From the time Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler was born in November 1914, anyone who saw her was impacted by her beauty. No one failed to notice her whenever she entered a room. She was adored by her father, a prosperous banker in Vienna, and given every opportunity he could afford including a private tutor beginning at age 4. Unlike many other parents at the time, her father encouraged her curiosity and desire to know how things worked. Their times together included him explaining to her the intricacies of various inventions without doubting her capacity to grasp the information. And it was perhaps this that led her mother to be more critical of her skills and slow to commend her for anything she did.
Marie Benedict tells her story in The Only Woman in the Room and gives keen insight into this fascinating woman whose beauty would open many doors for her throughout her lifetime. It would be this beauty that attracts Fritz Mandl to her when she is still a teen after seeing her live acting performance on stage. His extravagant gifts of roses sent to her dressing room each night piqued her curiosity, but when he wanted to call on her and her father discovered who he was it became evident that this relationship was one she could not avoid and might be key to the safety of her entire family.
Her beloved Austria saw the rise of the fascist move in Germany and feared it would succumb and lose freedom. Fritz was a major munitions manufacturer with powerful connections all over Europe. With hints of potential threats to Jews, Hedwig’s father and mother’s Jewish heritage was one her father recognized could increase. That awareness caused her father to look at Mandl’s pursuit of his daughter differently than it might have at any other time. When asked for consent to marry his eighteen-year-old daughter by Mandl, 33, he gave his daughter a choice while also telling her it could provide safety for her and the family in the time ahead.
When Mandl chose to be in control of every aspect of the wedding including choosing the gown she would wear and the guests to be invited, Hedwig was disappointed but kept silent at the urging of her father. Married in a Christian ceremony, few of Hedwig’s family or friends would be invited.
Benedict masterfully weaves together how the marriage evolves as Mandl’s position grows in Austria and he declares his desire to keep the country free from Germany. His wealth and power put him in positions to know the most significant men of the time from not only his own country but others as well. Tasked with being the hostess in any one of Mandl’s extravagant homes, Hedwig begins to listen more carefully to the conversations of the men with whom her husband associates. It becomes clear to her that she is a “trophy wife” whose primary purpose is to be beautiful and obedient to her husband. Little-by-little she sees her own freedom eroding, but her background as an actress serves her well in playing the role her husband demands. That doesn’t prevent her from tuning into conversations indicating plans of the Third Reich and beginning to understand some of the inventions and their uses more than any of the men in the room could guess.
The beautiful Hedwig also known as Hedy sees the information she is gleaning as potentially vital to a path to freedom.
The true story of this woman whose choices make all the difference in this historical work of fiction reminds the reader of how often we can miss so much about a person when we only see what is on the outside. Her brilliant mind will never be lauded and applauded as her beauty is, but it will be the thing that she would most want to be remembered by. Her invention during WW II will be rejected by the U.S. Navy but will go on to be what leads to development of GPS, WIFI, Bluetooth technology, command, and control of nuclear weapons and more.
Who is this woman? You would know her as the Austrian born American actress, Hedy Lamarr, renamed by Louis B. Mayer when he brought her to Hollywood where she would go on to appear in 30 films over a 28-year career in Europe and the United States. The films she made are legendary, but the true story of her life was recorded in the 2017 documentary film Bombshell.
The documentary is a perfect complement after reading The Only Woman in the Room. As the film draws to a close the strains of Blue Danube Waltz begin as Hedy reads a portion of a poem (“The Paradoxical Commandments” by Kent Keith) to her adult children not long before her death in January 2000. These stanzas she reads give us a glimpse into the life she led and the choices she made:
“People are illogical, unreasonable, and self-centered. Love them anyway.
If you do good, people will accuse you of selfish ulterior motives. Do good anyway.
The biggest men and women with the biggest ideas can be shot down by the smaller men and women with the smallest minds. Think big anyway.
What you spend years building may be destroyed overnight. Build anyway.
Give the world the best you have and you’ll get kicked in the teeth. Give the world the best you have anyway.”From The Paradoxical Commandments by Kent H. Keith