May Sarton – An Enduring Legacy

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We have to dare to be ourselves, however frightening or strange that self may prove to be. – May Sarton

I have a new friend. Her name is May Sarton and although she died in 1995 at the age of 83, she has become my friend through the beautiful words she uses to express her views on aging, isolation, solitude, friendship, relationships, love of nature, gratitude and appreciation for the simple pleasures of living. She was a prolific novelist and poet, but it is in her poignant, honest journals that chronicle her life that I discovered this woman was my friend, for a friend nourishes you and confides their innermost thoughts to you. It is an intimacy that I will cherish forever and seek when I need to commune with someone who truly understands what it means to live in this tenuous world.

Sarton was born in Belgium but her family fled to England, then the U.S., when Germany invaded Belgium at the start of WWI. She published her first collection of poetry in 1937. In 1945 she met Judy Matlack, who became her partner for the next thirteen years. She lived in New Hampshire for many years before moving to York, Maine where she would live for the rest of her life in solitude by the sea. Sarton wrote about her relationships and many of her earlier works contain vivid erotic female imagery. She did not see herself as a “lesbian” writer, instead wanting to touch on what is universally human about love in all its manifestations. She said of her book Mrs. Stevens Hears the Mermaids Singing, “The fear of homosexuality is so great that it took courage to write a novel about a woman homosexual who is not a sex maniac, a drunkard, a drug-taker, or in any way repulsive, to portray a homosexual who is neither pitiable nor disgusting, without sentimentality.”

I first became aware of Sarton when she was featured on a Maine PBS documentary, World of Light that she narrates herself. At the age of 65, she contemplates her long career and the nature of her work, reading poetry, discussing her loves and her influence. It is in her reflections on solitude and her life in Maine that entrances me. She is compelling, gentle, articulate and so honest it tears at my heart. I can see myself sitting down with her to share a cup of tea and later we will stroll in her garden that she has lovingly nurtured. I know that my visit with her would be soothing, it would have laughter and I would leave feeling uplifted.

I am not alone in my perceived friendship with Sarton. In her later years, she lived alone and came to value her solitude and some consider her Journal of a Solitude her best work. Her memoirs make her seem so human and approachable that many people, strangers to her, but friends in their hearts, would show up on her doorstep. She always took time to meet with people but in her love of solitude that filled her later life, these visits were dreaded. This longing is reflected in this excerpt, “There is no doubt that solitude is a challenge and to maintain balance within it a precarious business. But I must not forget that, for me, being with people or even with one beloved person for any length of time without solitude is even worse. I feel dispersed, scattered, in pieces. I must have time alone in which to mull over my encounter, and to extract its juice, its essence, to understand what has really happened to me as a consequence of it.”

So as a fellow solitude I would never show up on her doorstep if she was still living, but I will visit her often when I read her glorious words. In a world where thought and observations are reduced to 150 characters or less, settling in a comfortable chair to read her flowing, sometimes fragile, reflections, especially as I am growing into my old age, are moments I treasure. May Sarton was much loved and will remain so as future generations discover the beauty of the written word as only she could express it. To read her works is to enter into her world, with honesty, and whether or not you agree on certain points of view, you will leave her works enraptured with her legacy, and you might say, as I do, “This is my friend and for that I am grateful.”

A Woman of Substance

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All creative people want to do the unexpected. – Hedy Lamarr

Hedy Lamarr was an Austrian-born actress who was considered one of the most beautiful women in the world and a sex symbol in early Hollywood. She appeared in her first film “Ecstasy” at age 18 in Germany. The film was notorious for scenes showing her face in the throes of an orgasm and also brief nude scenes. For 1933 it was shocking. She later recounted the authenticity of her “passion” was attained by the film director’s off-screen manipulation of a safety pin poking her bottom. With WWII looming she came to the U.S. and became a naturalized citizen.  She starred in numerous popular films including Algiers, I Take This Woman and Samson and Delilah opposite leading men of the day such as Spenser Tracy, Charles Boyer, Jimmy Stewart and Clark Gable.

But not many of her adoring fans realized that she was also a pioneer in the field of wireless communications. The international beauty icon, along with co-inventor George Anthiel, a composer and neighbor of Lamarr’s, developed a “Secret Communications System” to help combat the Nazis in World War II. By manipulating radio frequencies at irregular intervals between transmission and reception, the invention formed an unbreakable code to prevent classified messages from being intercepted by enemy personnel.

Lamarr and Anthiel received a patent in 1941, but the enormous significance of their invention was not realized until decades later. It was first implemented on naval ships during the Cuban Missile Crisis and subsequently emerged in numerous military applications. But most importantly, the “spread spectrum” technology that Lamarr helped to invent would galvanize the digital communications boom, forming the technical backbone that makes cellular phones, fax machines and other wireless operations possible.

Lamarr had a room in her home dedicated to drafting her designs for frequency hopping. She and Antheil realized that radio-controlled torpedoes were important in naval warfare, but they could easily be jammed by broadcasting interference at the frequency of the control signal, causing the torpedo to go off course. She and Antheil developed the idea of using frequency hopping to avoid jamming. This was achieved by using a piano roll to unpredictably change the signal sent between a control tower and a range of 88 frequencies in the radio frequency spectrum (there are 88 black and white keys on a piano keyboard). Using this technology it would be practically impossible for the enemy to scan and jam all 88 frequencies. The frequency hopping sequence was controlled by a player piano device. On August 11, 1942, Lamarr and Antheil were granted a U.S. patent. While the technology was sound it was not implemented in the U.S. until 1962 after the patent had expired.

As is the case with many of the famous women inventors, Lamarr received very little recognition of her innovative talent at the time, but recently she has been showered with praise for her groundbreaking invention. In 1997, she and George Anthiel were honored with the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) Pioneer Award. And later in the same year, Lamarr became the first female recipient of the BULBIE™ Gnass Spirit of Achievement Award, a prestigious lifetime accomplishment prize for inventors that is dubbed “The Oscar™ of Inventing.” In 1998, an Ottawa wireless technology developer, Wi-LAN, Inc., acquired a 49% claim to the patent from Lamarr.

Lamarr’s and Antheil’s frequency hopping idea is the basis for modern spread spectrum communication technology, such as Bluetooth, Wi-Fi networks, and wireless and cordless phones. So when you next use your cellphone and Bluetooth, take a moment to thank this woman who should have been famous for her mind as well as her body. Proving she was much more than just another pretty face, Lamarr shattered stereotypes and earned a place among the 20th century’s most important women inventors. She truly was a visionary whose technological acumen was far ahead of its time.