The Only Woman in the Room by Marie Benedict
Published by Sourcebooks Landmark
Publication date: January 8, 2019
Genres: Fiction, Historical
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For those of you who aren’t old movie buffs…why not?! Old black and white movies with all their stylized glamour are one of the best escapes out there. But I digress. If you’re not aware of Hollywood in the 1930s then you won’t recognize the subject of Marie Benedict’s new novel The Only Woman in the Room. It’s Hedy Lamarr, who at the peak of her career, was known as one of the most beautiful women in the world. What was not known was her life story and what a brilliant mind lay beneath her gorgeous façade. As in her previous book The Other Einstein, Benedict takes a woman about whom little is known (even though Lamarr was a star) and brings to life a fuller picture of this multi-faceted woman.
Lamarr was an Austrian Jew who had success acting on the stage in Vienna. At 19 she came to the attention of Friedrich Mendl, an older, powerful arms dealer. It’s the early-1930s—a time when anti-Semitism was on the rise in Austria and Hitler was seeking to reunify Germany and Austria. Fritz offers much to the young Hedy, namely the money and power to protect her and her parents from the increasing persecution of Jews. They marry, but Lamarr soon realizes her new husband is jealous and controlling and a Nazi sympathizer. She escapes to America and when she’s not busy being a successful film star she and a composer friend create a guidance system that keeps the signals directing Allied torpedoes from being jammed by the Germans. Not surprisingly, none of the men in power at the time believed that something coming from a movie star (and a woman at that) would work so it was not approved and put into use until the 1960s.
Lamarr has a life as packed with intrigue and action as any movie and Benedict does an admirable job covering it without writing a 600-page book. We learn that it is Lamarr’s father who imbued in her a love of science, music, any subject her inquiring young mind turned towards. We see the jumps and skips that same mind made to come up with her invention. Benedict recreates time and place beautifully but, while the facts are all in place, there is a feeling of remove from Lamarr as a person. Her guilt at having escaped what so many of her fellow Jews suffered is clear but the rest of her life still feels somewhat hidden. My sense is that her involvement in the war effort and her invention are the why Benedict wrote The Only Woman in the Room and I understand that. I was just ready for even more about this fascinating woman.