Saturday, December 24, 2011

Hedy's Folly by Richard Rhodes

    It makes a remarkable story is the way the author  describes  Hedy Lamarr’s partnering with George Antheil “to invent a fundamental new wireless technology.”  Indeed, it is a remarkable story and ably told by Richard Rhodes.  Hedy’s Folly is a unique pairing in more ways than one.  First, who would believe that the woman who owned the sobriquet “the most beautiful woman in the world” and created a scandal by baring all in an erotic 10 minute film scene when she was but 17 could possibly be intelligent enough to invent a technology that makes today’s cell phones and GPS devices possible?  Why, that’s a bit like asking someone to believe that Marilyn Monroe discovered a cure for cancer.

    Secondly, how likely is it that Pulitzer Prize winning author Richard Rhodes who penned four books about nuclear history would spend time writing about a Hollywood legend?  Quite unlikely you might say.  Nevertheless, here is Hedy’s Folly, an eyebrow raising, absorbing true story.

    Born into a wealthy family in pre-war Vienna Hedy was an inquisitive child, full of questions and encouraged by her father to pursue her interest in how things worked.  Her first marriage was to Fritz Mandl, one of the wealthiest men in Austria who sold weapons to Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy.  While that union was short-lived she learned a great deal by simply listening to dinner table discussions re technology as it related to the military.  She was to remember what she learned.

    After running away from her overbearing spouse and unsafe Austria (she was Jewish) she came to America and Hollywood.  There, at a dinner party she met composer George Antheil who had come to Hollywood to write sound tracks for films.  He was a bit ahead of his time, an avant-garde composer who had written a piece for sixteen player pianos.  The two clicked almost immediately and began working together.  (What other glamorous female star had a drafting table in her living room?)

    When Hedy heard that a German U-boat had sunk a boat filled with children she turned her inventive mind to the war effort and together with Antheil came up with a torpedo guidance system for the Navy.  While a patent for their invention was granted in 1942 at that time their idea was pretty much shelved.  Nonetheless, today it is behind much of our modern communication.

    Throughout her amazing life Hedy fought the idea of being just a pretty face - even though the most beautiful face in the world.  She is quoted as having said, “Any girl can be glamorous.  All you have to do is stand there and look stupid.”   I think not.  Nor could any girl invent a version of digital wireless.  Hedy Lamarr was a remarkable woman; her story is astounding.  Don’t miss it!

    - Gail Cooke

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