(b. 9 November 1913 in Vienna, Austria; d. 19 January 2000 near Orlando, Florida), internationally acclaimed beauty and movie star of the 1930s and 1940s as well as an inventor.
Born Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler, Lamarr was the only child of Emil Kiesler, a bank director, and Gertrud (Lichtwitz) Kiesler, a concert pianist; Lamarr was Jewish. (Some sources state that she was born in 1914 or even 1915, and it seems that she never revealed her true age.) She attended Vienna’s most exclusive schools but was an indifferent scholar with a propensity to run away from home and a generally rebellious nature. At fifteen she skipped school one day and went to the nearby Sascha Film Studios, Vienna’s version of Hollywood. (Lamarr dropped out of school and never attained a high school degree.)
Lamarr’s remarkably good looks led to an audition and subsequent small parts in several films. A raven-haired beauty with large, lustrous eyes and alabaster skin, Lamarr was declared by Max Reinhardt, the famous German director, to be the most beautiful girl in the world. In 1932, at age sixteen, Lamarr starred in Ecstasy. An almost silent film, it featured a nude swim; a naked romp through the forest outside Prague, Czechoslovakia; and Lamarr in the throes of an orgasm the likes of which had never been seen before in the cinema. It became an international sensation and was banned by the pope and scores of cities and towns in the United States. Frederick (“Fritz”) Alexander Mandl, the proprietor of one of central Europe’s leading munitions manufacturing plants, saw Ecstasy and petitioned Lamarr’s parents for her hand in marriage. He then tried to buy up all the copies of Ecstasy and destroy them. He did not succeed with this latter quest.
Lamarr married Mandl on 10 August 1933 and became hostess at lavish dinner parties with the high and mighty of Europe, including the German dictator Adolf Hitler and the Italian leader Benito Mussolini. She soon became bored by her marriage to the much older Mandl and took off for London, obtaining a Parisian divorce in 1937. In London she met the visiting head of the Hollywood studio Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM), Louis B. Mayer, who had seen Ecstasy and offered Lamarr a film contract, changing her name to “Hedy Lamarr” after Barbara Lamarr, a silent-screen actress he admired.
Lamarr made several pictures at MGM, but her career did not take off until 1938, when she met the French actor Charles Boyer at a party and he offered her the starring role opposite him in Algiers, a remake of the gritty French film Pepe le Moko. Algiers and Lamarr were a smash hit. Harvard University students voted Lamarr “the girl they would most like to be marooned on a desert island with,” and women all over the United States copied her parted-in-the-middle hairdo and began wearing turbans and pearls.
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In 1940 Lamarr met the French musician George Antheil at a Hollywood dinner party, and she began to talk with him about her desire to aid the burgeoning U.S. defense effort. (She was naturalized as a U.S. citizen in 1953.) Remembering conversations she had overheard between Mandl and Nazi arms manufacturers at parties, Lamarr came up with a way to prevent an enemy from jamming a radio signal that was being used to steer torpedoes. The next day she and Antheil implemented her idea, now known as frequency hopping, using Antheil’s expertise with player pianos. Lamarr and Antheil were awarded a patent for the technology in 1942. The U.S. Navy used it during the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, but the patent had expired in 1958, and Antheil and Lamarr never made any money from their invention. The technological descendents of the patent are used today to speed satellite signals across the globe, and frequency hopping remains at the heart of the U.S. Department of Defense’s Milstar communication satellite system. There were some doubts that Lamarr had the technical expertise to contribute much to the project, but Antheil always credited her. Lamarr and Antheil were awarded the prestigious Pioneer Award from the Electronic Frontier Foundation in 1997. All Lamarr was to say about the award was “It’s about time.”
Married six times, Lamarr’s second marriage, on 5 March 1939, was to the Hollywood writer and producer Gene Markey; they adopted a son. She married Markey on their first date, a trip to a Mexican beach. She divorced him in 1940 and on 27 May 1943 married John Loder, a British-born actor with whom she had two children. She divorced Loder in 1947 and on 12 June 1951 married Ted Stauffer, a former bandleader; they divorced in 1952. She married husband number five, the Texas oilman W. Howard Lee, on 22 December 1953; they divorced in 1960. Husband number six, whom she wed on 4 March 1963, was the lawyer Lewis W. Boies, Jr., but that marriage, too, did not last long, and they divorced in 1965. Of her many marriages, Lamarr famously announced, “I married all my lovers; that is what you did back then.”
A sampling of Lamarr’s movies and famous leading men includes Lady of the Tropics (1939) with Robert Taylor, Comrade X and Boom Town (both 1940) with Clark Gable, Crossroads (1942) and Clark Gable, Crossroads (1942) and The Heavenly Body (1943) with William Powell, Tortilla Flat (1942) with Spencer Tracy, and Copper Canyon (1950) with Ray Milland. In White Cargo (1942) with Walter Pidgeon, Lamarr’s pronouncement “I am Tondelayo” provided fodder for comedians for months to come. Also, only when it was discovered in the picture that the native girl Tondelayo was the product of an Arab father and an Egyptian mother—and therefore not black—was she permitted to marry the white coffee planter. Lamarr did, however, use poor judgment in turning down starring roles in Casablanca and Gaslight, films that made her contemporary Ingrid Bergman a star.
In contrast to other sex goddesses of the time, Lamarr consistently played strong, independent women who knew their value in the marketplace of erotic exchange and were not afraid to bargain. In 1949, her extraordinary beauty intact, she made Samson and Delilah. Directed by Cecil B. DeMille, who chose Lamarr for the part, the film was a big hit. In 1951 Lamarr made another highly successful movie, My Favorite Spy, opposite Bob Hope.
The return to the home in the 1950s of American women who had entered the workforce during World War II brought about a diminished interest in Lamarr’s portrayals of aggressive and erotic women. The last half of her life was an endless round of bad husbands and courtroom scenes. In 1966 Lamarr published her autobiography, Ecstasy and Me: My Life as a Woman, an uninhibited account of her many sexual encounters with both sexes. She later sued her ghostwriters and publisher for defamation of character but lost the suit. She also was arrested twice in her later years for shoplifting inexpensive articles from Los Angeles and Florida stores, but she served no prison time. Her final years were spent in a two-room apartment on the outskirts of Orlando, Florida, living on Social Security and a small pension from the Screen Actors Guild. Lamarr was found dead of natural causes in her apartment, and her ashes interred in Vienna.
A highly intelligent woman, Lamarr’s beautiful face and impulsive nature were her downfall. As she said near the end of her autobiography, “My face has been my misfortune…. It has attracted all the wrong people into my boudoir and brought me heartache and tragedy for five decades. My face is a mask I cannot remove. I must always live with it. I curse it.”
Lamarr’s autobiography is Ecstasy and Me: My Life as a Woman (1966). A children’s biography with an emphasis on her role as inventor is Ann Gaines, Hedy Lamarr (2002). Her films are discussed at length in Christopher Young, The Films of Hedy Lamarr (1978), and Jan Christopher Horak, “High Class Whore,” CineAction (spring 2001). Lamarr’s career as an inventor also is detailed in Fleming Meels, “I Guess They Just Take and Forget About a Person,” Forbes (14 May 1990), and Ludwig Siegele, “What’s the Frequency, Hedy?” Die Zeit (11 Apr. 1997), reprinted in World Press Review (July 1997). Obituaries are in the New York Times (20 Jan. 2000) and Variety (24 Jan. 2000).
DOROTHY L. MORAN