THE ONLY WOMAN IN THE ROOM by Marie Benedict, narrated by Suzanne Toren

Döbling Wien Herbst, exhibited in 1916 by the Secessionist painter Carl Moll (1861-1945). Hedy Lamarr spent her early years on Peter-Jordan Strasse in Döbling.

As the only woman in the room myself during my 15-year career as a cognitive scientist, I was very taken by the premise of this volume. And I was not disappointed, at least in the beginning.

I found Hedy’s abusive marriage to munitions mogul Fritz Mandel compelling, as it portrayed a powerful man who became more and more paranoid about his lovely wife. (Hedy was only 18 when she married him and powerful men never believe they have enough power, as witnessed by the actions of Vladimir Putin.)

What was absolutely astounding was how she managed to escape at the age of only 23.

If I had to quibble with this part of the story it would be with the way the escape was handled. Even though it was enthralling to hear, the author could have created even more tension in that part of the story, by dramatizing it, instead of resorting to reportage.

After we got to Hollywood, things became a lot less interesting, maybe because Hedy’s life – safe in the exclusive bubble of Hollywood movie actors – lacked the edginess of her life as a young Jewish woman in Vienna on the eve of World War Two.

Hedy Lamarr could have achieved so much more had she not been trapped behind that beautiful face, the one she called a ‘mask I cannot remove’ (Rex/The Independent)

It was a great pity, therefore, that author Marie Benedict took the story about Lamarr’s eldest son James at face value, and didn’t dig deeper. As James was born on 9 January 1939, that would have meant that the actress became pregnant with him in April 1938, about six months after she fled her abusive marriage. I would have loved to have known what drew her so quickly to John Loder (the boy’s biological father), why she married Gene Markey instead, and why she went through this whole fictitious charade of claiming that James was adopted when he was, in fact, her eldest son.

The episode about Hedy’s invention was well told but came too late in the novel. It would have been much more powerful if part of that story had been placed at the beginning of the novel as a tantalizing frame, then fed in pieces to readers throughout the novel.

Hedy’s frequency-hopping invention (that is the basis for iPhone technology today) would have allowed torpedos to be both accurate and resistant to jamming signals if, in a typically stupid and heartbreaking way, it hadn’t been turned down by the US Navy, for reasons that are not clear, but seem to have had to do with the fact that Lamarr was female(!)

Four stars.

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