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The Only Woman in the Room


The Only Woman in the Room

When you hear the name Hedy Lamarr, you no doubt immediately picture “The Most Beautiful Woman in Films,” with her raven locks, porcelain skin and impossibly gorgeous face. What you probably don’t envision is Hedy Kiesler, the savvy, headstrong inventor. Yes, that’s right: Hedy Lamarr lived a double life. And in THE ONLY WOMAN IN THE ROOM, author Marie Benedict illuminates both sides of this complex woman’s life in a way that only a gifted writer can, resulting in a glittering, spell-binding tale of glamour, intrigue and fierceness.

Divided into two parts, THE ONLY WOMAN IN THE ROOM begins in pre-World War II Austria, where the young theater actress Hedy Kiesler has just wrapped up a magical performance as Sissy, Austria’s beloved empress. Although she has had some negative press in the past, tonight Hedy shines --- and it is not long before she is treated to a well-meaning yet highly embarrassing barrage of roses. This decidedly un-Austrian move takes Hedy by surprise, but she handles it well, and soon finds herself being wooed by Friedrich Mandl, the richest man in Austria.

"Beautifully written, compassionately rendered and compulsively readable, THE ONLY WOMAN IN THE ROOM is the perfect work of historical fiction for our time. Benedict has done Lamarr true justice, and I feel certain that she would love this book."

Before long, Hedy and Fritz are married, and her life takes a drastic turn. Where she was once showered in affection and respect, she is now treated like a possession. Fritz makes her give up the stage and forces her to play the new role of his wife --- impeccable hostess, passionate love-maker and silent companion. Hedy, who possesses a strong wit in addition to her impossibly good looks, soon feels stifled, oppressed and angry. But Fritz is not only wealthy, he is also a powerful arms dealer with dangerous connections and a vicious temper. Hedy makes one failed attempt at running away before she realizes that she will have to be very, very careful if she is to escape Fritz --- and possibly Austria --- with her life. Benedict does not shy away from Fritz’s cruel tendencies, and her portrayal of a woman suffering in a violent marriage is compassionate yet realistic. Despite her later fame, Hedy truly feels like “one of us” in Benedict’s deft hands.

At the same time, tensions are beginning to brew with the new German leader Adolf Hitler. Hedy trusts and believes that her marriage to Fritz will keep her safe, as he has vowed to protect Austria and keep it independent from the Nazis. But it soon becomes apparent that Fritz follows the money more than his morals, and he begins dealing arms to the Nazis. As a Jewish woman, Hedy feels betrayed and terrified, though she is lucky in that she can more or less hide her Jewish roots. Still, as she learns more and more about the Nazis’ plans, and her husband’s role in the attack on the Jewish people, her need to escape becomes more pressing than ever.

One night, Hedy dons her maid’s uniform (after drugging the maid to sleep, of course) and escapes. Her plan is to head to Hollywood, where many Jewish emigrants have found success, or at least safety. She manages to meet and charm Louis B. Mayer, head of MGM, and secures herself a lucrative deal that allows her to return to her first true love: acting. Still, she cannot ignore her roots, and as the news from Europe becomes more and more terrifying, she starts feeling guilty about her role in marrying Fritz and keeping his secrets. This is where her story takes a surprising turn as she begins to unite her memories from Fritz’s business meetings with some scientific research and becomes an inventor. Juxtaposing glamour with science, Benedict develops a perfect portrait of this memorable woman, and reveals a forgotten, covered-up and necessary portion of history.

Benedict shines in her exploration of Hedy’s second life. Lamarr has only just begun to receive praise for her brilliance, and Benedict has picked the perfect time to really highlight this side of her personality and reveal it to readers. As Lamarr tinkers and invents a frequency-hopping system meant to prevent torpedoes from hitting their marks, she faces prejudice, misogyny and humiliation, yet she does not give up. Although her designs were never actually used in World War II, Benedict explains in an Author’s Note that her system could have inspired the scientists and engineers who developed GPS. As always, Benedict’s research is thorough yet not overwhelming. She is a true master of the historical fiction genre, and her portrayals of strong women never fail to amaze.

In a fun twist, I actually read this book on my phone. When I realized that I was holding some of the technology made possible by Lamarr’s efforts, Benedict’s story truly came to life for me. Who knew that we all would be so close to the most beautiful woman in films without even realizing it? Beautifully written, compassionately rendered and compulsively readable, THE ONLY WOMAN IN THE ROOM is the perfect work of historical fiction for our time. Benedict has done Lamarr true justice, and I feel certain that she would love this book.

Reviewed by Rebecca Munro on January 11, 2019

The Only Woman in the Room
by Marie Benedict