By Lisa Firth
Dubbed in her heyday “the most beautiful girl in the world”, actress Hedy Lamarr would be 100 years old this month. She epitomised the sultry femme fatale during Hollywood’s Golden Age, appearing alongside the likes of Bob Hope, James Stewart and Clark Gable. But for her greatest legacy, most of us need look no further than our mobile phones.
Once an A-lister, star of big-budget epics such as Cecil B. de Mille’s ‘Samson and Delilah’, Lamarr has slipped into the footnotes of Tinseltown history in recent years. Today she is remembered more as the butt of a joke in Mel Brooks’ ‘Blazing Saddles’ than for her acting career. But Hedy (not Hedley) has more than one claim to fame – a true polymath, she was also a keen inventor. It’s little known that a patent she filed at the height of her career in 1941 made a significant contribution to the world of wireless communications, from radio-controlled torpedoes used during the Cold War to the Bluetooth in your mobile.
Lamarr’s interest in applied science was roused back in her native Austria during her first marriage (she went on to notch up a further five husbands, including a final short-lived marriage to her divorce lawyer in the 1960s). In a match arranged by her parents, she became the trophy wife of wealthy arms manufacturer Friedrich Mandl in 1933 aged just 19 – fresh from her notorious appearance in the Czech film ‘Ecstasy’, in which she became the first actress ever to appear nude on the big screen. The scene was so controversial that the film was banned in parts of the US and denounced by both Hitler and the Pope, while her millionaire husband jealously spent a fortune trying to buy up every print.
Thirteen years her senior, Mandl was controlling, emotionally abusive and a fascist sympathiser to boot, keeping his wife a virtual prisoner in their palatial home. His firm landed a number of lucrative Nazi weapons contracts in the 1930s, and the couple regularly entertained Hitler and Mussolini at extravagant parties (despite the fact that both were from Jewish backgrounds). Mandl would demand that his young wife accompanied him everywhere, including, significantly, to business meetings with influential military scientists.
In her autobiography, Lamarr claimed to have staged a daring flight from her abusive spouse in 1937 by drugging a maid, donning her uniform and escaping to Paris. On meeting movie mogul Louis B. Mayer later that year, she cashed in her valuables for a one-way ticket to Hollywood, using the Atlantic crossing to sweet-talk Mayer into signing her with his studio. Despite his disapproval of ‘Ecstasy’ (“A woman’s ass is for her husband, not theatre-goers,” Mayer told her), the ambitious starlet’s charms proved hard to resist. At the end of the trip, she had a seven-year contract with MGM – at a salary equivalent to $3,000 a week.
At the peak of her Hollywood fame in 1940, the tragic sinking of two British liners carrying evacuees inspired Lamarr and her friend George Antheil, an experimental composer, to employ their shared love of inventing for the benefit of the war effort. She had been more than just arm candy years before when she had listened to Friedrich Mandl and his colleagues discussing weaponry. Lamarr was a formidable intellect, and with Antheil she worked out a system that would prevent German ships jamming the radio signals used to control torpedoes.
Their method was simple but ingenious. In the 1920s, Antheil had composed a symphony designed to be performed entirely on player pianos – self-playing instruments popular in the days before high-quality gramophone records became commercially available. The pianos could be programmed using perforated rolls of paper, and Lamarr hit on an idea. If these rolls could be used to automate the sequence of notes on a piano, why not radio frequencies too? The signal could be set to randomly hop between a number of different frequencies, preventing an enemy from locking on to it.
But the navy misunderstood the pair’s idea (“You want to put a player piano in a torpedo?”) and it wasn’t implemented during World War II. Lamarr was told that if she wanted to help the war effort she should instead use her pinup status to sell war bonds. She did, raising $7m from a single appearance on one occasion.
Lamarr and Antheil’s work on frequency-hopping was rediscovered in the 1950s, influencing weaponry first used during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Their idea paved the way for modern communications technologies including Bluetooth and wi-fi wireless Internet, but as the patent had expired in 1959 neither Lamarr nor Antheil received any recognition. In later years Lamarr began to gain plaudits for her work, even garnering a few awards, but by then botched plastic surgery had left her a bitter recluse and she refused to appear in public.
Hedy Lamarr’s unhappy life ended in 2000, dying in isolation and obscurity at the age of 86. Born with the full complement of fairytale blessings – wealth, brains and beauty – the actress met an unworthy end. She died almost penniless, despite the $30m she estimated she had earned from her career. Her groundbreaking contribution to science was still largely unknown, and she looked, according to her son Anthony Loder, “like Frankenstein’s monster” after repeated surgical alteration of her once stunning features.
Failure to adjust to a post-Hollywood existence tainted much of Lamarr’s later life. In her own words: “To be a star is to own the world and all the people in it. After a taste of stardom, everything else is poverty.”
Hedy Lamarr facts
- Hedy Lamarr was born Hedwig Kiesler to a wealthy Viennese family on 9 November 1914 (not 1913 as previously thought, according to her biographer Stephen Michael Shearer). Her stage name was chosen in tribute to an iconic silent film star, Barbara La Marr.
- Half a century before Meg Ryan’s infamous ‘diner moment’, Lamarr caused ripples across Europe as the first actress to simulate sexual climax on screen in the film ‘Ecstasy’. Showing only the actors’ faces, the scene is presented as a series of tasteful fragments: a lily-white hand caressing the edge of a bed; a broken string of pearls tumbling to the floor; Eva’s features in rapturous close-up; the lingering wisps of a post-coital cigarette. The film is now regarded by many as an arthouse classic and Lamarr’s finest performance, eclipsing the big-budget blockbusters in which she later starred.
- Although she was a big name, playing opposite Hollywood’s most desirable leading men, Hedy Lamarr’s professional life was not a happy one. As an actress she was praised for her beauty but rarely for her talent, finding herself typecast as exotic natives and smouldering temptresses and given lines like “I am Tondelayo. I make tiffin for you?” (from ‘White Cargo’).
- She also acquired a reputation for being difficult to work with, earning the nickname “Headache Lamarr”. Work began to dry up in the 1950s.
- Famous roles turned down by Hedy Lamarr include Ilsa in ‘Casablanca’ and Paula in ‘Gaslight’ (both parts eventually went to Ingrid Bergman).
- Lamarr developed a love-loathe relationship with her looks and on-screen persona. “Any girl can be glamorous,” she once sneered. “All you have to do is stand still and look stupid.”
- A prolific inventor, among Lamarr’s designs were a fluorescent dog collar, a better traffic signal, a new type of tissue box and modifications to the Concorde plane.