Usually when I add a book title to my “To Read” list I include a bit of description of what it’s about for when it works its way to the top of the list. I’d forgotten to do that when I recorded The Only Woman in the Room by Marie Benedict but the title did remind me of all my years working in construction. As Corporate Marketing Manager for EllisDon Corporation, I was very often the only woman in the room when I attended meetings in a male dominated business. While the book turned out to have nothing to do with construction it did have quite a lot to do with business, in a round-about way. It wasn’t until I reached the half-way point in the book that I realized why I’d flagged The Only Woman in the Room to read.
The story begins in 1933 with a beautiful young stage actress named Hedwig Kiesler in Vienna, Austria being pursued by an older admirer. His name is Friedrich (Fritz) Mandl and as a manufacturer and distributor of guns and armaments, he’s one of the richest men in Austria. Using all his skills as a master manipulator, he courts and eventually convinces teenaged Hedy to marry him. Although both are of Jewish ancestry, he insists they convert to Christianity and marry in a Catholic cathedral. Considering the threatening political climate for Jews at the time, it seems like a reasonable decision. Mandl is a strong nationalist and friend of Mussolini who supports Austrian independence. Then, as the political climate changes and Hitler allies with Mussolini, Mandl switches loyalties and supports a fascist Austria with shady ties to Nazi Germany.
Hedy’s marriage to Mandl soon deteriorates from being his adored bride to being a captive bird in a gilded cage. He monitors her every move, dictates what she will wear and who she associates with. Before long, he locks her in his castle and restricts her life to the point she plots her escape. By disguising herself as her lady’s maid and making a run for England, she feels she will be out of his reach. There, she meets American movie mogul Louis B. Mayer and his wife who are recruiting emigré Jewish movie and theatre professionals who are threatened by the Nazis. Hedy travels to America on the same ship as the Mayers and is hired as a contract actress.
As they were trying to come up with a less German-sounding last name for Hedy, the penny dropped and I realized why I wanted to read this book. BAM! This was a fictional account, written in the first person, of the life of Hedy Lamarr. That was the reason I’d flagged this book. And apart from her famous beauty and career in the movie industry, she was a very smart lady. Sadly, she suffered the fate of many women in the past whose professional accomplishments were overlooked simply because they were women.
When she was the trophy wife of Fritz Mandl back in Austria, she was present at many meetings, dinner parties and cocktail discussions about defense systems, armaments and military strategy with senior military leaders. She absorbed the knowledge and was able to put it use later. After Hedy Lamarr escaped Austria just before the start of World War II, she always felt guilty about not being able to forewarn others of the impending danger associated with Austria’s alliance with Nazi Germany.
Early in the war, German U-boats sank a mercy ship loaded with orphan children headed for America. This cruel act profoundly affected Hedy and she resolved to use her knowledge against Germany. With the assistance of composer George Antheil, she analysed the problem of allied torpedoes missing their targets and together they developed a “synchronized alternating radio frequency device” that prevented the Germans from jamming Allied torpedo radio signals, throwing torpedoes off target. In order to get the navy to use her new invention she had to get it patented and tested, which they eventually accomplished. Despite the obvious benefits of the new torpedo guidance system the navy discounted and turned down her invention. To her great shock and horror, their response was “Stick to your films. We think you’d be better able to assist by selling war bonds than building torpedoes”. Using the author’s incredulous voice as Lamarr she writes “How could the military allow their soldiers and sailors to lose on the seas—to be killed in vast numbers—because they wouldn’t use a weapon system designed by a woman?”. Sound like a familiar refrain?
Many years ago, in the sixties, I remember a supervisor at Bell Canada telling me something similar when I submitted a list of suggested improvements in efficiency in the Cable Assignment Department where I worked at the time. He waved the piece of paper in my face and said “Who do you think you are? There are men in this department who are getting paid a lot more money than you to come up with solutions to these problems” and he dropped my list in the waste basket. I can still remember that supervisor’s name and feel my blood pressure rise when I think of it. I know how Hedy Lamarr felt. Ironically and as vindication, her torpedo technology was eventually adopted by the navy in the 1950s and was ultimately part of the technology that was further developed to become the cell phones, WiFi and sophisticated technology we use today. Take that mister misogynistic narrow-minded navy man!
The Only Woman in the Room focuses on Lamarr’s early life and war efforts rather than her film career which is already well documented. There are some inaccuracies and factual omissions that are inherent in historical fiction, particularly when taking the liberty of writing in the first person. At only 272 pages in hard copy, the book was a fast read and stopped at her second husband; she ultimately had six husbands and many lovers. There’s conjecture about the paternity of her adopted son which is not addressed in the book. I did enjoy it though and only wish the author had written a couple hundred more pages. I’d rate it 7 out 10.
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