Austrian-born entertainer and inventor
Lamarr starred in dozens of films during the golden age of Hollywood, and she coinvented a communications method, involving the basic technology used in cellular telephones, that was utilized successfully during World War II.
Born: November 9, 1913
Died: January 19, 2000
Area of Achievement: Entertainment, science and technology
Hedy Lamarr (HEH-dee la-MAHR) was born November 9, 1914, in Vienna, the only child of Emil and Gertrude Kiesler. Lamarr lived a secure life as the daughter of the director of the Bank of Vienna. Lamarr's mother was a concert pianist, but she gave up her career to raise her daughter. Lamarr's family was Jewish, but in later life, particularly after immigrating to the United States, religion became less important to Lamarr. She did not renounce her Judaism, but she did not practice it.
Lamarr's exotic looks made her a natural for the film industry. She started with a bit part in a silent film when she was fifteen, and by the time she was seventeen, she had made the film that changed her life, Ecstasy (1933). She first refused the director's request that she run naked across the screen, but she relented when he promised to film the nude sequence from a great distance so that it would appear more an illusion than real. She agreed, then she insisted that everyone but the cameraman leave the set. It was not until she saw the final film footage with her parents that she realized she had been misled, and a telephoto lens had been used. Ecstasy became a sensation in Europe, but it was banned in the United States.
In 1933, at age nineteen, she married Fritz Mandl in Vienna. He was a wealthy munitions manufacturer. Two years later she left him because she found his pro-Adolf
Hitler leanings frightening and because she disliked his controlling temperament. She escaped by drugging her maid's coffee, then driving the maid's car to the railroad station and boarding a train for Paris. From Paris she moved to London.
That first marriage would lead to five more, all ending in divorce, and the longest lasting but seven years. Lamarr had numerous affairs over the years, including a few brief encounters with women. Even so, she operated on her own strict moral code, which forbade her to enter a sexual liaison for the purpose of advancing her career, because, she believed, that would be prostitution. Her openness about her sexuality led some to say she was ahead of her times.
Despite being unable to sustain a marriage, she enjoyed being a mother and raised her three children with love and tenderness. She adopted one son, James, with her second husband, Gene Markey. With third husband, Anthony Loder, she had a second son, Anthony, and a daughter, Denise. She became a naturalized United States citizen in 1953, but she always considered Austria home.
However humiliated Lamarr felt about Ecstasy, it is what brought her to the attention of Louis B. Mayer, Hollywood film mogul of the studio Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM). He gave her a contract and brought her to Hollywood, where he changed her name to Hedy Lamarr.
She soon felt hampered by the “studio” practices in Hollywood at the time. Studios had actors under contract and thus limited their opportunities. Lamarr was an astute bargainer, however, and she was able at times to circumvent the system to her own advantage. With skillful manipulation, she convinced Mayer to loan her to Paramount Studios to star in Samson and Delilah (1949), which many consider the best performance of her career.
Lamarr became restless and wanted artistic control over her work. MGM had a contractual obligation to use her in a fixed number of films, and too often they were dismal flops. The only way around the problem was to select and to produce her own films. She won a release from her contract to produce and to star in the films Strange Woman (1946) and Dishonored Lady (1947); in the latter she persuaded her about-to-be-ex-husband John Loder to be her costar. Neither film was a box-office hit, but both earned a profit.
While raising money for another project, L'eterna femmina (1954), to be filmed in Rome, she met and married Texas oilman W. Howard Lee, a marriage that lasted seven years. Her sixth and final marriage was to Lewis J. Boies, one of the lawyers she engaged while divorcing Lee.
One thing that always bothered Lamarr was the conventional wisdom that a woman could not be both beautiful and intelligent. She was quoted as saying, “Any girl can be glamorous. All you have to do is stand still and look stupid.”
Lamarr was not stupid. Her superior intellect enabled her to, with George Antheil, invent a means of scrambling radio signals that was used in World War II. After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Lamarr became heavily involved in the war effort with volunteer work in the United Service Organization (USO) clubs and selling war bonds. Though the technology used in her invention is still widely utilized, she and Antheil never profited from their efforts because their patents expired.
Regarded by many as “the most beautiful woman in the world,” Lamarr sometimes felt that her stunning looks took too large a toll on her personal life. She reveled in her role as a mother, and she regretted her inability to create a lasting marriage. She married impulsively, which led to poor choices and sometimes to financial ruin. However, she always bounced back. When The Sound Page 669 | Top of Articleof Music was filmed in 1965, the mansion that served as the Von Trapp family home was owned by Lamarr. Established after Lamarr's death of natural causes at eighty-five, the Hedy Lamarr Foundation was created to provide educational and inspirational information to promote self-discovery and social accountability.
Lamarr wanted to be known for more than her extraordinary beauty, and she continually strove to improve her acting skills. She left a body of work that included about thirty films, some of them considered cinema classics, including Samson and Delilah, Algiers (1938), Crossroads (1942), Ziegfeld Girl (1941), Comrade X (1940), and Boom Town (1940). Her range extended from torrid dramas to lighthearted comedies and musicals. Perhaps her most significant contribution occurred off screen, when she coinvented a technique called spread spectrum. That invention, for which she was issued a patent, allowed the Allied forces of World War II to scramble radio communication signals to avoid enemy interception.
Gomery, Douglas. Hollywood Studio System: A History. London: British Film Institute, 2005. A history of the system in place during Lamarr's career that kept actors under contract to the studios, thus limiting their ability to manage their own careers.
Hill, Devra Z. What Almost Happened to Hedy Lamarr. San Antonio, Tex.: Corona Books, 2008. Hill, one of the few writers granted access to the screen icon, reports previously unknown episodes in Lamarr's life.
Jewell, Richard B. The Golden Age of Cinema: Hollywood, 1929–1945. Hoboken, N.J.: John Wiley and Sons, 2007. Describes the film industry during the time Lamarr was at the peak of her career.
Lamarr, Hedy. Ecstasy and Me: My Life as a Woman. New York: Macfadden-Bartell, 1966. Fascinating and unabashed account of her six marriages and her many affairs.