Hedy Lamarr had the kind of life that, at first glance, sounds too dramatic, terrifying and glamorous to be real. Her biography reads like the plot of an old-fashioned noir movie — born in Austria in 1914 at the cusp of World War I, married to an arms dealer with Nazi ties at the age of 18, she defected from the Nazis, fled to America, became a Golden Era of Hollywood movie siren and invented a frequency-hopping signal system patented by the US Navy during World War II.
And yet, despite absolutely being one of the most interesting people to have lived in the past century, Lamarr is decidedly not a household name. In “The Only Woman in the Room,” author Marie Benedict attempts to bring Lamarr’s story to the popular consciousness by novelizing it in lurid first person detail.
Writing novels about historically overlooked women from their perspective is a well worn method, from 2013’s “Z: A Story of Zelda Fitzgerald” to Benedict’s own “The Other Einstein.” It’s a clever way of centering the women who have for so long been sidelined, but it runs similar risks to Hollywood biopics. Rather than telling an organic story or understanding what exactly were the most important turning points in these women’s lives, the narratives are usually predicated on events the readers are already familiar with. If you took the screenplay of the most bluntly written, unsubtle biopic — a “Bohemian Rhapsody” or “On The Basis of Sex” — and combined it with Hedy Lamarr’s Wikipedia page, the result would be “The Only Woman in the Room.” We follow story beats we already know, and the readers get to feel superior because we know what’s about to happen when our narrator says things like, “Austria became a fascist state not only in practice but in name. I clung to Papa’s words that it was a technical change only and what mattered was the government’s ongoing dedication to keep Nazi Germany at bay.”
Fascism aside, the novel is an entertaining, easy read, but it seems unsure of what exactly it wants to be. “The Only Woman in the Room” is stuck between being an actual novel that illustrates characters’ interior lives and creates emotional stakes and a biography that draws a straightforward and clear line between discrete live events. It’s ostensibly from the perspective of Lamarr, but even though she was a real person, the novel does little to illustrate just who that person was. There are a lot of qualities we come to understand about Lamarr: her savantlike intuition for seduction, her ability to manipulate others’ perception of her, her tenacity, her ability to survive abuse. But Benedict’s writing does nothing to bring us into Lamarr’s world — we’re told these are qualities she has, and we watch her do things and see things. The prose holds her at a distance, and the result is a book chock full of war, sex, love, death, pain and glamour landing entirely flat on an emotional level.
This is where “The Only Woman in the Room” really commits the unforgivable sin in the “fictionalized account of underrepresented historical women” genre. The whole purpose is to make the reader empathize with the figure, to make people fully aware not only of the woman’s underappreciated accomplishments, but of her personhood. “The Only Woman” certainly lists a detailed account of Lamarr’s achievements, but it does little to expand on Lamarr as a person, on her desires and dreams and heart.
In all fairness, Hedy Lamarr’s legacy is uniquely difficult to give form to, and juggling between her identities is no small feat for a writer. To some, she was a traitor. To others, she was a scandalous and controversial actress (her starring role in 1933’s “Ecstasy” included the first ever nude and sex scenes on the silver screen), and that certainly was true. When her Hollywood career took off, she was often marketed as “the most beautiful woman in the world.” To a smaller subset, she was an undeniable genius, who learned war secrets by gathering intel at the parties her arms dealer husband would throw and used those secrets to develop her own munitions and weaponry.
But the uncomfortable truth is that she was all of these things: Not a noir femme fatale, not a traitor, not a sex symbol, but everything at once. She was a deeply complicated person who carried with her a lot of talent and a lot of trauma, and her life bore the weight of both. And yet, despite every good attempt to sketch her many facets in full three dimension, Benedict’s novel ultimately flattens Lamarr. I can’t wait for the day someone gets Lamarr’s history right and brings her story to the masses in a way that does full service to the remarkable and terrifying person she was. She’s been treated like a footnote in our collective memory, but we should call her what she is: a legend.