Hedy's Folly: The Life and Breakthrough Inventions of Hedy Lamarr by Richard Rhodes; Doubleday, 261 pages ($26.95). Hedy Lamarr, glamorous Hollywood star. Hedy Lamarr, glamorous genius inventor. That's the gist of Richard Rhodes' book, although it's far more complicated and fascinating than that.
There's the presence of avant-garde composer George Antheil, who stayed late into many nights with Lamarr, working out the kinks in their pioneering frequency-hopping radio device, which they dreamed up for use in U.S. Navy torpedoes to thwart interception by enemy ships. The Navy failed to put the spread-spectrum technology to work in World War II, but if you have Bluetooth, a cordless phone, Wi-Fi, or a GPS, you have Lamarr and Antheil to thank. The Austrian actress who became one of Hollywood's highest-paid stars was a stay-at-home amateur inventor when not busy on the back lot.
Antheil became Lamarr's friend and collaborator in L.A. -- applying his ideas about sonic patterns and digital control (gleaned from his work on old-fashioned player-piano scrolls) to the development of their device.
The Pulitzer Prize-winning Rhodes goes at all this with diligence and curiosity. His analytical, anti-hyperbolic prose serves the book well. How else to tell the extraordinary tale of a brilliant Viennese girl inspired by her mechanically minded father, a teenager seriously bitten by the acting bug, and then desperately trapped in a marriage to an Austrian munitions magnate -- a jealous older man whom Lamarr literally fled in the dead of night?
It was the late 1930s, during the rise of the Nazi and Fascist movements. Lamarr, a Jew -- although she kept this fact secret until near the end of her life -- made her way from Vienna to London to Los Angeles. Louis B. Mayer oversaw the name change (she was born Hedwig Kiesler), gave her English lessons, and had her sign a contract with MGM. Hers is the kind of personal history that, even if it had been presented as a Golden Age Hollywood thriller, would have seemed way too wild to be true.
-- McClatchy Newspapers