The Austrian film star Hedy Lamarr (1914-2000) was best known in her day as an exotic beauty. Prior to her Hollywood career, she garnered a reputation for sexual permissiveness following a nude appearance in in the Czech art film, Ecstasy. Once in Hollywood, she was most often cast as a foreign temptress. Yet, during the war, along with avant-garde composer, George Antheil, she invented a system for torpedoing U-Boats that was patented and then ignored. Much later, as her life was coming to an end, she received her first recognition as the pioneer behind much of contemporary electronics. In the intervening years, she married six times and witnessed her career fall into decline. She also remained remarkably silent about her Jewish identity.
One of the many contradictory aspects of film star and inventor Hedy Lamarr’s life story is her Jewish identity. Born Hedwig Kiesler on November 9, 1914, in Vienna, the only child of Gertrud (née Lichtwitz) and Emil Kiesler, the future film star grew up in a moneyed, cultured environment. In later life, Lamarr often spoke of her childhood as a kind of lost paradise— education at the Döblinger Mädchenmittelschule, walks with her father in the Wienerwald, piano lessons with her talented mother, trips to the theater, adventures with young men, and finally the breakthrough, firstly in film and then in theater. What she did not mention was that she was Jewish. So secretive was she about this aspect of her identity that her children were unaware of their heritage, despite the fact that they grew up knowing their maternal grandmother, Trude, who moved to the United States to be with her daughter in 1942.
Marriage to Mandl, the munitions baron
One reason for this silence was that Lamarr converted to Christianity to marry her first husband (of six), Fritz Mandl, in 1933. Mandl, the offspring of a liaison between his father, Alexander Mandl, and the family maid, Maria Mohr Graz, whom Alexander subsequently married, had been raised a Catholic in deference to his mother’s religion. The rest of the Mandl family, however, was Jewish. Fritz Mandl was by all accounts a controlling bully with abusive tendencies; he was also an arms manufacturer of note, and it was thus in his political and business interests in pre-War Austria to align himself with the fascist movement. The fascists were willing to turn a blind eye to both his and his young trophy wife’s Jewish origins, but in the end both were forced into exile, Lamarr to Hollysood in 1937 and Mandl to Buenos Aires in 1938. It is unclear when exactly they divorced, but it seems most likely that Mandl had his marriage to Lamarr annulled in 1938 on race grounds. Each soon remarried.
Escape from Vienna
In Vienna, Lamarr trained as an actor under Professor Arndt and soon began picking up minor roles at the Sascha Film studios. Her first appearance was in Georg Jacoby’s Gold on the Street (Geld auf der Strasse) in 1930, and the following year she worked with famed Jewish theater director, Max Reinhardt, in his stage production of The Weaker Sex. Following a brief interlude in Berlin, Lamarr appeared in her breakthrough production, as the star of Gustav Machatý’s 1933 Czech art film, Extase (Ecstasy), best remembered in film history for the scenes in which the teenage Lamarr runs naked through the woods before plunging for a dip into a lake and simulates orgasm with her lover. This in turn led to a starring appearance on the Vienna stage in the title role of the popular operetta, Sissy; it also provoked an international scandal, with Machaty seeing his film banned in many territories, including much of the United States. Allegedly, the scandalised Herr Mandl attempted to have all the existing prints destroyed, but another version of that story insists that this was a publicity stunt enacted to enhance his beautiful young wife’s career.
Keeping silent about her Jewish identity, Lamarr never mentioned in interviews that by the late 1930s there was no question of her continuing to develop her screen or stage career in post-Anschluss Austria. Mandl had gone to careful lengths to remove sufficient of his assets to live comfortably in exile; Lamarr fled Vienna with a small bag of jewels, her extraordinary looks, a slightly raunchy screen reputation, and, possibly, the beginnings of a plan to develop a system of frequency “hopping” that would facilitate the sinking of U-Boats.
Louis B. Mayer and a Hollywood Makeover
Lamarr reached America via London, where she met Hollywood mogul Louis B. Mayer, who was on the lookout for émigré talent. Either in London or on board the Normandie to America, she signed a contract with Mayer and joined MGM. Despite having been founded by Jewish immigrants (including Mayer), Hollywood worked tirelessly to project an idealised WASP identity in its films. For immigrant stars (Marlene Dietrich, Greta Garbo, Carmen Miranda, and now Hedy Lamarr), this meant embracing an unthreatening, all-purpose exoticism. To be foreign on the pre-war Hollywood screen was to be sultry, seductive, and mysterious. Mayer moved swiftly to strip Lamarr of all Jewish identifiers. He altered her name from Hedy Kiesler to Hedy Lamarr in honor of his favorite star, Barbara La Marr, otherwise known as “the girl who was too beautiful.” He changed her looks, placed her on a diet, organized English language lessons, and went on the hunt for a project that would launch her on the globalized American market.
The Most Beautiful Woman in Film
In the end, Lamarr’s stardom was to come from producer Walter Wanger, himself from a cultured German-Jewish family. Wanger’s idea was to remake the hit French production Pépé Le Moko (Julien Duvivier, 1937) casting Charles Boyer in the title role previously occupied by Jean Gabin and Hedy Lamarr as the femme fatale Gaby (previously played by Mireille Balin), whose affair with the glamorous French criminal plays out against the exotic background of the Casbah. Released as Algiers in 1938, the film was a triumph for Wanger, director John Cromwell, cameraman James Wong Howe, and most of all Hollywood’s new arrival, Hedy Lamarr. Her looks were transformed; she was svelte, her glossy hair swept back from her brow and divided in a central parting that accentuated her perfect features, the dark eyes looking out under slightly lowered lids, the full mouth, the shadows falling across her face. In every way, she radiated sexual allure and mystique. From now on, her career was decided. She was to play the mysterious foreigner, the classic beauty, the temptress, or, as she was swiftly named, the “Most Beautiful Woman in Film.” She might be rejected for her spider-woman entanglements (by Spencer Tracy, for instance, in Boom Town of 1940) or tamed by the all-American good guy (James Stewart in Come Live with Me of 1941), or, most outrageously, appear as a scantily dressed native woman in her often-lampooned role as Tondelayo in 1942’s White Cargo, but she was never to imagine that she could be part of WASP America.
Hedy Lamarr, Inventor
Off screen, Lamarr was as little integrated into mainstream American life as were her on-screen characters. As the war approached, she and the other Hollywood emigrés were viewed with suspicion. They took to meeting for mutual support in each other’s houses and at their friends’ restaurants as the news from Europe announced the destruction of their old lives. Just how many of Lamarr’s family and former neighbors were lost to the Holocaust is unknown, but many must have been. Again, she never mentioned it. Publicly, Lamarr threw herself into the American war effort. She helped out at the Hollywood Canteen, signing autographs and dancing with the young soldiers on leave; she actively participated in the national war bonds drive, and is credited with selling twenty-five million dollars in bonds.
It was at this time that Lamarr, along with American avant-garde composer, George Antheil, devised the system to use frequency hopping, later better known as spread spectrum technology, to allow for the launch of long-range missiles so that they could not be jammed electronically. The two became acquainted at a party, Hedy’s first enquiry being if Antheil could help augment her breast size. Soon, however, their friendship took a new turn, as Lamarr realised that she had met the collaborator she needed to develop her longstanding interest in inventing. Antheil’s expertise on the player piano was to provide the means to visualize their prototype. Now Lamarr could put her intelligence to use on behalf of the Allies, specifically in improving the technology required to improve the accuracy of long-range missile attacks on U-Boats. Their invention, inspired by the concept of the player piano, ensured that, by moving a signal swiftly across the possible frequency bandwidth, it would never linger long enough to be intercepted. In 1942, the pair received U.S. Patent Number 2,292,387 for their invention. There the story, aside from garnering some amusement from the media at the idea of a well-known beauty also having brains, died.
Private Life and Public Controversies
Lamarr entered into a series of marriages (five following Mandl), each one ending acrimoniously. She had two children with her third husband, John Loder, and adopted another, who later claimed to be her birth child. She certainly had lovers, and in her own autobiography, Ecstasy and Me, published in 1966, revealed that she also had lesbian encounters. In the post-war period, she found it increasingly difficult to sustain her career. Her kind of glacial beauty was less in demand, supplanted by a more wholesome American type. Lamarr did enjoy one comeback part, as Delilah to Victor Mature’s Samson in Cecil B. DeMille’s Samson and Delilah in 1949. In later life, she earned considerable notoriety for a series of highly publicized shoplifting charges. In 1968, she put many of her possessions up for auction; interestingly the catalogue included a rare collection of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Judaica, begging the question as to whether Lamarr had indeed fully renounced her heritage.
The end of a career – or not?
Fearing the consequences of her loss of beauty, Lamarr became reclusive, retiring to Florida, where she continued experimenting with inventions. These included a new kind of traffic light, modifications to the design of Concorde, and a skin-tautening technique based on the workings of the accordion. Only towards the end of her life, as its commercial potential became evident, did her and Antheil’s patent begin to gain recognition. From the 1990s the electronics industry slowly revealed that the basis for the secure wireless communication essential to the mobile phone industry was based on a design (now out of patent) by a nearly forgotten émigrée Hollywood star and an obscure modernist composer. Since her death in 2000, Lamarr has become a celebrated figure in scientific discovery.
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