Monday, October 15, 2018

Interview with Margaret Porter, author of Beautiful Invention: A Novel of Hedy Lamarr

Margaret Porter's new novel Beautiful Invention reveals, in lively and convincing fashion, the complicated life of Hedy Lamarr: Austrian-born screen star, film producer, wartime fundraiser, and talented inventor. While she was best known as a glamour girl, the results of her scientific collaboration with composer George Antheil are credited as a precursor to today's Bluetooth technology. I'm happy to offer an interview today with Margaret, and I'd like to thank her for answering my questions and sending me a copy of the book, which is being launched in the US today.

What convinced you to write a novel based on Hedy Lamarr, and what aspects about her do you admire the most?

The desire to write about Hedy resulted from various alignments and serendipities. Not many years after her death, I was doing an internet search for some '30s and '40s film stars—her near contemporaries—and kept hitting articles about her newly publicized technological achievement. At the time, I filed it in the back of my mind as merely “interesting” and “surprising” and “unexpected.”

Then, in 2010, two biographies of her were published—one by Ruth Barton and the other by Michael Shearer. The following year came Hedy’s Folly by Richard Rhodes, primarily about her invention of frequency-hopping and spread-spectrum technology. I still remember hearing the author’s interview on NPR’s Diane Rehm Show. At the time, my focus was 17th- and 18th-century England, but gradually I considered starting a novel about Hedy Lamarr, if only to challenge myself.

The time period seemed so far outside my familiarity zone. Yet I had studied cinema history extensively during my graduate film studies, and after earning my degree I continued reading about related subjects just for pleasure. And I’ve always been a TCM addict. When I was unable to decide which competing 17th or 18th century subject to pursue, Hedy slipped in and co-opted my attention. It helped having two fine biographies of her, and many other explorations of her life and career—these were a great foundation. But Beautiful Invention is largely based on my own primary research, and there was so, so much background material to utilize.

Beautiful Invention shows that Hedy Lamarr had a thoroughly eventful life in the public eye, beginning when she was just sixteen. I enjoyed your depiction of the many facets of her life, her scientific accomplishments, and her need and desire to continually reinvent herself. How did you decide what aspects to depict on the page, and which to skim over or leave out? 

The filtering process was probably my greatest challenge. Earlier drafts contained more of her life in Austria, because that was the most unfamiliar aspect of her life to most people—apart from her hobby of inventing. And then I found that different periods of her life fit rather neatly into a three-part structure. She starred in so many films, therefore I had to pick and choose which roles were important in the overall trajectory of her career, and where the primary focus should be her complex personal life. Early on I decided to conclude on an ambiguously positive note, while at the same time foreshadowing her next reinvention. I had no intention of pursuing her into her post-Hollywood life. It was so tortured, as anyone who viewed the Bombshell documentary is aware.

In the afterword, you described having learned about Hedy at a young age, since your father had thought highly of her. How did your impressions of Hedy change as you delved into her story and researched it more thoroughly?

When I began the novel, I thought of her chiefly as a beautiful actress with a brilliantly creative brain. I couldn’t help being impressed by her curiosity, her intellect, and her determination. I discovered how mercurial she was, and how very enigmatic she could be in her relationships. Because Hedy was a collection of contradictions, I wanted to be very intentional in clarifying motivations at decision points in the story.

Her ethnic background was one of the reasons she needed to leave Austria when she did. But she never admitted that all her grandparents were Jewish, not even to her own children. Hitler was aware, and it was no secret in Europe—yet during her years of greatest prominence, hardly any American press accounts mentioned it. She regarded her beauty as a curse, and hated that people’s expectations of her were based wholly on the way she looked. But she needed to capitalize on her appeal in order to make a living. She was a down-to-earth homebody but professionally ambitious.

Hedy Lamarr, publicity photo for The Heavenly Body (1944)

The glamour girl image that MGM projected was uncomfortable for her, and she had to sustained it to survive and thrive within the studio system. She wanted to excel at acting but found movie making tedious. She longed to commit to a true soul mate, but fell in love too easily and married too hastily. More than once.

I enjoyed the nuanced depiction of Hedy’s marriage to Fritz Mandl, although her life with him definitely wasn’t easy. I found it interesting that they stayed in contact years later. How did you gain insight into their relationship?

Fritz is also an enigma. To a very great degree, he acted from unalloyed self-interest. I regard his continued contact with Hedy as an artifact of his controlling and possessive nature: “Once mine, forever mine.” But maintaining his connection to the world’s most famous film star was also very convenient for him. After his association with the Nazi regime in Germany became widely known, he would have wanted to salvage his reputation. And I suspect Hedy was grateful to him, in a way, for expanding her horizons beyond the theatre through their social life.

There’s no doubt she met interesting and prominent people during that marriage. At the same time, she was very frustrated and unhappy—who wouldn’t be? But one notable aspect of her character was an ability to move beyond the past and live almost wholly in the present. She prided herself on remaining friends with Fritz, although she probably didn’t expect to in the worst moments of their marriage. Based on the evidence, their parting was more mutual and possibly more amicable than MGM wanted people to believe. The studio had a vested interest in covering over the Mandl taint.

Did you find that your background as an actress informed your perspective on Hedy’s life?

Most definitely. This is my fourth novel with a performer as a heroine, and I do draw on my experience as necessary. Stardom—in films, or on the stage—is a common teenage dream, one that Hedy and I shared. I’ve spent years of my life, since childhood, in the theatre, and from my teens I was on location with feature films or television shows. Unlike Hedy, I never had the pressure of carrying a film, and its profitability certainly did not depend on my efforts as an extra! I felt an especially close kinship with her when she ventured into producing, because that’s the path I eventually followed. I would like to have focused on that brief chapter of her career more than I was able to in this book.

author Margaret Porter
Your last two novels have moved in the new direction of biographical fiction. What appeals to you about writing novels based on historical figures?

Biographical fiction was my destiny. In my youth, those were the types of novels I read and re-read and most wanted to write. As an adult reader, I followed the same pattern. Within a few years of finishing graduate school, my first novel was published as a Regency romance, and eventually I was writing longer, more complex books, extremely fact-based. I got distracted from fiction by an ambitious attempt at a literary biography. While intensely researching my subject, the light dawned. “What was I thinking? Here’s my long-awaited opportunity to write a biographical novel!”

That individual generated so much speculation and unsatisfied curiosity, despite my deep immersion in the historical record, and I needed my imagination to fill the gaps. And to supply the deeply personal details and motivations and reactions that are inevitably unavailable to the researcher. For me, that’s what exerts so strong and irresistible an appeal. But at that time I wasn’t entirely clear on the scope of the plot, or its structure, the character arc. So I decided to clear my head by exploring an intriguing but obscure 17th century couple rooted in my own family tree . . . which resulted in A Pledge of Better Times. The next four planned projects also feature real people of the past—though none as famous as Hedy Lamarr!


MARGARET PORTER is the award-winning, bestselling author of Beautiful Invention: A Novel of Hedy Lamarr and twelve other historical novels for U.S. and foreign-language publishers. She studied British history in the U.K. and afterwards worked professionally in theatre, film, and television. Margaret returns annually to Great Britain and Europe to research her novels. She and her husband live in New England with their dogs, dividing their time between an architecturally unique book-filled house in a small city and a waterfront cottage located on one of the region’s largest lakes. More information is available at her website,


  1. This novel sounds amazing. Great interview, too!

  2. Thanks, Clarissa! A very good book, and I learned a lot, too.

  3. A novel about Hedy Lamarr! Wow! She was an amazing woman. Have you seen the recent film about her, Bombshell? It was more about her invention than her film career and as it ended, it showed all the current technology we owe to her. Apparently, she used to work al, day on the film set and then go home and do science.

  4. Right after reading the novel, I asked the library to order Bombshell on DVD. Haven't seen it yet but am looking forward to it. There's an interest group on campus focusing on women in science, and I thought the students would find it intriguing, too.