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Richard Rhodes’ ‘Hedy’s Folly’ draws out star’s inventive streak

Hedy Lamarr, a legend of Hollywood’s Golden Age and siren of the silver screen who starred in movies such as “Algiers,” “White Cargo” and “Samson and Delilah” in the late 1930s and ‘40s, is remembered today mostly for her exquisite feminine pulchritude. Think of her as the Farrah Fawcett (the red bathing suit pinup-poster version) of her day — a Viennese-born actress whose physical attributes earned her the sobriquet of “the most beautiful woman in the world.”

And, in the seven decades since Lamarr’s heyday, there’s 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 that’s rarely been focused on in much depth: Her penchant for inventing and how, in 1942, she came to be co-holder of a patent on spread spectrum radio, a technology that underlies modern conveniences mobile and cordless telephones, WiFi, Bluetooth and GPS. Put in modern context, it’s like crediting Fawcett as the one who developed Google’s proprietary search algorithm.

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 — one of which (“The Making of the Atomic Bomb”) earned him a Pulitzer Prize — 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 219 pages (not counting the extensive notes and reference that follow) that read 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 (as she was known before adopting the more marquee-friendly last name Lamarr) inquisitive nature was encouraged at a young age by her father, and how her first marriage — to munitions manufacturer Fritz Mandl (who also happened to be the third richest man in Austria) — made her privy to all kinds of technical talk. And though it may seem incongruous, he makes the case that Hollywood was actually the catalyst to Lamarr’s inventive streak.

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“Here was someone of intellect in Hollywood who didn’t like to go to parties,” Rhodes said in a phone interview from his home near Half Moon Bay, Calif. "[Hedy] didn’t drink and she didn’t like loud parties and drunken parties — and she had to find some way to spend her time. … It was her hobby.”

According to Rhodes, Lamarr had an inventor’s corner set up in the drawing room of her Hollywood home complete with a drafting table and tools, and in the course of her life had tinkered with a range of inventions including a fluorescent dog collar, a skin-tautening technique, suggested modifications to the Concorde airliner and a bouillon-like cube that would create a carbonated beverage when mixed with water — a project for which Howard Hughes reportedly “lent her a pair of chemists.”

But it is U.S. Patent Number 2,292,387 (issued under her married name at the time, Hedy Kiesler Markey) 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 kindred spirit in tinkering George Antheil — at an August 1940 Hollywood dinner party hosted by a mutual friend — who happened to be famed MGM costume designer Adrian.

Their instant motivation, Rhodes writes, was the looming specter of what would eventually become World War II, and a desire, on the part of both Lamarr and Antheil, 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.

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Rhodes said the goal of his exhaustive spadework, which included trekking to Mandl’s Viennese hunting lodge and tracking down original correspondence between Antheil and his longtime friend and U.S. diplomat William Bullitt, was to tease out the nuances of the oddball collaboration between Lamarr and Antheil and how it resulted in their patent. “Inventions are rarely just a sudden bright idea,” he said. “Even if they are, they usually have antecedents in the form of pieces of the idea. … Piecing these things together gives one a sense of where inventions come from and that’s interesting.”

The book admirably achieves that goal but in his desire to locate and subsequently piece together as much original source material as possible (“Biographers have a way of leaning on their predecessors that tends to perpetuate mistakes,” Rhodes observes), and — in places where no such material existed but there were two or more plausible versions or explanations of events — laying them all out for the reader, he 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.”

It’s already earned Rhodes praise from one pair of critics. “The response from Hedy’s two children [daughter Denise Loder-DeLuca and son Anthony Loder] has really been quite warm,” Rhodes said. “They’re delighted to see their mother finally portrayed fully as the interesting, complicated and creative person she was. The only thing they told me I got wrong was at the end it was both of them — Denise and Anthony — who carried her ashes back to Austria (Lamarr died in January 2000 at the age of 86 ), not just Anthony. Other than that they feel the book represents their mother rightly.”

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And, with any luck, Lamarr’s children will be able to see that version of their mother represented on the silver screen, since the book’s motion picture rights were optioned before it was even published.

As for Rhodes, he hasn’t decided what he’ll tackle for his next project and says he’s currently casting around for ideas. “I think I want to write a biography, something with broad appeal, but I haven’t figured out about whom.”

But he’s pretty clear about what isn’t on his short list. “Certainly the one thing I don’t want to do is write any more about nuclear weapons. I’ve covered that; 30 years is long enough.”

adam.tschorn@latimes.com


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