It’s a new year, so that means new ambitions, and I’ve resolved to go back to the library book discussion group! I got away from it last year after schedule conflicts and being sick, but with my daughter being in school, I can always hit the Wednesday afternoon group if I have a schedule conflict with the Thursday night group. This month’s selection was The Only Woman in the Room by Marie Benedict (Sourcebooks Landmark, 2019), a fictionalized account of the life of Hedy Lamarr, the Austrian-American actress and inventor of a radio frequency-hopping system for torpedoes. And because of her inventions, which were eventually used by the Navy and which formed the basis of today’s wi-fi, I’m counting this as PopSugar’s 2020 Reading Challenge prompt for a book about or by a woman in STEM.
The novel covers Hedy’s life from about age nineteen, during the height of her Austrian stage career and just as she was beginning her courtship with Friedrich Mandl, an arms dealer and one of the richest and most powerful men in Austria, through the middle of the Second World War. Even before their marriage, red flags abound, and Mandl quickly turns out to be violent, abusive, and controlling, even going so far as to lock her in their ostentatious home. Hedy uses her intellect to gather intel from various visiting guests, occasionally earning Mandl’s favor, but it’s never enough to change him into the husband she’d hoped he would be. During her house arrest, she learns as much as she can about munitions and radio technology, feeding the insatiable curiosity she developed as a child listening to her father explain the world.
Her flight from the encroaching Germans and her marriage lead to her eventual move to the US, where her film career takes off. Desperate to help the Jews of Europe during this dark time, she works with a musician friend to invent a better torpedo system, but Hedy’s pretty face and the intense sexism of the time lead to nothing but rejection and dismissal.
Hedy Lamarr’s story is one of both triumph and tragedy, and both are shown in Ms. Benedict’s book, though her portrayal of Lamarr’s life ends during World War II. The chapters are fairly short, which makes this an easy read, but I really wish it had gone into more detail and shown more depth. There’s so much to fit in here that the story occasionally feels rushed and devoid of emotion, and there’s so much of Lamarr’s life that she didn’t cover. Her studies and thirst for knowledge are mentioned only incidentally and feel a bit glossed over. During her later life, a period not covered by the book, Lamarr had multiple marriages (only two are covered here; she had six total) and had an estranged relationship with her children (the parentage of one seems to be a controversy, which also isn’t mentioned here and which I was surprised to learn about in further research). A botched plastic surgery led to her becoming a recluse, and she never really gained the recognition for her intellect that she so badly craved.
What the book does cover, however, albeit it a little more blandly than I think deserves, was her shockingly abusive marriage to Friedrich Mandl (obvious content warnings exist for this, including several on-page rape scenes, though none of them are descriptive). Half the book is devoted to her imprisonment at his hands, and it’s a sad, depressing tale, though her resilience is admirable. Mandl is a whole sack of trash, however, switching loyalties based on who makes him the most money and being hideously controlling, jealous, and abusive to his wife. Her mother is no help either, averting her eyes and citing ‘wifely duties’ whenever Hedy shows up for a visit at home covered in bruises.
This book brought to mind a library book discussion group pick from last year, Circling the Sun by Paula Mcclain. Hedy Lamarr and Beryl Markham had a lot of similarities: multiple marriages, estrangement from their children, tense (or nonexistent) relationships with their parents, authorship controversies surrounding books each had written. I’m wondering if this selection was on purpose, in light of our group having read this last year, and I’m really looking forward to the discussion on this particular point.
While I enjoyed this book for giving me a glimpse into Hedy Lamarr’s life, I wish it had gone into greater detail and covered more of her life. What a fascinating, tragic woman.