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Hedy's WWII adventure

John Adams 

On a sweltering Paris evening in June 1926, a 25-year-old pianist and composer from Trenton stepped out onto the stage of the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées, which was crowded with an array of pianos, bass drums, xylophones, electric bells and electric fans (later to be substituted by enormous airplane propellers), as well as a hand-cranked siren. He nodded to the conductor, and the stuffy air in the hall suddenly began pulsing and throbbing, banging and wailing with a loud and persistent mechanical cacophony. Within a few minutes, the concert had degenerated into a shouting match: “Above the mighty noise of the pianos and drums arose catcalls and booing, shrieking and whistling, shouts of ‘thief’ mixed with ‘bravo’. ” The audience, which included Eliot, Pound, Joyce and Diaghilev, was in an uproar.

The young composer from Trenton was George Antheil. At five-foot-four, with a round, cherubic face and straight blond hair perfectly parted like a choirboy’s, he resembled anything but the piece of aggressive musical brutalism that was inciting the crowd. Originally called “Message to Mars,” the title had been changed to “Ballet Mécanique,” perhaps better to amplify the work’s emphatic embrace of Machine Age aesthetics.

Antheil had arrived in Paris in 1923 and had soon endeared himself to its Left Bank intelligentsia, moving with his future wife, Boski, into a tiny apartment on the second floor of Sylvia Beach’s Shakespeare & Company bookstore and remaining there for 10 years.

At the same time Antheil was plugging away in Hollywood studios, the movie mogul Louis B Mayer, on a visit to London, was introduced to a startlingly beautiful Vienna-born actress who, in her early 20s, had accomplished her own scandal by simulating passionate adulterous sex in a mostly silent movie called Ecstasy. The daughter of an affluent Jewish banker, had studied ballet and classical piano, attended an exclusive girls’ school in Switzerland and had already endured several years as the trophy wife of Fritz Mandl, an immensely wealthy Austrian munitions manufacturer. Her acting credits were slight but the great stage director Max Reinhardt thought enough of her to cast her in several productions and had given her the sobriquet that would define her for the rest of her life, “the most beautiful woman in the world”.

Hedwig Kiesler, at the time she met Mayer, had just run away from her suffocating life as Mandl’s bride, in search of a chance to go back to acting. She booked a passage on the Normandie, the exclusive luxury liner on which Mayer was returning to America. Mayer made her an offer but with the proviso that she change her name, and so by the time the Normandie docked in New York stepped off the gangplank as Hedy Lamarr, renamed by Mayer after the late silent film actress Barbara La Marr.

Under contract to MGM, she worked hard. At home she devoted her downtime to inventions, including a bouillon-like cube that when mixed with water would produce an instant soft drink. It was at the home of the actress Janet Gaynor in 1940 that Lamarr met Antheil.

What drew Rhodes to the twin story of the Bad Boy of Music and “the most beautiful woman in the world” was their invention of a radio-controlled “spread spectrum” torpedo-guidance system, for which they received a patent in 1942.

That a glamorous movie star would spend her off hours designing sophisticated weapons systems is one of the great curiosities of Hollywood history. Lamarr, however, not only possessed a head for abstract spatial relationships, but she also had been in her former life a fly on the wall during technical discussions between her munitions-manufacturer husband and his clients, some of them Nazi officials. Disturbed by news reports of innocents killed at sea by U-boats, she was determined to help defeat the German attacks. And Antheil, arguably the most mechanically inclined of all composers, having long before mastered the byzantine mechanisms of pneumatic piano rolls, retained a special genius for “out of the box” problem­solving.

Over several years the composer and the movie star spent hours together drafting designs, not only for the torpedo system but also for a “proximity fuse” anti-aircraft shell — their patent was an early version of today’s smart bombs.

On August 11, 1942, US Patent No. 2,292,387 was granted to them for their design. But persuading the Navy to take it seriously proved insurmountable. Hedy’s folly may have been in assuming men in government might overcome their prejudice that a beautiful woman could not have brains and imagination. But she lived to see similar versions of her invention be put into common practice, and in 1997, Hedy Lamarr, at the age of 82, and George Antheil (posthumously) were honoured with the Pioneer Award by the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

Behind the uniqueness of this story lie deeper themes: the gender biases against beautiful and intelligent women, the delicate interpersonal politics of scientific collaboration and, perhaps most important of all, the never-ending, implacable conflict between art and Mammon in American culture.

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

Richard Rhodes
Doubleday; 261 pages; $26.95

©2011 The New York Times News Service

First Published: Mon, December 19 2011. 00:20 IST