Hedy Lamarr was a 1940’s Hollywood icon from Vienna and a genius inventor, once married to a Nazi. She had an idea that could have helped the allies fight Hitler… if anyone had listened to her. In 1941, she patented a communication system, which later became a base for mobile telephony, Bluetooth or Wi-Fi.
The world remembers this Austrian-American actress for her stunning beauty, and forgets that she also possessed a stunning mind.
Here is her story:
Hedy from Vienna
Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler was born in Vienna on November 9, 1914, into a wealthy family of intellectuals. She was the daughter of an Austrian banker (Emil – the director of Wiener Bankverein – came from Lviv / Galicia) and a concert pianist (Gertrud, from the Hungarian aristocracy). The Kieslers had Jewish backgrounds, but they identified themselves as Viennese first and foremost.
Their black-haired only child received a thorough education in private schools. She was fluent in four languages, played the piano, learned to dance and showed great interest in industrial technology. Encouraged by her father, at the age of five, Hedy took a music box apart to see how it worked – and then reassembled it. Her curiosity led her to examining the mechanisms of machines such as the printing press and cars.
Despite her versatile abilities, the girl saw her future in theater and film. She convinced her parents to let her leave high school and take acting classes.
The famous director Max Reinhardt (the Vienna Conservatory is named after him) cast her first in a minor theater role. Just 16-year-old Hedwig Kiesler starred in the 1930 film “Geld auf der Straβe” (“Money in the Street”). This is how the career that would lead Hedy to the top of Hollywood began.
Orgasm with a pin
Two years and three films later, Hedy Kiesler played a frustrated young wife in ‘Ecstasy’ (1933), a film by the Czech director Gustav McCarthy. Disappointed by the lack of sexual appetite of her much older husband, “Eva” bathed naked and then threw herself into the arms of her lover, with whom she experienced an orgasm.
To say that this film had a lot of impact is to say nothing. “Ecstasy” caused an international scandal! The artistic film immediately gained a pornographic reputation – not only for short scenes of nudity, but most of all for its portrayal of female climax, shown on Hedy’s face. Apparently, the actress, in the controversial scene, was stabbed by the director with a safety pin.
The subtle and artistic “Ecstasy” was crushed by moral censorship in Austria. Adolf Hitler banned the film from being screened in Germany. The Pope himself condemned the production, but Mussolini allowed the premiere in Venice. In the US, the film was blacklisted until 1940, although it quietly circulated around America.
Hedy was given the nickname “Ecstasy girl”, which she tried to get rid of for the rest of her life.
In 1933, Hedy, wanting to divert attention from the scandal caused by “Ecstasy”, played the role of Empress Sissi, a symbol of Habsburg Austria, on the stage of the Theater an der Wien. After each performance, her room was filled with hundreds of roses. The young actress’s most devoted admirer was Friedrich Mandl, a manufacturer of weapons and radio communication systems; reputedly the third-richest Austrian. Mandl had a close relationship with Austrian fascists, and acquired his fortune by trading arms with Nazi Germany.
Champagne with dictators
Hedy’s parents, both Jewish, disapproved of the relationship with Mandl due to his ties to the Italian fascist leader Benito Mussolini and later to the German Führer Adolf Hitler, but they could not stop their headstrong daughter.
18-year-old Hedy and 33-year-old Friedrich got married a few months later in Karlskirche. Hedy’s husband immediately banned her from appearing in theater and film. He attempted to purchase and destroy all available copies of “Ecstasy”. The woman was to be his property, his “Hausfrau” in the family estate of Schloss Schwarzenau, a prize shown at parties as the most beautiful trinket. Hedy smiled alongside Mandl in Paris, Venice and Monte Carlo, was showered with Cartier jewelry and Chanel hats, and in return her husband demanded her absolute obedience.
According to Marie Benedict, author of ‘The Only Woman in the Room’, the young Hedy lived under a tyranny of marriage. Years later, the actress confessed, “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.”
Mandl, a weapons manufacturer, was strongly politically involved. Scientists, military technology specialists and dictators attended lavish parties at his estates. Raised in a Jewish family, Hedy was under duress to entertain the Nazis. As a “decoration” at her husband’s side, she got to know the military and political landscape of the 1930s. Underestimated in everything else, she overheard the Third Reich’s plans, understanding more than anyone would guess. The information obtained inspired her greatest wartime invention.
Escape to Hollywood
The thought of fleeing her despotic husband and his golden cage haunted her. In 1937, Hedy sewed the most valuable jewelry into the lining of a coat, disguised herself as a maid and escaped from pre-war Vienna – first to Paris, then to London. By a twist of fate, she met Louis B. Mayer, the famous co-founder of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios (MGM). Mayer was skeptical due to the “Ecstasy” scandal. But clever Hedy bought a ticket for the same voyage across the Atlantic. In September 1937, aboard the “Normandie” liner sailing towards New York, the Austrian actress convinced the producer to hire her, because she could outperform Greta Garbo and Marlena Dietrich.
Mayer offered the ambitious actress $125 a week and came up with a new surname for the future star to cut her off from her Austrian roots. But Hedwig Kiesler knew how to negotiate. She went ashore in America as Hedy Lamarr, with a contract of $500 a week for the next seven years and a guarantee of leading roles.
Soon Lamarr starred in “Algiers” (1938) – the film was a huge success, followed by “Lady of the Tropics” (1939), “Boom Town” (1940), “White Cargo” (1942), and “Samson and Delilah” (1949).
Over the next 20 years, Hedy had leading roles in 24 films. The 40’s, despite the wartime, were the golden age of Hollywood and a great decade for Hedy Lamarr, called “the most beautiful woman in the world”. George Sanders, a colleague on the set, claimed that “Hedy was so beautiful that people stopped talking when she walked into the room.”
The actress graced the covers of newspapers, became the face of Snow White (Disney), inspired the heroines of the comic books “Catwoman” and “Wonder Woman” and set a fashion for the dark wave hairstyle. Red lipstick, strings of pearls, necklaces and rings with diamonds – Lamarr was pure glamor.
Hedy herself believed that people’s minds were more interesting than their appearance. Unfortunately, the films only showed her exotic beauty, not allowing her to say much. Hedy Lamarr’s fans had no idea about the intellectual potential of this brilliant woman.
Among the few who knew about Lamarr’s ingenuity was the aviation mogul Howard Hughes. Hedy suggested he changed the square shape of his planes to be more streamlined. She supported that thesis by showing him pictures of birds and fish. Hughes placed his team of scientists and engineers at his lover’s disposal, ordering them to do everything under her command. His planes gained speed thanks to Hedy.
Lamarr offered her assistance as a scientist to the National Inventors Council, established in 1940, but got ridiculed and reassured that she would be more of a use by selling war bonds and “raising the morale of lone soldiers” than inventing anything.
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.
According to her biographer, the actress felt guilty about leaving Austria before the outbreak of the war, as well as concealing information about the German arms industry that she acquired during her marriage to Mendl. Whether it was actually this troubled conscience that pushed Hedy to make a groundbreaking discovery – it seems impossible to tell. But one thing is sure: Lamarr was determined to change the course of the war.
When German U-boats torpedoed British ships carrying refugees (including children) in 1940, Hedy wondered how to use her knowledge to prevent further tragedies. Lamarr learned that radio-controlled torpedoes, an emerging technology in naval war, could easily be jammed and set off course.
As a talented pianist, she was friends with the composer and expert in synchronizing various machines and instruments. Hedy and George Antheil shared not only the love of playing the piano, but also broad (and secret) military knowledge. George lost his brother in 1940 – a diplomatic employee of the American embassy in Finland – from whom he had received confidential military information.
Lamarr and her friend came up with the idea of a torpedo steering system using radio waves and varying frequencies that could prevent the enemy from taking control. Perforated tapes were used for the synchronization of signals, similar to the pianola mechanism. Pianolas were automated pianos that played music from special paper tapes, which, thanks to their perforated structure, gave the instrument a signal to change the keys (88 holes on the tape corresponded to 88 piano keys)
On June 10, 1941, Lamarr (as Hedy Kiesler Markey, her married name at the time) and Antheil registered with the patent office a variant of the system called FHSS (frequency-hopping spread spectrum), under the number 2292387.
Invention collecting dust
The patent was made available for free to the US Navy, but due to the problem with the propagation of radio waves underwater, the lack of appropriate technology and concerns about whether the paper rolls would jam, a working prototype was not built and the idea was not used during the war. The invention was shelved for many years and kept a secret. Government officials did not allow any detailed publication of this work.
Information about the new communication system was blocked not only by officials, but also by film producers. They feared that news of their star’s brains could damage her image of a sex bomb. In 1944, when Motion Picture magazine referred to Lamarr’s intelligence, it spoke of her “discovering a new headgear for women.”
Trouble and Infamy
In 1939, Hedy Lamarr officially divorced her Austrian husband and married Gene Markey – a navy officer – whom she divorced two years later, after adopting a seven-month-old boy, James, who was rumored to be her illegitimate child. In 1945, Lamarr was one of Hollywood’s highest-paid celebrities. As the wife of actor John Loder, she gave birth to a daughter, Denise, and in 1947 to a son, Anthony. The couple got divorced the same year.
Gradually her scandalous life began to deteriorate. The press wrote about nymphomania, romances, subsequent husbands (six weddings – six divorces). There were rumors about the actress’s mental problems, drug addiction and financial problems. Nobody talked about her invention.
After her sixth and final divorce in 1965, Lamarr remained unmarried for the last 35 years of her life.
In 1966, Lamarr was arrested for petty shoplifting, but was soon released. Of course, the story was leaked to newspapers and Hedy became a laughing stock. Andy Warhol directed the movie ‘Hedy’ – a malicious parody of Lamarr’s life. Also in 1966, the book “Ecstasy and Me” was published, causing another scandal. Lamarr later sued the publisher, saying that many details were fabricated by its ghost writer, Leo Guild.
The 1970s were a decade of increasing seclusion for Lamarr. Mocked and bitter, she lived alone in Casselberry, Florida.
In 1973 Mel Brooks directed a comedy “Blazing Saddles” and named the male villain “Hedley Lamarr”. The actress sues him for this, as she did with Corel Corporation, which in 1998 illegally used Lamarr’s image on the packaging and instructions of CorelDRAW.
Details about her final years remain a mystery as the former star became a loner and rarely appeared in public. It is known that she preferred long phone calls to visits (even of her own children).
The military did not start developing the Lamarr and Anthelia patent until the 1950s, but the system remained secret until the 1980s. The FHSS has found its way into electronics in the 1990s. Today, it is a base of new technologies, such as Wi-Fi and Bluetooth.
In 1997, Hedy Lamarr, together with George Antheil, was awarded the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s Pioneer Award. In the same year, she also received the BULBIE Gnass Spirit of Achievement Award, an award called the “Oscar for Inventors”.
Hedy Lamarr died on January 19, 2000 at the age of 85. The cause of death was reportedly a heart disease. Her son Anthony Loder fulfilled her final wish by scattering her ashes in the Vienna Woods. 14 years later he requested to bury his mother’s remaining ashes in the honorary grave of the city of Vienna. Her urn was placed at the Central Cemetery in Vienna in group 33G, Tomb No. 80, near the presidential tomb.
In 2015, the Google search engine honored her 101st birthday. November 9, the day Hedy was born, is celebrated in Austria, Germany and Switzerland as the Inventor’s Day.
Movie star and musician Johnny Depp composed a 2019 song called ‘Hedy Lamarr’ and performed it with Jeff Beck in the UK in May 2022, thanking Hedy Lamarr, the ‘Most Beautiful Woman in the World,’ for our cell phones and wireless internet.
If the entire story of Lamarr had been told while the brilliant Austrian was still alive, or if she had ever played a woman as intelligent as herself, perhaps discovering that the star has both beauty and brains would not be such a surprise, and Hedy would not have died feeling underestimated.
Text by Anna Koliber,
author of “Faceless Lover” – erotic novel, available on Amazon
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