Feature

Book of the week: Hedy’s Folly: The Life and Breakthrough Inventions of Hedy Lamarr, the Most Beautiful Woman in the World by Richard Rhodes

The Pulitzer-winning historian of the atomic age gives the Hollywood star well-deserved credit for her inventiveness and ingenuity.

(Doubleday, $27)

“History has not been kind to Hedy Lamarr,” said David D’Arcy in the San Francisco Chronicle. Despite her ethereal beauty and a Hollywood career that spanned two decades, time has only dimmed the late screen siren’s star. Luckily for her, “Lamarr has an admirer in Richard Rhodes.” In this offbeat new biography, the Pulitzer-winning historian of the atomic age recasts Lamarr as an ingénue possessed of notable ingenuity. Whether or not Lamarr was “the world’s most beautiful woman,” as Louis B. Mayer once asserted, she was certainly among its prettiest inventors. In 1940, Lamarr, along with a collaborator, came up with the design for a radio-controlled torpedo that contained the germ of an enduring communications technology.

This “most unusual book about a Holly­wood star” is also an object lesson in the role chance plays in innovation, said Henry Petroski in The Wall Street Journal. Lamarr, who was born Hedwig Kiesler in Austria, in 1913, was “hardly an intellectual.” She dropped out of school at 16 to become an actress, catching the industry’s attention when she appeared nude in the scandalous 1933 Czech film Ecstasy. But she was cleverer than the typical starlet, and also an “indefatigable tinkerer.” Howard Hughes recognized her as a kindred spirit, and tried to help her with one of her ideas—a “bouillon” cube that would fizz in water to create a Coca-Cola–like beverage. But it would be another chance connection, with avant-garde composer George Antheil, that allowed Lamarr to turn her most intriguing concept into something lasting.

Lamarr had ideas but lacked “know-how,” said Sam Kean in Slate.com. Antheil supplied it. While chatting with Antheil about how to aid the war effort, she tossed out the idea of a radio-guided torpedo that could avoid enemy jamming by hopping frequencies in synchronized patterns. Antheil devised the schematics, and the duo received a patent in 1942. Though the Navy initially rejected the technology, it was used during 1962’s Cuban Missile Crisis, and a version of frequency hopping today enables cellphones, Wi-Fi, and GPS to operate without interference. Lamarr, who died in 2000, “felt cheated of credit for these developments,” but Rhodes’s fond portrayal of her as a willful, tireless woman suggests that her own life was her most incredible invention.

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