Book Review: Hedy’s Folly, by Richard Rhodes

Hedy Lamarr, George Antheil and the birth of modern communications technology; a biography

A dynamic duo: Austrian film star Hedy Lamarr and American composer George Antheil spent their evenings inventing | Illustration: Katharina Klein

Two-Part Invention

When composer George Antheil first met Hedy Lamarr in Hollywood in August 1940, he agreed with Max Reinhardt that she was, indeed, “the most beautiful woman in the world.” His “eyeballs sizzled,” he wrote a few years later in his memoir Bad Boy of Music – the Austrian actress was even more beautiful in person than on the screen.

She was also very smart, with a restless curiosity that could make creative leaps startling even to the enormously gifted Antheil. And where others might spend leisure hours reading, gardening or dabbling in watercolours, or just drinking their way through the endless rounds of Hollywood cocktail parties, Hedy Lamarr was home monkeying with gadgets, wires, and circuit boards.

Lamarr’s “drawing room” was literally that: a workspace full of “unreadable books and very useable drawing boards that look as if they are in constant use,” Antheil recalled. Thus he learned the solution to the mystery of the elusive Lamarr, that had kept the Hollywood rumour mill grinding. “Hedy Lamarr stays home nights and invents.”

In his 2011 biography Hedy’s Folly, Pulitzer Prize-winning author Richard Rhodes delivers a fascinating double portrait of Lamarr and Antheil and their joint invention of spread spectrum radio technology, the rapid switching between paired frequencies that they patented in 1941 as a jam-proof guidance system for torpedoes, and that became the basis of modern wireless and broadband communications technologies.

This is a story almost too exotic to be true, of the glamorous Austrian film star and the Lost-Generation American composer fresh from Paris, meeting in Hollywood where they helped change the world. This is not a love story; it is an extraordinary tale of friendship and matched wits in pursuit of a shared goal, all the more gratifying because it is so unlikely. The idea was Lamarr’s, a point that Antheil always loyally maintained, and the practical mechanics largely his, borrowed in part from the synchronized player pianos in his revolutionary 1924 Ballet méchanique. And for decades their invention, sold to the wartime U.S. government, remained unknown outside the corridors of military planners, who from time to time would stumble yet again on the Patent No. 2,292,387 of one Hedwig Kiesler Markey, for a frequency-hopping “Secret Communication System”.

It is secret no more, and since 2010, Lamarr and Antheil’s invention has been commemorated by the respected Hedy Lamarr Lectures in Communications, jointly sponsored by the Austrian Academy of Sciences, Austria Telecom and Medienhaus Wien.

Rhodes’ well-told history is the first-ever full-length book on Lamarr and Anteil’s partnership, tracing each from childhood through their separate, high-profile early careers in film and music to their fortuitous meeting that led to their work on frequency-hopping.

Becoming Hedy Lamarr

Hedwig Kiesler was an only child of affluent and loving parents in a city obsessed with theatre. Drawing on classic sources like Stefan Zweig’s The World of Yesterday, Rhodes describes a Vienna where everything was theatrical, on stage and off, and actors, directors and playwrights walked the streets in a halo of celebrity. To Hedy, acting was almost second nature.

“I acted all the time,” she told an interviewer in 1938, copying the gestures and mannerisms of her mother, their dinner guests, the servants and people on the street. “I was a living copy book; I wrote people down on me.” At 16, she cut school for two days by doctoring a permission slip, and headed for Sascha-Film Studio and talked her way into a job as a script girl. A day later, she had auditioned for, and won, a minor role in a film called Geld auf der Straße under Georg Jacoby and left school for good. Better roles followed. Still not yet 17, she made her stage debut in The Weaker Sex, under Max Reinhardt. Just two years later, with both a scandal (the film Ecstasy) and a hit musical (Sissy, by violinist/composer Fritz Kreisler) on her record, she was courted by, and married, the charismatic arms manufacturer Fritz Mandl.

Swept into a dazzling world of almost unimaginable wealth, she realized almost immediately that she had become a prisoner of privilege, just another possession of her powerful husband who would allow her no life of her own.

She was 19 years old.

Becoming the “bad boy of music”

George Antheil left New York for Europe in 1922 to perform classic and contemporary works on the piano and most of all, to compose. With the patronage of Mary Louise Curtis Bok, heir to the Curtis Publishing fortune, Antheil set out to create a distinctive American music. “Europe – cheap, permissive and re-emergent – was a siren call for young Americans in the years after the Great War,” writes Rhodes. A native speaker of German from his immigrant parents, he headed for Berlin.

He was instantly exotic: So many men had died or were crippled; a young American with a little money was a prince of the city. “The girls and women of some of the best families were out on the street… hocking themselves in order to eat,” he wrote later. There, he met his wife to be, Boski, a “wild Hungarian” with whom he would spend the rest of his life. From there they went to Vienna, a city that was “terribly beaten, losing the war, losing their emperor, losing the illusion that they were the centre of the universe.” Just a decade earlier, Vienna had been the nexus of art and ideas; by the early 20s, the centre had moved on.

Antheil needed to be in Paris. Befriended by Sylvia Beach, he and Boski moved into a enclosed mezzanine over her bookshop Shakespeare & Company in the rue de l’Odéon, and were enfolded into the American émigré scene. This was the world of Gertrude Stein, Ernest Hemingway, the Fitzgeralds, James Joyce, and Cole Porter, in the Paris of Stravinsky, Milhaud, Diaghilev, Picasso, and Coco Chanel.

There he met American filmmakers Man Ray and Dudley Murphy, and signed on to write the score for the now classic art film Ballet méchanique, a portrait of disembodied modernism – of spinning cylinders, pistons and kitchen pots – where feeling is overwhelmed. The score would be for a dozen synchronised player pianos, “All percussive. Like machines. NO LOVE,” he wrote to a friend. It was to be a portrait of modernism.

It was nearly impossible to perform: Its live premiere in Paris dissolved into chaos.

But what mattered later was what Antheil learned along the way: in synchronizing the player pianos, he discovered a way to coordinate the perforated piano rolls that would later adapt to the “frequency-hopping” idea.

It’s about time! 

Schematics from Hedy Lamarr’s “Secret Communication System” | Illustration: U.S. Patent Office

Talking to a Forbes reporter in 1991, Hedy Lamarr’s son Anthony Loder described the birth of her greatest invention, a startling, random moment when something familiar, reimagined, suddenly becomes entirely new. It was October 1940. Lamarr and Antheil were playing improvised duets at the piano, starting and finishing each other’s thoughts:

“He was hitting some keys and she was following him, and she said, ‘Hey, look, we’re talking to each other, and we’re changing all the time!’”

It was the solution she had been looking for: to use radio frequencies for the remote control of torpedoes and glide bombs that could out-manoeuvre any German weapons to date. And by derivation, stop her arms dealer ex-husband.

The end of the war finally brought success to George Antheil; his 1945 memoir was a best seller and by 1947 he was counted with Samuel Barber, Aaron Copeland and George Gershwin as one of the most often performed American composers. He died in 1959 at the age of 58, the same year the frequency-hopping patent expired.

In 1997, Lamarr, and Antheil posthumously, jointly received the Pioneer Award of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, one of Silicon Valley’s most prestigious honours. She was 82 years old. Her comment?

“Well, it’s about time!”

 

Hedy’s Folly: The Life and Breakthrough Inventions of Hedy Lamarr, the Most Beautiful Woman in the World
by Richard Rhodes
Doubleday (2011), pp. 272

Order this book online

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