Hedy Lamarr: A Hollywood Tale where Truth is Stranger than Fiction

Hedy Lamarr in Hollywood DaysWith rare exceptions, the movie stars we encounter do precious little beyond their acting craft that warrants more than just a “gawk factor” response.

Probably the most famous of those exceptions is Ronald Reagan, who also happened to become one of the 20th Century’s most consequential presidents.

But there are others as well. In 2000, I remember reading an obituary of film star Hedy Lamarr, the bombshell beauty active during Hollywood’s “golden age” of the 1940s. There was a passing reference in the obit about Lamarr collaborating on several important inventions, with patents involved also.

I filed this away in my mind as an “interesting factoid” about a woman who otherwise led a pretty typical life of a Hollywood actress – not least her vampy screen name and her six marriages. (Her full name was a real mouthful: Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler Mandl Markey Loder Stauffer Lee Boies!)

Now we have a new book that’s just been published, and it sheds fascinating light on the “inventive” aspects of Lamarr’s life. As explained in Richard Rhodes’ book, Hedy’s Folly: The Life and Breakthrough Inventions of Hedy Lamarr, the Most Beautiful Woman in the World, it turns out that even as Lamarr was wowing her movie audiences, she was also deeply involved in the invention of the frequency-hopping spread spectrum radio.

“What’s that?” you might ask. It’s technology that harnesses the rapid switching of communications signals among a spread of different frequencies. And it’s the basis for what gives us the functionality of the digital gadgets we use today, from cellphones to GPS units and barcode scanners.

How this came about was due in large part to Lamarr’s background. Instead of being a product of America’s small towns who traveled to California to make it big in the film industry, Hedy was from cosmopolitan Vienna – born into a prosperous family during the waning years of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

As a girl, Hedy had a natural aptitude for math and science, finding these subjects most interesting of all. But educated in the arts (ballet) and music in accordance with a young girl of her social standing, Hedy then began working with film director Max Reinhardt in Berlin, eventually starring in major roles. A few of these, such as Gustav Machatỷ’s steamy film Ecstacy, tested the limits of censorship, earning her a certain notoriety.

In 1933 – barely 20 years old – she married Friedrich Mandl, a Viennese munitions magnate who became involved with supplying arms to the German government shortly thereafter. Mandl objected to Hedy’s film career – effectively banning her from the industry in favor of being the head of household at Schloss Schwarzenau, the family’s castle-compound.

Mandl also took her to meetings with technicians and business partners, which is where she began to learn about munitions and the technology behind them.

As a well-educated intellectual and individualist – as well as a person with Jewish lineage – Hedy was strongly opposed to what was occurring in Austria politically. The formal Anschluss with Nazi Germany would come about in 1938, but even before then, close collaboration was developing between the two countries.

Hedy would depart Vienna prior to the union of Germany and Austria, but not before doing two things. First, in true pillow-talk form redolent of a Hollywood thriller, she learned as much information from her husband about munitions and weapons as she could. Then she ditched the country for Paris (taking her expensive jewelry with her), and proceeded to divorce him.

It was in Paris that she met Louis B. Mayer, who convinced her to join MGM in Hollywood where he gave her the screen name “Hedy Lamarr.” She would go on to make 20 films during her Hollywood career, the most successful of them being Samson & Delilah.

But it was also in Hollywood that Lamarr became involved with inventions. At a dinner party, she was introduced to George Antheil, the infamous enfant terrible of avant garde classical music in America. One of Antheil’s most notorious and controversial compositions was the Ballet Mécanique, a music score that utilizes a bank of player pianos operating simultaneously.

In conversations, the two discovered their mutual interest in technology … soon realizing that they could pool their knowledge and apply for a patent on a “secret information system.” The patent utilized a piano roll as a device to change between 88 frequencies, thereby making radio-guided torpedoes harder for enemies to detect or jam.

Although the patent was approved in the early 1940s, the idea wouldn’t be implemented until 1962 during the Kennedy Administration’s Cuban blockade.

More importantly for us, the frequency-hopping concept served as the basis for the advent of spread-spectrum communications technology. Lamarr would finally be given public credit for her invention in 1997 in an award bestowed on her by the Electronic Frontier Foundation (co-inventor Antheil had died in 1959).

In later years, Lamarr moved away from Hollywood and essentially shed the limelight, living quietly in Florida where she died in 2000. In accordance with her wishes, her ashes were returned to Austria and scattered in the Vienna Woods, — the storied grounds memorialized in the sweet melodies of Johann Strauss Jr. and Rudolf Sieczyński … but that had also borne silent witness to so much of Europe’s 20th Century turbulence and strife.

It was a fitting ending for a life that was likewise noteworthy – even by Hollywood’s own outré standards!

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