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Hedy Lamarr

by David Wallace

Porn Star, Hollywood Legend, Inventor.

Say it's 1941, and as the storm clouds of war are gathering, someone suggests the following story idea to the production chief of a major Hollywood studio:  "It's simple," says the hopeful screenwriter, encapsuling the story in the shorthand then and now preferred by the film capital's decision makers, "Gorgeous German-Jewish actress, trained in Germany's greatest acting school, becomes notorious as a porn star and a friend of both Hitler and Mussolini. Just before the war, she deserts her Nazi husband (a secret Jew and arms manufacturer), whom she loathes, by drugging the maid he hired to spy on her in her castle home, comes to Hollywood … becomes a superstar, and, on the side, patents a torpedo guidance system that could help win the war."

Despite the fact that the plot has everything — war, a hated marriage to an evil man, sex, a flight to freedom, a new life, and then potential revenge — even in that era of unabashedly patriotic films, no studio boss would buy such an outrageous idea. For one thing, few were prepared to believe that a woman — especially one famed as one of the most beautiful actresses in Hollywood — would have had the brains to invent such a technically advanced piece of electronic gear (or invent anything at all — Madame Curie, the discoverer of radium, was considered somewhat of a cultural aberration).

Yet, however unbelievable, the story is true and stands as one of the most remarkable among those of the Hollywood refugee and émigré population. So advanced was her invention that it actually formed the basis of much of modern communication, including cell phone and satellite communications technology. But the protagonist of the story also knew how Hollywood worked, keeping her ears and eyes wide-open while hiding a brilliant, inventive mind beneath one of Hollywood's most breathtakingly photogenic exteriors. She knew exactly how women, especially movie actresses, were stereotyped at the time, and she made it work for her. Her name was Hedy Lamarr, and as she once remarked, "Any girl can be glamorous. All she has to do is stand still and look stupid."

Hedy Lamarr was born near Vienna on November 19, 1913, as Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler. During her teens she attended Max Reinhardt's famous acting school in Berlin. In 1932, still 18, she showed off what she had learned in the Czech film Extase (Ecstasy). In it, she plays a love-hungry young wife of an indifferent old husband and appears in a steamy love scene that shocked audiences for its animal passion. But that was nothing compared to the reaction over what else she showed off; in the movie she also bares her breasts and runs naked through the woods. It was the first fully nude shot in commercial film history.

Close-ups of her face simulating passion in the film, in fact, eventually brought her a somewhat equivocal designation as the "Laurence Olivier of Orgasm." Such acting — not to mention the nudity — was morally unacceptable, certainly in Hollywood, where only a few years earlier the scandalous behavior of a number of stars brought about self-censorship. Unsurprisingly, Ecstasy was banned in the United States for years on charges of indecency.

In 1933 her parents placed the young Hedwig into an arranged marriage with an Austrian armaments manufacturer named Friedrich "Fritz" Mandl. Like many in the arms business at the time, he had no compunction about violating international agreements and selling weapons to those otherwise prohibited from rearming by the Versailles Treaty. (After meeting Hedy, he reportedly spent $300,000 — worth more than ten times that amount today — trying to buy up all the outstanding prints of Ecstasy.) Of course, to make his arms deals, Mandl had to entertain prospects, including Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini. And an important part of those business dinners was the presence of Mandl's gorgeous, and equally famous, wife to enchant the clients.

But as it turned out, while sipping endless crystal goblets of sekt, Hedy was doing more than just dazzling her husband's customers. She was listening to everything they were saying, as well as plotting how to get out of it all. Despite being married to one of the wealthiest men in the world, living in a castle in Salzburg (which a generation later would be one of the locations of the film version of The Sound of Music), and owning matchless jewels and the most expensive Mercedes money could buy, she was basically what is today described as a trophy wife — and she hated it. In 1937, after four years of marriage, she tried to escape.

The attempt was a failure, but it also produced one of the most famous anecdotes about Lamarr. As she was running, Mandl was so close on her heels that, at one point, she snuck into a brothel to hide (other stories claim it was a club that showed pornographic films, but may have hosted a brothel as well). In any event, when Mandl arrived, Hedy took refuge in one of the rooms. As the story goes, the male customer then arrived, and she was forced to have sex with him so her husband wouldn't recognize her when he broke in, searching for his wayward wife.

For her next attempt at escape, Hedy supposedly drugged the maid that Mandl had assigned to watch her (in the best cinemagraphic sleeping-pills-in-the-coffee style, naturally), put on a maid's uniform, and walked out the service entrance of the castle. She then made her way to London, where she acted in several plays, but more important for her future, met Louis B. Mayer, MGM's all-powerful boss. He immediately saw her potential and signed her to the standard seven-year contract aboard the French liner Normandie.

Because of the Ecstasy notoriety, Mayer insisted that she change her name. When the studio's famous press agent of the era, Howard Strickling, produced a list of acceptable names, she picked "Lamarr," an homage to Barbara LaMarr. The latter was a famously beautiful MGM star of the silent era who died of a drug overdose at the age of twenty-nine in 1926, the same year that her co-star in some lost dance films made in New York in 1914 also died:  Rudolph Valentino. Discovered by Mayer, Douglas Fairbanks, Sr., and his wife Mary Pickford, the original LaMarr was not only celebrated as "the girl who is too beautiful," but she, like her namesake Hedy, possessed a razor-sharp intelligence and a wise, if not as bitter, understanding of human nature.

With her beauty, seductive, smoldering acting style, and the more or less personal sponsorship of Hollywood's most powerful studio boss, Hedy Lamarr could hardly fail in her new home. And she didn't.

Among Lamarr's Hollywood films were White Cargo and Tortilla Flat, both made in 1942, the latter based on the John Steinbeck novel. Her biggest success was clearly Cecil B. DeMille's Samson and Delilah (1949), in which Victor Mature rather laughably played the biblical strongman. It is said that DeMille had several reasons for making this addition to his biblical oeuvre:  in Lamarr he had a woman he believed was beautiful enough to portray the seductress, and he finally had a use for the nineteen hundred peacock feathers he had gathered over the previous decade by chasing molting peacocks on his San Fernando Valley ranch — all of them were used in Lamarr's 18-foot train in the movie.

Sometime in the summer of 1940, Lamarr sought out a neighbor she had reverently met earlier at a party. George Antheil was an internationally known, albeit controversial, classical composer, who after his move to Hollywood a year or so earlier also worked as an opera and film composer (Knock on Any Door, Tom Sawyer, The Fighting Kentuckian). He also contributed a regular column to Esquire magazine on the war and, occasionally, on endocrinology, of all things. No one knows where he got his training, but in 1937 he had written a book on the subject called Every Man His Own Detective: A Study of Glandular Endocrinology. The reason Lamarr followed up on her initial meeting, according to several sources, was to ask him how she could enlarge the size of her breasts. As implants hadn't been invented yet, Antheil wasn't much help, and the conversation changed to a subject both had in common: the war in Europe, which would in a year and a half also involve America.

Although her former husband Mandl's firm specialized in shells and grenades, about the time he married Lamarr, he had begun manufacturing military aircraft, and one of the issues that occupied him was control systems. Mandl had been doing a lot of research in the field, and Lamarr heard it all at those dinners with arms buyers and began talking with Antheil about how to use what she had learned to control the torpedoes that were beginning to wreak havoc in the North Atlantic. To her, it seemed radio control was the way to go; all one had to do was jam a particular frequency, and the torpedo would be deflected from its target.

One afternoon Lamarr was sitting at Antheil's piano with the composer, who was idly hitting keys on the instrument, which she would then follow by banging on another note. Then her idea hit. As Antheil was changing the keys he was hitting, an idea occurred to Lamarr. As changing keys could change the music, could changing radio frequencies change or jam broadcast signals? The next day they sat on his floor and worked it out. Lamarr realized that the frequency of the signal controlling the torpedo needed to randomly change, so that any enemy attempt to block the signal would knock out only a small bit of the communication stream and have virtually no effect on its overall control. Thus, the concept known as "frequency hopping" was born.

How to get it to work was, of course, the question. Antheil offered a solution. Drawing from his 1926 Ballet Mécanique, scored for 16 player pianos, all performing at the same time, he suggested using punched piano rolls to keep the radio transmitter and the torpedo receiver synchronized, allowing the signal to be broadcast over 88 frequencies—one for each note on a piano keyboard. After spending several weeks working out the details, they sent the idea to the government. Under the direction of General Motors' then research director (later chairman) Charles Kettering, chairman of the National Inventors Council, the concept was improved, and patent 2,292,387 for a "Secret Communications System" was granted to Lamarr under her married name of the time, Hedy Kiesler Markey, on August 11, 1942.

But that was as far as it went. In that pre-transistor, pre-microchip era, it was simply too cumbersome to pack the vacuum tubes and associated technology into a torpedo—think putting a player piano into a missile. So the navy abandoned it, and Lamarr and Antheil dropped the matter. The actress directed her war efforts into selling war bonds (in one memorable night she sold $7 million in bonds at $25,000 a kiss), and George Antheil continued writing music.

But the "frequency hopping" concept wasn't forgotten. In 1957 Sylvania Electronics engineers made it a reality using the newly invented transistor, and five years later, after the Lamarr patent expired, frequency hopping was used by the United States to block communications during the Cuban missile crisis. The technology is now part of the Milstar defense communications systems, and is behind the latest in wireless Internet transmissions and cellular phones.

The rest of Hedy Lamarr's story isn't quite so happy. She never earned a nickel from her invention, which has made so many others millions of dollars. And as the movie industry changed to adapt to the television threat, her roles became fewer and fewer. Her last film was The Female Animal in 1958.

She was married and divorced six times. A year after she left Mandl, he left Germany for Buenos Aires and became an adviser to the country's dictator, Juan Perón, as well as a film producer, casting Perón's wife, Eva, in several of his films. Lamarr divorced Gene Markey, then a screenwriter, before the patent bearing his name was issued. He later married the owner of the celebrated thoroughbred horse farm in Kentucky, Calumet Farms.

From 1943 to 1947, Lamarr was married to the actor John Loder, followed by a two-year marriage to nightclub owner Ernest "Ted" Stauffer. In 1953 she married a Texas oilman named W. Howard Lee, who after they divorced in 1960, married the former film star Gene Tierney. Lamarr's last husband was Lewis J. Boies, a lawyer, whom she divorced in 1965, claiming that he had threatened her with a baseball bat.

In 1966 Hedy Lamarr was arrested for shoplifting at the May Company department store in Los Angeles, but was acquitted by a 10–2 vote in the subsequent jury trial. The bad publicity, coupled with her autobiography Ecstasy and Me (which was supposedly ghostwritten and later disowned by Lamarr, who also denied some of the anecdotes surrounding her career), ended any chance of resuming an acting career.

Hedy Lamarr died at her home in Florida on January 19, 2000, and her ashes were scattered in the Vienna Woods near her birthplace. In 2003 the Boeing Company used her image in a series of recruitment ads featuring women in science. No mention of her acting career was made in them.

Excerpted from Exiles in Hollywood, by David Wallace, published by Limelight Editions 2006 and distributed by Hal Leonard Corporation. Used by permission of Limelight Editions and David Wallace. The book is available in all bookstores nationally and at all online resellers.

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Articles in this Issue

The Twins, by Suzanne Montagne
The Moved, by Rebecca Peters-Golden
Hedy Lamarr, by David Wallace
The Place This Is, by Abby Sher
Broken, by Michael Chorost
Real Estate, by Katherine Carlson
Public Works, by Peter Joseph
Acoustics, by Michael Segell
September 2006


David Wallace, hailed by columnist Liz Smith as "the maestro of entertainment history," is also the author of the national bestseller Lost Hollywood, a popular history of early Hollywood, and its 2003 follow-up, Hollywoodland. Earlier in 2006 Abrams published his Dream Palaces of Hollywood's Golden Age, reviewed by Vanity Fair as "(a) ... vibrant, coffee-table book ... (providing) an all-access tour of 25 fabulous homes. Hotels, restaurants, and theaters from the 1920s to the 1940s." Mr. Wallace loves in Palm Springs, California.

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