a love for science and engineering, and when she realized that American submarines were being decimated by enemy torpedoes she determined to find a way to stop this destruction. Ingeniously, she worked with friend and composer, George Anthiel, in her own home, to develop radio technology that would jam enemy torpedo signals. (She chose this composer because of his unique piano compositions; she admired his ability to “think outside the box” and knew his mind worked in a different way, as did hers, which allowed for creative brainstorming and mathematical developments. He, too, had no official scientific education.)
The two earned a patent on their discovery, but the Navy stored it in a Top Secret file where it remained for years. It wasn’t until the late 1990s that Lamarr discovered another inventor used their blueprints to begin work on projects that lead to cell phone technology, GPS for satellites, cars, and more. By then, patent laws made it impossible for Lamarr to recoup any payment. She did gain recognition for her invention a few years before she died in 2000.
Lamarr was a brilliant woman. She designed a ski resort area for Aspen before Aspen became a millionaire’s retreat. She negotiated higher salaries for female movie stars. Following a presentation that explained the use of her invention, she was told by Navy commanders to use her beauty to raise war bonds. She was very patriotic, and she raised more money than any other person for the war effort.
After six unhappy marriages, and three children, Lamarr died as a poor recluse. Little doubt exists that had she lived in contemporary times, she would have achieved an education and would have been a formidable presence in the world of science.
Marie Benedict has written two other books about women who have been slighted by history: Mileva Einstein in “The Other Einstein,” and Clara Kelly, in “Carnegie’s Maid.”
Benedict’s first-person narratives take much poetic license with imagined conversations and internal musings of the characters. However, the history behind the stories are factual, and her books will lead readers toward an understanding of the times delineated in the novels. Her books provide much overdue acknowledgement of powerful women who have been ignored for too many years.