Book Review: The Only Woman in the Room by Marie Benedict
The Only Woman in the Room is the fictionalized account of a remarkable woman, Hedwig Kiesler. Set in pre-WWII Austria, this daughter of a Jewish family has begun a career as a stage actress, known for her beauty and talent. Forced into marriage with a notorious arms dealer, as the trophy wife she is privy to many dinner parties and clandestine meetings involving the Nazis and other political and military figures. But her glamour masks a formidable intellect and she absorbs a great deal more than those who dismiss her as an airhead realize.
This is the backstory of the famous Hollywood icon, Hedy Lamarr, who later goes on to display her intellectual abilities in the scientific field. She and her business partner are among the earliest to work on spread spectrum technology to develop radio guidance systems for torpedoes. This glamorous figure had more than one dimension it seems. While starring with the likes of Clark Gable and Cary Grant, her scientific work was drawing the support of figures such as Howard Hughes for this precursor to the wireless communication we use today. She had not been recognized until recently for these and other scientific accomplishments.
The Only Woman in the Room is somewhat of a hybrid Romance-Historical Fiction-Biography. It recounts Lamarr’s journey from Austria to Hollywood, mostly concentrating on her early adult life, unhappy marriage to her controlling and abusive husband and the strange existence of having to be in a nest of vipers, as the accommodating hostess to her husband’s unsavory business associates. The stunning and talented Hedy uses her position in society to actively hide her Jewish roots. The emphasis often is on her beauty, including a lot of descriptions of hair, make-up and clothes. We are treated to her inner thoughts as she navigates her situation as well as her sometimes fraught familial ties.
Despite the fascinating story of Hedy Lamarr, she comes across as somewhat of a lightweight in this telling. Her character is rather watered down. The story lacks more expansive detail and texture, which would have given it, and the characters, more depth and richness. Hedy Lamarr is a brilliant, fascinating and strong female figure, but her characterization here is in contrast to her accomplishments. The emphasis in this book is not on the truly remarkable elements of her story. It becomes difficult to make the leap from early Hedy to Hedy the scientist. If you didn’t know it was based on a true story you might think it an unlikely plot, based on the characters as drawn. The story of her scientific work is given a bit of a short shrift, especially for anyone who likes more detailed and involved historical fiction. The author appears to rush events at the end, when expanding upon them would have fully fleshed out the picture of this fascinating woman.
Despite the aforementioned shortcomings, I did enjoy the book. I had a vague knowledge of Hedy Lamar’s interesting background but was not familiar with the specifics. Some in my book group were totally surprised by the story and were inspired to look into Lamarr’s life in greater detail and read other accounts. This is a testament to Marie Benedict’s ability to spark interest in a topic. I personally think all good historical fiction has the potential to do just this. If you enjoy The Only Woman in the Room, and would like to know more, you might be interested in Hedy’s Folly: The Life and Breakthrough Inventions of Hedy Lamarr, the Most Beautiful Woman in the World by Richard Rhodes, Beautiful: The Life of Hedy Lamarr by Stephen Shearer or an or an autobiography: Ecstasy and Me, My Life as a Woman. You might also try other books by Marie Benedict in which she has shined light on hidden roles of women in history such as Carnegie’s Maid and The Other Einstein.