Beautiful Invention is Margaret Porter’s 13th novel. It features the story of Hedy Lamarr, famous Hollywood actress and co-inventor of a radio guidance system for Allied torpedoes. How’s that for talent? I asked Margaret to tell us about Hedy’s world and how she incorporated it into the story. Over to you, Margaret.
Any author writing the past strives to depict long-ago time and people so believably and viscerally that the reader is immersed. With Beautiful Invention: A Novel of Hedy Lamarr, I present a character who is both obscure and well-known, depending on whether a person is a fan of classic cinema from Hollywood’s Golden Age, or perhaps viewed the recent documentary Bombshell, or possesses knowledge of female inventors in general and the fact that Hedy is responsible for frequency-hopping and spread-spectrum technology specifically. What motivates a fan of historical fiction to read a novel about Hedy? Is it curiosity about her life as a film star? Interest in her abilities as inventor? Or simply random selection from Amazon or a bookstore shelf?
Whatever the reader’s impetus for choosing Beautiful Invention, I was responsible for re-creating my heroine’s experiences, adventures, and conflicts—of which there were a multitude, far more than I could fit into three or four novels! I was also determined to fill in the gaps left open by her biographers, those who produced works in print and on film. Not only did I use primary research as a foundation, I relied on informed speculation, and most importantly, I used my imagination. Selectivity was key, but once those selections were made and the story was structured, I had to do the world-building. And in many respects, it was an unfamiliar world. My areas of study—since my teens—have chiefly been 17thand 18thcentury Britain and France. My research habits were formed long ago, as historian and as an actress in period plays, and my M.A. studies in cinema history were a useful foundation. Fearlessly I stepped into the 20thcentury to explore Austria and Hollywood in depth.
This is my 13th work of fiction, and Hedy by far is the most challenging character I’ve ever written. There are multiple reasons, more than I’ll take time to explain, but a significant one was writing from a single viewpoint. Being in Hedy’s head All the Time was a big change for me. In prior novels, I used two or three—and in the one before this, as many as four—viewpoint characters. For any given scene, I could pick and choose the person whose perspective best suited the action and represented the conflict. This time, I had nobody else to turn to. It’s Hedy’s story, her reality, all the way through. No single person accompanied her through the years 1932 to 1949, from Vienna to Hollywood. So I spent my days and nights asking myself, “What would Hedy think? How would Hedy react? What did Hedy know at a given time? How would Hedy feel about this?” Everything had to be filtered through that one and only individual.
To my joy and relief, one reviewer stated, “It seems to me (and I have read several Lamarr biographies) that this author nails down her personality very clearly; much more so than anything else I have seen.”
I accessed numerous memoirs, biographies, histories, and scholarly works that aligned with Hedy’s private and public personae. I could read just enough German to get by, and relied on Google Translate as a useful backup. The period after World War I and before Hitler’s annexation of Austria—the Anschluss—was one of transition and uncertainty and the rise of autocrats. Austria’s high society clung to its old ways—revering an aristocracy that wasn’t legally allowed to use hereditary titles. Vienna remained culturally focused, with its opera balls, concerts, and theatres. At the same time, modernism was on the rise, with avant-gardeplaywrights and musicians and writers and artists coming to the fore. Post-war disarray and destruction fueled innovation. It was an exciting time to be a creative and ambitious young person, and the teenaged Hedwig Kiesler was very much a product of her between-the-wars generation.
The armchair and physical travel aspect of the novel was important—mentally or bodily I roamed from Vienna to Venice to Paris to London to the ocean liner S.S. Normandie to the Super Chief train to Hollywood. Even during Hedy’s lifetime, the places she knew changed considerably, but I located plenty of first-person and historical accounts that fell into the time span of my novel. Because Hedy was so unfamiliar with America and with Hollywood, my discoveries as researcher and writer were directly transferred and translated into her experiences as an immigrant actress.
In nearly every book I write, I find a way to do some historical myth busting. This one is no exception. Hedy’s newspapers and magazine interviews were numerous, and from each one I gleaned a powerful sense of her personality, her conflicts—personal and professional—and her aspirations. Hedy’s versions of her own history can’t necessarily be trusted, because she told different versions of the same story. And MGM was famous—or infamous—for recreating life stories for their stars. Hedy allowed publication of her memoir, Ecstasy and Me, which she later repudiated for its salaciousness and lack of truth, and she sued her collaborators. And though I discarded many incidents as unlikely, her voice and her thoughts were evident. As were her opinions of her husbands and of studio mogul L.B. Mayer and of her fellow performers—Spencer Tracy and Clark Gable and James Stewart.
Additionally, I was able to draw on my own past—my professional work in theatre and film. I well remember examining costume sketches and standing like a statue for fittings, and the thrill of receiving visitors to my dressing room after a stage performance. And what it’s like to stand in a studio, waiting for the producer and the technicians to complete their tasks so I could begin mine. I certainly never achieved the fame of Hedy Lamarr, but in some ways our experiences aligned. That was sheer serendipity—always a welcome component.
On Hedy’s arrival at the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer studio in 1937, she immediately discovers that her escape from a controlling Austrian husband and an encroaching German dictator hasn’t conveyed the independence she sought.
Behind an enormous white curved desk raised high on a plinth sat L.B. Mayer. Four white phones were lined up beside him. Everything else in this bastion of power was white—the carpeting, the textured walls, even the piano.
“Do sit down,” he invited her. “We spared no expense getting you here, so you should’ve had an easy journey.”
“It was long.” Unsure what to do with her roses, she placed them in her lap.
“The food on those trains is good, they say, but I hope you didn’t eat too much of it. We need to slim you down before putting you in front of the camera, because the lens adds pounds to a woman’s figure. Ida can give you a diet sheet.”
At that moment she was experiencing intense hunger, and the prospect of limiting her meals sounded like a punishment.
Howard Strickling joined them, bending to kiss her cheek. He sat down beside her.
“As we’ve discussed, you’ll be having English and diction lessons,” Mayer continued. “You’ll enroll in an exercise class. Might as well have dance lessons, too. As soon as possible, you should get a Hollywood agent. Have you read the morals clause in your contract?”
“We make clean pictures. We want clean actors. It’s important that you do nothing to undermine our efforts on your behalf. Right, Howard?”
“That’s right, L.B. Unless somebody from my department is with you, Hedy, don’t speak to reporters or columnists, or have your photo taken.”
“When we’ve created your biography, we’ll assign a p-publicist,” Howard said.
“Am I not to make the biography? It’s my life.”
The two men exchanged glances. “When introducing a newcomer to the p-public,” Howard said, “all the information must be favorable. In your case, we need to explain why you’ve left your husband and your country.”
“To make movies.” It was too obvious to require explanation.
“True. But a p-publicity campaign requires considerable finesse.”
“I won’t tell lies.”
“You’ll shade the truth, just a little. We’ll tell you what not to say. It’s in your own best interest.”
“You may come and see me,” Mayer added, “whenever you have concerns or questions. And if there’s a serious problem, Howard will fix it.” He shoved a stack of papers across the gleaming white desktop. “Your contract. Here, use my pen. It’ll bring you luck.”
The typed words ran together, clause after clause after clause, all in English. Printed beneath the blank lines on the last page was her legal name, Hedwig Kiesler Mandl.
She signed, instantly altering her status from refugee to employee.
Beautiful Invention: A Novel of Hedy Lamarr by Margaret Porter – Hollywood Beauty. Brilliant inventor. The incredible story of a remarkable and misunderstood woman. Hedy Kiesler, Austrian actress of Jewish heritage, scandalizes Europe with her nudity in the art film Ecstasy. Her hasty marriage to a wealthy munitions merchant disintegrates as he grows increasingly controlling and possessive. Even worse—he supplies deadly weapons to Hitler’s regime.She flees husband and homeland for Hollywood, where Louis B. Mayer transforms her into Hedy Lamarr, an icon of exotic glamour. Professional success clashes with her personal life as marriage and motherhood compete with the demands of studio and stardom. Motivated by the atrocities of World War II, Hedy secretly invents a new technology intended for her adopted country’s defense—and unexpectedly changes the world.
Many thanks, Margaret. Beautiful Invention has all the right ingredients for success. And how fortunate to have background as an actress! I’m sure readers will love the story.
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M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel, TIME AND REGRET was published by Lake Union. Mary’s other novels, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from Amazon, Nook, Kobo, Google Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads or on her website www.mktod.com.