Book Review: The Only Woman in the Room by Marie Benedict (Three Stars)


Book Review: The Only Woman in the Room by Marie Benedict

(Three Stars)

“Another performance. I figured I would find a way out. But the Hedy I truly was underneath all the external playacting had developed real feelings.”

I read–and am reviewing this–as historical fiction, not a biography. As such it’s excellently composed and written. Using a first-person point of view Benedict takes us deep into Hedy Kiesler/Lamarr’s mind, thinking thoughts that we (and she) have no way of knowing whether Hedy thought, based on her decades of seclusion before her death in 2000. If Benedict had sources for such speculation, she didn’t mention them. Most of the facts reveal Wikipedia-depth research.

“You’re not a Jew, are you?” “No, of course not, Mr. Mayer,” I answered quickly. What else could I say? If my survival in this new life depended on lies, then lies it would be. I was no stranger to them.”

Benedict’s thesis: Hedy was rejected because a woman. Yet fellow inventor (and well-connected) Howard Hughes loaners her facilities and help; why did she not pitch her idea to him? Even in wartime, getting your ideas considered means jumping through the right hoops, as the author recognized relative to immigration. The job of “gate keepers” is to keep everyone out. The trick is getting passed the gatekeepers. The business about her self-assigned guilt reads better.

“How could they reject an invention that could not only accurately steer an entire fleet of torpedoes to its destination, but would also be unjammable by the enemy, in favor of an old-fashioned system that never worked in the first place?”

About “spread spectrum” tuning. Yes, Hedy’s invention anticipated later inventions, but that doesn’t mean it would have worked. Because of latency–the amount of time it takes for machines to respond to one another–synchronizing all those largely-mechanical circuits would have been next to impossible. It’s do-able today due to solid-state circuitry (the transitory wasn’t invented until 1947) and fast clock times. In no way denying the brilliance of her insight, it may have not been feasible with the state of technology then.

“All the rage storming within me evaporated, leaving a hollow, if beautiful, shell. Perhaps the shell was all this world wanted from me. And perhaps the world would never allow me my penance.”

(Full disclosure: my maternal great-grandfather was Fredrich Kiesler, an Austrian. Possibly, though unlikely, I’m related to Hedy.)