The Only Woman in the Room by Marie Benedict

I feel the need to preface this review with two personal facts. The first is that I love Marie Benedict. I have read everything she has ever written and am eagerly awaiting the release of Lady Clementine. The second is that I love Hedy Lamarr, she lived an incredible life. She is a role model for past, present, and future young women.

Now, putting those two loves together was not as perfect as one would’ve hoped. Lamarr’s life was drastically reduced and downplayed by Benedict. With the patriarchy of the early twentieth century still at large for burying women’s contributions to the world, we should pay extra attention to those buds that are able to push through the years of soil.

Hedy Lamarr, born Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler, was an Austrian actress in the twenties and thirties. She grew to some notoriety, infamy really, with a sexually suggestive scene—where the camera pans to her face when she is presumably pleasuring herself—in the movie Ecstasy (1933). Although her reputation was slightly injured by the movie, Lamarr was not without stage work.

Returning to the theatre not only healed her wounded career, but led her to Friedrich Mandl. Mandl was powerful and wealthy. He may have courted Lamarr, but really any woman in Austria was subject to his affections if he so chose. When they married a short while later, Mandl attempted to erase Lamarr’s Jewish ancestry, her risqué past, forced her to retire, and used her solely as an accessory to grow his social standing with Hitler. It was a difficult relationship to say the least. Only compounded by the abuse that she endured as their relationship went on.

One day, in 1937, Lamarr prepared herself for another of her husband’s tawdry events. When she retires hours later, apparently feeling quite sick, she dopes the lady’s maid that has a striking resemblance to her and lays her in bed. Taking some money and memories, she escapes the house and grounds for a boat headed to California.

As a Hollywood starlet, she saved her mother from Hitler’s regime, cared for a baby whose parents were lost to concentration camps, and create technology that turned the tide of World War II. Not only did Lamarr’s signal hopping fair better for the troops, it was also the predecessor of cellphones, bluetooth, Wi-Fi, and GPS. Lamarr continued with her inventions throughout her film career, finally being recognized for her contributions in 1997 by the Electric Frontier Foundation.

Hedy Lamarr was an ingenious woman. Which Benedict knew, to an extent, but not the full story of her brilliance. After relaying the relationship with Mandl, Lamarr’s story is quickly summed up. All of California and her inventions, her family and marriages, rolled into a few short chapters to end her life as quickly as it began with Mandl. It perpetuates the cycle of gilded cages and limited females, that to be a woman there must be some sort of man dictating the story.

Hedy Lamarr was so much more than the accessory she was worn as, and for that reason I would recommend reading Benedict’s book as well as watching Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story on Netflix to learn more about her.

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