Pub­lic­i­ty pho­to of Hedy Lamarr for film Com­rade X, MGM/ Clarence Bull

Who do we decide to show­case in children’s lit­er­a­ture and what do we high­light about them? While the pan­theon of female role mod­els was once lim­it­ed to a select few, a much greater range of inspir­ing women now take the stage in children’s books; whether artists, activists, or polit­i­cal lead­ers, the ques­tion of how to approach their cul­tur­al and eth­nic back­ground always aris­es, even if it is not the cen­tral focus of a woman’s sto­ry. The ques­tion of how — or even if — to dis­cuss Jew­ish iden­ti­ty becomes a com­plex one. Actress and inno­va­tor Hedy Lamarr, born Hed­wig Eva Maria Kiesler (19142000), appeared as the sub­ject of two pic­ture book biogra­phies in 2019, Hedy and Her Amaz­ing Inven­tion, by Jan Wahl, illus­trat­ed by Mor­gana Wal­lace, and Hedy Lamarr’s Dou­ble Life, by Lau­rie Wall­mark and Katy Wu. She also made a cameo appear­ance in Vashti Harrison’s Lit­tle Dream­ers: Vision­ary Women Around the World. (No doubt, Israeli actress Gal Gadot’s upcom­ing minis­eries about the actress will only increase inter­est in her life.) With­in these recent books, Lamarr’s Jew­ish iden­ti­ty seems as cryp­tic as the tor­pe­do guid­ance sys­tem which she invent­ed — in which mes­sages from a ship would be sent with vary­ing fre­quen­cies, elud­ing inter­pre­ta­tion by the ene­my. Was Lamarr’s suc­cess­ful career mix­ing glam­our with intel­lect root­ed in the vul­ner­a­bil­i­ty of her Jew­ish past? Authors are divid­ed on this ques­tion. Wall­mark avoids plac­ing any sig­nif­i­cance on her heroine’s com­ing of age in a mid­dle-class Jew­ish fam­i­ly in Vien­na right as the Nazis were tak­ing pow­er, while Wahl does men­tion the aspir­ing actress’s rebel­lion against a con­ven­tion­al — and Jew­ish — life. Har­ri­son is the only one of the authors to specif­i­cal­ly claim that Lamarr’s choice of secre­cy about her back­ground was a delib­er­ate and pro­tec­tive one. Each of these three books for chil­dren rais­es ques­tions about the pre­sen­ta­tion of Jew­ish identity.

Few chil­dren today would be able to iden­ti­fy Lamarr from a line­up. Lamarr’s admis­sion into the world of children’s biogra­phies is undoubt­ed­ly due to her image as a STEM hero­ine, one whose endeav­ors in the world of tech­nol­o­gy refute the out­dat­ed idea that brains and beau­ty can­not coex­ist in one woman. The genre of children’s biogra­phies, with their short length and young audi­ence, leads to the omis­sion of many aspects of their subject’s lives; Lamarr’s Jew­ish­ness may seem less rel­e­vant than her abil­i­ty to defy con­ven­tion as a stun­ning geek. She was not reli­gious­ly obser­vant, nor were her par­ents; her moth­er had con­vert­ed to Catholi­cism to bet­ter assim­i­late into Aus­tri­an soci­ety. Unlike oth­er promi­nent Jew­ish women of the time — Emma Lazarus, Hen­ri­et­ta Szold, or Gol­da Meir — her life was not ded­i­cat­ed to help­ing Jews. Lamarr seemed to flee from her past when she crossed the Atlantic Ocean, evok­ing a sense of the muta­bil­i­ty and dan­ger of Jew­ish identity.

Lamarr seemed to flee from her past when she crossed the Atlantic Ocean, evok­ing a sense of the muta­bil­i­ty and dan­ger of Jew­ish identity.

The dra­mat­ic cov­er and end­pa­pers of Wallmark’s Hedy Lamarr’s Dou­ble Life promise to resolve the para­dox of stereo­typ­i­cal­ly fem­i­nine and mas­cu­line qual­i­ties in one per­son. The book’s title is post­ed on a movie mar­quee sur­round­ed by lights, fol­lowed by the sub­ti­tle HOL­LY­WOOD Leg­end and Bril­liant INVEN­TOR.” Wu’s illus­tra­tion super­im­pos­es Lamarr’s divid­ed face: one half sport­ing a dan­gling ear­ring and a dressy col­lar, the oth­er a pen­cil and pen pro­trud­ing from a sim­ple shirt pock­et with one side of the face bor­dered by movie reels, the oth­er by inventor’s sketch­es. Who was the real Hedy Lamarr,” the book asks, and can a per­son only have one iden­ti­ty, which ren­ders false oth­er dimen­sions which seem to com­pro­mise this core? In fact, this was the dilem­ma of many Jews in Cen­tral Europe, who strug­gled to bal­ance their Jew­ish iden­ti­ty with par­tic­i­pa­tion in soci­eties that viewed them with prej­u­dice. Sub­se­quent pages alter­nate between descrip­tions and images of Lamarr as a mag­net­ic screen pres­ence and as a hard-work­ing inven­tor, while ignor­ing the oth­er dual­i­ty of Lamarr as a Jew­ish refugee from Europe and an icon of Amer­i­can beau­ty. Adult read­ers famil­iar with Lamarr’s biog­ra­phy will note missed oppor­tu­ni­ties to explore this ten­sion with children.

Wall­mark sit­u­ates Lamarr’s child­hood in a spe­cif­ic time and place, one where dra­mat­ic changes would soon sur­face, alter­ing the course of her life. The author writes, Even as a child in Aus­tria in the ear­ly 1920s, Lamarr’s curi­ous mind want­ed to know how things worked.” Wu depicts Lamarr walk­ing with her father through inter­war Vien­na, yet the sig­nif­i­cance of their envi­ron­ment is strange­ly absent: Dur­ing their walks around their home­town of Vien­na, Aus­tria, they exchanged ideas about every­thing and any­thing.” Pre­sum­ably, as Lamarr grew into a young woman, these talks would have includ­ed the rise of fas­cism and anti­semitism. Both author and illus­tra­tor focus on Lamarr’s love of both act­ing and engi­neer­ing, leav­ing aside the forces which would dri­ve her from a world about to be engulfed in tragedy. The tran­si­tion is abrupt; after Lamarr is dis­cov­ered” on stage by Jew­ish film pro­duc­er Louis B. May­er, Hedy left her fam­i­ly behind in Europe and set­tled in Amer­i­ca.” Read­ers might assume that noth­ing more than per­son­al ambi­tion led to the actress’s deci­sion to leave. Wall­mark also omits any ref­er­ence to Lamarr’s need to escape her unhap­py mar­riage to Fritz Man­dl, a wealthy and con­trol­ling arma­ments pro­duc­er for the Nazis. Man­dl was also of part­ly Jew­ish her­itage. Lamarr’s mar­riage to him also reflects their mutu­al mem­ber­ship in Vienna’s afflu­ent and assim­i­lat­ed Jew­ish community.

Both author and illus­tra­tor focus on Lamarr’s love of both act­ing and engi­neer­ing, leav­ing aside the forces which would dri­ve her from a world about to be engulfed in tragedy.

His­to­ry is not absent from Hedy Lamarr’s Dou­ble Life. No soon­er has Lamarr arrived in Hol­ly­wood than World War II was rag­ing, and every­one was afraid.” The promis­ing young actress becomes con­sumed with fight­ing the Nazis, and her for­tu­itous meet­ing with com­pos­er George Antheil gives them both the chance to devel­op the sys­tem of fre­quen­cy hop­ping for tor­pe­do guid­ance sys­tems. They would earn a patent for it, although the inven­tion was not deemed prac­ti­cal for use until after the War. Lamarr’s per­sis­tence in her goal of help­ing to defeat Hitler is nev­er once linked to her Jew­ish iden­ti­ty, even if that moti­va­tion was periph­er­al to her patri­o­tism and intel­lec­tu­al curios­i­ty. Wall­mark and Wu also devote two pages to Lamarr’s work pro­mot­ing war bonds and vol­un­teer­ing to enter­tain sol­diers at the famed Hol­ly­wood Can­teen. She was one of many Hol­ly­wood stars who devot­ed ener­gy to these projects, but she must have been aware that, had she not found a haven in the Unit­ed States, she may not have sur­vived to play this role. In the end, this excit­ing and graph­i­cal­ly inno­v­a­tive book for young read­ers assigns a dual iden­ti­ty to Lamarr, that of actress-inven­tor. Lamarr’s Jew­ish past remains encod­ed in con­fus­ing signals.

In con­trast, Wahl’s illus­trat­ed chap­ter book attempts to resolve the issue of Lamarr’s back­ground with­in the sim­pli­fied sto­ry of her life for young read­ers. There is lim­it­ed detail about how Lamarr’s home of Vien­na was infused with Jew­ish cul­tur­al influ­ences, but Wahl briefly men­tions how her inter­est in act­ing was per­ceived: Her par­ents wor­ried. Such a life for a well-brought-up Jew­ish girl!” Lamarr’s mar­riage to Man­dl is also described as a prison, and Wahl alludes to dis­cus­sions of war and weapons which dom­i­nat­ed par­ties in their home. Read­ers learn that her life in Amer­i­ca was plagued by anx­i­ety: Hedy wor­ried about her mother…Hedy lay in bed at night imag­in­ing the hor­ror of it.” Wahl dis­cuss­es how Lamarr was able to secure her mother’s release and bring her to Amer­i­ca. In Wahl’s biog­ra­phy, the sub­ject has a past which active­ly appears to inform her present actions and motives, mak­ing her pur­suit of a secure com­mu­ni­ca­tion sys­tem arguably more than the prod­uct of intel­lec­tu­al exploration.

In Wahl’s biog­ra­phy, the sub­ject has a past which active­ly appears to inform her present actions and motives, mak­ing her pur­suit of a secure com­mu­ni­ca­tion sys­tem arguably more than the prod­uct of intel­lec­tu­al exploration. 

In Vashti Harrison’s biogra­phies chil­dren learn about exem­plary indi­vid­u­als through short sum­maries of their lives accom­pa­nied by appeal­ing illus­tra­tions. Lamarr is one of more than thir­ty women includ­ed in Lit­tle Dream­ers: Vision­ary Women Around the World. The com­pa­ny she keeps in this anthol­o­gy is a clue to Harrison’s ecu­meni­cal embrace of female genius, includ­ing artists, sci­en­tists, and musi­cians. Lamarr clear­ly sym­bol­izes a woman whose genius is not con­fined to one sphere. But Har­ri­son is also clear that prej­u­dice might have stood in Lamarr’s way as she pur­sued a career in two dif­fer­ent fields.

Lamarr’s sec­tion opens with ref­er­ences to her fas­ci­na­tion with mechan­i­cal process­es and her attrac­tion to act­ing, and also notes the sig­nif­i­cance of her rela­tion­ship with Man­dl. Unlike Wall­mark, who avoids Lamarr’s Jew­ish­ness, or Wahl, who is much more allu­sive about its sig­nif­i­cance, Har­ri­son describes Lamarr as a vic­tim of hatred who man­aged to lib­er­ate her­self and achieve her goals. She escaped both the Nazis and her hus­band,” and was care­ful to keep her Jew­ish her­itage a secret,” as she rein­vent­ed her­self in Amer­i­ca as the glam­orous Hedy Lamarr.” Har­ri­son equates Mandl’s dom­i­neer­ing char­ac­ter with his sup­port for Nazism, and makes Lamarr’s emi­gra­tion to Amer­i­ca an explic­it deliv­er­ance from these per­se­cu­tions. Even bold­er is Harrison’s infer­ence that Lamarr’s Hol­ly­wood career was con­tin­gent on hid­ing her Jew­ish iden­ti­ty. Draw­ing atten­tion to that iden­ti­ty would have been unusu­al; Jew­ish actors from Lau­ren Bacall to Edward G. Robin­son rou­tine­ly angli­cized their names. At the same time that Har­ri­son empha­sizes push­ing against bound­aries, she reminds read­ers that prej­u­dice against Jews in Amer­i­ca was one lim­it the actress chose not to question.

Lamarr lived a dou­ble life, as each of the books dis­cussed here empha­sizes. Her lega­cy has ben­e­fit­ed from the recent push to equal­ize the gen­der dis­par­i­ty in STEM fields. Lamarr’s com­bi­na­tion of sci­en­tif­ic and cin­e­mat­ic suc­cess has over­shad­owed a more hid­den one; glam­orous and brainy Hedy Lamarr was once Hedy Kiesler, an ambi­tious young Jew­ish woman forced by cir­cum­stance to aban­don her home in Europe and start over in Amer­i­ca as a refugee. Regard­less of her deci­sion to rel­e­gate that fact to her past, it was the foun­da­tion of her work in the US. At one time, Lamarr aspired to pro­duce and star in a movie about Queen Esther, the beau­ti­ful and astute Jew­ish woman who went under­cov­er to save her peo­ple. The project nev­er came to fruition and Lamarr’s work on the World War II home front — unlike the Per­sian queen’s strate­gies — was aimed at sav­ing the free world more than the Jew­ish peo­ple. Still, the par­al­lel is use­ful to exam­ine how and why we view Lamarr’s con­tri­bu­tions and iden­ti­ty as we do. Ambiva­lence about an iden­ti­ty which was often fraught with risk should be part of the dis­cus­sion of what it means to be Jew­ish. Hedy Lamarr’s life of deter­mi­na­tion and achieve­ment is a start­ing point for approach­ing this dif­fi­cult truth.

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.