"For a moment, I felt free and complete. No mask, no subterfuge, no grief-- just me and the water. As I floated, I wondered: Could I ever be made whole again?"-- Hedy Mandl (101).
The Only Woman in the Room written by Marie Benedict is a 256 page novel published by Sourcebooks Landmark in January 2019.
Who should read this?
This book is a great one for anyone who is deeply interested in World War II, the Holocaust, or Historical Fiction in general. Additionally, anyone who craves to see women in action during these man-centered time periods would enjoy this story.
Other works by Benedict:
Hedy Kiesler had a full life ahead of her and a bright future as she cracked her way into the world of performing. While her debut film, Ecstasy, was quite controversial and not happily accepted by all, Hedy had set herself on the road toward redemption in order to save her acting career by taking on stage acting. She was a hit-- the audience loved her, especially one Friedrich Mandl. His opportunity of romance was one that Hedy simply could not afford to refuse, as advised by her father. Mandl was well known for working high up with powerful figures who ran countries, not just loosely but rather by supplying them with arms for their war efforts. At a time when Kiesler's hometown in Austria was trying to avoid being dragged into Hitler's domain, it was all she could do to keep her family and region safe by obliging his romantic whimsies. Mandl quickly progressed their relationship status from dating to married, rapidly moving their dynamic from healthy and happy to abusive and detrimental. While the new Mrs. Mandl felt her own world disintegrating, it was not long before she felt the entire world would soon follow. How could Hedy escape the grasp of her husband's fiery fists while also forestalling Hitler's imminent expansion into her little Jewish town and all of Austria? Could she succeed in escaping, or was she doomed to this life of torment forever? Through a series of challenging, brave, and nerve racking events, the Hedy, who grew up as a small actress in Austria and who became accustomed to a life of luxury at the side of an infamous arms dealer, evolves into the Hedy Lamarr who America knows best today for her glam, glitz, and acting-galore. But what details lay beneath the surface, and what accomplishments went unnoticed due to her female status in a time of male-dominated games, are what makes the difference between a woman escaping a fatal fate and a woman reeling toward redemption and brilliant acts of bravery.
I was not entirely sure what to expect when I picked up The Only Woman in the Room, but I am deeply fascinated by WWII era history and was intrigued by the female perspective and possibility that a female may hold a progressive lead in attacking issues that occurred during this time. I was happy to see these aspects that I hoped to read about were addressed and fulfilled quite nicely. What I did not realize was that this story about the famous Hedy Lamarr was actually a true one, obviously loosely written, not written verbatim.
I found it super interesting to read about how a simple girl such as Hedy Kiesler from a small Jewish town in Austria viewed her country's imminent involvement in WWII before it took place. Ordinarily, I have become accustomed to reading about the prisoners or their cruel captors in stories revolving around this time and place. However, this was the first female perspective that I was able to read from the outside of the grasp of war. I was intrigued to learn that Hedy was disbelieving the possibility that her home could soon be entangled with the dangerous war an anti-Semitic laws that were ruling towns across Europe. I found that Hedy's young naivety was quite relatable, as I am also a girl in her early 20s, not wanting to ever believe that the possibility of evil dictators in my homeland could ever take place. However, reading about her journey as she does what ever she can to ensure that possibility never unfolded felt like a brave next step, one that I could not relate to but that felt bold and risky. I admired her character and felt that I was along for her adventure.
When life got hard for her, the book addressed a different type of issue. This issue is also very relatable and important-- one of abuse and belittling. Friedrich Mandl made Hedy become his-- she was an object to him, one that could be draped over his arm publicly, pushed against a wall out of anger, and locked up on house arrest in her "free" time. This type of relationship was likely not talked about much during this time and truly must not have felt like the biggest deal when millions were dying at the hands of the Nazis. However, this type of relationship is truly so traumatic and traumatizing, and I loved seeing that shine through this retelling of Hedy's story and her character. It is so important to address the effects of this type of relationship, and Benedict did a good job developing those effects and explaining and laying them out there for the reader. Additionally, it made it clear how, in part, Hedy was so ready to plan her escapes--what did she have to lose?
Hedy was not safe from her husband or from Hitler, in reality. She escaped and became the Hedy Lamarr that America has come to know. The second half of the book is primarily focusing on the aftermath or her escape and life in the states, wondering how she could help fight back against Hitler and the war abroad from her new safe home in the states. While she was used to playing parts and taking on roles needed to persuade people, there were some roles that, no matter how well done, could never be filled by a woman in this time. This is not because women were incapable, because they were not. This telling of Lamarr's story makes this clear. The only incompetence that existed for anyone in the end of this tale was that of the men who held onto the old beliefs that women could offer exquisite looks and skills of performance in the home or on stage, but not exquisite intelligence. It was this gross underestimation that is most appalling in my opinion. Their ignorance is a great slap in the face and a big regret for America. Like Hedy expresses, it was hard not to judge her somewhat for not doing something to try to stop the terror she knew was coming before it happened. How could you not be angry with someone who could have maybe, just maybe helped stop some of the most atrocious acts in history? I can't truly judge, though, because I don't know that I could have either. In either case, what makes her story so redeeming is the effort she put in to help after the fact. While her genius inventions were ignored, she did make a difference raising money to help fund the war efforts on the American front in order to end the tedious war as soon as possible.
Hedy Lamarr is not perfect, and no one is. Benedict does a fantastic job showing how human she is and how much of a hero that makes her for overcoming all that she does in order to do her best in the end to save the most that she can. I have nothing but respect for this story and a new found admiration of this woman whose story is little known, but greatly influential.