By Judith Jacob
One of the brightest stars from 1930s Hollywood, whose glamorous image and extraordinary film roles have helped maintain her lustre beyond her long life, is Hedy Lamarr. Behind the scenes, she also had significant achievements, including producing films. However, her most revolutionary and valuable contributions to the world—her scientific inventions—remained unknown for decades, and she claimed that the key to her success was mainly her ability “to stand there and look stupid.”
Howard Hughes was one of the few influential men to appreciate the brains beyond her beauty. In addition to being romantically involved, they shared a passion for invention. Having access to his scientists enabled her to design aerodynamically advanced features for his planes, a significant contribution to his quest for new speed records.
On the most powerful of her inventions, she collaborated with her musician friend, George Antheil, a composer and pianist. They developed a frequency-hopping system to secure radio signal communications between Allied forces’ ships and torpedos, providing protection from sabotage by the Nazis. For their invention, they received a patent in 1942.
American military leaders spurned her offer of this device, because she was not a citizen at that time. They suggested an alternative contribution, selling war bonds, which became another of her successes. She remarked that, despite being American enough for that enterprise, she was considered an alien when she presented her invention.
Decades later, Hedy Lamarr and George Antheil’s techniques were incorporated into Bluetooth and WiFi technologies. Jointly, they received the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s Pioneer Award in 1997. She was inducted posthumously into the National Inventors’ Hall of Fame, in 2014.
Hedy Lamarr began her acting career in Vienna, in 1930, frequently playing a provocative “femme fatale”. In 1933, the infamous film “Ecstasy“—condemned by the pope but relished by Mussolini—won her notoriety throughout Europe, and in America. In this daring role, she swam in the nude.
She won wider acclaim in the 1938 Hollywood picture, “Algiers”, with Charles Boyer, one of many top leading men with whom she worked. She became the inspiration for Disney’s Snow White, as well as the Catwoman character in the “Batman” story.
Her Hollywood highlights included joining the all-star cast of “Zeigfield Girl” in 1941. Her greatest success was in Cecil B. DeMille’s “Samson and Delilah”, in 1949. Throughout these filmmaking years, she also worked on her valuable inventions, both at her home and on sets, between scenes.
“The Female Animal”, in 1958, was her final film. She also appeared in television shows during the 1950s.
In 1960, she received her star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, located centrally, on Hollywood Avenue, adjacent to Vine Street.
The exquisitely beautiful, multi-talented, brilliant, and savvy Hedy Lamarr was born in Vienna on November 9, 1914 (or perhaps 1913), and died in Florida, on January 18, 2000, at age 85 or 86. She was the only child of wealthy Hungarian/Ukrainian Jewish parents, who named her Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler.
Her mother, Gertrude (“Trude”, née Lichtwitz), had converted to Catholicism to please her first husband. She was a concert pianist, and enrolled Hedy in a private school, where she studied piano, ballet, language and natural sciences.
Her father, Emil Kiesler, was a bank director. During long walks with Hedy, he encouraged her curiosity, by explaining the workings of machines such as streetcars and printing presses. From her early years, she enjoyed dismantling and reassembling objects such as her music box.
In 1933, at age 18, Hedy Lamarr married the first of her six husbands, a wealthy Austrian munitions dealer, who was 15 years older. At their dinners with notable political leaders, including Hitler and Mussolini, she silently watched, listened, and began germinating ideas to revolutionize communications systems and help defeat the Nazis. She made a dramatic escape from this controlling husband and antisemitism in 1937, traveling to Paris, then London, where she met Louis B. Mayer, head of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.
James, her first child, was born in 1939—in secrecy—shortly before her second marriage, to an American screenwriter and producer. Then she “adopted” her son. His biological father, Hedy Lamarr’s third husband (1943), subsequently adopted James. They had two other children, Denise (1945) and Anthony (1947). After her sixth divorce, in 1965, she remained unmarried for the last 35 years of her life.
Here are sources of other intriguing information about Hedy Lamarr:
Documentary by Alexandra Dean: Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story, 11/24/17 (Trailer):
The New Yorker: Hedy Lamarr’s Forgotten, Frustrated Career As A Wartime Inventor, 12/3/17:
PBS Newshour: The Brilliant Mind of Hedy Lamarr, 3/10/18 (segment on her inventions):
Smithsonian magazine: Thank This World War II Era Film Star For Your Wifi, 4/4/19
Marie Benedict’s historical novel, 2019: The Only Woman In The Room.