Estimated reading time: 7 minutes
Human history holds many small marvels and curiosities for those willing to plunge below the surface, and Marie Benedict displays one of them to us in her biographical book The Only Woman in the Room. It traces the story of Hedy Lamarr, Austrian-American Hollywood superstar whose invention revolutionized not only the field of modern communication, but also challenged the entire world’s perspective on what women are capable of accomplishing.
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Marie Benedict Highlights a Forgotten Genius
We often under-appreciate the amount of genius surrounding us, even though our lives go hand-in-hand with innumerable technological innovations and old inventions which make up the modern world. Simply looking around you (provided you are not reading this in the middle of the forest) will likely reveal a vast array of man-made inventions which have stood the test of time, from the pavement on the street to the furniture inside your living room.
As you might gather, there are far too many inventions for us to keep up with the names of their inventors, but a few have perhaps unjustifiably been pushed out of most history textbooks, a few such as Hedy Lamarr. In her biographical work titled The Only Woman in the Room, Marie Benedict takes it upon herself to relay the extraordinary life of a Hollywood sensation and scientist who certainly made the most of her abilities.
Starting rather early in her life, the book retraces Lamarr‘s marriage to an Austrian ammunition manufacturer as the Third Reich began to take over the country. We learn about the time she spent at her husband’s side, underestimated by anyone and everyone, to the point where she was allowed to hear some of the plans the Nazi party had in store for the rest of the world. After a daring escape from Nazi Austria, we get treated to a life path very few have ever had the opportunity of walking: one of Hollywood celebrity.
Benedict chronicles Lamarr‘s rise to stardom and all it entailed while she kept the secrets of her marriage and heritage behind shut lips. Following this segment, The Only Woman in the Room begins to focus on what might arguably be her greatest contribution to mankind, a radio guidance system for Allied torpedoes which used spread spectrum and frequency hopping, developed alongside composer George Antheil. Though her invention didn’t really see any use before the 1960s, its principles remain largely relevant today, being incorporated into Bluetooth technology and Wi-Fi, just to mention a couple of examples.
A Woman of Many Roles
Few are those in life who truly have the opportunity to achieve mastery in several fields, and Hedy Lamarr was without a doubt part of those elite few.Her biography in itself already sounds close to a work of fiction, so I imagine Benedict had little trouble weaving it all together into a compelling narrative.
Whether she touches on Lamarr’s role as a wife, scientist, refugee, actress or inventor, the author always takes care to plunge us into this particular aspect of her life, attempting to make us understand what she went through, which is no small feat considering how far removed from us the events are now. This is definitely one of those cases where the author manages to put the reader into the character’s shoes simply because of the sheer amount of detail presented and the masterful way in which it’s laid out into a narrative structure.
I was like an antenna seeking out sounds no one else could hear. Silent harbingers of doom.― Marie Benedict, The Only Woman in the Room
Personally-speaking, I wasn’t really familiar with Hedy Lamarr before reading The Only Woman in the Room and haven’t done any additional research, but the impression I got was the author used all the possible information she could get her hands on. We are constantly treated to little notes and details about the woman in question, her perception by others, her thoughts, ambitions, morals… in short, Benedict gives us about as complete a portrait of a human being as we could ever expect. We get to see her as so much more than “just” a Hollywood actress; we get to see her as a person who shaped the course of history with the power of her intellect.
With this being a novel of a historical nature, a decent amount of historical content is only to be expected, and boy does it deliver on this front. We are treated to perhaps some of the best contextualization I’ve had the pleasure of reading recently with rich and precise descriptions of political and social climates wherever Lamarr’s story takes us next.
From the rise of the Nazi party in Austria to the elitist circles of the upper crust at Hollywood, Benedict leaves no stone unturned and is determined to relay to us with perfect accuracy the environments Hedy Lamarr had to navigate and live in, the countries and cities which helped to shape her being. I feel the amount of research the author did into all those subjects is worthy of praise, especially since it shines bright from start to finish.
Thankfully none of this actually reads like a history book and all the contextual details are inserted into their appropriate places; they always feel as parts of her story rather than humanity’s as a whole. Even when it comes to the crowning achievement (which probably prompted the writing of this biography amongst others), the invention of the radio guidance system alongside composer George Antheil, Benedict treats it with the appropriate level of investigation.
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She does a remarkable job in using layman’s terms to explain what the device does and makes us understand its importance not only at the time, but also in our very own present. Ultimately, she makes a case for making Hedy Lamarr a prominent figure for her exploits outside of her Hollywood career.
The Final Verdict
The Only Woman in the Room by Marie Benedict is about as informative and entertaining as a biography could possibly hope to be, educating us about a wide range of people and the historical context surrounding them, all while tracing the sensational life of one woman who charmed the world with her beauty and shaped it with her intellect. I highly recommend this to anyone who is even remotely interested in Hedy Lamarr or inventors in general.
But I had stared the leaders of our enemies in the eyes and turned my ear to their voices, and I knew the terror they meant to wreak upon our world.― Marie Benedict, The Only Woman in the Room
Marie Benedict is an author and lawyer with the distinction of having being a magna cum laude graduate of the Boston College with a focus in History and Art History, as well as a cum laude graduate of the Boston University School of Law.
In addition to having more than then years of experience as a litigator, Benedict also found her hand in writing historically-oriented books, including the novels Carnegie’s Maid and The Other Einstein as well as the non-fiction book The Only Woman in the Room.