“Any girl can be glamorous. All she has to do is stand still and look stupid.” Hedy Lamarr
I’m heading into a brand new year (and decade) feeling inspired after reading The Only Woman in the Room by Marie Benedict. It’s billed as fiction – historical or biographical – but it’s based on the true story of American-Austrian film actress Hedy Lamarr.
Just google “Hedy Lamarr images” and see for yourself how stunningly beautiful she was: porcelain skin, raven hair, exquisitely-shaped face with perfectly-set eyes, sweet little nose and full lips. She was a trend-setter. After the release of her first film Algiers (1938), her hairstyle, black as pitch with a centre part, was all the rage, much like Farrah Fawcett’s four decades later.
While her exterior beauty was inherited, obvious and captivating, it’s her interior beauty – largely hidden and unacknowledged throughout her lifetime – that was truly stunning.
Just to get to America to launch her career she had to escape marriage to Friedrich Mandl, known as the Merchant of Death. One of the wealthiest men in Austria, Mandl owned companies that manufactured munitions and other weaponry in the 1930s, when Hitler was in power in Germany and looking to overtake his country of birth. So while Lamarr enjoyed great wealth, entertaining royalty in castles and grand country homes, Mandl preferred her as a trophy on his arm, insisting she abandon her acting career and keeping her under the watchful eye of servants. She found she could be useful to Mandl by eavesdropping on the many male conversations that took place at their homes, which had strategic importance as the war escalated. Later, that information contributed to the invention she’s now known for that we use daily.
Leaving Mandl involved serious planning. She amassed money by selling small pieces of jewellery and also sewed jewellery into her clothing. She hired a maid who looked like her, slipped sleeping meds into her tea, then donned a maid’s uniform and escaped to Paris, then London. Once in London, she connected with Louis B. Mayer of MGM, following him on board the Normandie and eventually to a film career in Hollywood.
In the midst of that career, she and her European friends became deeply disturbed by reports from home. Did I mention Lamarr (born Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler) was Jewish, a fact she never revealed to her American family and friends? Through contacts, she managed to get her mother (her father had passed away) to Canada and eventually California to be with her.
Passionate about helping the US war effort and armed with her knowledge about how torpedoes often missed their mark due to frequency jamming, Lamarr hooked up with “the bad boy of music” George Antheil to invent a device that could frequency-hop. Antheil was known for Ballet Mecanique, a composition which involved the synchronization of 16 player pianos. Therein lay the inspiration behind the invention: a scaled-down ribbon, as used in player pianos, placed in the plane or the submarine, and also in the torpedo, to guide it to its mark. It had 88 distinct frequency hops, matching the number of keys on a piano. Lamarr and Antheil applied for (and received) a patent and also presented their device to the navy, but it was turned down.
According to Wikipedia, “Lamarr wanted to join the National Inventors Council, but was reportedly told by NIC member Charles F. Kettering and others that she could better help the war effort by using her celebrity status to sell war bonds.”
Isn’t that just a big ol’ kick in the booty? She was forced to let the patent collect dust, but Lamarr did polish up that beautiful mouth of hers to plant kisses, over and over, on a sailor named Eddie Rhodes, raising millions in a war bond-selling campaign.
It was Orson Welles – who Lamarr wanted to work with and possibly even dated – who famously said, “If you want a happy ending, that depends, of course, on where you stop your story.”
And you could stop the story there, where the crushing defeat of the invention is tempered by the millions of dollars raised due to Lamarr’s plucky attitude, resilience and determination, but there’s more. Patent 2,292,387 was dusted off, updated and installed on navy ships in 1962 for the Cuban missile crisis. Says inventorsdigest.com, “Lamarr and Antheil’s frequency-hopping system served as the basis for modern spread-spectrum communication technology, which is used in cell phones, fax machines, GPS systems, Bluetooth and Wi-Fi.” Holy smokes!
In 1997, almost 50 years after the patent was issued, Lamarr and Antheil were honoured with the Electronic Frontier Pioneer Award and later that year Lamarr was the first female to receive the BULBIE Gnass Spirit of Achievement Award. In 2014, 14 years after her death, she and Antheil were inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame.
Unfortunately this remarkable woman, once billed as “the most beautiful girl in the world”, never benefited financially from her invention. She also made some poor decisions and faced some unpleasant challenges in the latter half of her life. After six failed marriages: there was parody (eg Hedley Lamarr, Blazing Saddles), shoplifting, bad plastic surgeries, financial difficulties and reclusiveness.
Longevity, while coveted, is hard and if achieved, there’s the issue of beauty fading. Lamarr was too early for this insight from Amanda Shaw’s 2008 song Pretty Runs Out:
I’m not just skin deep
And I’m not dirt cheap
I like the finer things
But, there’s so much more to me
There was so much more to Hedy Kiesler than a pretty face. She knew it, she just couldn’t convince the world while she was alive. Thank goodness we know now, so she gets the happy ending she deserves and we know who to thank the next time we look at our cell phone.