Hedy and Her Amaz­ing Invention

  • Review
By – June 3, 2019

The life of actress Hedy Lamarr (19142000) 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 TabletThe For­wardThe Horn Book, and oth­er pub­li­ca­tions, and writes about chil­dren’s books on her blog. She has a Ph.D. in Romance Lan­guages and Literatures.

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