Hedy, Amy, Melitta

“Hedy! The Life & Inventions of Hedy Lamarr!” written and performed by Heather Massie, Tuesday, June 20th at 7:15pm; Saturday, June 24th at 9:30pm; Tuesday, June 24th at 7pm; Thursday, June 29th at 7pm, and Friday June 30th at 5:15pm.  All performances at 17 Suffolk Street, New York, New York, part of the Planet Connections Theatre Festivity.

Yesterday I saw a one woman show I highly recommend called Hedy! The Life and Inventions of Hedy Lamarr  that was written and performed by Heather Massie.


The play is an incredible story about Hedy Lamarr a pioneer in film acting and in the technology of U.S. military torpedoes.  Even though she was able to land some important early film from the thirties to the fifties, I think audiences should come away with the fact that she wanted men to see her for her mind and not her looks.  That was a theme throughout this play.  This theme seemed to originate from a special relationship with her father Emil Kiesler, who was a banker.


Hedy, born Hedwig Kiesler was born 1914 in Vienna, Austria to a pianist mother and banker father.  Massie presents Hedy’s father as loving and compassionate on the Father’s Day that it opened.  In Massie’s script, he explained the importance of the invention of steam in running trains.


Steam meant the world to a European banker who could no longer depend on manual slave labor to do what steam could do.  I was most struck by how Hedy’s father expected her to have the same knowledge that a man had.  He did not expect her to be confined by gender and she wasn’t.  She used her knowledge, cultivated by her father, to advance herself and to make sure she was not confined by the social construction of gender.  She married Mandl, an Austrian military arms dealer who was the third richest man in Austria.  Of Mandl, Hedy said “he was the absolute monarch in his marriage…I was like a doll.  I was like a thing, some object of art which had to be guarded—and imprisoned—having no mind, no life of its own” (From “Hedy’s Folly” by Richard Rhodes, p.28-29).


Massie writes how in his conversations with his Nazi clients, Hedy acted as if she was naïve but, ultimately, she wasn’t.  Also during this time, her endearing father died and as an audience member I was sympathetic to him.  When I asked Heather after the play why he died, she said it was in part because of his distress over the then growing Nazi occupation of Austria.  I couldn’t help but think about how this nation’s government is giving way to more Nazi influence.

Although the play does not say this directly, it seems like Hedy’s relationship with her arms dealer producer Mandl also played a role in the distress that led to his death.  I also read about how the Nazi occupation was supported not only by Austrian arms dealers like Mandl but by international banks as Dean Henderson writes: “Max and Paul Warburg sat on I.G. Farben’s board [I.G. Farben is the Nazi business combine] as did H.A. Metz who was director at the Warburg Bank of Manhattan—later Chase Manhattan. In 1936 Avery Rockefeller set up a combination with the German Schroeder family, who served as Hitler’s personal bankers” (Big Oil and Their Bankers  306).


It is this relationship in Massie’s play I am most interested in: the relationship between Hedy and her father Emil, and why Emil’s daughter dating an arms dealer who helps support the Nazi occupation of Austria would cause distress.  This relationship was not explored, but I was interested in it because I explored the Nazi occupation of Austria in my fifth play The Original Mrs. Garvey. This play features journalist Amy Ashwood Garvey (see the photo from Tony Martin’s book), born seventeen years before Hedy, in one scene in Austria, traveling with her then companion, Calypsonian Sam Manning, who was with an Austrian woman that would later become his wife, Melitta Schnottnegg (see the photo from Tony Martin’s book Amy Ashwood Garvey).  Words cannot describe the looks and the persecution this “mixed” couple of Manning & Schnottnegg probably faced for choosing to pursue their love across the color barrier. 


A scene I wrote features Amy, Sam, and Melitta crossing into Austria and being stopped by a Nazi officer who seizes a pamphlet of Amy’s written by C.L.R. James.  Amy notices that the tires of the gestapo’s vehicle from a U.S.-based rubber company that she figures got the raw material of rubber from Liberia.  This scene inspires Amy’s ambition to motivate the Liberian government to stop supplying the U.S. based company with rubber and to manufacture its own rubber.


She wanted the Liberian government to put into practice what she and Marcus Garvey theorized in the February 1919 issue of the Negro World :


“if he can, as a white man, manufacture things that other people need, then Negroes ought to be able to do the same thing.  There is absolutely no monopoly in knowledge today.  The time has come when the Negro must make his stand as a man.”  


Massie’s script shows how when Hedy was in Austria, she noticed how the repressive Nazi occupation reflected Mandl’s own repression of her, her father and all Austrian Jews.  When Amy was in Austria, the rubber she saw represented how the repressive Nazi occupation was benefiting from U.S. colonialism of Africa.

Both women leave Austria in order to help the militaries of the countries whose ideals they believed in.  Both women recount how the sale of arms leads to their imprisonment or their ancestors’ enslavement.  For Hedy, her witness of Mandl’s business transactions affirmed her need to first escape Nazi occupation then support the Allied Forces to stop it.


For Amy, her account of her grandmother’s sale from the Darban of Ashanti to King Sefwi for guns would also ultimately help the Allied Forces maintain their colonialism.


Most importantly for me, however, was how both women’s lives expose the support of Hitler by U.S. industrialists like Bush and Rockefeller who revise history to whitewash their own role in creating and supporting Hitler and other repressive dictators across the globe.  In the March 29, 1919 issue of Negro World Marcus Garvey wrote: “Bolshevism, it would appear, is a thing of the white man’s making, and whatever it means is apparent, it is going to spread until it finds a haven in the breasts of all oppressed peoples, and then there shall be a universal rule of the masses.”  He wrote this while Amy Ashwood Garvey was still editing the Negro World, a year before they separated for good.  Before her separation from Marcus, Amy Ashwood Garvey was aware of how money and arms were used to pit one side against another and create repressive dictators across the globe.  Hedy said Mendl armed Hitler and Mussolini.  These arms were used against those who did not have the class privilege to avoid the bloodshed.


Hedy’s relationship with Mandl who helped I.G. Farben sheds light on the U.S. support of Hitler.  Amy’s relationship with Melitta via Manning sheds light on how the Nazi occupation was supported by the owners of industry, such as Firestone and Ford, who claimed that Hitler was our worst enemy.


Hedy went on to build technology that helped the Allied war cause by preventing their torpedoes from being detected by Axis powers, even though these Axis powers were being supported by the same industrialists who were selling to Hitler.  Amy went on to have relationships with leaders of Ghana and Liberia in an effort to build their economic and financial independence from the U.S. and Europe.  Both women’s lives underscore the importance of, what Hedy wanted all men to see her for, the mind.  –RF.

Author: Dr. Rhone Fraser

Dr. Rhone Fraser is an independent writer and journalist born of Jamaican immigrants in Brooklyn, New York, on October 12, 1979. He moved to Florida in 1989 and graduated from Zephyrhills (FL) High School in 1997. He graduated from Yale University in 2001, after which time he taught in the public school systems in New Haven (CT) and the Bronx for three years. He then began writing independently and finished a documentary play on the life of Fannie Lou Hamer entitled, "Living Sacrifice," for which he still seeks publication. He earned his Ph.D. in African American Studies from Temple as of August 31, 2012. His dissertation was a literary and historical analysis of Pauline Hopkins, A. Philip Randolph and Paul Robeson. He also is a freelance editor and radio producer, and is currently producer of WPEB's Freedom Readers on 88.1 FM in Philadelphia.