Book: The Only Woman in the Room by Marie Benedict (2019)

Reviewer: Bethany

Age/Genre: Historical Fiction

Preferred Reading Environment: In your TV room

Reading Accoutrements: Rent a couple of Hedy Lamarr movies (to get into character and provide ambience), pop some popcorn, and curl up with a blanket. 

Content Notes: Anti-semitism, misogony, war, sexual violence, abuse

When you picture getting an English Literature degree, you probably imagine being nose-deep in books all the time. I took a couple of film classes while obtaining my English Lit degree. Because of the abundance of movies I had to watch for class, I gained an appreciation for black and white films. When I saw a book about Hedy Lamarr, who not only acted in black and white films, but also had a huge impact on communication technology, I was excited.

The Only Woman in the Room is a novelization of a portion of Hedy Lamarr’s life. Hedy Lamarr grew up Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler in Döbling, a Jewish neighborhood in Vienna, Austria. She often spent time with her father, learning about how the world works in vivid detail. Her mother insisted that Hedy be sent to a finishing school – to learn how to become a proper lady – but Hedy’s favorite things to learn (like photosynthesis) were taught to her by her father, not her school. In 1933, at the age of nineteen, she received international notoriety for her role in a Czech film titled Ecstacy, which was banned in many countries due to nudity and sexual scenes. She returned to the stage in Vienna immediately following the film and was praised for her portrayal of the Empress Elisabeth of Austria in the play Sissy. It was during a production of Sissy that she first caught the eye of Friederich Mandl, a weapons manufacturer with connections to powerful men from all over Europe, who she later married.

Lamarr’s first marriage was not a happy one. Mandl was power-hungry, obsessive, and dictatorial. She played hostess for Mandl’s many dinner parties, where she overheard details about the weapons he built and took an interest in the communication aspects of torpedoes. While Mandl was travelling for business, she would read from his private library to learn more about the weaponry that fascinated her. But Hedy had to be careful about talking to other men at the dinner parties. If Mandl thought she was flirting with one of his associates, she would fly into a rage at the end of the night – often becoming sexually violent and leaving bruises. He was friends with Mussolini and several other powerful political figures in Austria, but when it appeared that Austria would lose its fight against Hitler, Mandl quickly changed sides. It was then that Hedy, afraid that her jewish heritage would make her a target, made her escape. She fled first to England and then to America, where she became Hedy Lamarr – actress and fashion icon, of some exotic European origin that no one could pinpoint. She learned English from watching films and practicing with other European refugees in Hollywood.

But Lamarr secretly felt guilty for keeping what she knew of Hitler’s plans a secret. When she heard the news that Germany had sunk a ship of refugees heading toward Canada, she dedicated herself to finding a way to thwart the German war machine.

In remembering her husband’s conversations with work associates at various dinners, Lamar started to find ways to exploit what she knew of the German’s weaknesses. She combined her knowledge of music and radios to improve torpedo targeting systems. All of her work was done from home with the help of a composer friend. When they submitted their system for consideration, their proposal was rejected because they couldn’t justify using a movie star’s invention to the men who would implement it. Her invention was not used during WWII. However, the government classified the patent and eventually began using her technology. By the time the patent was unclassified, it was also expired, and companies could use her invention without paying her a dime.

I don’t want to spoil the ending for you, so that’s enough of the plot. Let’s get to my favorite part…my opinion!

The Only Woman in the Room is historical fiction. It is written from the perspective of Hedy Lamarr, a real historical person, as if she were telling the story of her life in hindsight. This style of storytelling has always made me nervous for one specific reason: it is very difficult to judge the emotions of a historical figure based on events and (possibly) historical documents. Even if one has a diary written by that figure, there are still inferences, extrapolations, and assumptions that have to be made about the events that are being referred to, the emotions that are expressed, and the perspectives that are addressed. An author has to walk a delicate balance between conveying facts and inserting human emotion.

Benedict did a pretty good job of making sure that the facts of her story roughly followed historical events. I don’t know how much information she got from historical evidence and how much she created to provide motivation, as the copy of the book I read did not contain any sources or a timeline of actual events to refer back to, but the rough timeline seems to track well with the history of World War II and the history of film that I am familiar with. Occasionally, Lamarr’s voice seems much more impersonal than I would expect for an actress, especially in high-emotion scenes (like when Mandl became scary and obsessive). But otherwise the voice of the narrator seemed authentic, as well.

In Benedict’s “Author’s Note” at the end of The Only Woman in the Room, she explains the reasons behind her decision to write about Hedy Lamarr, a woman often lost to history despite her impact on our modern everyday lives. After reading this book, I’m surprised – and a little angry – that I hadn’t learned much about her before this. Sure, I’d heard Hedy Lamarr’s name mentioned in film classes, but I had no idea about this other side of her life. I grew up with a dad who loves history and a mom who has two PhDs in a scientific field, and I spent a lot of time in “Girls in STEM” programs. Yet, I hadn’t heard of a woman whose technology was just beginning to be understood and utilized in a wide-spread manner – over 50 years after she invented it. Talk about a woman ahead of her time!

Many historical fiction books (and movies) about women  focus on the personal lives of prominent female figures, whose names are tied to politics – Queen Victoria, Queen Elizabeth, Alice Roosevelt, Eleanor Roosevelt, Clementine Churchill, etc. They are famous because of their political position, usually obtained by birth or marriage, and the books that are written about them talk about their fathers, brothers, and husbands (or lack thereof, in the case of Queen Elizabeth). The books talk about their roles in politics: as women who had influence over powerful men and usually amble through the entire span of their personal lives.

What I love about The Only Woman in the Room is that Hedy Lamarr didn’t do much of historical interest until she was divorced and doing what she had wanted to do all along. Her historical importance is completely divorced from the men in her life, and in fact was kept classified by the United States government until the 1990s. This is the kind of historical figure we should be exposing the next generation of thinkers to. Plus, Benedict’s storytelling revolves almost entirely around Lamarr’s historical significance, not her relationships. While Lamarr’s relationships are certainly explored, it’s mostly as a function of how she became an inventor, instead of the sole purpose of the book. How interesting to think of a historical figure in terms of her accomplishments and the motivations thereof, instead of by her relationships!
If you are interested in history,  strong women, science and engineering,  black and white films, or all of the above, you should definitely pick up a copy of The Only Woman in the Room.

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