Book Report: Hedy’s Folly

Published April 6, 2017 by Iphis of Scyros

Sooner than expected, here’s my report on the book I picked for Challenge #13 “Read a nonfiction book about technology.”

Since the text on the image is so small, let me spell out the full title of the book:  Hedy’s Folly:  The Life and Breakthrough Inventions of Hedy Lamarr, the Most Beautiful Woman in the World.  (And yes, that is a torpedo she’s sitting on on the cover.)

I admit that through the first few chapters, I was worried that it might not count as a book “about technology,” as those early chapters were pretty much standard biography of Hedy Lamarr (or rather of Hedwig Kiesler, who would later adopt the stage name of Hedy Lamarr), and her co-inventor George Antheil, a composer and author.  Then it got to the part where they were actually working on their invention, and suddenly it was absolutely all about technology.  In fact, it completely glossed over the rest of Hedy’s life in maybe five or six pages.  (Of her six husbands, the book only named two.  Or was it three?  Yeah, it was three, but still!  It did mention that she had had six, but didn’t see any need to go into details.)

Even in the purely biographical sections, there’s still a strong predisposition towards technology.  Throughout the descriptions of her early life, the author points up places where she acquired interest in or knowledge of invention and technology, particularly from her father and her first husband.  When she was little, her father, according to the book, often took her on walks through the streets of Vienna, explaining to her how everything they were seeing worked, thereby fostering an interest in matters of engineering and technology, and a general love of knowing how the world works.  This parental encouragement aided in the development of the right mindset, and provided important background information in the process.

Her first husband’s contribution was less benign.  Hedy was still very young when she married Fritz Mandl, a major Austrian weapons manufacturer who put a temporary halt to her acting career.  Mandl often entertained his business contacts, and they likely discussed weapons under development in front of her, either thinking that she couldn’t understand it or just trusting her to keep her mouth shut.  Of course, we don’t actually know what was discussed at these dinners, but Hedy did say that he would ask her opinion on his business affairs, so there’s no question that she did have inside information about the weapons his company manufactured.  (And considering he sold not only to Austria’s native Fascist party, but also to the Nazis and Mussolini, that was important information!  Though perhaps a bit out of date by the time America entered the war, since Mandl was half-Jewish, and had to flee to South America after the Anschluss.)  In fact,

When Hedy suggested that the National Inventors Council, just established in August 1940, could profitably ask her questions, she wasn’t implying she was a prodigy who could spontaneously generate inventions out of nowhere; she was referring to the fortuitous espionage she had conducted over the Mandl dinner table listening to Austrian and German experts discuss their weapons projects and problems.  In effect, she was proposing that Washington could benefit from debriefing her about the weapons-development work of the Austrian and German engineering establishments.

(Apparently, Washington did not take her up on that proposed debriefing, btw.)  Not that everything Hedy invented had to do with weapons, of course:

Hedy invented as a hobby.  “Howard Hughes once lent her a pair of chemists,” Forbes magazine reports, “to help her develop a boullion-like cube which, when mixed with water, would create a soft drink similar to Coca-Cola.  ‘It was a flop,’ she says with a laugh.”  Her daughter, Denise, remembers a tissue-box attachment Hedy invented for disposing of used tissue.  Hedy invented to challenge and amuse herself and to bring order to a world she thought chaotic.

I love the boullion-cube soda idea.  And there’s something wonderfully absurd about the fact that it was the aeronautical engineering guru Howard Hughes who lent a helping hand with the chemistry.  There’s also something prophetic about it, in a way:  how many drinks are on the market today that are created in the home with a little water?  None of them are cubed, of course — powdered and liquid are typical — and they don’t create carbonated drinks, but Hedy’s idea still pre-dates Tang, which was created for use by NASA astronauts.  (Um, as far as I know.  I admit freely that I did not look that up to confirm it.)  There was (is?) a device on the market that lets you make your own carbonated soft drinks, though.  No idea if there’s anything to it that’s similar to Hedy’s boullion-cube sodas, but it’s still impressive.

Speaking of things prophetic, the author mentions that George Antheil was good at prophecying.  (In fact, he wrote a book called The Shape of the War to Come, which came out in 1940 and was apparently quite accurate.)  In 1922, he wrote an essay called “Manifest der Musico-Mechanico,” in which he talked about “a future music enriched with new sonics through the use of mechanical reproduction,” which the author of this book quotes:

We shall see orchestral machines with a thousand new sounds, with thousands of new euphonies, as opposed to the present day’s simple sounds of strings, brass, and woodwinds.  It is only a short step until all [musical performance] can be perforated onto a roll of paper.  Of course, we will find sentimental people who will object that there will then be no more of these wonderful imprecisions in performance.  But, dear friends, these can be added to the paper roll!  Do not object; you can have what you want.

Obviously, the paper roll (of the player piano) has long since been replaced with digital synthesizers, but you have to admit that the rest of it rings rather true.  (Whether or not that’s a good thing I leave up to personal opinion, of course.  As someone who listens to soundtracks from SNES games, and has a fondness for Vocaloids, obviously I personally have no objections to purely synthetic music…)

Anyway, I suddenly realize I’ve been summing up the book instead of reviewing it.  That’s a bad habit of mine, which I need to get out of.  So, to sum up the summing up, Antheil’s early music was too experimental for concert audiences, and he ended up in Hollywood, writing film scores (which were not so experimental as his “serious” music), and a mutual friend introduced Hedy and Antheil.  They ended up working on an ingenious torpedo guidance system together, which takes up at least half of the book, if not two-thirds.

Okay, so now I should actually review the book.  It’s hard to know what to say about it, really.  (Which is, perhaps, why I spent so long summing it up instead.)  I realized, to my chagrin, that I’ve never actually seen any of her movies, which is sort of embarrassing after reading a book about her.  I need to see if Netflix or Hulu has any of them available streaming.  (I know it’s unlikely, but Netflix does carry some classic movies, so they might.)  I do want to quote one more section of the book here, about one of her movies:

Algiers was a remake of a French film, Pépé le Moko, about a jewel thief hiding out in the Casbah, the Arab quarter of the North African city of Algiers, who meets the beautiful French visitor Gaby, falls in love with her, and, in doing so, is delivered to ruin by the jealousy of his Algerian mistress, Ines.  “The film and especially Hedy Lamarr were a sensation,” writes a film historian.  “Pepe and Gaby fall in love and learn that they grew up in the same [impoverished] Parisian quarter.  He says:  ‘What did you do before the jewels?’  She replies:  ‘I wanted them.'”  Pepe’s invitation, “Come with me to zee Casbah,” though it was only spoken in the film’s trailer, entered the American language.

OMG, the movie that inspired Pepe le Pew and one of his main catch-phrases.  How did I not know about that before?

Uh, getting back to the book, I liked the biographical chapters better than the technical chapters.  They got a bit too technical, and frankly I don’t have enough background in how radio waves work (and other such issues) to get as much out of them as I might have.  It’s not that I didn’t understand them at a basic level, but I’m sure there were subtle points that went over my head.  It was all cleanly and crisply written, though.  However, there were no footnotes, and the author rarely mentioned the names of his sources in the text.  (Things like the “writes a film historian” above were typical.)  There are endnotes at the back of the book, but they’re simply numbered by page, and there’s no marker in the text to tell you there’s a note for what you just read.  I suppose that’s typical in a nonfiction book written for a mass audience, but I find it frustrating on general principles.

So there’s another challenge down.  (Also a book knocked off the “to read” shelf in my hallway, where it’s been waiting for years.)  The next book I’m going to read is one that could count for several, so it’s going to join the list of “not writing it on the sheet until I’m sure which challenge I want to count it towards.”  It looks pretty long, but it probably has larger text than I’m used to.  In any case, I really need to be doing my school work right now, so hopefully it will be some time before I’m able to report back on it.


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