Born Hedwig Kiesler in 1914 in Vienna, Hedy Lamarr’s life is one too strange for fiction. At twelve, she won her first beauty contest. She began her film career in Austria, starring in the film Ecstasy when she was only eighteen. The film was little more than pornogrpahy, and the controversy stirred up by Kiesler appearing completely naked and portraying an orgasm became something of an albatross when she later wanted to be taken seriously.
At nineteen she became a trophy wife to a possessive Austrian arms dealer who tried to buy up and destroy every Ecstasy movie print and succeeded only in driving up demand for the film. In 1937, with Europe on the brink of war and her husband selling ammunition to the Nazis, Kiesler fled him and Austria.
In London she met studio head Louis B. Mayer, who was looking for cheap talent among the Europeans hoping to get out of Dodge before the bombs started dropping. Kiesler fit the bill, and the MGM contract was the Jewish actresses’ ticket to America.
Rechristened as Hedy Lamarr and promoted by Mayer as “the world’s most beautiful woman,” Lamarr started her American film career in Algiers (1938) opposite Charles Boyer.
She starred in a string of MGM films that, like Algiers, are not well remembered today. She’d gone from trophy wife to trophy actress—her roles emphasized her beauty, and she was treated mostly as a gorgeous decoration.
After a long day at the studio, Lamarr did not socialize. She spent evenings in her little laboratory at home and invented things.
That’s right—Hedy Lamarr, who was never given anything more interesting to do on screen than wear a heavenly crown, showcase clothes, and whip Samson (as Delilah) had an extraordinary intellect.
She helped her friend Howard Hughes solve an aeronautics problem by redesigning the plane’s wing to function more like a bird’s wing. She invented a dissolvable coca-cola tablet that could be added to water.
By this time, the United States had entered World War II. More than anything, Lamarr wanted to help America defeat the Germans. She felt that the key to breaking Germany’s back was to destroy its U-boats.
Torpedoes were the weapon of choice against submarines, but they were difficult to control once launched. The best known way to control them was by radio, but the enemy could often easily jam the radio waves controlling the torpedo and knock them off target.
If you could make a torpedo that couldn’t be jammed, you could succeed against the U-boats.
Hedy Lamarr, “the world’s most beautiful woman” had an idea how.
Together with musician George Antheil, Lamarr developed a secret communication system whereby the torepo and the ship could communicate through constantly changing frequencies that were nearly impossible to jam. Called “frequency hopping,” Lamarr got the idea from the new radio station dials.
By 1942, Lamarr and Antheil had received a patent for their frequency hopping idea. They donated their patent to the National Inventors Council, put together to develop ideas to help America win the war. Lamarr considered quitting Hollywood and joining the council to play her part in the war.
Can you guess what happened next? Did the U.S. military put Lamarr’s technology to use? Did American torpedoes designed by a starlet sink German U-boats?
Of course not.
This is Hedy Lamarr’s life in 1940’s Hollywood, not one of her films.
The military dismissed the patent and filed it away in a cabinet in the back of some dusty room. The Navy rejected it outright and told Lamarr that if she wanted to help the boys she should utilize her real talents.
Hedy Lamarr had invented a way to sink U-boats.
And the Navy told her to sell kisses for war bonds.
Lamarr did sell war bonds, an astounding twenty-five million dollar’s worth in ten days.
Lamarr kept acting, but her heart wasn’t in it.
Photographers complained that despite her beauty she was difficult to shoot because she seemed unable to convey emotion through her eyes and had only one expression.
Perhaps it was because Lamarr herself believed, “Any girl can look glamorous, all she has to do is stand still and look stupid.”
She gained a reputation for being temperamental and difficult onset. The vapid roles bored her.
The Hollywood history book on Hedy Lamarr is that she was beautiful but not a particularly good actress. After watching her films, I think the truth is that we’ll never know if Lamarr was a good actress, because she never got a role juicy enough to truly test her.
Though Lamarr cursed her beauty for this, she shoulders some of the blame. All of the great Hollywood female stars of the studio era (Crawford, Stanwyck, Davis) fought tooth and claw to avoid bad roles and secure good ones. They understood that for things to happen they had to make them happen.
Lamarr had her chances—Warner’s wanted her for Casablanca but MGM refused to loan her out. She made fatal career mistakes—passing on roles in Laura (1944) and Gaslight (1944).
Ingrid Bergman became a legend off Lamarr’s bad judgement.
She had a decent ten year run, ending with Samson and Delilah in 1949, her last good film. She made roughly thirty films, forgotten to all but the most ardent cinephiles.
She went through six husbands. Divorces and excessive spending left her broke. She cursed her looks but despaired as she aged and lost them. She tried to recapture the past with increasingly excessive plastic surgery. She became a punchline, mocked and ridiculed by those who had once worshipped her beauty.
Later in life she was arrested twice for shoplifting.
How was a woman to compete with the “world’s most beautiful woman” when that woman was her younger self?
As Robert Osborne says in the 2017 documentary Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story, “the only thing that would have solved the problem is if she’d died young.”
Hedy Lamarr is gone, and her films have mostly faded.
But her invention lives on.
Though they were not used in World War II, the U.S. military eventually found Lamarr’s patent in that dusty filing cabinet, and by the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis her torpedoes were in wide use.
Today, her frequency hopping techniques serve as the foundation of modern day GPS systems, WiFi, Bluetooth, and cell phones.
Hedy Lamarr’s invention impacts everyone of us everyday.
This is her legacy. More important than any film.
In 2014, Lamarr was posthumously inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame.
In 2017, her story was finally told on film in Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story.
The tragedy of Hedy Lamarr is that while she had the heart of a Renaissance woman, her uncommon beauty locked her into the narrowest of paths.
Lamarr’s beauty opened many doors, but none that led to happiness or satisfaction.
She had great beauty but lacked the charisma of the greatest actresses.
She had an extraordinary mind but lacked wisdom.
And we all owe her a debt of gratitude.