Book review: ‘Hedy’s Folly’ by Richard Rhodes

Readers who dote on movie star biographies, high or low, will likely be startled by “Hedy’s Folly.” To begin with, it is written by neither a film scholar nor a gushing fan but by a Pulitzer Prize-winning historian, Richard Rhodes, best known for his studies of nuclear weapons. Moreover, Hedy Lamarr shares the narrative with an American composer of classical music, George Antheil, the self-styled “Bad Boy of Music,” whose best-remembered work, “Ballet mecanique,” was briefly scandalous for its incorporation of airplane propellers, player pianos, bells and sirens into the concert hall. The two met at a Hollywood party, where they discussed ways to “improve” Lamarr’s figure (!), after which she scrawled her phone number on Antheil’s windshield in lipstick. An odd couple, indeed.

And yet, on Aug. 11, 1942, the movie star and the composer — avid inventors, if not trained scientists — were granted U.S. Patent Number 2,292,387 for what was called “spread spectrum radio,” initially intended as a guidance system for torpedoes that would be impossible for an enemy to detect or block. The code between transmitter and receiver would be matching rolls of paper with tiny holes punched meticulously to indicate changes of frequency, in a manner similar to Antheil’s beloved player pianos.

(Doubleday) - ‘Hedy's Folly: The Life and Breakthrough Inventions of Hedy Lamarr, the Most Beautiful Woman in the World’ by Richard Rhodes (Doubleday. 261 pp. $26.95).

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As Rhodes explains it: “With a signal hopping all over the radio spectrum, and doing so not regularly but arbitrarily, more or less at random, the transmission would be impossible to jam because an enemy would be unable to follow it. He might accidentally jam one frequency if the signal happened to hop there, but with a potential for hundreds of hops per minute, the transmission would lose very little information from such minor interference. Anyone listening on a single frequency would not even realize a signal was being transmitted, since he would hear, at most, only an occasional brief blip.”

For a variety of reasons, the Lamarr-Antheil invention was not adopted during World War II and, indeed,  remained secret for many years. (Neither celebrity made any money from the patent, although late in life Lamarr was honored for her achievement as an inventor.

If, as originally conceived, it never triggered a single torpedo, the idea of “spread spectrum radio” helped point the way toward remote controls, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth and cordless phones. “The Global Positioning System (GPS) uses spread spectrum,” Rhodes observes. “So does the U.S. military’s $41 billion MILSATCOM satellite communication network. Wireless local area networks (wLANs) use spread spectrum, as do wireless cash registers, bar-code readers, restaurant menu pads, and home control systems.”

I’ve said very little about Lamarr and Antheil, in part because their invention takes some explaining and in part because, their invention aside, they do not seem terribly important to the author. The only Lamarr film discussed in detail is the once-scandalous “Ekstase” (1933), in which the actress became perhaps the first famous woman to display bare breasts to a movie camera in anything other than a stag film. Nor is there much analysis of Antheil’s music (he was a prolific composer who was more often interesting than good). This is not meant as heavy criticism — only as notice that those who want full-fledged biographies of Lamarr and Antheil may be disappointed by the specificity of focus Rhodes has brought to his study.

But there are any number of engaging vignettes in “Hedy’s Folly.” Rhodes is particularly good when describing intellectual milieus, whether Vienna in the first years of the 20th century, the Paris of James Joyce, Ezra Pound and Sylvia Beach and — for that matter — the permanent bureaucracy of the Pentagon. Many will have forgotten the brutal Soviet attack on Finland in 1940, but Rhodes sums it up poignantly and succinctly in three pages about the death of Antheil’s brother Henry. Finally, Rhodes is one of those few writers capable of explaining complicated scientific ideas to the general public, invariably with clarity and precision and sometimes wit and poetry as well.

This is a smart, strange and fascinating book, which deserves to find an audience. Just don’t expect to learn what Hedy ate for breakfast.

Tim Page is professor of journalism and music at the University of Southern California.

HEDY’S FOLLY

The Life and Breakthrough Inventions of Hedy Lamarr, the Most Beautiful Woman in the World

By Richard Rhodes

Doubleday. 261 pp. $26.95

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