Marie Benedict never lacks for material. The Sewickley-based writer keeps a list of women who have made contributions to the arts, sciences, and history, but are relatively unknown.
The only reason they aren’t more famous is history’s tendency to be written with a patriarchal bias. “I have running lists of women, huge numbers of women,” says Benedict, the pseudonym of Heather Terrell. “I’m constantly adding to that list. I find them everywhere.”
The topic of Benedict’s latest novel, The Only Woman in the Room, was hiding in plain sight. Actress Hedy Lamarr is best known for her sultry roles in Ziegfeld Girl, Samson and Delilah, and The Heavenly Body.
But Lamarr also made significant contributions to modern technology. The ubiquity of cell phones and wireless internet can be directly traced to Lamarr’s groundbreaking work. Collaborating with avant-garde composer George Antheil, Lamarr invented the technology that became the basis for Wi-Fi, GPS, and Bluetooth. “Every one of us, every day, holds a piece of Hedy Lamarr’s invention in our hand,” Benedict says. “We have really no sense of that, and there’s been no broad-scale acknowledgment of her invention until recently.”
Benedict worked as a lawyer before becoming a writer. She started with historical fiction before turning to young adult novels. Her current niche started in 2016 when she released The Other Einstein, about Albert Einstein’s wife Mileva Maric. In Carnegie’s Maid (2018), she created a fictional character based on her research of a possible confidante to industrialist Andrew Carnegie.
The Only Woman in the Room has earned Benedict the best reviews of her career and reached No. 7 on the New York Times’ Best Seller list in February.
Lamarr’s story is improbable. Born Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler in Austria in 1914, she started as an actress in Austrian theater and attracted the attention of a suitor. Friedrich Mandl was a notorious Austrian arms dealer who had ties to Benito Mussolini and Adolf Hitler. Feeling she had no choice, Lamarr, then 18, accepted Mandl’s proposal of marriage (he was 33), in part to shield her parents’ Jewish roots.
After the marriage, Lamarr went to functions attended by powerbrokers connected to the rise of Nazi Germany. “She was at this incredible intersection, this incredible crossroads,” Benedict says. “She was privy to information that very few people were privy to because of her husband’s role. Because of her beauty, she was at these parties and dinners and events, always at her husband’s side, but always invisible. Because she was beautiful, that’s all people could see. They assumed that beauty and intellect could not coexist, and therefore she was incapable of understanding what they were talking about, whether it was weaponry or military plans or schemes for the Jewish people. … She would put that information later to good use.”
Lamarr fled from Mandl and escaped to Paris and then London, before eventually immigrating to the U.S. She became one of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’s biggest stars through the influence of studio mogul Louis B. Mayer. Riddled with survivor’s guilt, she decided to use the knowledge she had gleaned at Mandl’s side to invent a frequency-hopping weaponry system.
But Lamarr was rebuffed when she approached military officials with her invention because she was a woman.
“If they had been able to consider her intellect and innovative skills and adopted her invention when it was offered, what might have happened during World War II?” Benedict says. “How might the outcome have shifted if her invention had been utilized? In that way I think The Only Woman in the Room becomes a cautionary tale about underestimating women and their contributions.”
Between the Lines
Park Yeon-mi, an author, actor, and defector from North Korea, will speak March 20 at the Kelly Strayhorn Theater in East Liberty. Park escaped to China from her homeland in 2007 with her family, where she and her mother were taken by human traffickers. They eventually made their way to Mongolia before being sent to Seoul.
Park has since become an anti-trafficking advocate and moved to New York City in 2014 to complete her memoir, In Order to Live: A North Korean Girl's Journey to Freedom.
Admission for the 7:30 p.m. event, hosted by the World Affairs Council of Pittsburgh, is $40, and $25 for students and veterans. 412-281-7970 or worldpittsburgh.org