clarence sinclair bull/getty images
clarence sinclair bull/getty images
She started her career with a bang: she was the first actress to have an orgasm on screen. She was a Hollywood sex symbol who stood up to the mighty Louis B. Mayer. She became one of the first female independent producers. She married multiple times. She shoplifted. And she invented broad spectrum frequency hopping, the technology that ultimately led to us having this little device called the mobile phone. Hedy Lamarr, the Viennese star who did not speak a word of English when she fled to America’s shores, is one of the most misunderstood and fascinating women of her time. Various film and TV-projects have failed to capture her intriguing, multi-faceted personality or failed to get made altogether because of it. The recent documentary Bombshell is the only one that even comes close.
In 1932 a pretty wannabe actress from Vienna shot a low-budget film with a Czech director in which she ran naked through a meadow and jumped into a lake. She also climaxed onscreen. Hedwig Kiesler was 17 at the time, and her well-to-do Jewish parents were not amused when said film, appropriately titled Ecstasy premiered a year later. A few months later they married off their precocious daughter, hoping to put a pin into her ambitions to become a star. Her husband was Austria’s leading munitions manufacturer Fritz Mandl, a Jew who nonetheless did not see anything wrong with making deals with Mussolini during the pre-war years.
He too had no interest in his wife pursuing any kind of career, least of all acting. When she got an offer from Max Reinhard, Fritz locked her away in his country house near Salzburg. But Hedwig’s spirit could not be contained. She cheated on him, once even running off to a sex club in the city, pretending to be a lady of the night while hiding from her husband who had given chase, and another time having her lover (a handsome major in the army and an acquaintance of Mandl’s) barely escape from her bedroom in Vienna by jumping over the balcony, his fall softened by fresh snow.
Four years after their wedding, young Hedwig had enough. Donning all her jewelry for one of Mandl’s elaborate dinner parties and hiding some of it under her gown, she changed into her maid’s uniform later that night, fled to the train station and traveled to Paris, then London. There she hooked up with a manager and got a meeting with Louis B. Mayer who was on one of his many scouting trips to Europe to discover young actresses. He brushed her off, pointing out that “MGM is a studio that makes family films. You, my dear, have a scandalous past.”
Undeterred, she sold some of her jewelry and secured a ticket on the same ship to New York. The long journey gave her ample opportunity to change Mayer’s mind, but it was the mogul’s wife who finally convinced him to give her a contract. Mrs. Mayer was also the one to come up with a name for the budding star – Hedy Lamarr.
She spent her first year in Hollywood learning English and making influential friends, mostly male ones. “I like oversexed people. The few I know are always talented and sensitive. I’m oversexed. And I’ve never kept that a secret”, she later wrote in her autobiography, aptly also titled Ecstasy. Mayer put her into a slew of godawful films like Algiers, I Take this Woman and Lady of the Tropics. In between, she married her colleague Gene Markey and adopted a son.
She then made two of her best films, Boom Town with Clark Gable and Spencer Tracy and Comrade X, again with Gable, after standing up to Mayer who – long before Harvey Weinstein - was a Weinstein-type bully. Not much is known about his sexual advances but given the era, one can only assume. Hedy, dubbed ‘the most beautiful woman in Hollywood’, got bored of acting after Mayer kept forcing her into slosh, then got tired of Markey and kicked him to the curb.
mondadori portfolio/time life pictures/john kobal foundation/martha holmes/getty pictures
It was her boredom and frustration with Hollywood that led to her friendship with her neighbor George Antheil, himself a foreigner and a composer who had invented an unusual technique to play the keys on his piano and had written an opera that had premiered in Paris to great acclaim. Their conversations were all about technology. Hedy, not having had much else to do, had listened intently when Fritz Mandl had business partners over for dinner, and – with her sharp, mathematical mind - she had learned a great deal. The year was 1941 and America had just joined the war. Lamarr and Antheil, both Jewish immigrants grateful for having escaped Europe, decided to do their part and began inventing a new technology for underwater torpedoes that would give the US an edge over the Germans. Not surprisingly their patent was rudely rejected by the US-defense ministry: “The torpedo was dreamt up by a composer and a Hollywood actress?!”, the Commander supposedly laughed. Their patent expired and the technology was not used until the Korean War.
Hedy remarried, this time to actor John Loder, resumed acting and made the most memorable film of her career, Cecil B. deMille’s Samson and Delilah. Her gown, created by the most famous costume designer of all time, Edith Head, was made of peacock feathers and is one of the most legendary dresses in Hollywood history. In the 50s she faded from the screen, resurfaced briefly in the 60s and 70s on TV and moved to Miami where she was arrested for shoplifting a few times. She had invested in real estate, but these ventures, like everything in her life, had its ups and downs. She also was one of the first actresses to have plastic surgery, some of it so bad she became a recluse, making any return to the screen a pipe dream.
Unbeknownst to her, her patent got into the hands of a number of physicists and inventors who were intrigued by broad-spectrum frequency hopping and used that as a basis for the invention of cell phones. George Antheil had passed by the time these devices became readily available. Hedy Lamarr, having gifted her invention to the US military, never saw a dime. In 1997 however, she received an award and sent her son Anthony to San Francisco to pick it up. Her acceptance speech was recorded on audio and aired during the ceremony and Loder said pointedly: “I like to think what Gutenberg was to the print world, Hedy Lamarr is to the wireless world. She appreciates the fact that her idea was not in vain. She is happy that she leaves something behind that is so important to so many people.”
Hedwig Kiesler, a genius in the body of a bombshell, a woman born way before her time, died 2000 in Florida. She had said: “When I die I want it written on my gravestone: Thank you very much for a colorful life.”
In that, Hedy Lamarr certainly succeeded way beyond her wildest imagination.