When people looked at Hedy Lamarr, they saw a beautiful Hollywood starlet who lit up cinema screens. But what they failed to see was the true woman behind the glitz and glamour—the Jewish girl who watched the demise of her home country; the headstrong daughter who was devoted to her father and who saved her mother's life; the brilliant thinker who invented the technology we now use for Wi-Fi. Only recently has this fully realized version of Hedy Lamarr stepped into the spotlight, thanks to documentaries like Bombshell and a new historical fiction novel by The Other Einstein author Marie Benedict.
In the late 1920s, a young Hedy Lamarr made her first foray into acting under the tutelage of producer Max Reinhardt. By 18, she was already making a name for herself—though perhaps not in the way she wanted. A role in the racy film Ecstasy had made her the talk of Europe, earning her as many scandalized critics as it did drooling fans. Shadowed by shame and disappointment, she began approaching her career with more caution, finding safer territory on the stage. She hoped her turn in the play Sissy would finally divert public attention from Ecstasy—and while it succeeded in doing so, it also drew the attention of a very powerful suitor: Mr. Friedrich Mandl.
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Mandl's attempts to woo the actress kick off Marie Benedict’s new novel about Hedy's life, The Only Woman in the Room, which opens in 1933 when he inundates her with congratulatory roses. A womanizer ominously nicknamed the “Merchant of Death,” Mandl owns a munitions manufacturing company that's rumored to be in cahoots with the right-wing autocrats aiming to strip Vienna of its independence. Though Hedy is reluctant to play his games—at first, she’s forced by her fearful parents to acknowledge him—their meeting quickly blossoms into a love affair, then a toxic marriage that places her in the path of dangerous movers and shakers. While rubbing shoulders with the likes of Adolf Hitler, she learns startling truths about her husband’s business dealings—and about the imminent outbreak of another world war.
Marie Benedict chronicles Hedy's relationship with Mandl—a relationship she literally flees in disguise—and her life after their eventful separation. Before you can say “Action!,” Hedy is at the center of Hollywood during its brightest age, dazzling moviegoers while secretly pursuing her greatest passion: science. Her little-known experiments, inspired by the information she gleaned from her ex-husband’s conversations, ultimately produce a weapon that could have turned the tide of World War II—if only the Navy would have set aside its sexism. The Only Woman in the Room covers every act in Hedy's extraordinary journey, painting a luminous portrait of a woman who was so much more than a pretty face. The historical fiction novel is Barnes & Noble's January 2019 Book Club pick! Keep reading for an excerpt from the beginning of the book in which Hedy discusses Mandl and the future of Vienna with her parents.
I glanced around the room, family portraits crowding the walls already busy with their striped wallpaper, and saw that someone—my mother, most likely—had arranged the dozen bouquets of pale-pink roses artfully around the room. But for a single raised eyebrow, Papa remained silent on the subject of the flowers. We both knew that Mama would dole out the questions.
Mama entered the room and busied herself with pouring a glass of schnapps. Without speaking a word or meeting my eye, she conveyed her disappointment in me.
The room grew quiet while we waited for Mama to speak.
“It seems you have an admirer, Hedy,” Mama said after a long draw on her schnapps.
“What could you have possibly done to encourage such a display?”
Her tone held its usual judgment. The finishing school she’d insisted upon had failed to polish me into the marriageable young hausfrau-in-training for which she’d hoped. When I’d pursued a profession she deemed “crass,” even though the theater was held in high esteem among the Viennese, she had decided that, very likely, all my behavior followed suit. And sometimes, I admit, I obliged her with whatever young man I was currently allowing to court me. I’d occasionally let certain suitors—whether the aristocratic Ritter Franz von Hochstetten or the upstart actor and Ecstasy costar Aribert Mog—touch me in all the ways that Mama imagined, in my own private rebellion against her. Why not, I asked myself. She thought I was engaging in the salacious behavior anyway. And I liked learning that the power I had over men mirrored the power I had over the audience—to keep them in my thrall.
“Nothing, Mama. I have never even met the man.”
“Why would a man give you all these roses if you’ve given him nothing in return? If you don’t even know him? Has this man seen your reprehensible Ecstasy perhaps and figured you for a loose woman?”
Papa interjected rather sharply, “Enough. Perhaps it was the gift of her performance, Trude.” Mama’s given name was Gertrude, and Papa only called Mama by her nickname when he was trying to soften her.
After smoothing an errant black hair back into her perfect coif, Mama rose. Looking much taller than her tiny five feet, she strode over to her desk where the bouquet bearing the card sat. She reached for her silver letter opener and sliced open the familiar cream envelope.
Holding the gilt-edged card close to the lamplight, she read aloud:
To Mr. and Mrs. Kiesler, I have been fortunate enough to watch your daughter play Empress Elizabeth four times in the past week, and I congratulate you on her talent. I wish to introduce myself to you in person in order to request your permission to call upon your daughter. If that is acceptable to you, I will come to your home this Sunday evening at six o’clock, the only evening when the theater is dark. Yours truly, Friedrich Mandl.
Mr. Mandl was forcing my hand.
To my great surprise, my parents fell silent. I thought my mother would scoff at the invitation as bold and inappropriate or chide me for some invented offense surrounding Mr. Mandl’s attention. And I assumed my father—mild-mannered in all matters excepting me—would rail against the supplication by a man unconnected to us by family or friends. Yet the favorite mantelpiece clock, a gift from Mama’s parents on their wedding, ticked loudly for nearly a minute, and still they said nothing.
“What’s wrong?” I asked.
Papa sighed, something he’d done with more frequency in recent months. “We must tread carefully, Hedy.”
Mama drained her glass and asked me, “Do you know anything about this Mr. Mandl?”
“A little. When he started sending roses to my dressing room, I asked around the theater. It seems that he owns a munitions business.”
“He sent you flowers before?” Papa sounded alarmed.
“Yes,” I answered quietly. “Every night since Sissy opened.”
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They shot each other an inscrutable glance. Papa answered for them both. “I will respond to Mr. Mandl. We will have him here for a cocktail on Sunday at six o’clock, and Hedy, you will dine with him afterward.”
I was shocked. While my mother was eager for me to conform and marry a nice Döbling boy, and I guessed my father felt the same though he never said so, they had never overtly meddled in my personal life before. Not even when I refused to give up my career to accept the marriage proposal of the son of one of Germany’s most distinguished families, the Hochstetten fellow. And they’d certainly never insisted that I go on a date with a particular boy. Why now?
“Do I have any choice in this matter?
“I am sorry, Hedy, but you must. This is not a man we can risk offending,” Papa said with a sad expression.
Even though I’d guessed that I’d eventually have to meet Mr. Mandl, I wanted to resist. But the pained look on my father’s face stopped me. Something, someone was forcing his hand. “Why, Papa?”
“You were born after the Great War, Hedy. You don’t understand how politics can be a force of destruction.” He shook his head and sighed again.
But he did not elaborate. When did Papa start withholding information from me and thinking that I was unable to understand complicated matters? He had always told me that I was capable of anything, and I had believed him. His assurances had prompted my confidence to pursue acting.
“You don’t understand how politics can be a force of destruction.”
I tried to keep the anger and disappointment from my voice. “Just because I’ve chosen acting doesn’t mean that I can’t comprehend issues unrelated to the theater, Papa. You of all people should know that.”
I was irritated at Papa’s patronizing tone, unusual after years of treating me as an intellectual equal. How many Sunday nights had we spent discussing the newspaper by the fire after a family supper? Since I’d been a relatively young girl, he’d reviewed with me every detail of the headlines until he felt certain that I understood the nuances of the national and international political scene, not to mention the economic developments. All the while, Mama would sip her schnapps and shake her head in disapproval, muttering “a waste of good time” under her breath. Why would Papa think I’d changed simply because the theater now occupied my nights instead of fireside conversations?
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He gave me a weak smile and said, “I suppose that’s true, my little princess. So you must know that, only two months ago in March, Chancellor Dollfuss took advantage of an irregularity in parliamentary voting procedures to seize the Austrian government and dissolve Parliament.”
“Of course, Papa. It was all over the newspapers. I don’t just read the theater section. And I saw the barbed wire around the Parliament building.”
“Then you must understand that this move turned Austria, like Germany, Italy, and Spain, into a dictatorship. Theoretically, we are still a country with a democratic constitution and two parties—Dollfuss’s conservative Christian Social Party, which appeals to rural and upper-class folk for different reasons, and the opposing Social Democrat Party. But the reality is different; Chancellor Dollfuss is in charge and working to consolidate total power. Rumors abound that he’s going to ban the Schutzbund, the military arm of the Social Democratic Party.”
My stomach churned at Papa categorizing Austria with its fascists neighbors and lumping its leaders in the same category as Adolf Hitler, Benito Mussolini, and Francisco Franco. “I don’t know if I ever saw it written quite so plainly, Papa.” I knew Austria was surrounded by fascist dictators, but I’d thought our country had remained largely free of such rulers. For now, anyway.
“You might not read the word ‘dictator’ in the newspapers, but indeed, that is what Chancellor Dollfuss has become, with the Heimwehr, which, as you know, is a paramilitary organization, effectively serving as his personal army, since the treaty ending the Great War limits Austria’s ability to amass troops. The ostensible head of the Heimwehr is Ernst Rüdiger von Starhemberg, but behind Starhemberg is his close friend and business colleague, Mr. Friedrich Mandl. Mr. Mandl supplies all the military needs for the Heimwehr and, by all accounts, is involved in strategy as well.”
I had thought Papa was meandering in this political lecture, but now I comprehended. He was leading me to Mr. Mandl, and the power this mysterious man exerted was becoming clear. “I understand, Papa.”
“I’m not certain that you do. There is more, Hedy. I’m sure that you read in the newspapers that this Adolf Hitler became chancellor of Germany in January.”
“Yes,” I said as my mother rose for a second schnapps. Typically, she only drank one, sipping it slowly throughout the evening.
“Are you also familiar with the anti-Semitic policies Hitler has been adopting in Germany?”
I hadn’t really paid much attention to the articles on this topic, as I didn’t really think it applied to us. But I didn’t want to admit ignorance to Papa, so I said, “Yes.”
“Then you know that as soon as the Nazis came to power, they began a formal boycott of Jewish businesses and banned all non-Aryans from the legal profession and civil service. German Jewish citizens have not only been subject to violent attacks, but they’ve been stripped of their citizenship rights. Rights that Austrian Jews have counted upon since the 1840s.”
“I’ve read about that,” I said, although in truth, I skimmed those stories.
“Well, then maybe you’ve also read the articles about the Austrian Nazis who long for a unification of our country with Germany, and whatever people’s political views about Dollfuss, everyone’s primary fear is that this Chancellor Hitler will stage a coup to take over Austria. Nothing has been said publicly, but I’ve heard rumors that Chancellor Dollfuss met with Italian leader Mussolini last month and that Mussolini has agreed to aid Austria in protecting our country should there be a German invasion.”
“I suppose that’s good news, although I’m not sure Austria should be beholden to Italy,” I offered. “I mean, Mussolini is a dictator too, and we might just end up with Mussolini instead of Hitler.”
Papa interrupted me. “That’s true, Hedy, but Mussolini doesn’t advocate the same strident anti-Semitic policies as Hitler.”
“I see,” I said, although I couldn’t see why Papa was so concerned. Such policies wouldn’t really affect us. “But what does that have to do with Mr. Mandl?”
“Mr. Mandl has a long-standing relationship with Mussolini; he supplied him with weaponry for years. The rumor is that he arranged the meeting between Dollfuss and Mussolini.”
My head spun as I began to see the thread stitching Mandl into this nefarious tapestry. This was the man pursuing me?
“This Mr. Mandl is the man behind Chancellor Dollfuss’s throne. But he may also be the man behind Austria’s continued independence.”
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Featured image of Hedy Lamarr: Alcehtron