Hedy's Folly : The Life and Breakthrough Inventions of Hedy Lamarr, the Most Beautiful Woman in the World
What do Hedy Lamarr, avant-garde composer George Antheil, and your cell phone have in common? The answer is spread-spectrum radio: a revolutionary inven?tion based on the rapid switching of communications sig?nals among a spread of different frequencies. Without this technology, we would not have the digital comforts that we take for granted today.
Only a writer of Richard Rhodes's caliber could do justice to this remarkable story. Unhappily married to a Nazi arms dealer, Lamarr fled to America at the start of World War II; she brought with her not only her theatrical talent but also a gift for technical innovation. An introduction to Antheil at a Hollywood dinner table culminated in a U.S. patent for a jam- proof radio guidance system for torpedoes--the unlikely duo's gift to the U.S. war effort.
What other book brings together 1920s Paris, player pianos, Nazi weaponry, and digital wireless into one satisfying whole? In its juxtaposition of Hollywood glamour with the reality of a brutal war, Hedy's Folly is a riveting book about unlikely amateur inventors collaborating to change the world.
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November 29, 2011
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Excerpt from Hedy's Folly by Richard Rhodes
One: A Charming Austrian Girl
She was Viennese, not yet seventeen in the spring of 1931 but already a professional actress, in rehearsal for a play. Hedwig Kiesler (pronounced HAYD-vig KEES-lur)-Hedy-had won a small role in the Berlin incarnation of The Weaker Sex, which the celebrated Austrian impresario Max Reinhardt was directing. When Reinhardt restaged the play in Vienna that spring, she had single-mindedly quit the Berlin cast and followed him home. "Are you here too, Fraulein Kiesler?" he'd asked her in surprise. "Are you living with your family? All right, you can be the Americaness again." Edouard Bourdet's play was a comedy with a pair of boorish stage Americans as foils. Reinhardt had assigned the actor George Weller, Hedy's husband in the play, to teach her some American songs. "I took this as a mandate to make an American out of Hedy Kiesler," the young Bostonian recalled.
She was eager to be transformed. "Hedy had only the vaguest ideas of what the United States were," Weller discovered, "except that they were grouped around Hollywood." She idolized the California tennis star Helen Wills, "Little Miss Poker Face." Wills, focused and unexpressive on the courts, all business, was the world's number-one- ranked female tennis player, midway that year through an unbroken run of 180 victories. "Watch me look like Helen Wills," Hedy teased Weller when they rehearsed together. "Du, schau' mal, hier bin ich Kleine Poker Face." Her lively young face would grow calm, Weller remembered, "expressionless and assured, her brow would clarify, and for a moment she would really become an American woman." Commandeering the property room, Hedy and George practiced singing "Yes, Sir, That's My Baby," "Yes, We Have No Bananas," and an Austrian favorite, Al Jolson's lugubrious "Sonny Boy." It melted the matrons at matinees, many of them mothers with sons lost in the long slaughter of the Great War.
An only child, entertaining herself with her dolls, Hedy had dreamed since she was a little girl of becoming a movie star. "I had a little stage under my father's desk," she recalled, "where I would act out fairy tales. When someone would come into the room they would think my mind was really wandering. I was always talking to myself." Her tall, handsome, vigorous father, Emil, an athlete as well as a successful banker, told her stories, read her books, and took her on walks in their tree-lined neighborhood and in the great park of the Wienerwald- the Vienna Woods. Wherever they went together, he explained to her how everything worked-"from printing presses to streetcars," she said. Her father's enthusiasm for technology links her lifelong interest in invention with cherished memories of her favorite parent.
Hedy's mother was stricter, concerned that such a pretty, vivacious child would grow up spoiled unless she heard criticism as well as compliments. "She has always had everything," Trude Kiesler said. "She never had to long for anything. First there was her father who, of course, adored her, and was very proud of her. He gave her all the comforts, pretty clothes, a fine home, parties, schools, sports. He looked always for the sports for her, and music." Trude had trained as a concert pianist before motherhood intervened. In turn, she supervised Hedy's lessons on the grand piano in the Kiesler salon. "I underemphasized praise and flattery," Trude determined, "hoping in this way to balance the scales for her."
The Kieslers were assimilated Jews, Trude from Budapest, Emil from Lemberg (now known as Lviv). Hedy kept her Jewish heritage secret throughout her life; her son and daughter only learned of it after her death. In prewar Vienna it had hardly mattered. The Viennese population's mixed legacy of Slavic, Germanic, Hungarian, Italian, and Jewish traditions was one of its glories, one reason for the city's unique creative ferment in the first decades of the new century. Sigmund Freud's daughters attended the same girls' middle school that Hedy later did, and after the war Anna Freud taught there.
Vienna is an old city, with ruins dating to Roman times. The emperor Marcus Aurelius wrote his third book of Meditations on that rough Germanic frontier. Set in the broad Danube valley at the eastern terminus of the Alps, it grew across the centuries through great turmoil to become the capital of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. A wide ring boulevard supplanted its medieval wall after 1857, opening it up to its suburbs. By 1910, two million ethnically diverse Viennese, reading newspapers published in ten languages, took their leisure in sparkling coffeehouses, and the beneficence of the emperor Franz Josef had filled the city's twenty-one districts with parks, statues, and palaces. To the Viennese writer Stefan Zweig, his birthplace was "a city of a thousand attractions, a city with theatres, museums, bookstores, universities, music, a city in which each day brought new surprises."