By JOHN ADAMS
The Life and Breakthrough Inventions of Hedy Lamarr, the Most Beautiful Woman in the World
By Richard Rhodes
Illustrated. 261 pp. Doubleday. $26.95.
On a sweltering Paris evening in June 1926, a 25-year-old pianist and composer from Trenton stepped out onto the stage of the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées, which was crowded with an array of pianos, bass drums, xylophones, electric bells and electric fans (later to be substituted by enormous airplane propellers), as well as a hand-cranked siren. He nodded to the conductor, and the stuffy air in the hall suddenly began pulsing and throbbing, banging and wailing with a loud and persistent mechanical cacophony. Within a few minutes, according to one eyewitness, the concert had degenerated into a shouting match: “Above the mighty noise of the pianos and drums arose catcalls and booing, shrieking and whistling, shouts of ‘thief’ mixed with ‘bravo.’ ” The audience, which included Eliot, Pound, Joyce and Diaghilev, was in an uproar.
The young composer from Trenton was George Antheil. At 5-foot-4, with a round, cherubic face and straight blond hair perfectly parted like a choirboy’s, he resembled anything but the piece of aggressive musical brutalism that was inciting the crowd. It was originally called “Message to Mars,” and was intended to be music for a Dadaist film. The title had been changed to “Ballet Mécanique,” perhaps better to amplify the work’s emphatic embrace of Machine Age aesthetics, a kind of futuristic robo-art that Fritz Lang would evoke the following year in his film “Metropolis.”
Antheil had arrived in Paris in 1923 via Berlin and had soon endeared himself to its Left Bank intelligentsia, moving with his future wife, a Hungarian woman named Boski, into a tiny apartment on the second floor of Sylvia Beach’s Shakespeare & Company bookstore and remaining there for 10 years. He shared with his hero Stravinsky a desire to distance himself from the previous generation’s plush Romanticism by posing in its place a musical ideal of severe objectivity and mechanistic precision.
“Ballet Mécanique” made Antheil a celebrity. He followed it with other attention-getting projects, including a “Jazz Symphony” and an opera, “Transatlantic,” which when it had its premiere in Frankfurt in 1930 featured an American presidential candidate caught in a love nest and a soprano singing an aria while taking a bath. For an American composer he was receiving a lot of attention, but he was nonetheless desperately, chronically broke. With Europe on economic spin cycle and fascism on the rise, Antheil returned home to America, living briefly in New York, where he wrote “squibs” for Esquire magazine, including advice for young lovers. He also published a book, “Every Man His Own Detective: A Study of Glandular Criminology.” In 1936, with a $4,000 advance from Esquire, the couple drove across the country to Hollywood, where Antheil offered himself to the movie studios. The former avant-garde musical anarchist was ready to go to work for the Beast itself, and soon he was busily if not lucratively scoring films for Cecil B. DeMille.
At the same time Antheil was plugging away in Hollywood studios, the movie mogul Louis B. Mayer, on a visit to London, was introduced to a startlingly beautiful Vienna-born actress who, although still in her early 20s, had accomplished her own scandal by appearing nude and simulating passionate adulterous sex in a mostly silent movie called “Ecstasy.” The daughter of an affluent Jewish banker, Hedwig Kiesler had studied ballet and classical piano, attended an exclusive girls’ school in Switzerland and had already endured several years as the trophy wife of Fritz Mandl, an immensely wealthy Austrian munitions manufacturer. Her acting credits were slight — her jealous husband, after the wedding, had forbidden her from further movie work and had even attempted to buy up every existing copy of “Ecstasy” — but the great stage director Max Reinhardt thought enough of her to cast her in several productions and had given her the sobriquet that would define her for the rest of her life, “the most beautiful woman in the world.”
Hedwig Kiesler, at the time she met Mayer, had just run away from her suffocating life as Mandl’s bride, fleeing with only her luggage and jewelry in search of a chance to go back to acting. But she scrounged enough to book passage on the Normandie, the exclusive luxury liner on which Mayer and his party were returning to America. Like many Hollywood stories, this one is encrusted with the usual legendary bons mots and self-serving anecdotes, but Mayer, who had seen “Ecstasy,” would be quoted as saying, “You’re lovely, but . . . I don’t like what people would think about a girl who flits bare-assed around the screen.”
Mayer did nonetheless make her an offer but with the proviso that she change her name, and so by the time the Normandie docked in New York Hedwig Kiesler stepped off the gangplank as Hedy Lamarr, renamed by Mayer himself after the late silent film actress Barbara La Marr. Ahead lay years of astonishing commercial success as one of the most marketable of Hollywood’s stars. She commanded the screen not so much for her acting, which at best was passably droll and arch, but rather for the perfect beauty of her face, with its colliding sensuality and innocence, and for the subtle irony and sly intelligence that animated her work with screen partners like Clark Gable, Jimmy Stewart and Charles Boyer.
Under contract to MGM, she worked hard, was generally liked, and although not a diva was scrupulous about fighting for her rights in an era when actors and actresses were “properties” rather than people. She avoided the celebrity party circuit, preferring small gatherings with close friends. At home she set up a drafting table and devoted her downtime to inventions, including a bouillon-like cube that when mixed with water would produce an instant soft drink. It was at a dinner at the home of the actress Janet Gaynor in 1940 that she met George Antheil.
According to Antheil’s autobiography, “Bad Boy of Music,” Hedy requested the meeting because she had read one of his Esquire articles about glands. This was Hollywood, and the most beautiful woman in the world was concerned about her breast size. Could Mr. Antheil help? A friendship began that evening, kindled by the encounter of two imaginative and inventive minds, and it is the subject of Richard Rhodes’s new book, “Hedy’s Folly.” Rhodes, who is possessed of his own imaginatively inventive mind, is best known as the author of “The Making of the Atomic Bomb,” one of the great works of scientific history. He has written elsewhere on the cold war, farming, the dangers of prions, the Donner Party and the life of John James Audubon. Rhodes’s talent is making the scientifically complex accessible to the proverbial lay reader with clarity and without dumbing down the essentials of his topics. He can make you understand how nuclear fission occurs or how an atomic bomb differs from the hydrogen “super,” and along the way he expertly weaves social and cultural commentary into his narrative.
What drew Rhodes to the twin story of the Bad Boy of Music and “the most beautiful woman in the world” was their invention of a radio-controlled “spread spectrum” torpedo-guidance system, for which they received a patent in 1942.
That a glamorous movie star whose day job involved hours of makeup calls and dress fittings would spend her off hours designing sophisticated weapons systems is one of the great curiosities of Hollywood history. Lamarr, however, not only possessed a head for abstract spatial relationships, but she also had been in her former life a fly on the wall during meetings and technical discussions between her munitions-manufacturer husband and his clients, some of them Nazi officials. Disturbed by news reports of innocents killed at sea by U-boats, she was determined to help defeat the German attacks. And Ant heil, arguably the most mechanically inclined of all composers, having long before mastered the byzantine mechanisms of pneumatic piano rolls, retained a special genius for “out of the box” problem solving.
Over several years the composer and the movie star spent countless hours together drafting and redrafting designs, not only for the torpedo system but also for a “proximity fuse” antiaircraft shell. In reality, their patent was an early version of today’s smart bombs. The device as they made it employed a constantly roving radio signal to guide the torpedo toward its target. Because the signal kept “hopping” from one frequency to another, it would be impossible for the enemy to lock onto. To solve the problems of synchronizing receiver and transmitter, Ant heil proposed a tiny structure inspired by the workings of a piano roll. This was a feat that years later would be used in everything from cellphone and Bluetooth technology to GPS instruments.
On Aug. 11, 1942, United States Patent No. 2,292,387 was granted to them for their design. But persuading the Navy to take it seriously proved insurmountable. Pentagon bureaucracy, coupled with the fact that the design’s co-inventor was a movie star, resulted in their idea being ignored. Hedy’s folly may have been in assuming men in government might overcome their prejudice that a beautiful woman could not have brains and imagination. But she lived to see similar versions of her invention be put into common practice, and in 1997, Hedy Lamarr, at the age of 82, and George Antheil (posthumously) were honored with the Pioneer Award by the Electronic Frontier Foundation.
Behind the uniqueness of this story lie deeper themes that Rhodes touches upon: the gender biases against beautiful and intelligent women, the delicate interpersonal politics of scientific collaboration and, perhaps most important of all, the never-ending, implacable conflict between art and Mammon in American culture.
This article was the cover story of the New York Times Book Review, December 15, 2010
John Adams’s “Absolute Jest” will receive its Carnegie Hall premiere in March, with Michael Tilson Thomas conducting the San Francisco Symphony.
Copyright © 2010 by John Adams
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