The Composer and the Hollywood Starlet


The strange and largely true story of the composer George Antheil and the actress Hedy Lamarr, told in the style of fan fiction. Apologies to Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, and everyone else. 

The cab jolted as it pulled into the driveway, stirring George Antheil from his alcohol induced slumbers. He once had the world at his feet years ago in Paris. He’d arm wrestled Ernest Hemingway and dazzled the public with his Ballet méchanique. With his pretty college boy looks and bee stung lips, he’d been chased halfway round the arrondissements by members of Les Sixs or “The Grope of Six” as he used to call them. Now a war was going on in Europe, he was washed out, reduced to writing crummy film scores for Hollywood. He wanted it all back, to show the world he meant something. He was on a mission.

“So glad you could make it, Mr Anthill,” drawled the hostess as he crossed the threshold. He handed his coat to the butler. Mrs Gaynor wasn’t all bad he thought. She hosted some of the best parties in Beverley Hills where there was always a free flowing supply of liquor and easy dames, and at least she did something with her life instead of spending the afternoons swimming in vodka martinis, wishing the shirt and pants off Carlos the gardener.

He saw the unmistakeable figure of Arnold Schoenberg hovering by the door cradling a lemonade in his claw like hands. With his beady, staring eyes, he resembled nothing less than a vulture in a dinner jacket waiting for his moment to swoop. George avoided his gaze and was saved by a passing drinks tray. He didn’t know what was in the glass but as he gulped it down the bitter taste was surely better than being pinned to the wall by that creep.

“I’d like you to meet someone,” interrupted Mrs Gaynor as he downed another glass of the vile concoction. “Perhaps you already know her,” she said, indicating the far side of the crowded room, “the actress Mrs Lamarr?”

So this was the famous Hedy Lamarr he thought. His eyes strained to see her through the clouds of tobacco smoke. The famous Austrian actress who had bared all on screen and launched a generation of Teutonic torpedoes, estranged wife of the sinister arms dealer Fritz Mandl who had hung out with all the renegades that once lived in Vienna: Hitler, Mussolini, Stalin, Trotsky, Tito but not Freud (Freud was OK). This was the famous actress who had escaped the chaos that was enveloping Europe and was keen on keeping a low profile in LA with a secret she had stolen. She walked towards him, her dress shuddering with each step.

“What’s your poison, Mr Anthill?” she purred.

“Antheil. I’ll have what you’re having.” He took another glass of the fizzy stuff.

“I heard you were in Paris. Did you know the Fitzgeralds? Such a lovely couple.”

“I can’t say I did. I mean I don’t know if I did, but if I did I can’t remember.”

A brief smile flashed across her lips. She gently placed a cigarette between them and inhaled.

“I think I heard some of your music once. What was it, Ballet méchanique? Quite nice.”

Ballet méchanique? Not that piece. Why does everyone still go on about that? I’ve written other music you know, I’ve got more in me – symphonies, concertos, operas. And all everyone does is go on about that piece. Ballet méchanique. I never want to hear it again!”

“That’s what the critics said.”

A server walked past carrying a tray of margaritas. George grabbed two glasses and offered her one, which she declined. Somewhere in the background, he saw Ira Gershwin sit at the piano and play. It was a familiar tune, he couldn’t quite place it – it sounded like something from Porgy and Bess or was it “Ding Dong the Witch is Dead”? In his current state he didn’t care. He drained one of the margaritas.

“It must be interesting working in films.”

She sighed. “Any girl can be glamorous, all you have to do is stand still and look stupid. But Hollywood is so boring, the people are so boring. Look at me. Look at you – you look like you’re about to fall into my dress.”

He gulped down the second margarita.

“I want out,” she added.  “My ex-husband is going turn up one of these days because of what I have.”

“Very nice.”

“I have plans, we all have plans, don’t we?”

She paused as she blew a smoke ring into his empty glass.

“So why are you running away, what do you have that everyone wants?” he mumbled.

There was a brief lull as more guests arrived. He winced as he spotted Igor Stravinsky walk through the door; he’d been avoiding him for years for something he had once said. He was saved by the vulture at the door who slipped off his perch to follow his prey.

A passing drinks tray restored his nerves.

“I have an idea,” she continued “just a kernel of one but I think it might work. I just need someone to flesh it out.”

Something stirred within him.

“My crazy Jewish husband in Vienna is an arms manufacturer, he makes weapons systems. He’s good friends with Hitler and Mussolini who are only interested in him for his ideas otherwise he’d be dead. They want his ideas so they can conquer Europe, the world or something. And that’s what I have – his secret!

“You see, torpedo systems just use one frequency so if cut or jammed then it’s lost for good. But if you could use more than one frequency, if you could hop around frequencies, you could keep control of the torpedo if both the ship and the torpedo used the same sequence of frequencies!”

“Brilliant! You could call it wireless fidelity, or Wi-Fi.”

“That stinks. I was thinking of frequency hopping, after all the bed hopping that goes on around here”.

His mind started racing. This was exactly the break he was looking for. She was one smart dame; with her brains and his looks they could conquer the world together, or the other way around, he couldn’t remember. But they had to act fast otherwise Fritz would turn up on their doorstep with his with his crazy cohorts: Hitler, Mussolini, Stalin, who else? But not Freud. Freud was dead – analyzing dreams for all of eternity in the big sleep.

They left by a side door. In the distance they could hear Mrs Gaynor exclaim “Aw, come on, Arnold, give us a tune!”

To be continued…

Kevin Painting

Additional editing by Jim Dempsey @jimdempsey

Note: Hedy Lamarr and George Antheil were granted a US patent on August 11 1942, for their invention entitled “Secret Communication System” Serial no 397,412. It forms the basis for today’s spread-spectrum communication technology such as Wi-Fi, CDMA networks and Bluetooth technology.

Published on primephonic  2 May 2016