Book Review: Hedy’s Folly


This review was originally written for In the Mouth of Dorkness in January of 2014.  I’ve been chatting with some folks about Lamarr, and thinking about Antheil’s music a bunch lately, so I thought it would be a good time to revisit it.

Fans of Hollywood’s Golden Age will be familiar with Hedy Lamarr.  I first saw her opposite Charles Boyer in “Algiers,” and like most men do upon encountering her, fell in love.  Sadly, I was too young (10?), and she had long since retired (and was about 70).  It would never have worked.  As years passed, I remained vaguely aware of her, seeing her in films too rarely as I built up my experience in classic cinema.  But I did note her passing with a bit of appropriate regret.  I knew, in the vaguest way, that she’d done some interesting stuff outside of acting.  I knew there was some WWII espionage or something, but I didn’t know the details.  And in spite of my love of orchestral music, I will admit, I had never heard of George Antheil.  Not once.  So this book, chronicling the unlikely meeting and collaboration of one of the most beautiful women to ever grace the silver screen, and the self proclaimed Bad Boy of Music, was enlightening, to say the very least.

This is not a biography of Lamarr or Antheil, though it does provide a good deal of biographical information for context.  Author Richard Rhodes jumps between two very different lives that almost seemed destined to cross paths, showing how each person grew, gaining knowledge and experience that would be invaluable when combined.  Lamarr grew up in Austria, the child of a well off family, in the years after the Great War.  Antheil traveled to Europe, part of that post-War Paris community of American artists.  He had dreams of grandiosity, of changing the way music was made.  She had her eyes on the theater.  And all the while, War was brewing again.

Though not written as a novel, one could very easily see this being turned into a film.  The backdrop of Europe in those heady days between wars, two charismatic young people, danger and secrets.  Fascinating stuff.  Hedy’s first marriage, to an arms manufacturer, exposes her to some interesting technologies.  And her technical inclinations are awakened.  Antheil marries too, but faces money woes.  The two almost meet, even know some of the same people.  But it wasn’t to be, yet.  They do eventually meet, Antheil ‘selling out’ by doing movie scores, Lamarr hitting it big in Hollywood.  Together they invented a technology that would go on, eventually, to shape the modern world.

The book is an entertaining and informative read, but at the end, I was left a bit disappointed.  I think what it functions best as is a jumping off point for finding out more about the two central figures.  Hedy Lamarr remains a largely mysterious figure, with specific events being delineated, while little of her heart makes it onto the pages.  Perhaps the recent biography from Stephen Michael Shearer will accomplish that.  Whereas Antheil comes off as kind of a buffoon.  Throughout the book, it felt like the author was trying to cover for a friend; like he knew Antheil was kind of a jackass, but he wanted us to focus on his good traits.  However, he dropped enough information about his bad behavior that the attempts to gloss over them ring false.  It does make me want to read Antheil’s own words, his biography Bad Boy of Music (yeah, seriously).  Reading the book prompted me to pick up a CD of his work, which I’ve enjoyed thoroughly.

I think that both George Antheil and Hedy Lamarr are far more interesting characters than this book manages to capture.  However the story of their invention is presented well.  It’s a quick read, too.  Rhodes doesn’t mess about.  And as I said, it’s a good starting point for further reading.  More on Paris in the between war years, more on Hollywood’s Golden Age, more on Antheil’s futurist music (I call him a proto-Prog rocker), more on the technological advancements of World War II.  The best books make you want to read more, to learn more.  With that in mind, Hedy’s Folly gets my recommendation.

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