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Hedy Lamarr

Hedy Lamarr: The Hollywood starlet who helped invent WiFi

Hedy Lamarr and her plans for her secret communications system laid the groundwork for later wireless communications like WiFI | Image: Wikimedia Commons

An aspiring actress from Austria, who escaped her Nazi arms dealer husband and escaped to fame and fortune in Hollywood, she married five times and in her spare time was a self-taught scientist and pioneer in the field of wireless communication whose inventions would influence the development of GPS, WiFi and say the life of Hedy Lamarr was eventful would be a seismic understatement.

Lamarr was born Hedwig Kiesler in 1914 in Vienna, Austria-Hungary. As a young girl, she became fascinated with theatre and film and soon began taking acting classes in Vienna. It didn’t take long before she landed her first major role in a play when Austrian theatrical producer Max Reinhardt cast her in The Weaker Sex.

Film offers followed shortly after and in early 1933, 18-year-old Lamarr landed the lead role in a Czech movie that would make her internationally famous. The film was a highly controversial romantic drama called Ecstasy. Not only was Lamarr shown nude but she also acted in a scene that included the first non-pornographic portrayal of sex in a film, as well as the first on-screen depiction of a female orgasm.

Although nothing more than the actors’ faces were shown, Pope Pius XII denounced the film, Hitler banned it and America gave it a limited run years later. However, many considered Ecstasy a great piece of artistic work and subsequently the film gained worldwide recognition. Lamarr had made a name for herself.

During that same year, Lamarr met her first husband, a wealthy 33-year-old Austrian arms dealer and manufacturer called Friedrich Mandl. Lamarr’s parents, both of Jewish descent, disapproved of the union mainly due to Mandl’s strong fascist views and ties with Mussolini and Hitler, both of whom were reported to have attended parties hosted by Mandl.

Lamarr would later describe Mandl as overtly controlling and possessive, who effectively kept her prisoner in her own home. Not only did he prevent her from acting but reportedly spent a small fortune trying to purchase every existing copy of Ecstasy in an unsuccessful attempt to suppress it.

In the end, Lamarr supposedly drugged her maid with sleeping pills before stealing her outfit, lining the insides of it with jewellery and then fleeing on the maid’s bicycle.

Lamarr fled to Paris before moving onto London in 1937. There she managed to arrange a meeting with Louis B. Mayer, the head of MGM, who happened to be in London for business. Meyer was unsure at first that Lamarr could make it in the States after the shockwaves of Ecstasy were still being felt. Ever the sucker for a glamorous lady, Meyer did eventually offer Lamarr a six-month-contract of $125 a week. Believing she was worth far more than that, Lamarr turned the offer down.

Her features were so striking they were said to have inspired Walt Disney’s Snow White character created that year.

Soon after though she regretted the decision and managed to find her way on board the exact same liner as Meyer as he travelled back to America. Donning all the jewellery she had managed to smuggle away with her, Lamarr had convinced Meyer by the end of the voyage to offer her a seven-year-contract at $500 a week. On one condition that she change her name in order to distance herself from her Ecstasy reputation. Hedy Kiesler was now Hedy Lamarr, named in honour of the famous silent film star Barbara La Marr.

A short while later Lamarr arrived in Hollywood and was soon being touted as the ‘world’s most beautiful woman.’ Her features were so striking they were said to have inspired Walt Disney’s Snow White character created that year.

Lamarr’s first Hollywood movie was Algiers (1938), where she played the role of a glamorous seductress. Audiences were bowled over…‘everyone gasped ... Lamarr's beauty literally took one's breath away.’ A star was born, although Algiers had invariably typecast her for future films.

Lady of the Tropics (1939) followed next, where again Lamarr played a beautiful glamorous seductress of exotic origin, a nod to her European heritage. Boom Town with Clark Cable came in 1940, Come Live With Me with James Stewart and Ziegfield Girl with Judy Garland in 1941. One of her most successful films was White Cargo (1942) although again she was flaunted around and given very few lines. Lamarr was considered for the lead role in Casablanca (1943) and Gaslight (1944) but missed out on both.

Her last film under her MGM contract came in 1945, after which she left MGM and set up her own production company, becoming one of the first female producers in Hollywood.

When Cecile B. DeMille cast her as the ultimate femme fatale, Delilah, in his film Samson and Delilah in 1949, Lamarr was no longer the Hollywood A-lister she once was. The film was however to be Lamarr’s greatest box-office success and potentially the springboard to re-launching her career.

Sadly it was not meant to be and her follow-up movies didn’t fare so well. Lamarr’s career went into decline and her final film appearance came in 1958. Up to this point, her life had already been a rollercoaster ride and in retirement, the ride continued to show no signs of coming to an end.

By 1966 she’d been a regular in the tabloids, fuelled by the divorce of her sixth and last husband and recent arrest for shoplifting, although the charges were dropped. A scandalous memoir of her life, entitled Ecstasy and Me, was also published that year in which the lurid details of her sex life had been written down for all to see. Lamarr would go on to claim that her ghostwriter fabricated most of the contents of the book. She went on to unsuccessfully sue the publishers.

Litigation was again a theme in the 70s. She filed a multi-million dollar lawsuit against Warner Bros. for using her name without permission as a running gag in the Mel Brooks film Blazing Saddles (1974). Although accounts differ, she apparently settled out of court for an undisclosed fee.

By this time Lamarr had also developed a crippling drug addiction, aided by the infamous Dr. Feelgood, aka Max Jacobsen, who notoriously gave many celebrities, including JFK, regular ‘miracle shots’, which were mostly made up of amphetamines and animal hormones. Lamarr had also become somewhat addicted to plastic surgery, becoming a victim of her era’s ageist attitudes. She would often make suggestions to her surgeons to improve techniques, with many of her ideas becoming common methods of plastic surgery in the future.

By the 80s Lamarr had settled in Florida and withdrawn from the public eye. In 1991 she was again arrested for shoplifting, supposedly trying to take around $20 worth of eye drops and laxatives from a pharmacy. Again, no charges were filed.

Her remaining years were spent in seclusion, often only communicating with those on the outside, including her family and children, via the telephone. On January 19 2000, Lamarr passed away of heart disease. She was 85.

'Inventions are easy for me to do. I don’t have to work on ideas. They come naturally.'

Upon her death the world remembered her as one of the sirens of the silver screen, a famed beauty who had possessed a scandalous love life. Her showbiz legacy forever immortalised with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. And yet, her story didn’t end there.

In recent years her legacy has been transformed and she’s now remembered more for her brains than for her looks. Lamarr was a great inventor; it was her passion and her pastime. In between shoots, she would retire to her trailer and tinker with her inventions.

A well-received 2017 documentary entitled Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story, written and directed by Alexandra Dean and co-produced by Susan Sarandon, helped to shine a light on this side of Lamarr’s story. The film includes audio recordings of Lamarr talking about her life, at one point she says, ‘Inventions are easy for me to do. I don’t have to work on ideas. They come naturally.’ She was a very gifted scientist and on top of that she was completely self-taught.

There were some who knew of Lamarr’s talents, including the eccentric aviation inventor Howard Hughes, a one-time flame of Lamarr’s. He did everything he could to support her hobby, providing her with the materials to carry out her ideas. He not only recognised her skills but also came to depend on them.

Lamarr helped Hughes find a way to make his planes fly faster. She believed his current wing designs were too square, so she brought a couple books, one about birds and one about fish. She studied their anatomies and concluded that the wing shapes on Hughes’ planes needed to be more streamlined to help reduce drag. Hughes declared her a genius.

The true extent of Lamarr’s scientific talent was shown, although not fully appreciated, during the war. When Lamarr heard that 80 children had been killed after a German U-boat sank a passenger ship crossing the Atlantic, she became desperate to help the Allied cause. It didn’t take long for her to discover just how she was going to do that.

In 1940, she teamed up with her composer friend, George Antheil, and started working on a ‘secret communication system’ intended for use by the US Navy. This system used a ‘frequency hopping’ technology to make it difficult for the enemy, especially U-boats, to detect or jam any incoming radio-controlled torpedoes fired from US ships. Using a piano roll to change among 88 different frequencies, this novel approach was truly unique.

Their invention was granted a patent in 1942 and their designs submitted to the Navy. Although the Navy recognised its potential, the technology wouldn’t be implemented for a further decade.

My face has been my misfortune…It has brought me tragedy and heartache for five decades.

When Lamarr tried to join the National Inventors Council in Washington, a government organisation created in 1940 to help bring potential military inventions to the attention of the US armed forces, she was instead advised by the NIC that if she really wanted to make a difference with the war, she should use her looks to help sell war bonds and entertain troops. The misogyny of the time meant people were unwilling to see her for anything more than a beautiful face. Her beauty had become her curse. She would later remake that, ‘My face has been my misfortune…It has brought me tragedy and heartache for five decades. My face is a mask I cannot remove: I must always live with it. I curse it.'

The Navy returned to her idea in the 50s, using it to help transmit the underwater positions of enemy submarines revealed by sonar. By the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, the technology had been fully embraced by the military. Her invention would go to become the foundation for secure telecommunications and would be used in the development of GPS, WiFi and Bluetooth. Our modern world would not function as it does without Lamarr’s invention.

In the wake of the #MeToo movement and the Harvey Weinstein scandal, Lamarr’s story couldn’t be more relevant. As Bombshell Director Alexandra Dean states, ‘Her story is the foundation of what’s going on. You have to understand how Hollywood was constructed and what that experience was like for a woman like Hedy, who had the full deck of cards – the brilliance, the beauty and how she struggled within that system because there was so much power in the hands of so few men who dictated everything. That’s the backdrop for what we’re talking about today.’