The Only Woman in the Room…
About the Book:
She was beautiful. She was a genius. Could the world handle both? A powerful, illuminating novel about Hedy Lamarr.
Hedy Kiesler is lucky. Her beauty leads to a starring role in a controversial film and marriage to a powerful Austrian arms dealer, allowing her to evade Nazi persecution despite her Jewish heritage. But Hedy is also intelligent. At lavish Vienna dinner parties, she overhears the Third Reich’s plans. One night in 1937, desperate to escape her controlling husband and the rise of the Nazis, she disguises herself and flees her husband’s castle.
She lands in Hollywood, where she becomes Hedy Lamarr, screen star. But Hedy is keeping a secret even more shocking than her Jewish heritage: she is a scientist. She has an idea that might help the country and that might ease her guilt for escaping alone – if anyone will listen to her. A powerful novel based on the incredible true story of the glamour icon and scientist whose ground-breaking invention revolutionized modern communication, The Only Woman in the Room is a masterpiece.
Fictional biographies are fast becoming one of my favourite sub-genres, particularly when they’re about the under-valued achievements of women from history. I’m not sure if more of them are being released all of a sudden or if it’s just that I’m taking more notice of them, but either way, I am enjoying them a lot. Marie Benedict sums up in her author notes why I love these stories so much:
‘Faulty assumptions about women’s capabilities, stemming in part from the conscripted roles into which they’d been slotted, has caused many to think more narrowly about the manner in which the past has been shaped. But unless we begin to view historical women through a broader, more inclusive lens – and rewrite them back into the narrative – we will continue to view the past more restrictively than it likely was, and we risk carrying those perspectives over into the present.’
On that note, let’s turn our attention to the woman who is the focus of Marie Benedict’s latest novel, The Only Woman in the Room: Hedy Lamarr. Described by many biographers as the ‘most beautiful woman in the world’ Hedy was far more than a glamourous face. She was resourceful, brave, analytical and intelligent. Her talent for acting proved its worth off the stage on more than one occasion throughout her life, particularly while she was married to her first husband, Austrian arms dealer, Fritz Mandl. Married to Mandl at the age of nineteen, theirs was a relationship built from fear and obsession. Mandl’s powerful connections within Austria were well known and her family felt as though they had no choice but to agree to the marriage, foreseeing the possibility that Mandl may be able to provide protection if Hitler ever expanded his reign into Austria. Mandl appeared to be obsessed with Hedy’s beauty, and as his wife, she became ‘the only woman in the room’ on many occasions of highly secretive war talks. Mandl restrained Hedy, obsessively controlled her as much as possible and was often violent towards her:
‘By imprisoning me, it seemed, he hoped to cage the rampant virus that was Hitler. I became the unspoken emblem of the evil within and without whenever he needed a place to vent his anger.’
He also underestimated her and by allowing her to be ‘the only woman in the room’ he gifted her with extensive knowledge about the Nazis and their plans for Europe’s Jews.
‘The gravity of my crime had become clear. Could I have helped the European Jews if I’d made known that the Nuremberg Laws were not the limit of Hitler’s plans? I bore the blame for keeping this secret. My silence and selfishness had allowed the floodgates to open, but what was I going to do to make amends?’
The knowledge that Hedy came by through her marriage to Fritz became a heavy burden for her. While she was able to escape to Paris, then London, and finally to Hollywood, this knowledge plagued her and as the war in Europe escalated and word of the atrocities filtered over to the US to her, this burden manifested itself into guilt, which over time, propelled her to take action. Movie star by day, scientific inventor by night, Hedy, along with musician and composer George Antheil, invented a technology and went on to patent it, only to have it rejected by the military on account of it being invented by a woman. They instead suggested that she use her beauty to sell war bonds for the war effort – which she ended up doing and making more money for the war than anyone ever before her. But the frustration of this dismissal must have stung. She had especially not used the Hedy Lamarr name in order to avoid not being taken seriously, but in the end, she still wasn’t taken seriously.
‘Hedy’s scientific legacy lives among us in ways she never could have envisioned – nor could anyone else in 1942 when she and George Antheil received their patent. By creating aspects of the foundation for current cell phones, her ideas are woven into the technological texture of nearly everyone’s lives and the fabric of modern society. But the events leading up to Hedy’s invention and the manner in which the military rejected its use in World War II – using instead her astonishing beauty to raise money for the war – leave another legacy, particularly when the military and its contractors later utilised her work without crediting her influence for decades. They are an important testament to the marginalisation of the contributions of historical women, both in their own time and beyond.’
Marie Benedict has used a lot of sources to piece together these parts of Hedy’s life, but of course, this is a fictional biography, so creative license is expected. Even taking this into account, I thoroughly enjoyed this portrayal of Hedy’s early adult years. There was a lot of plausibility embedded within the narrative. Hedy finally was given recognition for her scientific efforts in the 1990s, but if her invention had been implemented during WWII, one can’t help but ponder on how many lives might have been saved. This novel is fast paced and concise, it covers a lot of ground and time with minimal fuss and maximum action. In many ways, it is devoid of the usual descriptions of scene and incidentals, cutting right to the quick and giving you the facts without the frippery. Maybe this comes from the author being a lawyer. I enjoyed the style, the pace lending the narrative an urgency that matched the story. This is the third fictional biography Marie Benedict has written and I am keen to read the previous two. If they are anything like The Only Woman in the Room, I am certain I will enjoy them.
Thanks is extended to Sourcebooks Landmark via NetGalley for providing me with a copy of The Only Woman in the Room for review.
About the Author:
Marie Benedict is a lawyer with more than ten years’ experience as a litigator at two of the country’s premier law firms. She is a magna cum laude graduate of Boston College with a focus in History and Art History, and a cum laude graduate of the Boston University School of Law. While practicing as a lawyer, Marie dreamed of a fantastical job unearthing the hidden historical stories of women – and finally found it when she tried her hand at writing. She embarked on a new, narratively connected series of historical novels with THE OTHER EINSTEIN, which tells the tale of Albert Einstein’s first wife, a physicist herself, and the role she might have played in his theories and CARNEGIE’S MAID, the story of a brilliant woman who may have spurred Andrew Carnegie toward philanthropy. Her upcoming novel, THE ONLY WOMAN IN THE ROOM, will release in January of 2019.