Members' shortcut to the directory
A library of links
Members' area

Hollywood starlet: her part in 'my ultimate skive'


The Oxford Writer, no 38, Winter 2005

NEVER UNDERESTIMATE the power of the Web. Though agents and publishers have shown little interest in my latest book, a trailer for it on my website has led to a number of requests for copies—and an invitation to take part in a film.

Hedy Lamarr

The book itself is about the technology patented by Hedy Lamarr (a Hollywood star of the 1930s and 40s) and her piano-playing partner, George Antheil. It just happens that this technology powers the new generation of mobiles and the radio links that your computer may or may not use. What this stuff is, and how the devil an actress and a piano player came to invent it, is what my book is all about.

To cut a long story short: Lisa Perkins sitting at her PC in Boston found my site, we chatted over email, I released the manuscript to her—and she invited me to the USA to appear in a documentary film.

This is not going to be a Hollywood blockbuster, but Lisa and her group are serious filmmakers. Her latest creation is a one-hour documentary on the poet Emily Dickinson. It’s good—I have the video and could arrange a showing if there were sufficient interest.
‘Welcome to America’.

Lisa picked me up at Boston airport, and in the car we broke the ice by trading stories. She told me that she was renting out an apartment house somewhere in Boston. I told her of the trouble I had experienced when returning to the house that I had rented out to fund a middle-eastern backpack trip. I described the cigarette burns in the carpet, the dirty walls and the detached towel-rails. In response she told me that
there had been a shooting outside her rented house: one of the men had died, the other crawled wounded and bleeding into the upper apartment where his girlfriend lived. Lisa’s story put my cigarette burns into context, and I felt that I had been ‘welcomed to America’ .

LISA LIVES IN Cambridge, Massachusetts, and most of her circle are associated with Harvard University in some way or another. She had booked me into a B&B run by the wife of a Harvard professor, a lovely lady who insisted on sitting with me over breakfast and keeping up a non-stop conversation while I ate. Sounds awful, but it was actually fun. The B&B was made entirely of wood, a typical Cambridge mansion sitting in its hilly garden and surrounded by dripping trees (it rained a lot—but who cares?)

I spent a puzzling, but entertaining, first evening meeting lots of people (who may or may not have been part of the film team) and being made much of—both as a visitor from England and an ‘expert’ on Hedy and her invention.

Next day I was taken to a Harvard laboratory where the filming was to take place. It was just across the road from Harvard’s impressive Memorial Hall (with its dining-hall based on that of Christ Church in Oxford). The lab was like any lab; the equipment within it had little to do with Hedy and George’s invention, but it did have a blackboard and a few technical-looking instruments which gave the right ambience.

After much arrangement of lights and microphones and cameras we were ready to go—and I felt scared. Was I really an expert? Most of you will know that the more you research, the more you discover that you don’t know much at all. Facts fade into hearsay, accepted truth into downright lies.

But all was OK when we got under way. My beautiful young interviewer, Tessa, a literature graduate who models clothes in Rome and is beginning a career as an actress in New York, was charming, informed and relaxing. I spoke at length and with animation, hopefully not repeating the robotic video performances I used to turn in during my technical years. The crew was pleased, they too had been scared; after all they had taken a terrible chance bringing me here, a complete stranger from England whose only qualification was to have written an unpublished book on the topic of their film.

LATER IN THE DAY we did another session. This was filmed in someone’s garden, the wooden terrace done out to look like a bar. They even gave me beer! I was in my element. Here I talked with a man I had been dying to meet. Paul Lehrman had made a film about George Antheil and his crazy, but oh-so-fascinating, composition ‘The Ballet Mécanique’—music for 16 pianolas, three aeroplane propellers, a siren and God knows what else. We discussed the invention and Hedy and George’s contribution to it. We also speculated upon how they could come up with such a startling idea when neither one seemed to have had a technical bone in their body.

As the filming progressed it was regularly
interrupted by low-flying helicopters, for some mysterious reason. The interruptions gave me time to reflect. ‘This isn’t work,’ I thought, ‘sitting here drinking beer in this lovely garden, chatting to a fascinating man and encouraged to do so by a beautiful young actress—this is the ultimate skive.’

The filming was completed on the first day, though they had allowed three. Everyone congratulated me, and they all congratulated each other. I visited Harvard on one of the spare days and went to Lexington to see an old friend on another. I spent the last evening on the town with Lisa, my delightful producer, and then back to Blighty.
I don’t know whether the film will ever see the light of day or how little of my bit will be included, but I really did enjoy the trip. Something about working in a familiar but slightly alien environment and amongst creative people, I suppose. This film business is a little like writing, but so much more a team venture.

I liked Harvard, I liked the people that I met and I liked being a ‘film star’. And the whole thing has re-enthused me about my book. Spread Spectrum: Hedy Lamarr and the Mobile Phone will definitely be published—even if I have to do it myself.□

© Rob Walters 2005


STOP PRESS: Rob's book has now been published under the imprint of Booksurge, a part of Amazon.