- - Friday, January 27, 2012

By Richard Rhodes
Doubleday, $26 272 pages

As you pick up a copy of “Hedy’s Folly,” with its eye-popping jacket of an incandescent Hedy Lamarr seductively wrapped around a gilded torpedo, you begin to wonder just what exactly you are getting into. The subtitle, “The Life and Breakthrough Inventions of the Most Beautiful Woman in the World,” gives you a clue.

But wait a minute, when you think of the sultry silver-screen siren, you think of a sex goddess and her notorious erotic nude scene in the 1930s film “Ecstasy,” which catapulted her to international stardom.

You definitely do not think of the Austrian actress, nee Hedwig Kiesler (mogul Louis B. Mayer changed it to Lamarr), as a brainiac, a nerd who was deeply into technology and invented an early version of digital wireless still used in cellphones and GPS. (Over the years, she continued to tinker and acquired a number of other significant patents.)

Obviously, the divine Hedy was far more than just a pretty face. As she famously noted, “Any girl can be glamorous. All you have to do is stand there and look stupid.”

Stupid she was not. Cosseted among the intellectual and social haute bourgeoisie of pre-World War II Vienna (her father was a successful banker) she grasped the basics of engineering and math at an early age. As a teenager, she starred in German-language films, and at 19 she married an extremely wealthy and controlling Austrian arms merchant named Friedrich Mandl, who sold weapons to both Hitler and Mussolini. (He was the first of her six husbands.)

He forbade her to work, bought up and destroyed every copy of “Ecstasy” he could find and, though he adorned her with jewels, spied on her, limited her movement and used her as a trophy wife to decorate his lavish dinner parties.

It was at these soirees where she sucked up vast amounts of military intelligence and details of classified weaponry that she later applied to her inventions after escaping her tortuous marriage and fleeing to superstardom in the golden age of Hollywood. (She managed this complicated feat with most of her jewels intact.)

At a party in 1940, she met avant-garde composer, journalist and author George Antheil, a German immigrant who had experimented with synchronization, syncopation and player pianos and understood automated control of musical instruments. They shared a passion for music - Hedy was an accomplished pianist — and over a drafting table in her drawing room they created a guidance system for torpedoes based on frequency-hopping, known as spread-spectrum radio, a forerunner to today’s electronics.

After years of trial and error, they presented their creation to the Navy, which pronounced it “too bulky” and turned it down. They received a patent, however, and Hedy turned her attention to the war effort at home. Along with a gaggle of other well-known stars, she spearheaded several successful war-bond drives. With her pitch, “I am just a plain gold digger - for Uncle Sam. I’m here to help win the war. I think you’re here to see what the Lamarr dame looks like,” she raised the startling sum of $343 million in current currency, all on her own.

She also was a regular at the legendary Hollywood Canteen. Wearing a dirndl and a demure peasant blouse, she washed dishes, danced and chatted with gob-smacked servicemen heading overseas.

As she aged, her roles declined and much of her fortune diminished. (With community property laws, ex-husbands can be extremely pricey.) She gave up a luxurious lifestyle and retired to a small home in Florida. In 1996, at 82, she finally was recognized for the pioneering invention the Navy had rejected.

Honored by the prestigious Electric Frontier Foundation and too vain to appear in public, she accepted her award via a taped recording. In her Austrian-accented English she said, “I hope you feel good as well as I feel good about it, and it was not done in vain. Thank you.”

Hedy’s Folly” is a bizarre story featuring a highly unlikely cast of characters. Pulitzer Prize-winning author Richard Rhodes, a researcher on nuclear matters, has written dual bios of the troubled and often dysfunctional Antheil and the ever-glamorous Hedy, combined with a conglomeration of science, military hardware and technical jargon.

Needless to add, Hedy steals the show.

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