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Frequency Hopping

SHE WAS A movie star trapped in loveless marriages, trite Hollywood roles, and—worst of all—her own beauty. He was a broke modernist composer reduced to writing schlocky articles for Esquire. Together they gave birth to a frequency-hopping technology that they dreamed would control torpedoes, and which, it would later be discovered, made cell phones function. While it is unlikely that Hedy Lamarr and George Antheil ever slept together, their story is still the stuff of movies.

I have read about the beauty and the geek alliance for years as an aside, or a joke in news articles about Lamarr, or a gripe (her own) about not being paid for her invention. But no one has pursued it in book form until Hedy’s Folly. Richard Rhodes’s book should be celebrated: he shows that even in the “information” age, there is a way to write about an American movie star that gives readers something new.

By focusing on this unlikely collaboration, Hedy’s Folly avoids the pitfalls of other books about Lamarr, starting with the star’s own memoir, Ecstasy and Me. These volumes ultimately fail to capture the woman who seems to have become a movie star by default and who scoffed at the public image that was constructed for her. “Any girl can be glamorous,” she memorably remarked. “All you have to do is stand still and look stupid.” That she was aware of her unsuitability to Hollywood life did not save her from it. “My ideal evening is to have dinner quietly with friends and then enjoy their stimulating conversation,” she plaintively said.

Rhodes begins his story in the usual place, with Lamarr’s childhood. But because he alternates between the young Hedwig Keisler (Lamarr) and George Antheil until they meet, about halfway through the book, even the best-known details of the star’s life seem fresh. The romantic story of Lamarr’s early years, growing up in Austria before World War Two; beginning to act in plays; and, fatefully, appearing naked in the film Ecstasy, which would taint her in Hollywood, acquires new meaning cast against Antheil’s journey from the U.S. to Paris.

Rhodes is more interested in less-told parts of Lamarr’s background than in how she looked in her famous roles, or her marriages—especially when they provide evidence for the theory that she was the brains behind the invention. He catches her eavesdropping at the dinner table while her controlling half-Jewish arms-dealer husband Friedrich “Fritz” Mandl talks about submarines and, to her horror, announces his intention to collaborate with the Nazis. Rhodes concedes that Lamarr’s dramatic escape from Mandl, in which she disguised herself as a maid and fled to Paris, and then to London, where she met Louis B. Mayer, who eventually signed her to a deal, may be made up. But for Rhodes, the point is that she wound up in Hollywood, where she met Antheil.

If the movie star’s life was one of flight, the composer’s was one of pursuit. He went to Europe in 1922 because that was where serious American composers had to go; he quickly installed himself in Paris above Sylvia Beach’s bookstore; he composed a jarring score for the Ferdinand Leger-Man Ray film Ballet Mecanique, using bells, sirens, airplane propellers, and sixteen synchronized player pianos—instruments that could be programmed, and that became obsolete with the advent of radio. Antheil’s knowledge of the player piano, combined with an earlier stint as a munitions inspector, Rhodes explains, is what made him an attractive partner in the technical collaboration the Odd Couple began in 1939. Back in the States, Antheil struggled financially. He began to write for Esquire and moved to Hollywood.

For all Rhodes’s skillful negotiation of his two heroes’ early stories, one problem with Hedy’s Folly is that Antheil quickly becomes less sympathetic than Lamarr. At times he comes across as spoiled, as he begs his patrons for money; and at other times as a cartoon, pitching his Esquire editor an article about how he can tell, just by looking, which women will sleep with him and which won’t. That leaves “the most beautiful girl in the world” as the brains behind the remote-controlled torpedo.

And yet, in trying to prove that Lamarr was capable of driving the invention, Rhodes has his work cut out for him. He can place her at the Weimar dinner parties where submarines were discussed, but there is no record of how she absorbed this information. Rhodes does his best: he recounts that in 1936 she met Hellmuth Walter, the inventor of a propulsion system for submarines. Rhodes also theorizes that Lamarr may have been inspired by a Philco radio released in the late 1930s that allowed listeners to preset  stations with a dial, as well as German glide bombs, designed to attack moving ships. Rhodes presents as evidence Lamarr’s dabbling in inventions, including a bouillon cube that turned into a soft drink and a place to put used Kleenexes.

Still. Ultimately the reader is asked to take on faith that Lamarr  had the chops to invent an unjammable frequency-hopping radio system that could control torpedoes. This might be difficult to believe, except that Rhodes shrewdly observes that inventions are often less a matter of mathematics or a Harvard education than a guessing game, often proceeding messily and unscientifically and with many different developments going on in different places simultaneously. (In these fascinating digressions, I was reminded of the many stories of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century amateurs beating out the so-called experts: John Harrison and Leon Foucault come to mind.)

A bigger problem is the book’s chill. Hedy’s Folly, like the star herself, seems cold, making me think of the film scholar Jeannine Basinger’s remark that Lamarr’s great beauty makes her our last unknowable star. Rhodes is convincing when writing about Lamarr’s leaps from one identity to another. He has deep sympathy for the power of contingency in a person’s life. And yet there is something remote in this story of two outcasts who found solace in lab coats.

Lamarr and Antheil formally began to work on their remote-controlled torpedo in 1939 after Germans sank an American ship and many lives were lost. Lamarr specifically was motivated by her desire to help the American war effort.  Yet their invention was never used. Although the US Patent Office gave the team a patent, the Navy, for a variety of reasons, shelved it. Lamarr redirected her energies into a more socially acceptable form of public service for a movie star: she helped to sell war bonds.

In 1959, the Lamarr-Antheil patent was discovered by an electrical engineer working on a Sonobuoy, a gadget used to find enemy submarines; and in 1982, as the technology became available to civilians, the patent was subsequently rediscovered by another electrical engineer, who interviewed Lamarr, then living in Florida. (Antheil was already dead.) In 1997, Lamarr was finally granted the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s Pioneer Award.

But somehow this happy ending fails to make the woman with beauty and brains that much less of a cipher.

Rachel Shteir is the author of three books, most recently, The Steal: A Cultural History of Shoplifting.