From time to time, I receive requests from one of my readers for a blog on a specific topic. I am only too happy to oblige. So, Rich, thanks for the suggestion, and this one’s for you.
Some of you may be familiar with Hedy Lamarr as an old-time actress. Indeed, she was a sensation in Germany in the early and mid-1930’s and a moderately successful actress in Hollywood from the late 1930’s until 1958, performing in some 30 movies. Most of them were rather pedestrian. Perhaps, the best known in the US were Boom Town, with Clark Gable, and Sampson and Delilah, with Victor Mature. Ironically, she turned down the Ingrid Bergman role in Casablanca, which might have made her a big star. But, in reality, acting was not Hedy’s greatest contribution to society. Her greatest success came as an inventor.
Hedwig Eva Maria Kessler was born on November 14, 1914 in Vienna. Her family was well-to-do. Her father was a director of a bank, and her mother was a pianist. Both of her parents were of Jewish ancestry, but Hedy’s mother had converted to Catholicism, and Hedy was raised as a Christian.
As a child, Hedy was drawn to movies. As a teenager she dropped out of school to pursue a career as an actress. She performed in a few German productions. Her most notable role was in the movie entitled Ecstasy (1933), in which she appeared totally nude. Needless to say, that was extremely shocking in 1933. It made her world famous, and brought her to the attention of MGM’s chief, Louis B. Mayer, who promptly signed her to a contract. It was Mayer who changed her last name to Lamarr, supposedly in honor of silent film star Barbara La Marr.
Hedy made her US debut in 1938 and, over the next 20 years, she appeared in some 25 movies, but few of them were successful and resonate at all today. She had a reputation of being, as she, herself, put it, “difficult.” The renowned costume designer, Edith Head, considered her one of the most problematic actresses she had to work with in her long and distinguished career.
Many considered her to be among the most beautiful actresses of her era. Supposedly, in the 1940s her profile was the most frequently requested by women who were having plastic surgery. Unfortunately, her great beauty did not translate into professional success. After WWII her career began to wane. In 1958 she retired from acting.
Hedy was married six times and bore three children – two sons and one daughter. Her first husband was Friedrich Mandl, a wealthy arms merchant and manufacturer whom she married in 1933. They were an unlikely pair on many levels – (1) their respective occupations had little in common, (2) their wide age gap, (she was 18; he was 33.), but most of all, (3) Mandl’s close association with Benito Mussolini and Adolph Hitler. I don’t know what they thought of her Jewish heritage or what she thought of their Fascism.
In any event, Hedy soon became very unhappy in her marriage. Mandl was very overbearing and kept her a virtual prisoner in his castle. As Hedy recalled “I knew very soon that I could never be an actress while I was his wife…. He was the absolute monarch in [our] 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.” Wow! Eventually, she ran away disguising herself as her maid. She fled to Paris and, eventually emigrated to the US. She became a naturalized citizen in 1953.
Being a woman, she was considered to be an unlikely inventor in those years, and her ideas were dismissed by the contemporary scientific community. The thinking of the day was how could a woman, and a beautiful one at that, possibly make a meaningful contribution to science. During WWII she applied for membership in the National Inventors’ Council. A few of its members dismissively suggested she could be more useful selling war bonds. In other words, “Go away. Don’t bother us. Leave the science to the men.”
As I said, her bigger and more enduring contribution to society was as an inventor. What was the genesis of her ideas? Perhaps, it was from being around her arms dealer husband, but, more likely she just had a natural gift for it. Think about it. She had no formal training. Essentially, she was self-taught. She loved to tinker in her spare time. Two of her early inventions were an improved traffic light and a tablet that would fizz and dissolve in water. Sound familiar? Alka Seltzer, anyone?
During WWII she came up with a military application that could have been very useful to the Navy. Radio-controlled torpedoes, which were a new and effective weapon, were prone to jamming. Hedy and an associate, composer George Antheil, had the idea for a frequency-hopping signal that would render the torpedoes virtually impervious to jamming. They even patented it. However, the Navy expressed no interest. Probably, they didn’t trust something developed by “outsiders.” Too bad. It could very likely have been useful. As a footnote to this story, the Navy did commence using a version of their invention in the early 1960s.
Incredibly, the principles of this technology contributed to the development of Wi-Fi, cell phones, and Bluetooth. All this, from an amateur with no formal training who just liked to “tinker.” Unfortunately, Lamarr and Antheil did not profit from this as their patent had expired.
The later years of Hedy’s life were, to put it mildly, not kind to her.
- She was arrested for shoplifting twice – in LA and later in Florida.
- She became estranged from her sons.
- She became addicted to pills.
- In a vain attempt to maintain her renowned beauty she turned to plastic surgery, but the results were, in the words of Wikipedia, “disastrous.”
- Hedy valued her privacy. She lived in virtual exclusion. Her only means of communication with the outside world was by telephone. Consequently, she lamented that the 1974 comedy, Blazing Saddles, in which producer Mel Brooks created a character named “Hedley Lamarr” had severely infringed on her privacy. Brooks, who reportedly was a big fan of Lamarr’s claimed he had done it as an homage to Lamarr and that she Lamarr “never got the joke.” Nevertheless, the studio issued an apology and settled out of court.
As sometimes happens, recognition came belatedly.
- In 1960 she was honored with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
- In 1997 she received an award from the Electronic Frontier Foundation for her work in spread-spectrum technology.
- In 2008 the lives of Lamarr and Antheil were featured in an off-Broadway play entitled Frequency Hopping.
- In 2010 The New York Public Library exhibit, Thirty Years of Photography, featured a topless Hedy Lamarr, circa 1930.
- In 2011 the Science Channel featured Lamarr’s and Antheil’s frequency-hopping spread spectrum invention in one of its programs.
- According to actress, Anne Hathaway, who played the “Catwoman” in the 2012 movie, The Dark Knight Rises, her character was based on Lamarr.
- Hedy was inducted into the National Inventors’ Hall of Fame, posthumously, in 2014.
Hedy passed away on January 19, 2000 in Casselberry, FL.