Today is the birthday (1914) of actress Hedy Lamarr, born Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler. Many people my age remember her from films such as Algiers (1938), Boom Town (1940), I Take This Woman (1940), Comrade X (1940), Come Live With Me (1941), H.M. Pulham, Esq. (1941), and Samson and Delilah (1949), that were stock-in-trade TV movies back in the 1960s when a film had to be over 10 years old to be shown on television. Fewer people know that at the beginning of World War II, she and composer George Antheil developed a radio guidance system for Allied torpedoes that used spread spectrum and frequency hopping technology to defeat the threat of jamming by the Axis powers. Although the US Navy did not adopt the technology until the 1960s, the principles of their work are incorporated into Bluetooth technology and are similar to methods used in legacy versions of CDMA and Wi-Fi.
Lamarr was born in Vienna, the only child of Gertrud “Trude” Kiesler (née Lichtwitz; 1894–1977) and Emil Kiesler (1880–1935). Her father was born to a Jewish family in Lemberg (now Lviv in Ukraine) and was a successful bank director. Trude, her mother, a pianist and Budapest native, had come from an upper-class Jewish family. She had converted to Catholicism and was described as a “practicing Christian” who raised her daughter as a Christian. Lamarr helped get her mother out of Austria after it had been absorbed by the Third Reich and to the United States, where Gertrude later became a US citizen. She put “Hebrew” as her race on her petition for naturalization, which was a term often used in Europe.
Lamarr was taking acting classes in Vienna when one day, she forged a note from her mother and went to Sascha-Film and was able to get herself hired as a script girl. While there, she was able to get a role as an extra in Money on the Street (1930), and then a small speaking part in Storm in a Water Glass (1931). Producer Max Reinhardt then cast her in a play entitled The Weaker Sex, which was performed at the Theater in der Josefstadt. Reinhardt was so impressed with her that he brought her with him back to Berlin.
However, she never actually trained with Reinhardt or appeared in any of his Berlin productions. Instead, she met the Russian theatre producer Alexis Granowsky, who cast her in his film directorial debut, The Trunks of Mr. O.F. (1931), starring Walter Abel and Peter Lorre. Granowsky soon moved to Paris, but Lamarr stayed in Berlin and was given the lead role in No Money Needed (1932), a comedy directed by Carl Boese. Lamarr then starred in the film which made her internationally famous.
In early 1933, at age 18, Lamarr was given the lead in Gustav Machatý’s film, Ecstasy (Ekstase in German, Extase in Czech). She played the neglected young wife of an indifferent older man. The film became both celebrated and notorious for showing Lamarr’s face in the throes of orgasm as well as close-up and brief nude scenes, a result of her being deceived by the director and producer, who used high-power telephoto lenses. Although she was dismayed, and disillusioned about taking other roles, the film gained world recognition after winning an award in Rome. Throughout Europe, it was regarded as an artistic work. In the US it was considered overly sexual and received negative publicity, especially among women’s groups. It was banned there and in Germany.
Lamarr played a number of stage roles, including a starring one in Sissy, a play about Empress Elisabeth of Austria produced in Vienna. It won accolades from critics. Admirers sent roses to her dressing room and tried to get backstage to meet her. She sent most of them away, including a man who was more insistent, Friedrich Mandl. He became obsessed with getting to know her. Mandl was an Austrian military arms merchant and munitions manufacturer who was reputedly the third-richest man in Austria. Lamarr fell for him, but her parents, both of Jewish descent, did not approve, due to Mandl’s ties to Mussolini, and later, Hitler.
On August 10, 1933, Lamarr married Mandl. She was 18 years old and he was 33. In her autobiography Ecstasy and Me, she described Mandl as an extremely controlling husband who strongly objected to her simulated orgasm scene in Ecstasy and prevented her from pursuing her acting career. She claimed she was kept a virtual prisoner in their castle home, Schloss Schwarzenau. Mandl had close social and business ties to the Italian government, selling munitions to the country, and although like Hedy, his own father was Jewish, had ties to the Nazi regime of Germany, as well. Lamarr wrote that the dictators of both countries attended lavish parties at the Mandl home. Lamarr accompanied Mandl to business meetings, where he conferred with scientists and other professionals involved in military technology. These conferences were her introduction to the field of applied science and nurtured her latent talent in science.
Lamarr’s marriage to Mandl eventually became unbearable, and she decided to separate herself from both her husband and country. In her autobiography, she wrote that she disguised herself as her maid and fled to Paris, but by other accounts, she persuaded Mandl to let her wear all of her jewelry for a dinner party, then disappeared afterward. She writes about her marriage:
I knew very soon that I could never be an actress while I was his wife. He was the absolute monarch in his marriage. I was like a doll. I was like a thing, some object of art which had to be guarded—and imprisoned—having no mind, no life of its own.
After arriving in London in 1937, she met Louis B. Mayer, head of MGM, who was scouting for talent in Europe. She initially turned down the offer he made her ($125 a week), but then booked herself on to the same New York bound liner as him, and managed to impress him enough to secure a $500 a week contract. Mayer persuaded her to change her name to Hedy Lamarr (to distance herself from her real identity, and “the Ecstasy lady” reputation associated with it), choosing the surname in homage to the beautiful silent film star, Barbara La Marr, on the suggestion of his wife, who admired La Marr. He brought her to Hollywood in 1938 and began promoting her as the “world’s most beautiful woman”.
Mayer loaned Lamarr to producer Walter Wanger, who was making Algiers (1938), an American version of the French film, Pépé le Moko (1937). Lamarr was cast in the lead opposite Charles Boyer. The film created a “national sensation”, says Shearer. She was billed as an unknown but well-publicized Austrian actress, which created anticipation in audiences. Mayer hoped she would become another Greta Garbo or Marlene Dietrich. According to one viewer, when her face first appeared on the screen, “everyone gasped … Lamarr’s beauty literally took one’s breath away.”
In future Hollywood films, she was invariably typecast as the archetypal glamorous seductress of exotic origin. You can follow her Hollywood career from here for yourself. Now I’ll turn to her scientific investigations, as this is a lesser known side of her. Lamarr wanted to join the National Inventors Council, but was reportedly told by NIC member Charles F. Kettering and others that she could better help the war effort by using her celebrity status to sell war bonds. She participated in a war bond-selling campaign with a sailor named Eddie Rhodes. Rhodes was in the crowd at each Lamarr appearance, and she would call him up on stage. She would briefly flirt with him before asking the audience if she should give him a kiss. The crowd would say yes, to which Hedy would reply that she would if enough people bought war bonds. After enough bonds were purchased, she would kiss Rhodes and he would head back into the audience. Then they would head off to the next war bond rally.
Although Lamarr had no formal training and was primarily self-taught, she worked in her spare time on various hobbies and inventions, which included an improved traffic stoplight and a tablet that would dissolve in water to create a carbonated drink. The beverage was unsuccessful; Lamarr herself said it tasted like Alka-Seltzer.
Among the few who knew of Lamarr’s inventiveness was aviation tycoon Howard Hughes. She suggested he change the rather square design of his aeroplanes (which she thought looked too slow) to a more streamlined shape, based on pictures of the fastest birds and fish she could find. Lamarr discussed her relationship with Hughes during an interview, saying that while they dated, he actively supported her “tinkering” hobbies. He put his team of science engineers at her disposal, saying they would do or make anything she asked for.
During World War II, Lamarr learned that radio-controlled torpedoes, an emerging technology in naval war, could easily be jammed and set off course. She thought of creating a frequency-hopping signal that could not be tracked or jammed. She contacted her friend, composer and pianist George Antheil, to help her develop a device for doing that, and he succeeded by synchronizing a miniaturized player-piano mechanism with radio signals. They drafted designs for the frequency-hopping system, which they patented. Antheil recalled:
We began talking about the war, which, in the late summer of 1940, was looking most extremely black. Hedy said that she did not feel very comfortable, sitting there in Hollywood and making lots of money when things were in such a state. She said that she knew a good deal about munitions and various secret weapons … and that she was thinking seriously of quitting MGM and going to Washington, DC, to offer her services to the newly established Inventors’ Council.
Their invention was granted a patent under US Patent 2,292,387 on August 11th, 1942 (filed using her married name Hedy Kiesler Markey). However, it was technologically difficult to implement, and at that time the U.S. Navy was not receptive to considering inventions coming from outside the military. In 1962, (at the time of the Cuban missile crisis), an updated version of their design at last appeared on Navy ships. In 1997, Lamarr and Antheil received the Electronic Frontier Foundation Pioneer Award and the Bulbie Gnass Spirit of Achievement Bronze Award, given to individuals whose creative lifetime achievements in the arts, sciences, business, or invention fields have significantly contributed to society. Lamarr was featured on the Science Channel and the Discovery Channel. In 2014, Lamarr and Antheil were posthumously inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame.
Lamarr died in Casselberry, Florida, on January 19th, 2000, of heart disease, aged 85. Her son Anthony Loder spread her ashes in Austria’s Vienna Woods in accordance with her last wishes. Lamarr was given an honorary grave in Vienna’s Central Cemetery in 2014.
Here’s a video for making Eiernockerln, egg dumplings from Vienna that are not as well known outside Austria as Weiner Schnitzel or Sachertorte or any of a dozen Viennese recipes I have already given you, but they are quite splendid if made right.