I was mad because Hedy Lamarr, the subject of the book, was never truly vindicated. She was beaten and broken down by the patriarchy, and it seems the patriarchy won. I was mad for her, and for every other woman like her throughout history whose stories we would never know.
Benedict’s fictionalized account of Lamarr’s life shows us sides of the actress of which few are aware. Her mysterious past as the wife of a Nazi arms dealer, victim of domestic violence, war refugee, and scientist paints a picture of a brilliant mind that was stifled by the strict gender roles of the time. To this day, she is still known by most as only a pretty face.
The story opens with Hedy as a young actress in Vienna in 1933 (known by her birth name, Keisler, at the time). Hedy was doggedly pursued by Friedrich “Fritz ”Mandl, an Austrian arms dealer. When Hedy married Fritz in an effort to protect her Jewish family during the coming war, she had little idea what she was truly getting into.
Hedy found herself in an abusive marriage with one of the most powerful arms dealers in the region. He kept her locked away, only allowed to leave with his permission. Her sole purpose in the house was to come out during his important meetings with Austrian and Italian officials and serve as eye candy, her silent beauty underscoring Fritz’s power.
During these meetings, Hedy learned secrets about the weapons systems that would eventually be used by the Third Reich against her own people. When Fritz, previously on the side of Austrian independence, surrendered to the Nazis and agreed to sell his munitions to Hitler, Hedy fled — taking their secrets with her to Hollywood. There, she dropped her German and Jewish heritage and became known as Hedy Lamarr: movie star.
In 1940, using the knowledge she had gained in Austria, Lamarr and composer George Antheil invented a frequency-hopping system designed to allow remote torpedos to avoid enemy frequency jamming. This invention solved a major problem facing the U.S. Navy and was patented with a Top Secret classification in 1942. The Navy, however, refused to use it.
The invention was essentially ignored until after the war, when the Navy used it in developing a “sonobuoy” system. From there, according to NPR, “the whole system just spread like wildfire.” In 1985 it was declassified.
Spread-spectrum technology, as it came to be called, laid the groundwork for most of today’s wireless communication systems.
It wasn’t until the 1990s, over fifty years after she submitted her invention for patenting, that she finally received credit. Supposedly, when she was called by the Electronic Frontier Foundation and informed that she was receiving the Pioneer Award for her work, she responded, “Well, it’s about time.”
She was absolutely right.