Hedy Lamarr gets her due in Marie Benedict’s latest novel | Literary Arts | Pittsburgh


Antoine Musmanno

Mary Benedict

Marie Benedict never lacks material. The Sewickley-based writer maintains a list of women who have contributed to the arts, sciences and history, but who are relatively unknown.

The only reason they aren’t more famous is the tendency of history to be written with a patriarchal bias. “I have lists of women running, a lot of women,” says Benedict, the pseudonym of Heather Terrell. “I’m constantly adding to this list. I find them everywhere.

The subject of Benoît’s latest novel, The only woman in the room, was hiding in plain sight. Actress Hedy Lamarr is best known for her sultry roles in Daughter Ziegfeld, Samson and Delilah, and The Celestial Body.

But Lamarr also made important contributions to modern technology. The ubiquity of cell phones and wireless Internet can be directly attributed to the groundbreaking work of Lamarr. Working with avant-garde composer George Antheil, Lamarr invented the technology that became the basis for Wi-Fi, GPS and Bluetooth. “Each of us, every day, holds a piece of Hedy Lamarr’s invention in our hand,” says Benedict. “We really have no idea about this, and there hasn’t been wide-scale recognition of his invention until recently.”

Benoît worked as a lawyer before becoming a writer. She started with historical fiction before turning to children’s novels. Her current slot started in 2016 when she released The other Einstein, about Mileva Maric, the wife of Albert Einstein. In Carnegie’s Maid (2018), she created a fictional character based on her search for a possible confidante of industrialist Andrew Carnegie.

The only woman in the room earned Benedict the best reviews of his career and reached No. 7 on the New York Times’ List of best sellers in February.

Lamarr’s story is unlikely. Born Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler in Austria in 1914, she made her debut as an actress in the Austrian theater and caught the attention of a suitor. Friedrich Mandl was a notorious Austrian arms dealer who had ties to Benito Mussolini and Adolf Hitler. Feeling she had no choice, Lamarr, then 18, accepted Mandl’s marriage proposal (he was 33), in part to protect her parents’ Jewish roots.

After the wedding, Lamarr traveled to functions attended by power brokers connected to the rise of Nazi Germany. “She was at this incredible intersection, at this incredible crossroads,” Benedict says. “She was aware of information that very few people were aware of because of her husband’s role. Because of her beauty, she was at these parties, dinners and events, always by her husband’s side, but always invisible. Because she was beautiful, that’s all people could see. They assumed that beauty and intellect could not co-exist, and so she was unable to understand what they were talking about, whether it was weapons or military plans or plans for the Jewish people. … She would put this information to good use later.

Lamarr fled Mandl and fled to Paris and then London, before eventually immigrating to the United States. She became one of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’s biggest stars thanks to the influence of studio magnate Louis B. Mayer. Riddled with survivor’s guilt, she decided to use the knowledge she had gleaned alongside Mandl to invent a frequency-hopping weapon system.

But Lamarr was rebuffed when she approached military officials with her invention because she was a woman.

“If they could have considered his intellect and innovative abilities and embraced his invention when it was proposed, what would have happened during World War II?” said Benedict. “How could the result have changed if his invention had been used? This way I think The only woman in the room becomes a cautionary tale about the undervaluation of women and their contributions.

Between the lines

Park Yeon-mi, author, actor and defector from North Korea, will speak March 20 at the Kelly Strayhorn Theater in East Liberty. Park escaped from her native country to China in 2007 with her family, where she and her mother were taken by human traffickers. They eventually made it to Mongolia before being sent to Seoul.

Park has since become an anti-trafficking advocate and moved to New York in 2014 to complete her memoir, In order to live: A North Korean girl’s journey to freedom.

Admission for the 7:30 p.m. event, hosted by the World Affairs Council of Pittsburgh, is $40 and $25 for students and veterans. 412-281-7970 or worldpittsburgh.org


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