Book Review: Hedy's Folly by Richard Rhodes

Hedy Lamarr had a face for the movies and a brain for radio encryption

Hedy’s Folly:
The Life and Breakthrough Inventions of Hedy Lamarr,
the Most Beautiful Woman in the World

By Richard Rhodes
Doubleday; 261 pages; $26.95


The first thing most people recall about Hedy Lamarr is that she was “the most beautiful woman in the world.” It’s a label that MGM studio head Louis B. Mayer attached to the Austrian native after she came to Hollywood in 1937. (Around that time, young Hedwig Kiesler was given the screen name Lamarr, not knowing it was the surname of another Mayer ingénue who had become a heroin addict and died about a decade earlier.) Mayer’s hyperbole plagued Lamarr for much of her life. She often played down her beauty, saying anyone can be glamorous if they “stand still and look stupid.”

Yet Lamarr also received plenty of credit for her brains. In 1941, when she co-invented a jamproof radio guidance system for torpedoes at the age of 27, the New York Times wrote, “So vital is her discovery to national defense that government officials will not allow publication of its details.” The system pioneered the spread spectrum technology that later made wireless networking and Global Positioning System devices possible. Lamarr’s scientific prowess has since been celebrated in books, articles, a Boeing ad campaign, and recognition from the Electronic Frontier Foundation. Her Nov. 9 birthday is designated as National Inventors’ Day in Austria, Germany, and Switzerland.

Hedy’s Folly, Richard Rhodes’s biography of Lamarr, doesn’t fail to trade on her Hollywood glamour, inserting her “most beautiful” appellation in the subtitle and illustrating the cover with an image of the actress seductively straddling a torpedo. Whether it’s Natalie Portman doing neuroscience research at Harvard University or Geena Davis flashing her Mensa card, there’s something irresistible about a pretty face with a big brain. But few wore the juxtaposition quite as uncomfortably as Lamarr. She described her face as her “misfortune” and indeed succumbed to the perils of beauty—the shallow roles, six marriages, and brittle self-esteem that prompted her to strip naked in the 1933 film Ekstase and shun public appearances later in life.

Rhodes, who won a Pulitzer Prize for his book The Making of the Atomic Bomb, is less focused on Lamarr’s unsettled private life than on her contribution to science. Specifically, he tries to dissect the story behind the frequency-hopping radio encryption technique that was awarded U.S. Patent No. 2292387 in August 1942. The technology was not hers alone. She teamed up with George Antheil, an American avant-garde composer, writer, and novice inventor she’d approached to see if some of his glandular research could help enlarge her breasts. In this case, at least, vanity led Lamarr to something meaningful.

Their focus soon shifted to a weightier project. Lamarr, an amateur inventor herself, had been thinking about ways to transmit signals over multiple frequencies, thus thwarting enemies’ attempts to jam radio-guided missiles by homing in on a single frequency. The Jewish-born actress, horrified at Nazi Germany’s sweep of Europe, knew that the system would work only if the transmitter and receiver were both synced to the same sequence of frequencies. The two were able to adapt a technology Antheil had developed for his 1924 composition Ballet Mécanique, which called for 16 synchronized player pianos. He essentially adapted a piano roll to coordinate the frequencies. But the Navy officials who reviewed the new torpedo mechanism decided it was too bulky. Spread spectrum communication finally came into use three years after the patent had expired, during the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis.

By then, Lamarr’s scientific contributions had come to an end. While she continued to tinker with projects, none matched the inspiration of frequency hopping. That flash of genius was often dismissed as an idea she’d overheard during dinner parties in Austria with her first husband, arms dealer Fritz Mandl, and “retained … in basic form in her beautiful beringleted head,” as Antheil later wrote. Even her co-inventor preferred to see Lamarr as a pretty spy rather than someone who might have conceived of a complex guidance system on her own.

Most books about Lamarr tend to focus on her dubious choices and wasted potential. Perhaps the real lesson to draw from her life is that innovation can come from anywhere. All too often, a world that craves new ideas also tends to dismiss those capable of producing them.

Rhodes manages to shed light on the strange partnership that led a screen siren and an eclectic composer to produce what was later recognized as a groundbreaking technology. Lamarr’s limited acting skills may have fostered a fame that was never much more than skin deep. But Hedy’s Folly is a reminder that neither time nor gravity can diminish the allure of a beautiful mind.

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