Not just another pretty face



Hedy Lamarr was a beautiful Austrian-American actress during MGM's “Golden Age” who also left her mark on technology. She helped develop an early technique for spread spectrum communication.

Born Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler in Austria in 1914 — she developed a passion for helping the U.S. military after walking away from an unhappy marriage to an Austrian Fascist weapons manufacturer in 1937. In an attempt to stall her acting career, he had brought her to his business meetings, where she found herself continuously listening to “fat bastards argue antiaircraft this, vacuum tube that.”   In the meetings, they had talked about developing detection devices to listen to, and jam, the radio
signals that American aircraft and weapons used to communicate with one another; and Lamarr wanted to foil their plans.

Lamarr realized that by transmitting radio signals along rapidly changing, or “hopping,” frequencies, American radio-guided weapons would be far more resilient to detection and jamming.  The sequence of frequencies would be known by both the transmitter and receiver ahead of time, but to the German detectors their message would seem like gibberish. “No jammer could detect it, no German code-breaker could decipher a completely random code.” 

Another of her early inventions were an improved traffic stoplight and a tablet which dissolved in water to create a carbonated drink.


Hollywood Career

Discovered by an Austrian film director as a teenager, she gained international notice in 1933, with her role in the sexually charged Czech film Ecstasy. After her unhappy marriage ended with Fritz Mandl, a wealthy Austrian munitions manufacturer who sold arms to the Nazis, she fled to the United States and signed a contract with the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer studio in Hollywood under the name Hedy Lamarr.

She starred in such films as Tortilla Flat, Lady of the Tropics, Boom Town, and Samson and Delilah, with the likes of Clark Gable and Spencer Tracey.


After moving to the US in 1938 she soon appeared in Algiers with Charles Boyer. The movie was a massive success, with many viewers and critics once again commenting on her beauty. According to one viewer, when she appeared on screen, “everyone gasped...Lamarr’s beauty literally took one's breath away.”

 “Any girl can be glamorous, all you have to do is stand still and look stupid.” - Hedy Lamarr

Often referred to as one of the most gorgeous and exotic of Hollywood's leading ladies, she was reportedly producer Hal Wallis’ first choice for the heroine in his classic 1943 film, Casablanca, a part that eventually went to Ingrid Bergman.


‘Secret Communications System’

In 1942, during the heyday of her career, Lamarr earned recognition in a field quite different from entertainment. She and her friend, the composer George Antheil, received a patent for an idea of a radio signaling device, or “Secret Communications System,” which was a means of changing radio frequencies to keep enemies from decoding messages. Originally designed to defeat the German Nazis, the system became an important step in the development of technology to maintain the security of both military communications and cellular phones.


The pair succeeded in patenting their technology, and presented the concept to the National Inventors Council in 1940, but their invention — which used a piano roll to change between 88 frequencies — was not well received.   The U.S. Navy said, “Thank you very much for the patent, Miss Lamarr — we won’t be needing your services here in Washington.”


The technology, says Singer, was far ahead of its time. Although her ideas were at first ignored, the technology (which she and Antheil patented in 1942) was later used by the military — during the Cuban missile crisis in October 1962 her frequency hopping technology was installed in US naval vessels, for example — and more recently, it has been employed in wireless technologies like cell phones.  Lamarr wasn’t instantly recognized for her communications invention since its wide ranging impact wasn’t understood until decades later. However, in 1997 Lamarr and Antheil were honored with the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) Pioneer Award, and that same year Lamarr became the first female to receive the BULBIE™ Gnass Spirit of Achievement Award, considered “The Oscars” of inventing.


Later Career

Unfortunately, much of Lamarr’s later life was not filled with the achievement she enjoyed in the 1930s and '40s. Lamarr’s film career began to decline in the 1950s; her last film was 1958’s The Female Animal, with Jane Powell. In 1966, she published a steamy best-selling autobiography, Ecstasy and Me, but later sued the publisher for what she saw as errors and distortions perpetrated by the book’s ghostwriter.  From the 1960s and '70s onwards, she increasingly appeared in headlines for negative reasons, including a shoplifting arrest in 1966 (and then again in 1991). She also failed to return to the big screen, having been replaced in 1966’s Picture Mommy Dead by Zsa Zsa Gabor. Indeed, her autobiography starts with:

“On a recent evening, sitting home alone suffering and brooding about my treatment at the police station because of an incident in a department store, and being replaced by Zsa Zsa Gabor in a motion picture (imagine how that pleased the ego!) I figured out that I had made – and spent – some thirty million dollars. Yet earlier that day I had been unable to pay for a sandwich at Schwab's drug store.”



Personal Life and Death

Lamarr was married six times. She adopted a son, James, in 1939 during her second marriage to Gene Markey. She went on to have two biological children, Denise (b. 1945) and Anthony (b. 1947), with her third husband, actor John Loder, who also adopted James.


In 1953, Lamarr completed the naturalization process and became a U.S. citizen.  


In her later years, Lamarr lived a reclusive life in Orlando, Florida, where she died on January 19, 2000, at the age of 86.



                                                                     © Michelle Young 2012