A Hollywood Beauty with Brains
“Any girl can be glamorous,” Hedy Lamarr famously said. “All she has to do is stand still and look stupid.”
Lamarr was certainly glamorous — even in the “Golden Age” of Hollywood, when competition for “The Most Beautiful Woman in Films” was never more fierce — but she was very far from stupid.
The Austrian-American movie star’s native intelligence, her keen interest in new technologies, and a chance meeting with an avant-garde composer, led to the concept of “frequency hopping” and a 1942 patent for a torpedo guidance system that was a generation ahead of its time.This invention is credited with laying the foundation for the cell phone, GPS and Bluetooth technology that we rely on today.
Ironically, in the final years of her life, Hedy Lamarr became a recluse, and the telephone was almost her sole means of contact with the world beyond her modest Florida home.
Now, the physical remains of the glamorous icon have returned to nature in the Vienna Woods, but her legacy lives on in the fruits of her most impressive off-screen role – that of the improbably glamorous Hollywood actress who hid, behind that perfect face, the sharp mind of an inventor.
Who was Hedy Lamarr?
Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler (1914-2000)
Hedy Lamarr was born Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler, near Vienna, Austria, on November 19, 1914. (some sources give her birth year as 1913.) Her father, Emil Kiesler, was a successful bank director and her mother, Gertrud Lichtwitz, a pianist. During her late teens, Hedy studied acting at Max Reinhardt’s famous school in Berlin.
Her first film appearance, in 1930, at the age of 17, was a bit part in the German film Das Geld liegt auf der Straße (Money on the Street). This minor debut was followed by larger roles in Die Frau von Lindenau (Storm in a Water Glass) and in Die Abenteuer des Herrn O. F. (The Trunks of Mr. O. F.), both 1931, and in Man braucht kein Geld (We Don’t Need Money), 1932.
It was her appearance in the 1933 Czech film Ekstase (Ecstasy), however, with its scandal-making footage of the young actress frolicking in the nude like a forest nymph, that propelled Hedy Kiesler to early fame.
Ecstasy and Scandal
There are a great many versions of the film Ecstasy on the market, as the scandalous original was cut time and again in different ways to meet the demands of censorship and “morality standards” in various locations. In general, those versions that are the closest to the original uncut 1933 film are the hardest to find, and the most expensive.
The quality of the best surviving film print is not good, compared to films that were stored through the war years in the more controlled environs of Hollywood, but – setting aside the poor technical quality of the original from which it was made – a copy of this film is nevertheless a must-have for the serious film buff’s collection as, effectively, the world’s first “nudie” film.
Ecstasy was banned by the US government and denounced by the Pope — and Hedy’s husband was very unhappy about having the general public see his young wife on screen without her clothes!
Bad Marriage to Friedrich Mandl
At the age of 17, Hedy Riesler had become the “trophy wife” of Viennese millionaire arms dealer Friedrich “Fritz” Mandl. He was a strong-minded man 13 years her senior and, by all accounts, jealously possessive of his beautiful young bride.
It was not a happy marriage.
In her 1967 autobiography, Ecstasy and Me (ghost-written by Leo Guild), Lamarr describes Mandl as “extremely controlling.” She was often required to attend business and technical meetings with him, or stay confined to their home. She suggests that Fritz Mandl consorted with Nazi industrialists, despite being partly Jewish. Although his political bent was more to Austrofascism than Nazism, the autobiography reports that both Benito Mussolini and Adolf Hitler attended Mandl’s parties in the pre-Second World War years.
Several versions have been told of how, exactly, Hedy’s separation from her first husband was accomplished, including one in which she escaped only by disguising herself as a maid. She fled to Paris where, in 1937, she obtained a divorce from Friedrich Mandl.
On to Hollywood!
A Star is Discovered
About the time of her divorce, Hedy Kiesler was “discovered” by Louis B. Mayer of Hollywood’s legendary MGM studio.
Biographers don’t always agree on about exactly how that first meeting between the European starlet and the Hollywood mogul took place.
It may have happened in London. It may have been on board the ship that took Hedy across the Atlantic from Paris to America. Some say it was actually an employee of MGM who met Hedy on board the ship, and it was he who introduced her later to the great “L.B.”
However it came about, the result was the “invention” of Hedy Lamarr, a Hollywood movie actress under a $500-per-week contract with MGM.
“The Most Beautiful Woman in Films”In the midst of a glamorous Hollywood acting career, when she could have coasted on looks alone, Hedy’s brilliant mind came up with a scientific invention that would have revolutionized the world’s communications systems a full generation earlier.
Inventor of Secret Communications System
US Patent 2,292,387: Lamarr & Antheil (1942)
So, what exactly was it that Hedy Lamarr invented, and patented, in partnership with her friend the composer George Antheil? As the inventors described it,
“This invention relates broadly to secret communication systems involving the use of carrier waves of different frequencies and is especially useful in the remote control of dirigible craft such as torpedoes An object of the invention is to provide a method of secret communication which is relatively simple and reliable in operation but at the same time is difficult to discover or decipher.”
You’ll notice that the actress is named as Hedy Kiesler Markey on the patent drawings and documentation. From 1939 to 1940 she was married to her second husband, screenwriter-producer Gene Markey, and continued to use his surname in private life until her marriage to the British-American actor John Loder in 1943.
Almost certainly, the Lamarr-Antheil invention would have shortened the Second World War and saved many lives… but when offered it, the US Navy said, in effect, “Thanks, little lady,” and shelved the idea.
It was not until 1962, during the Cuban Missile Crisis, that the invention was finally adopted – coincidentally, not long after the patent had expired.
The full text and drawings related to Hedy Lamarr and George Antheil’s 1942 patent for frequence-hopping technology is still on file with the U.S. Patent Office, of course, and you can view the patent document online, if you’d like to learn more about the invention.
Filmography by Decade
Movies of the 1930s starring Hedy Lamarr
- Das Geld liegt auf der StraÃe (Money on the Street), 1930
- Die Frau von Lindenau (Storm in a Water Glass), 1931
- Die Abenteuer des Herrn O. F. (The Trunks of Mr. O. F.), 1931
- Man braucht kein Geld (We Don’t Need Money), 1932
- Ekstase (Ecstasy), 1933
Hedy Lamarr’s film career in North America began with Algiers (1938). She and Charles Boyer co-starred in the romantic-drama-mystery feature film. Algiers was directed by John Cromwell and produced by Walter Wanger. The movie is now in the public domain, available for free download at the Internet Archive.
Two short subjects — Hollywood Goes to Town (1938) and Screen Snapshots: Stars at a Charity Ball (1939) — were followed by the full-length feature Lady of the Tropics (1939).
Lady of the Tropics – Trailer (1939) – starring Hedy Lamarr and Robert Taylor
Movies of the 1940s starring Hedy Lamarr
- I Take This Woman, 1940
- Boom Town, 1940
- Comrade X, 1940
- Come Live With Me, 1941
- Ziegfeld Girl, 1941
- H.M. Pulham, Esq., 1941
- Tortilla Flat, 1942
- Crossroads, 1942
- White Cargo, 1942
- Show Business at War (short), 1943
- The Heavenly Body, 1944
- The Conspirators, 1944
- Experiment Perilous, 1944
- Her Highness and the Bellboy, 1945
- The Strange Woman, 1946
- Dishonored Lady, 1947
- Let’s Live a Little, 1948
- Samson and Delilah, 1949
Golden Age Romantic Comedy – One of My Favorite 1940s Chick Flicks
Imagine the pleasure it must have given a war-wearied audience, to indulge in this bit of good fun.
Hedy Lamarr stars as a princess who is secretly in love with a commoner (Robert Taylor). The complications and misunderstandings that arise in the unfolding of the somewhat thin plot are the real stuff of Romantic Comedy, and the sets and costumes are nothing short of opulent.
I remember seeing Her Highness And The Belloy late at night on a US cable channel, when I was a kid (long ago!) staying with my American cousins for a summer holiday, and being completely swept away in the fairytale story. It’s likely I missed a lot of the double-entendre and innuendo in the script, being a bit too young at the time, but this movie has remained one of my “guilty pleasures” to watch again from time to time.
Samson and Delilah – Trailer (1949) – Hedy’s last real success on the silver screen
A Fading Star
As the 1940s began to wind down, Hedy Lamarr appeared less often in films. Of course, as a mature woman now entering her forties, she was no longer the fresh young sex symbol that Hollywood demanded – even the softest of camera focus and most flattering of lighting could not disguise the effects of time.
By then, too, she was the mother of three children — James Lamarr Markey (born in 1939), Denise Loder (born 1945), and Anthony Loder (born 1947). Perhaps her image as a “screen siren” was no longer as comfortable a role for her as it once had been?
In any case, the taste of the cinema-going North American public was changing, as the drive for progress and prosperity took the place of the wartime yen to escape harsh realities through the big silver screen.
Movies of the 1950s starring Hedy LamarrThe movies of the 1950s in which Hedy Lamarr appeared were:
- A Lady Without Passport, 1950
- Copper Canyon, 1950
- My Favorite Spy, 1951
- The Eternal Female, 1954 (unfinished)
- Loves of Three Queens,1954
- The Story of Mankind,1957
- The Female Animal,1958
Hedy Lamarr’s Last Movie
The Female Animal (1958)
Hedy plays the role of an aging film star, who competes with her adult daughter for the attention of a charming movie extra. I find it rather sad to watch.
When Hedy Lamarr died in 2000, she was cremated and her ashes were scattered in the Vienna Woods, as she had wished.
There is no actual grave for fans to visit – although Hedy was given a symbolic grave site in Vienna’s Central Cemetery, in 2014 – but this absence of a true physical memorial seems appropriate. In her autobiography, Ecstasy and Me: My Life As A Woman, Hedy wrote that she never went to funerals and was not a fan of commemorative gestures.
“To me a person is dead when he breathes for the last time. After that, your memories should be personal.”
— Hedy Lamarr
The most beautiful woman in the world (or at least in Hollywood, in its Golden Age) lives on in our memories, in her impressive filmography and glamorous publicity stills, and of course in her legacy to modern technology – the secret communications system to which she contributed the work of her brilliant but under-appreciated brain.
How will you remember the movie star inventor?Featured photo credit: Publicity photo of Hedy Lamarr for Argentinean Magazine (printed in the USA, December 1934) by CINEGRAF magazine [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons; all other photographs as captioned.