three-and-half-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
57-Mar-Apr-2012
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The Life and Breakthrough Inventions of Hedy Lamarr, the Most Beautiful Woman in the World

A-Hedys-FollyAmerican journalist and historian Richard Rhodes won the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award for the first installment of his four-volume The Making of the Nuclear Age--namely, The Making of the Atomic Bomb (1986). His latest effort remains in his wheelhouse, though you may not expect that at first. Hedy's Folly revisits the story of one of Hollywood's most famous actresses--and her contribution to technology that we couldn't do without.

The Topic: The next time your GPS helps you find that out-of-the-way bookstore, thank Hedy Lamarr. Sort of. Along with avant-garde composer George Antheil, Lamarr, the Austrian-born actress touted as "the most beautiful woman in the world," developed frequency-hopping technology for torpedo guidance systems--work that eventually led to the GPS and cell phone technology we use today. After a controversial turn in the Czech film Ecstasy in the early 1930s and an oppressive marriage to German arms manufacturer Friedrich Mandel, Lamarr reinvented herself in America, becoming one of the most bankable stars in Hollywood. She was also an amateur scientist with important ideas. For their work, she and Antheil received a patent--and little else. Why was credit not more forthcoming? The Navy was hardly "prepared to take correction from a Hollywood actress," Rhodes writes, "in a matter about which it was not prepared to listen to its own submarine commanders."
Doubleday. 272 pages. $26.95. ISBN: 9780385534383

NY Times Book Review 4 of 5 Stars"Rhodes's talent is making the scientifically complex accessible to the proverbial lay reader with clarity and without dumbing down the essentials of his topics. He can make you understand how nuclear fission occurs or how an atomic bomb differs from the hydrogen ‘super,' and along the way he expertly weaves social and cultural commentary into his narrative." John Adams

Wall Street Journal 4 of 5 Stars"[Rhodes] tells the story of a 1940s Hollywood bombshell and her fascination with military-weapon design. Yet even though Hedy's Folly ostensibly concerns, as the subtitle has it, ‘the life and breakthrough inventions of Hedy Lamarr, the most beautiful woman in the world,' the book is equally about the role that chance and coincidence can play in the development of technology." Henry Petroski

Entertainment Weekly 3.5 of 5 Stars"Rhodes, the Pulitzer Prize–winning author of The Making of the Atomic Bomb, takes on a decidedly kinder example of technological innovation in Hedy's Folly. ... While Rhodes takes his time to reach the meat of his story, he manages to capture the sheer improbability of these unlikely Edisons." Keith Staskiewicz

San Francisco Chronicle 3.5 of 5 Stars"Rhodes, who has written prize-winning histories of the making of the atomic bomb and the hydrogen bomb, brings affection to the new telling of Lamarr's adventure with missile guidance. ... Rhodes' style has the breezy charm of the kind of New Yorker article that can turn a footnote into a yarn, yet it misses much of the broader Hollywood context." David D'Arcy

Slate 3.5 of 5 Stars"Rhodes succeeds in the most vital thing--capturing the spirit of a willful woman who wanted recognition for more than her pretty face--but he skims over the deeper questions that Lamarr's life story raises about the nature of creative genius. ... In the end, her gadgets shouldn't distract from the most incredible thing that this refugee from an unremarkable Austrian family ever invented--herself." Sam Kean

New York Times 3 of 5 Stars"[Rhodes] presents this story clearly, but I longed for more: crisper and more evocative prose, more of an essayistic and metaphysical bent, more moments that go off in your head like chimes." Dwight Garner

Seattle Times 2 of 5 Stars"Rhodes' pedigree makes his new work all the more puzzling. There doesn't seem to be ‘any there, there,' which is especially disappointing since it comes from an author who previously set the bar so high. ... Despite its relatively small size, Hedy's Folly has a padded feel." Curt Schleier

Critical Summary

Not as scientifically rigorous as Richard Rhodes's books on the making of the atomic bomb or on prion-based disease (Deadly Feasts [1997]), Hedy's Folly nonetheless tells a surprising, relatively obscure, tale of genius and invention. Rhodes maintains the pace throughout, and his clear passion for the subject (perhaps Rhodes has a bit of a crush on Lamarr, and why not?) propels the story forward. Although Hedy's Folly won't rank with the author's prize-winning efforts, it's a quirky, engaging read. Some critics smelled a magazine article dressed as a book here, finding Rhodes's treatment of the story superficial. Still, the fascinating connections--Lamarr's Hollywood circle included every important player in the film industry, and Antheil's intellectual pursuits in 1920s Paris are a Who's Who of expat and modern culture--contrast neatly with the actress's obsessive desire for privacy. Lamarr, Rhodes makes clear, was a woman for whom the life of the mind was as important as anything she did in front of the camera.