Transported to Hedy Lamarr’s Time and Place

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.

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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?”

“Yes.”

“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.”

“I won’t.”

“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.

FOR MORE ON READING & WRITING HISTORICAL FICTION FOLLOW A WRITER OF HISTORY (using the widget on the left sidebar)

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, NookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads or on her website www.mktod.com.

 

The Devil is in the Details

Rebecca Rosenberg is the author of The Secret Life of Mrs. London which releases January 30, 2018. I met Rebecca through a Facebook group of Lake Union authors. Both being writers of historical fiction, we discovered much in common. Here’s Rebecca giving her thoughts on the concept of show don’t tell.

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Devilish good details … Most writing workshops focus on writing interesting characters, or a riveting plot rife with conflict, or the structure… all very important in crafting a story. But perhaps for historical novel readers, it is the spicy details that change our experience from commonplace to a story that transports us to a time long ago.

How does the author come up with these bits of intrigue that bond us to the character? Traveling to the locale, antique stores, searching old maps, scanning odd books or the internet? Yes.

In THE SECRET OF MRS. LONDON, I used the Remington typewriter, the mimeograph, and the ediphone to illustrate the tools of the writing trade in the 1915-1917 period covered in the book. My characters, Charmian and Jack London actually used these apparatuses in their writing and they portray these characters and even what is happening in the story.

Charmian London typed on the Remington, as Jack London dictated his stories! She typed 100 words a minute. How is that even possible pushing those mechanical keys? The “prop” of the Remington, illustrates Charmian London’s education as a typist and working at Overland Journal. It characterizes her as an industrious, serious worker that pushes herself, not the norm of the day in 1915. But it occurs to me writing this blog, that the Remington typewriter also indicates a subservience to her husband Jack, because she it typing his words.

I was amazed to find out that Charmian actually copied Jack London’s manuscripts on an early mimeograph, invented by Edison in 1876. Each page had to be fed through and the ink dried. Within the manuscript, using the mimeograph showed the tedious, labor intensive process of creating a manuscript, which Charmian often did, since Jack London produced more than twenty novels in the fifteen years they worked together. Not to mention the articles and letters they wrote! Mountains of typing and mimeographing!

When the London’s bought an ediphone it marked a stark break in their togetherness. Jack could speak into the ediphone by himself, and later Charmian would type it up. Jack was no longer telling his stories to Charmian and watching her make them come alive on the page. And Charmian now had the freedom to spend time on her own writing. In fact, in later years, they hired a typist to transpose Jack’s ediphone recordings.

Other examples of how props are used to depict character traits and state of being, from my favorite authors:

From Kay Bratt, author of THE PALEST INK. The title comes from an old Chinese proverb that says ‘The Palest Ink is better than the best memory’. She chose it because during the Cultural Revolution, people were not allowed to keep any sort of records or photos about what was really going on. Media was twisted to make those in power look good, and tragedies and truths were concealed. The most important object was Mao’s Little Red Book. It is rumored to have landed in the hands of billions of people. During the Cultural Revolution in China, it was an unofficial requirement for every Chinese citizen to own, to read, and to carry it at all times. For their own safety, people memorized segments of it, to prove their loyalty and avoid persecution or death. Later, after the Cultural Revolution was shut down, Mao was exposed as a madman and the cause of millions of tragic deaths throughout China.

From Camille Di Maio, author of BEFORE THE RAIN FALLS. One of her characters, Della Lee Trujillo, is in a Texas women’s prison in the 1940s, convicted for the murder of her sister. As she is being driven to the prison from the courthouse, she clings to a rosary that had been her mother’s. Her mother deserted the family when she ran off with her lover, so Della begins to fear that it is tainted by her mother’s sin. As she prays, the words “Forgive us our trespasses…” plays in her mind and she recalls all the events that led up to that moment.

So what objects can best describe your character, and what she is going through? The use of unique props is a great example of a writer’s mantra: Show. Don’t Tell.

A riveting story of ambition and infidelity, The Secret Life of Mrs. London by Rebecca Rosenberg captures the fateful meeting of the Houdinis and Londons, the most remarkable couples of their time. Jack London, the most popular author in America, and Houdini, a world-renown escape artist, have reached the pinnacles of their careers in 1915. While their wives, Charmian London and Bess Houdini are opposites, they bond through their trials with the over-sized egos of their famous husbands. Free Love, blinding fame, tenuous success, and the Great War threaten them. The couples struggle to hold onto their marriages through the challenges, eventually succumbing to the lure of another’s arms … until one of them takes a stand … alone. Releases January 30, 2018. You can pre-order your copy now.

Many thanks, Rebecca, for sharing your thoughts on this subject and the technique you used for The Secret Life of Mrs. London. Your story sounds like it has all the ingredients of a winner.

FOR MORE ON READING & WRITING HISTORICAL FICTION follow A WRITER OF HISTORY (using the widget on the left sidebar)

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, NookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads or on her website www.mktod.com.

Characters – you need to know what they look like

Writing any kind of fiction involves an intense relationship with your characters. I’ve read of other authors creating a bulletin board with photos of their characters so they can easily bring them to mind. At any rate, I decided to do this with my current work in process, a dual timeline novel set both in 1912-ish and 2015 Hong Kong.

I’ve found photos for two of my 1912 characters – Winifred and Henry Taylor. Henry is an admiral and Commander in Chief of the China station. Winifred is his wife who, along with their four year old daughter accompanies him to Hong Kong.

Sir Hedworth Meux is the model for Henry. As it turns out, Hedworth Meux was Commander in Chief of the China station in 1908 so it seemed fitting to style Henry Taylor after this fellow. Hedworth Meux was a career naval officer who became Commander-in-Chief, Portsmouth in WWI so he must have been quite accomplished.

For Winifred I chose a woman named Alice Keppel, a British society hostess and a long-time mistress of King Edward VII. Apparently she had beauty, charm and great discretion and is the great grandmother of Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall. I rather like that little twist.

In any event, I’m becoming rather found of these two. They seem to speak to me now which is helpful. I still need to find the right images for my present day characters and for the other main character – a man of Chinese ethnicity – for the historical time period.

FOR MORE ON READING & WRITING HISTORICAL FICTION follow A WRITER OF HISTORY (using the widget on the left sidebar)

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, NookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads or on her website www.mktod.com.