Hollywood starlet: her part in 'my ultimate skive'
The Oxford Writer, no 38, Winter 2005
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.
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
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
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
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.