The life of actress Hedy Lamarr (1914−2000) was one of paradoxes. She was known for her stunning beauty, and yet, in an era when beauty and brains were traits thought to cancel each other out in women, she became a successful inventor. She lived in the public eye as a Hollywood star, but before the United States entered World War II, she was secretly working on a “frequency hopping” technology to protect the detection of torpedoes by the enemy. The first and central paradox was that she was Jewish, born Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler, in Austria, soon to be engulfed by Nazi terror along with most of Europe. Jan Wahl and Morgana Wallace have created an unusual approach to her life for young, independent readers, using short, focused chapters with enough information to give an overview of her fascinating and contradictory life.
That life included some erratic and tragic personal behaviors which are outside the age range of this book’s intended readers. Nevertheless, a short “Bibliography” does include works for adults, including Richard Rhodes’ 2012 biography, Hedy’s Folly, the Life and Breakthrough Inventions of Hedy Lamarr, The Most Beautiful Woman in the World. Perhaps the list is intended for the adults selecting this book for their children or young library patrons. The book itself simplifies the trajectory of Lamarr’s life, presenting a clear and intentional path of choices. From a young age, Eva/Hedy dreamed of an acting career, but also loved to tinker with mechanical devices, including the gold watch which her father gave her as a gift. Her early marriage to arms manufacturer Fritz Mandl is something of a morality tale. While the young Hedy was attracted by his attentiveness and lavish gifts, she soon earned that he was cruel and controlling: “Now she realized that she was a prisoner. There was a whole world beyond those walls with much to discover…it was necessary to escape.” Escape she did, to the fairytale world of Hollywood. (The author does not mention that Mandl was himself of partly Jewish descent, although he fully collaborated with the Nazis.)
Yet her story has a welcome twist for girls seeking role models. Wahl depicts Lamarr as resisting conformity at every turn. She redesigned her alluring costumes to be more comfortable, and was finally able to indulge her dreams of being an inventor: “She invented a new Kleenex box. And a dog collar that would light up…MGM didn’t know she had another life.” Eventually her skills with technology went far beyond illuminated dog collars, as she collaborated with pianist and composer George Antheil to devise a way for the Allies to transport weapons by making codes inaccessible to the Germans. Wahl explains that the initial technology was later developed into many other applications, including wireless internet, GPS, and laptop computers. There is very little in the way of details about how her insights and work led to these modern inventions, but the book is suitable as an introduction for middle grade readers.
How Jewish is Hedy’s story? Lamarr came from a middle-class Jewish family in an environment where Jews often did not advertise their ethnicity. Her mother, like many Hungarian Jews, had converted to Catholicism in order to assimilate. Wahl does relate her family’s resistance to a movie career in the context of their identity: “Her parents worried. Such a life for a well-brought-up Jewish girl!” Yet he never makes clear what Hedy was escaping. Instead, he seems to have assumed that his readers would understand the implications of Lamarr’s background. He describes Hedy’s “horror” as the Nazis took over Europe, and remarks with relief that she was finally able to bring her mother to America. In fact, her mother, and Hedy herself, would have been deported to the East and murdered had they remained in Austria.
Morgana Wallace’s pictures are beautifully evocative of the period. They capture the different angles of the actress’s life: traveling on board the SS Normandie to America in an elegant lavender gown, seated casually on the floor with Antheil as they manipulate matches to simulate torpedoes. The final picture in the book inspires readers as a visual summary of what women can be and do. Hedy is seated at her work desk holding a pencil. A green shaded lamp lights up whatever project she is addressing and we see diagrams mounted above on a black wall. We don’t see the face of the most beautiful woman in the world, just the back of her head as she intently pursues her work.
Emily Schneider writes about literature, feminism, and culture for Tablet, The Forward, The Horn Book, and other publications, and writes about children’s books on her blog. She has a Ph.D. in Romance Languages and Literatures.