Hedy Lamarr – the tragic screen siren who was also a genius inventor

She was the “most beautiful woman in the world” but, as an entertaining and smart new documentary reveals, there was much more to screen siren Hedy Lamar.

Hers is one of the most beautiful faces ever to grace the silver screen but Hedy Lamarr was also a genius who might well have invented Wi-Fi.

Although she died in 2000, Lamarr’s most lasting legacy is only just now coming to light. And it isn’t a list of Hollywood films that includes Algiers, White Cargo and Samson and Delilah, nor the reputation of once being “the most beautiful woman in the world.” Rather, it is the invention of a technique she called “frequency hopping”, a secure communication system originally designed to torpedo German U-Boats and help win the Second World War that eventually become the basis for Bluetooth and wireless technology.

Lamarr’s remarkable secret life as an inventor is revealed in a new documentary called Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story, directed by Alexandra Dean and executive produced by Susan Sarandon, which unearths tapes of Lamarr recounting her own life story and includes interviews with several members of her family, including her son and daughter.

What emerges is a picture of an extraordinary woman, a misunderstood beauty and a pioneering feminist, one who became a victim to fame, misfortune, six bad marriages and even worse plastic surgery.

“At its heart I think it’s a story about power,” says Dean, “about who gets access to it and who’s allowed to wield it. I believe Hedy was angry about that her whole life and we have to figure out why she was denied her rightful power.”

Hedwig Kiesler was born in Vienna in 1914,  the daughter of a well-to-do secular Jewish family who enjoyed the opera and theatre. Her mother had been a concert pianist while her father ran a bank. Hedy idolised her father, who inspired in her a love of all things mechanical, leading to her fascination with engines and systems.

Although she excelled at chemistry in school, she soon realised her exceptional, burgeoning beauty could turn heads. So she pursued work in the theatre and then in the Austrian film industry. At the age of 18, she was cast in a film called Ecstasy which featured her running and swimming naked as well as the first ever screen close ups of woman in the throes of an orgasm.

While Lamarr claims she was duped by the director into filming the scenes, the film was banned by the Pope and incurred the anger of Hitler, earning Hedy a hint of notoriety that stayed with her throughout her consequent career.

She was swept off her feet by a munitions tycoon Franz Mandl and they lived in a fairytale Austrian castle visited by Mussolini and Hitler and other prominent Nazis. While the jealous Mandl tried to buy up all the prints of Ecstasy, Hedy plotted her escape from the suffocating marriage and the imminent War, fleeing undercover of a dinner party wearing her finest, most expensive jewels. According to some stories, she sewed more diamonds into the lining of her coat, disguised herself in a maid’s outfit and made off on a bicycle, eventually reaching Paris and London.

Hedy clearly had a flair for the dramatic and came to the attention of Louis B Meyer, the mogul of MGM, who signed her up after noticing her on the liner taking both of them – and Douglas Fairbanks – over to America.

Despite not speaking English, Lamarr (Meyer insisted on the name change) initially learned her lines by rote and it was her role opposite Charles Boyer’s Pepe Le Moko as a sultry French spy in 1938 thriller Algiers that made her a star.

Suddenly, all Hollywood wanted to look like her and talk like her. Disney apparently modelled his cartoon Snow White on Hedy’s incandescent beauty and her company was sought by Picasso, Orson Welles, Howard Hughes and the young John F Kennedy. 

She made five films in 1940, the studio “working her like a race horse”, feeding her pills to faster in the day and to slow down at night. Slavish and awful as that may sound, that was how all the female stars were treated in Hollywood at the time – but where most of them at least slept at night, Hedy was up making inventions.

She had a experiments table in her home and got supplies off Howard Hughes, the aviation billionaire and Hollywood playboy whom she also advised on aerodynamics for his latest planes.

It was during this period of frenetic creativity that Hedy came up with her most genius idea. Working with her friend the avant grade composer George Antheil, she devised a method of remote radio control that she believed could stop Germans from jamming the radio signals to American torpedoes which, she’d discovered, most often missed their targets and meant that the Aliies were close to losing the war.

She asked Antheil to devise a system based on the ‘piano rolls’ he used for his mechanical keyboards  that could also be used to jump between radio frequencies. They got the system to work, won a Patent and were recognised by the newly-formed National Inventions Council.

The American Navy did not put her invention to use immediately, however, and Hedy was instead sent off to raise money for the War Bonds scheme, entertaining the troops and selling kisses and autographs. Although she raised over $25 million, Hedy’s career hardly flourished on screen. “There could hardly have been more of an insult to her intelligence,” remarks Dean. “She’d invented a revolutionary idea yet was getting accepted only for her beauty.”

The film White Cargo featured one of her most iconic performances, as Tondelayo, the blacked-up tropical seductress, a role which looks quite ridiculous now. Disillusioned with the parts she was getting, Lamarr set up her own production company but found the Hollywood system rounding on her, quashing the success of any movies she tried to make under her own steam.

1949’s Samson and Delilah, opposite Victor Mature, marked a comeback and was one of the highest grossing films of the decade – behind Gone With the Wind – her ensuing, self-funded epic Love of Three Queens flopped badly and left her financially ruined. Which may explain her marriage to Texan oil tycoon Howard Lee.

Devoted to raising her children, she also found time to popularise the new ski resort of Aspen, where she built a villa complex. However, that marriage failed, as did two more and Hedy found public life increasingly difficult. 

“Beauty is a terrible thing to bet your life on,” says Dean. “It’s been the trap for women for centuries – you learn how to use it, it becomes your currency, then it goes and you’re a joke. That’s the trap that Hedy fell into and all the while she was sitting on this invention for which she was never going to get the credit.”

Dean says she made the film because it’s still happening. “I saw it a lot, particularly in the tech industry where beautiful young women with brilliant minds were just not getting the funding or recognition that their male peers would get. Beauty still derails a lot of careers.”

Lamarr’s final years grew increasingly sad, her face scarred by an obsession with facelifts resulting in her living as a recluse, spending hours on the telephone but rarely surfacing lest any public might glimpse her and what she’d now become – a slightly frightening-looking figure from the brief footage in the documentary.

“Any girl can look glamorous,” runs one of Hedy’s most famous quotes. “All she has to do is stand still and look stupid.”

Dean says her main battle in making the film was to prove that the world’s most beautiful woman really did come up with the idea of Bluetooth and Wi-fi. “Even to me, it seemed unlikely,” she admits. “Maybe I  so wanted it to be true, that I was forcing the issue and I feared maybe it was just an urban myth among scientists, something of an amusing anecdote after all. Did she invent it? That’s hard to say, but did I find out for sure that she was one of the authors of the technology behind it? Absolutely.”

Lamarr, who died in 2000, lived long enough to see the beginnings of the internet age although the gazillion dollar business of Silicon Valley would have been beyond even her imagination. 

Says Dean: “At the end of her life, I think she was reconciled to the fact that what she’d invented in technology would be of more lasting value than any of the films she’d made. If anyone still believes inventors are supposed to look like Thomas Edison, I hope Bombshell makes them think again and realised not just one person invented our world.”

Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story is released in the UK on March 8

This interview first appeared in The Lady magazine.

Leave a Reply