The Only Woman In the Room by Marie Benedict wasn’t originally listed on my TBR for Raquel’s #ClassicFilmReading challenge. It just sort of crept its way onto my stack of film books and stood out when I was looking for something new to read.
Before I go any further, I’d like to point out that this book is a fictionalized take on film star and inventor Hedy Lamarr’s life. Usually, I avoid reading fictionalized accounts of classic Hollywood celebrities’ lives, but this book kept calling out to me, 1) because I love Hedy Lamarr, and 2) because I had read another of author Marie Benedict’s novels before and liked it.
Trigger Warning: verbal abuse, physical abuse, sexual assault
The novel is split into two parts: the first part is about Hedy’s life in Austria and her first marriage to munitions and armaments supplier Friedrich “Fritz” Mandl. The second part of the novel is about Hedy’s life and film career in Hollywood, California, USA.
The book’s title – “The Only Woman In the Room” – refers to the occasions in which Lamarr often found herself alone in a room full of men discussing Adolph Hitler, the eventual invasion of Austria by Hitler’s Nazis and the beginning of World War II. Because Lamarr was married to a munitions and armaments dealer, she was privy to many startling and horrifying conversations in the months leading up to the second world war. Being a woman, she wasn’t expected – let alone allowed – to speak to her mind or offer her opinion. As the wife of Frtiz Mandl, she was expected to look beautiful and nothing more.
Hedy was a virtual prisoner in her home while living in Austria and married to Mandl. She was not allowed to leave the house unless her husband had approved of her leaving beforehand (and he only let her leave for beauty appointments and shopping excursions). All that was expected of her was to look beautiful on Mandl’s arm and to attend all of the social events and dinner engagements he orchestrated. In the novel, it was made very clear over and over again to the reader that Mandl considered Hedy to be his property. In his eyes, she wasn’t even a human being – she was an object.
As Hitler and his Nazis advanced closer and closer to Austria, and as Hedy learned more and more about the impending war by listening in on her husband’s conversations with political dignitaries and munitions specialists, tension rose and she began plotting her eventual escape not only from her abusive husband, but from Europe as well. With her beloved father dead, Hedy had only herself and her mother to worry about. Sadly, her mother refused to leave Austria with Hedy, so Hedy struck out on her own to America (a decision that ultimately filled her with much remorse and regret later on when WWII was raging in Europe and she was safe in Hollywood, California).
If you’re wanting to read this book to learn more about Hedy Lamarr’s film career, you’d be better off looking somewhere else (like her memoir or a biography). Yes, some of her big Hollywood films are mentioned in The Only Woman In the Room, but only very briefly. This fictionalized account of Lamarr’s life is more to do with her personal struggles than her Hollywood film career.
Hedy Lamarr’s surprising journey through science and physics and her ability to invent the ground-breaking technology needed to improve accuracy of submarine-launched torpedoes made for some very interesting and fascinating reading! I’m not going to sit here and tell you I understood everything (because I didn’t), but my goodness I was totally enthralled reading about the science that Lamarr and her friend, composer and pianist George Antheil, dabbled in. Really cool stuff, indeed, especially considering their invention ultimately led to the creation of Bluetooth technology and WI-FI.
Unfortunately, Lamarr’s and Antheil’s scientific proposal was turned down by the US Navy because – wait for it – she was a woman and had no credibility in the world of science or armaments. During the height of WWII, reading about her rejection at the hands of a floundering and almost helpless US Navy who had been using subpar equipment to launch torpedoes with only 40% accuracy was a real blow. I felt her defeat in the pit of my stomach and I roiled on behalf of women everywhere who had ever been turned down for anything on account of their sex.
Did I like it?
Yes and no. The Only Woman In the Room was certainly a thrilling, emotional and entertaining read but I wish it had been longer. The Kindle edition I read was only 272 pages. If the author had gone into greater detail concerning Lamarr’s Hollywood career and scientific explorations, this novel could have easily been double that length. As it is, it feels as if author Marie Benedict skirted over and omitted some major milestones in Lamarr’s life just to be able to fill her publisher’s quota of assigned pages and nothing more.
This fictionalized account of parts of Hedy Lamarr’s life was, in spots, riveting but if you’re looking for a fuller picture of the star’s complete life, look elsewhere.
Rating = 3/5 stars
I read and reviewed this book for Raquel Stetcher’s #ClassicFilmReading challenge.