Hedy Lamarr: Brains, Beauty and Talent

I am, once again, honored to feature a guest post written by Manish Tripathi (@manishtpa) on this blog.

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It’s funny how things in life turn out, and how one thing leads to another, quite often without the expected outcomes.  This is certainly true for this post about Hedy Lamarr.  Please allow me to explain.

A few nights ago, I was participating in a TCM Party on Twitter, and I was sending tweets about Hedy Lamarr’s background outside of her movie career, and specifically about her contributions to the field of wireless technology.  I made a comment about Hedy’s intelligence, and I also mentioned the patent on which her name appears.  After sending a couple of tweets I didn’t want to overstay my welcome by mentioning anything more, but Paula mentioned that she was learning about Hedy’s life and so I sent out one more tweet about how the patent related to wireless technology, and that I would say no more as once again I did not want to come off as a “know-it-all” and overstay my welcome.  I finally ended my tweets by saying that I just wanted to speak up on her behalf because she did have a hard life after her movie career ended.  I left it at that, thinking the topic was finished.  Well, that really was just the end of the beginning.  The next day Paula responded to my last tweet and mentioned that there might be a blog post in what I was saying about Hedy.  So, here we are in this post about Hedy.

I am not sure what possessed me to post my initial tweets about Hedy except to say that I have a soft spot for actresses who experienced a hard life or were exploited for their talents (yes, I know, that makes for a very long list of actresses).  But there is something about Hedy Lamarr that I cannot explain-as the French would say a je ne sais quoi.  I guess it has to do with the fact that she did experience hard times after her movie career ended and has a reputation for suing people (the movie Blazing Saddles helped perpetuate this reputation; more on this later).  Moreover, I think it has to do with the fact that I experienced and witnessed  Hedy’s acting at a very young age.  I can still remember her starring in My Favorite Spy with Bob Hope. I distinctly remember it was a Saturday afternoon and I was probably six or seven at the time, and at the time I was a fairly big fan of Bob Hope even though the humor was corny and the puns were very bad (I still love bad puns).  At any rate, what I remember at the time and still remember  is Hedy Lamarr.  Hedy, by any standard was one of the most beautiful women in the history of Hollywood.  However, beyond the beauty and acting is the story of an extremely bright individual.  Allow me the honor of explaining.

Hedy, née Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler was born in Vienna, Austria-Hungary (before World War I Austria was attached to Hungary).  At age ten, she was already studying ballet and learning how to play the piano.  She was already showing the signs of a prodigy at a very young age.

She made a name for herself in the movie Ecstasy - so renowned or notorious was the movie Ecstasy, that Hedy was known as “the Ecstasy lady”-much to the chagrin of her then husband, Friedrich Mandl, whom she married in 1933.  Mandl was so disturbed (embarrassed?) by Hedy’s scenes in Ecstasy that he reportedly tried to buy all the copies of the movie to prevent the movie’s screenings in public.  Supposedly, the director was able to achieve the desired effect in Hedy’s facial expressions for certain scenes by poking her backside with a safety-pin.

While Mandl was able to support Hedy financially through his munitions business, (interestingly Hedy met Hitler and Mussolini as they were invited guests for the dinner-parties hosted by her husband), he was extremely controlling and refused to allow Hedy to pursue her acting career in earnest.  Probably even more disturbing is the fact that Mandl was half-Jewish and continued to do business with Nazi Germany in light of the policies of that regime in regards to Jews.  What is crucial for Hedy is that she was often present at meetings Mandl had with scientists and others who were involved in (as Dwight D. Eisenhower referred to as) the military-industrial complex.  These meetings served as the foundation for Hedy’s later achievements in the field of science.

At some point, Hedy had enough of her marriage to Mandl and she devised a rouse to escape from Mandl’s clutches. Depending on which source you believe, she either disguised herself as the maid and fled to Paris or Hedy convinced her husband to let her wear all her jewelry to a dinner and then fled to Paris.  Nonetheless, after leaving Paris she would have a meeting with Louis B. Mayer in London that would lay the foundations of her career in Hollywood.  The first thing Mayer ordered was that Hedy change her last name to Lamarr in honor of Barbara La Marr, a movie star from Hollywood’s silent era who died in 1926.

Hedy made an immediate and noticeable impact on the American film scene in her Hollywood debut, Algiers, in 1938 with Charles Boyer, who requested that Hedy be allowed a part after he met her at a party.  Because of her smoldering looks and persona, Hedy was quite often cast as the exotic beauty or glamour girl.  This, I believe was Hollywood’s great short-sightedness in regards to Hedy.  She was so much more than the archetypical beauty.  She had a flair for comedy which she would never really be given an opportunity to showcase.  While she would have a successful career and work with the top leading men in Hollywood-Clark Gable, Spencer Tracy, John Garfield, to name a few – and work in musicals such as Ziegfeld Girl, I believe she never was allowed to show her true talents as a comedienne. Hedy would eventually leave MGM in 1945 and would begin the second phase of her professional life.

After leaving MGM in 1945, she starred in Cecil B. DeMille’s production of Samson and Delilah.  While I do think she would have made a great comedienne, I cannot think of a more truly striking beauty then her appearance as Delilah – my goodness!!  Unfortunately, for Hedy’s career, after her appearance in My Favorite Spy in 1951, her career in Hollywood was slowly coming to an end as she did not feature regularly in movies after 1951.  One of her last appearances on the screen was playing Joan of Arc in The Story of Mankind in 1957.  It did not help that the movie was resoundingly savaged by the critics.  This time period also signaled the beginning  of a time in which Hedy would experience many tribulations in her personal life.  However, before examining that time period, I would like to briefly examine what I think is one of the most fantastic accomplishments in Hollywood history.

as Delilah in Cecil B. DeMille’s, Samson and Delilah (1949)

It is beyond the scope of this blog post to go into the details but on August 11, 1942, George Antheil (Hedy’s neighbor) and “Hedy Kiesler Markey” (Hedy’s married name at the time) were granted a patent by the U.S. Patent Office.  This patent, for what has become known as frequency-hopping, in its earlier incarnation used a piano roll to change between eighty-eight frequencies and was designed so as to make radio-guided torpedoes harder to find or disrupt the torpedoes’ frequency.  Amazingly, this technology was demonstrated to the U.S. Navy but was not put into use during WWII!  However, the technology would be adopted in 1962 after the patent had expired. Could this be a case of the government not wanting to pay Hedy and George for licensing their patent?  I cannot say for sure but it seems interesting that the technology was adopted after the patent expired.  In fact, not many people were aware of this aspect of Hedy’s life and it would go on in relative obscurity until the Electronic Frontier Foundation gave her an award in 1997.  Supposedly, in 1998, Wi-LAN Inc.  obtained a 49% stake in the patent after offering Hedy stock in the company.  Unfortunately, George Antheil died in 1959, so he never reaped any rewards.

This technology has direct implications for our lives today, and it serves as the basis for many “spread-spectrum communication” technologies including: Bluetooth, Wi-Fi networks, and CDMA networks (e.g. Verizon’s cell phone network).  There is a list here of companies who cite Hedy and George’s patent for various technologies.  To be sure, Lamarr and Antheil were influenced by Blackwell, Martin, and Vernam’s 1920 patent on Secrecy Communication System, however, they merely laid the groundwork and Lamarr & Antheil developed on the concept and improved or furthered it to warrant a patent in their own right.  Interestingly, after being awarded the patent, Lamarr wanted to become a member of the National Inventors Council but was purportedly dissuaded by Charles F. Kettering (he invented freon for refrigerators and air-conditioners, amongst other inventions) and other individuals saying that she should concentrate on her talents as a celebrity to sell war bonds.  How condescending!

Unfortunately for Hedy, after her acting career was over, her life began to unravel.  In 1966, her “autobiography” Ecstasy and Me was published.  There is a debate as to how much of the book is true and there are many stories and anecdotes in the book that are points of contention, including how she escaped from her husband, Friedrich Mandl.  Hedy eventually sued the publisher and the co-author (some would say ghost writer), Leo Guild.  The book starts out on a very somber note, with Hedy reminiscing about how she had made and spent thirty million dollars and was not able to pay for a sandwich at a local drug store. Then, in 1966, she was arrested for shoplifting; although the charges against her were later dropped.  In a similar incident in 1991, she was arrested in Florida, where she lived, for shoplifting. In return for a promise to not break any other laws, the charges were once again dropped.

The 1970s were not any happier for Hedy.  She became more of a recluse and probably more of an easier target. In the 1974 movie, Blazing Saddles, she is referenced in the movie on more than one occasion and in disparaging and unflattering terms in my opinion.  There is one line in particular, something to the effect that it is the 1800s and that one of the characters would be able to sue her that I thought was something of a cheap shot.  That movie has probably reinforced the image of Hedy as a mean-spirited woman who liked to sue people.  For the record, she did sue Mel Brooks for ten million dollars (and I say, bravo!) for invasion of privacy and using her name without her permission. Incidentally, Mr. Brooks, if all this was done in jest or fun or was just satire, why did you settle the case out of court?

After all her trials and tribulations, in 1981, Hedy retired and moved to Miami Beach, Florida.  However, she was not forgotten because starting in 1997, the boxes for the CorelDRAW software suites had a picture of Hedy’s face on the box drawn using the Corel software. Corel had not received prior approval from Hedy and once again, Hedy took legal action and the parties settled out of court. For those who may be interested, there is an official Hedy Lamarr website, and yes, you too can license her name and likeness!

Lamarr led a relatively quiet life afterwards and died on January 19, 2000 at the age of eighty-six.  Her ashes were scattered in the Vienna Woods per her wishes by her son Anthony Loder.  And this brings me back to the beginning of this post.

I feel in some ways I need to defend Hedy Lamarr.  Because of various incidents in her life and one movie, she has this reputation for being a bitter woman who enjoyed suing people.  For each instance in which she did take legal action, she was defending her reputation or the unauthorized use of her likeness or name.  If someone had been used throughout their lives (specifically their face and looks) by others to make untold sums of money, would we not feel the same way?  What I mean to say is that a person’s face, likeness, and name belongs to them, and if they are being exploited or used without their approval then they certainly have the right to take legal recourse.  And, more to the point, if their good name is being besmirched then more power to them to redress the grievances.  As I mentioned at the beginning, I have a soft spot for actresses who have been exploited and never been given credit for their accomplishments on and off the silver screen.  For me, at least, Hedy Lamarr was a classy lady who experienced many traumas, heart-aches, and the hardships of life but has somehow escaped the spotlight that many of her contemporaries enjoyed throughout their careers and afterwards.  If I have shined that spotlight even just a little in Ms. Lamarr’s direction and given a more balanced view of her then I feel I have succeeded.



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10 replies

  1. This is such a well-written article and a terrific peek into the life of an actress I’ve always wanted to know more about. Thanks so much for the great read, Manish!

  2. Really enjoyed this, Manish. I knew nothing about Hedy Lamarr’s life behind the screen and you’ve peaked my interest. I love that you feel a need to “defend” her as many of us feel with the stars we feel some kind of ownership toward because we love their work. I also think it’s all worthy of note as we’re all too often quick to believe everything we see and hear. I’m a fan of Blazing Saddles but never realized mentions of Lamarr were disparaging in a way that she took issue with and didn’t know about the lawsuits. I agree that it was her right, as it is with anyone, to sue if she felt her rights were infringed.

    Great post!

    Aurora

  3. Hedy was a remarkable woman, and I was glad to read your “defense”. :)

  4. Fantastic article! Hedy was an amazing talent and is severely underrated with modern viewers.

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