The Only Woman in the Room, the story of Hedy Lammarr, was bought for me by Ellie at Read to Ramble. I seem to have the best luck with bookish gifts – I’ve fallen in love with pretty much every book I’ve ever received as a present. This one is no exception.
Plot summary for The Only Woman in the Room:
Hedy Kiesler is lucky. Her beauty leads to a starring role in a controversial film and marriage to a powerful Austrian arms dealer, allowing her to evade Nazi persecution despite her Jewish heritage. But Hedy is also intelligent. At lavish Vienna dinner parties, she overhears the Third Reich’s plans. One night in 1937, desperate to escape her controlling husband and the rise of the Nazis, she disguises herself and flees her husband’s castle.
She lands in Hollywood, where she becomes Hedy Lamarr, screen star. But Hedy is keeping a secret even more shocking than her Jewish heritage: she is a scientist. She has an idea that might help the country and that might ease her guilt for escaping alone — if anyone will listen to her. A powerful novel based on the incredible true story of the glamour icon and scientist whose groundbreaking invention revolutionized modern communication, The Only Woman in the Room is a masterpiece.
Star Rating for The Only Woman in the Room: * * * * (four stars)
Before I picked up this book, I’d heard of Hedy Lamarr, but only in the loosest possible way – essentially, through minor references in Blazing Saddles. I vaguely knew she was a movie star alongside Judy Garland, Ginger Rogers, etc, but I had no idea about everything else she accomplished. Although given the attitudes towards women at the time, perhaps that was precisely the point.
Hedwig ‘Hedy’ Kiesler
I’m obviously not going to review Hedy Lamarr’s life, but just for a quick snapshot as to why The Only Woman in the Room was so engrossing. Hedy was a moderatley successful stage actress when she married a powerful arms dealer to protect her Jewish family from the growing Nazi threat. Unfortunately he then started dealing with the Nazis, so she disguised herself as a maid and ran away in the middle of the night. She cut a lucrative deal (negotitated by herself) with a Hollywood producer, and became wildy successful in films. At the same time, she adopted a Jewish evacuee and, most importantly, invented a system to prevent torpedoes being hacked by their enemies. This frequency-hopping system later led to the development of bluetooth. She also dated Howard Hughes and helped to develop of the aviation-related issues his team were experiencing.
I can type all that off without even having to open another browser to check. I’ve told so many people about Hedy Lamarr in the last few days that I can recite it off by heart now.
Her life was so ridiculous that, whilst I was reading, I caught myself thinking, ‘Well, THAT’S not realistic. THAT wouldn’t happen.’ And of course, it absolutely did.
The book itself
This is why the facts of the story are so interesting, although Marie Benedict can hardly take credit for those. The Only Woman in the Room, however, does deserve some recognistion for crafting Hedy Lamarr’s story into an accessible, fascinating and yet not overwhelming story.
It’s a relatively short book at 243 pages, but I think that works. Certain elements to Hedy Lamarr’s story are missed out – her stay in Paris, her involvement with Howard Hughes, most of her marriages, etc. The events that are described are not particularly in-depth, or explored. However, the length of the book allows us to read a preview of Hedy’s life, to encourage us to delve deeper if we were suitably intriged (which I very much was).
That said, Hedy’s thoughts and feelings are never neglected. We get to see inside her mind as she enthuses about her inventions, feels her shame at leaving behind her war-torn country and suffering fellow Austrians, and tires of being known only for her beauty. Again, this is a fictional account, but I suspect the author has drawn heavily upon Hedy Lamarr’s biography.
I realized that this was the moment everything would change. My personal history and every path I could have chosen in my past had shaped my present. It steered my thoughts and actions like the unseen wheel of a ship. But nothing wrested my present from its course like the SS City of Benares.
I would not wallow in my guilt and grief any longer but instead perform the penance for my sins. I would take everything I knew about the evil that was Hitler and hone myself into a blade. And I would take that blade and slice deep into the Third Reich.
It’s not a perfect book. Whilst the writing itself is good, the dialogue is not. Large swathes of information and background are forced into conversations – I suspect due to the desire to keep the book light and short. I suspect there wasn’t much need for 1940s movie stars to remind each other of the causes of the war in everyday conversation!
Whilst I did note the above fault as I was reading, it did not detract from my enjoyment. The dialogue is unnatural, but not horrible, and it remains more than readable.
If you’re looking for an in-depth fictional account of Hedy Lamarr, The Only Woman in the Room isn’t it. However, if you want an informative, entertaining glimpse at her life, look no further.
I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book, and I immediately went and did some research into Hedy Lamarr myself. I’d recommend that, given there is so much more to her than could be crammed into one small book. I’m definitely going to be buying her autobiography as soon as I get paid – I need to learn more about this fascinating woman.
Go check out Ellie at Read to Ramble – she deserves some love for introducing me to this wonderful woman!