The title of Hedy’s Folly: The Life And Breakthrough Inventions Of Hedy Lamarr, The Most Beautiful Woman In The World is something of a misnomer: Pulitzer Prize-winner Richard Rhodes devotes as much of his novella-length history to American avant-garde composer George Antheil as to Hedy Lamarr, who served as his partner in invention during World War II. The subject is the unlikely duo’s collaboration on a torpedo-guidance system during World War II—ignored by the Navy at the time, but since considered the groundwork for wi-fi.
Rhodes’ attention is all over the place; essentially, the first half of his book jerkily sketches out the first half of Lamarr’s life in three chapters, while doing the same for Antheil in two. There are indications that editorial supervision was light at best: on page three, Rhodes notes that Lamarr once “famously and acidly said” “Any girl can be glamorous. All you have to do is stand still and look stupid.” The quote returns verbatim on page 82, this time only “famously,” with the acidity cut out. Similarly, it’s disconcerting to see Time magazine’s appraisal of Antheil as a “cello-sized man” twice in 30 pages. But it’s perhaps best not to expect too much from a book that begins “Invention is a strange business,” suggesting that the author is none-too-invested in pushing his prose. In any case, Lamarr is on the cover: no matter what the book says about her, her sexy photo and familiar name will sell copies first and foremost. So much for respecting her intelligence.
Lamarr and Antheil both spawn plenty of interesting details, and Rhodes’ research is unsurprisingly thorough, whether trying to parse out the true details of how Lamarr fled her first husband and Austria from multiple melodramatic accounts (at one point, she claimed to have drugged her maid) or reconstructing the tumultuous première of Antheil’s noisy Ballet Mécanique, which featured an airplane propeller. In spite of the first half’s frustrating sketchiness—not so much impressionistic as hyperactively superficial—the broad narratives compel.
But readers will need to have massive amounts of patience for technological explanations (“when the torpedo was launched, it broke the connecting wire, which interrupted the electricity flowing to the solenoids, which ceased to be magnetized, which released the solenoid rods”) and dry explanations of patent law, often quoted straight from less-than-compelling sources. (“An old and classic legal text, Walker On Patents, condenses many court decisions into a description of what constitutes a patentable invention”) to make their way through the back half of Hedy’s Folly. The research is there, but the impression persists of cut-and-paste history, inelegantly slapped together.