From the archive
At the same time Antheil was plugging away in Hollywood studios, the movie mogul Louis B. Mayer, on a visit to London, was introduced to a startlingly beautiful Vienna-born actress who, although still in her early 20s, had accomplished her own scandal by appearing nude and simulating passionate adulterous sex in a mostly silent movie called “Ecstasy.” The daughter of an affluent Jewish banker, Hedwig Kiesler had studied ballet and classical piano, attended an exclusive girls’ school in Switzerland and had already endured several years as the trophy wife of Fritz Mandl, an immensely wealthy Austrian munitions manufacturer. Her acting credits were slight — her jealous husband, after the wedding, had forbidden her from further movie work and had even attempted to buy up every existing copy of “Ecstasy” — but the great stage director Max Reinhardt thought enough of her to cast her in several productions and had given her the sobriquet that would define her for the rest of her life, “the most beautiful woman in the world.”
Hedwig Kiesler, at the time she met Mayer, had just run away from her suffocating life as Mandl’s bride, fleeing with only her luggage and jewelry in search of a chance to go back to acting. But she scrounged enough to book passage on the Normandie, the exclusive luxury liner on which Mayer and his party were returning to America. Like many Hollywood stories, this one is encrusted with the usual legendary bons mots and self-serving anecdotes, but Mayer, who had seen “Ecstasy,” would be quoted as saying, “You’re lovely, but . . . I don’t like what people would think about a girl who flits bare-assed around the screen.”
Mayer did nonetheless make her an offer but with the proviso that she change her name, and so by the time the Normandie docked in New York Hedwig Kiesler stepped off the gangplank as Hedy Lamarr, renamed by Mayer himself after the late silent film actress Barbara La Marr. Ahead lay years of astonishing commercial success as one of the most marketable of Hollywood’s stars. She commanded the screen not so much for her acting, which at best was passably droll and arch, but rather for the perfect beauty of her face, with its colliding sensuality and innocence, and for the subtle irony and sly intelligence that animated her work with screen partners like Clark Gable, Jimmy Stewart and Charles Boyer.
Under contract to MGM, she worked hard, was generally liked, and although not a diva was scrupulous about fighting for her rights in an era when actors and actresses were “properties” rather than people. She avoided the celebrity party circuit, preferring small gatherings with close friends. At home she set up a drafting table and devoted her downtime to inventions, including a bouillon-like cube that when mixed with water would produce an instant soft drink. It was at a dinner at the home of the actress Janet Gaynor in 1940 that she met George Antheil.
According to Antheil’s autobiography, “Bad Boy of Music,” Hedy requested the meeting because she had read one of his Esquire articles about glands. This was Hollywood, and the most beautiful woman in the world was concerned about her breast size. Could Mr. Antheil help? A friendship began that evening, kindled by the encounter of two imaginative and inventive minds, and it is the subject of Richard Rhodes’s new book, “Hedy’s Folly.” Rhodes, who is possessed of his own imaginatively inventive mind, is best known as the author of “The Making of the Atomic Bomb,” one of the great works of scientific history. He has written elsewhere on the cold war, farming, the dangers of prions, the Donner Party and the life of John James Audubon. 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.
What drew Rhodes to the twin story of the Bad Boy of Music and “the most beautiful woman in the world” was their invention of a radio-controlled “spread spectrum” torpedo-guidance system, for which they received a patent in 1942.