A String of Pearls

Or, the glamour of war


The only thing Hedwig could do was drug the maid and escape, running through the woods, wearing nothing but a string of pearls.  She sought refuge with a pack of wolves.   The biggest one, sporting a white fur mask that gave him a look of intelligence and all-around virtue, led her into the hills.  A steep chase, she could no longer keep up.  White Fur straightened his back and raised his bushy tail, forming a comfortable sedan chair for her.  Once adjusted to the rolling motion of his haunches, her back whipped into a pliant S, she could submit to the ride.

Life with wolves was less of an adventure than she thought it would be:  they took long naps, especially after a major kill, and White Fur insisted on doing almost everything for her—carrying long sticks in his teeth, snapping up butterflies and releasing them unharmed, anything to amuse her.  Whenever he flexed his back and raised his tail, she petulantly refused the ride, running off with his scraggly girl cousin—looking for scraps, picking over maggoty leftovers, gossiping about what a wolverette wouldn’t do for a wolverine. 

Over the years, White Fur grew slow and quiet, content to just look at his Hedwig, suggesting other ways she could wear her pearls.

By the seventh spring, she left the pack and waited in the middle of a meadow.  On every side, deer and field mice nibbled the tender greens between field and forest, oblivious to her presence.  Mornings, she was too cold; afternoons, too hot.  Taking her own advice, Stand still and look stupid, she caught the attention of a passing hunter.  Aiming to shoot:  the apple toppled, the arrow shot into the trees, her life spared at the last possible moment.  Who would’ve thought he’d bring home a bride from a hunting trip? 


At home in his spacious apartment, she slipped into a slinky dress, knocked back one martini after another.  Eschewing jewels, she had her maid lightly squeeze a pink rubber bulb to release a rare perfume into the air.  As its mist rained down in the stillness of the room, she walked through its veil, gathering top notes of roses, bottom notes of musk, that growl of inexorable doom, a force of nature expressed in the most innocent petal, the softest finest fur beneath fur. 

When the town wasn’t full of talk about them, there was talk of war.  Young men were sent off to huddle in trenches, lying low under whizzing bullets, advancing to the next line.

High above, a wheel of stars recalls another war, trailing yellow gases and flinty dust. 

To rush the fight to a finish, Hedwig and her husband invent a secret communication system—a matter of frequency hopping, the busy switching of attention in a crowded room, piano rolls, alternating signals, various tunes to steer a torpedo to its zero target—

                                        First sweet

                                        Then savage

—the more closely synchronized the tunes, the less convincing it was to the top brass.  How can player piano rolls make a difference in times of war?  Collaboration with a beautiful woman is risky.  A woman cannot serve as double for a man.  An aspiring colonel ventured to stage a demonstration of the player piano principle:  scored for mechanical voices, beginning as a duet of clanging medals, complicated by propellers, sirens, shots with whistling tracers, rising to a chorus of 16 player pianos, xylophones, bass drum, bells and whirring appliances, ending with a gong (struck by a boy with pure heart, the strength of ten).  After hours of closed-door deliberations, the cold facts of the case remained unaltered.  What tipped the balance for the big boys was her promise of pleasure, trembling at dew point.  More than those far too whimsical sketches of piano rolls wafting through the blue gray skies, it was her beauty and its endless implications of dawdling, delay, sheer idleness that could not bear the burden of waging war.  Although everyone (except the gong boy) had experienced the phenomenon of a cocktail party, simultaneous conversations in a crowded room, no one dared to say so.  A committee voice vote settled the matter:  total, unmoving rejection of bombs deployed by tunes.

The aspiring colonel was relegated to peeling a mountain of potatoes.  Contrary to expectations, he learned to love the potato.

Too young to enlist, the gong boy joined a marching band, advancing and falling in formation, twirling flags, rattling sabers, stepping to the music.  

Older boys in uniform fell to their knees, delivering one last rat-a-tat-tat. 

*      *      *

Although the top brass had folded their arms across their broad chests, shaking their square heads No, Hedwig did not give up.  In consultation with her husband, she devised a not-so-secret system to convert her beauty into solid American currency.  The talk of the town, she would don her string of pearls and a slinky black dress in service to her country.  A Hollywood star known for ill-fated heartbreaking romance, she sold 7 million dollars in war bonds and, for each kiss, collected, in cash, 50 thousand dollars.


Part I is an imagined prequel. Part II is based on historical fact. Screen actress Hedy Lamarr and her sixth husband, composer George Antheil, patented the idea of frequency hopping for coded communications during WWII. Allied generals rejected their proposal. Today, its principles are applied to Internet traffic and cell phones. As a Hollywood star, she sold war bonds and kisses for cash. Born in 1914 at the onset of WWI as Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler, Hedy Lamarr is remembered for her cool, stare-down eroticism, especially in the movie Ecstasy, wearing nothing but a string of pearls.