Hedy Lamarr, a legend of Hollywood's golden age and siren of the silver screen in the late 1930s and '40s, is remembered today mostly for her exquisite feminine pulchritude. She was a Viennese-born actress whose physical attributes earned her the sobriquet of "the most beautiful woman in the world."
In the seven decades since Lamarr's heyday, there has been no small amount of ink spilled chronicling nearly every aspect of her life and career. But there's a lesser-known facet of the actress' life: her penchant for inventing. In 1942, she came to be co-holder of a patent on spread spectrum radio, a technology that underlies modern conveniences such as mobile and cordless telephones, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth and GPS.
It's the kind of delicious disconnect that's at once intriguing and a bit hard to wrap one's brain around. Coming to the rescue is Richard Rhodes, fresh from three decades of working on a four-volume history of the nuclear age who found himself similarly intrigued. The result is "Hedy's Folly: The Life and Breakthrough Inventions of Hedy Lamarr, the Most Beautiful Woman in the World."
Over the course of the book, which reads at turns like a romance novel, patent law primer, noir narrative and exercise in forensic psychology, Rhodes lays out how the young Hedwig Kiesler's (her original name) inquisitive nature was encouraged by her father, and how her first marriage — to wealthy munitions manufacturer Fritz Mandl — made her privy to all kinds of technical talk.
According to Rhodes, Lamarr had an inventor's corner set up in the drawing room of her Hollywood home, with a drafting table and tools, and tinkered with a range of inventions, including a fluorescent dog collar, a skin-tautening technique and a bouillon-like cube that would create a carbonated beverage when mixed with water.
But it was U.S. Patent No. 2,292,387 that would be the crown jewel of Lamarr's side avocation. According to Rhodes' research, she met the man with whom she would collaborate and eventually co-patent the invention — avant garde composer, pianist and tinkerer George Antheil — at an August 1940 Hollywood dinner party.
Their instant motivation, Rhodes writes, was the looming specter of World War II, and a desire to help the U.S. military. Although neither one had formal training, by combining what Lamarr had likely learned during her marriage to the Austrian munitions maker with what Antheil knew from his efforts to mechanically synchronize a series of player pianos and similar projects, the duo developed a torpedo guidance system for the U.S. Navy that used a method of coordinated switching (or "hopping") between radio frequencies to prevent communications from being detected and jammed.
The book admirably portrays the nuances of the oddball collaboration between Lamarr and Antheil and how it resulted in their patent. But in his desire to locate and piece together as much original source material as possible and lay it all out for the reader, Rhodes also ends up shedding valuable insight on the Hollywood mythmaking of the era.
The "facts" about Lamarr's early life that Rhodes manages to discredit — or at least reopen for debate — include the circumstances surrounding her divorce from Mandl, when and how she came to be known as "the most beautiful woman in the world," and even the original source of her adopted last name, "Lamarr."
"Hedy's Folly: The Life and Breakthrough Inventions of Hedy Lamarr, the Most Beautiful Woman in the World"
By Richard Rhodes
Doubleday, 272 pages, $26.95