When the American navy blocked Soviet nuclear missiles from reaching Cuba in the 1962 crisis, it did so with on-board technology invented by Hedy Lamarr, one of Hollywood’s biggest stars

Hero image

Hollywood dubbed her “the most beautiful woman in the world” and her signature look inspired both Cat Woman and Snow White, but a fairytale ending wasn’t in the script for Hedy Lamarr. It is a sadly familiar tale of Golden Age Hollywood, where the studio machine used up and spat out actresses once a younger would-be starlet caught the eye of ruthless producers. But there’s a more interesting sub-plot in Lamarr’s tale – she was also a brilliant inventor whose revolutionary work formed the basis for modern communication.

She was born Hedwig Kiesler in Vienna, 1914, to a wealthy Jewish family. At 18 she starred in the controversial Czech film Ecstasy, edited in such a way that it showed close-up shots of her naked body and her face in the throes of orgasm, much to her dismay.

Later that year she married arms merchant Friedrich Mandl, 15 years her senior. She played hostess to guests including Mussolini and Hitler, and later described being kept as a virtual prisoner by her controlling and jealous husband.

She fled the marriage and arrived in Paris in 1937, where she met Louis B Mayer, of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM), scouting for talent in Europe. She arrived in New York on an ocean liner shortly after, with a new name and $500 a week studio contract. With roles in films such as Ziegfeld Girl and Samson and Delilah, Lamarr captured the public’s hearts and imagination – but struggled to escape her past.

“I get calls from scientists disputing Hedy’s legitimacy. She threatens their world balance”

“She was locked in this battle with Louis B Mayer to gain his respect and to get the parts she wanted and he really just treated her like a whore because of Ecstasy,” says Alexandra Dean, director of new documentary Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story. Although Dean made the film before the revelations about widespread sexual harassment in Hollywood, the award-winning journalist says they’ve given her documentary renewed resonance – like a gift she didn’t really want. “She looked outwardly so powerful but inwardly was engaged in a battle with these men who were shaping her life and shaping her identity. I have letters where Hedy railed against Mayer in this bitter, angry way that sounds like Rose McGowan, like Uma Thurman. I don’t know the degree of what happened – we can’t ask her – but the anger is there so it resonates completely for me.”

Like Marilyn Monroe, who was met with similar distain for the nude photos shot before her widespread fame, Lamarr was expected to walk a delicate line between being sexy but not sexual. “I think that’s still the case,” says Dean, who was raised in London but lives in New York. “More than ever we categorise women – we don’t let them be complicated and shaded and nuanced. They can’t be both Angelina Jolie and Reece Witherspoon – each one has their own category.”

Dean had been working for Bloomberg Television and Businessweek covering innovation and technology when she noticed the majority of the inventors they profiled were men, so made a concerted effort to find women in the field.

“Every time I profiled a female inventor I’d ask her why there’s such a gender imbalance in this field. One after another they told me the same thing – there are so few role models for women in science and technology that most girls never dream of becoming inventors.

“So I began looking for the story. I was given a copy of Hedy’s Folly by Richard Rhodes and I knew she was my woman.”

In her spare time Lamarr enjoyed finding out how things worked – taking things apart and putting them back together from a young age. She dated aviator Howard Hughes and would work on designs to make his planes more aerodynamic. Considering herself now an American, once the war started she began thinking of ideas to help the Allies.

She identified a major weakness in radio-controlled torpedoes, which she’d learnt about from her first marriage: their signals could be jammed by a ship that was being targted. Conversations with avant-garde pianist George Antheil led her to the idea of frequency hopping. Self-playing piano rolls, they discovered, could control a signal between the attacking ship and its torpedo that would leap around different frequencies seemingly at random – and so were more difficult to detect – but in fact the sequence would be known by both transmitting ship and receiving missile.

They patented the invention in 1942 but the Navy was not receptive to the idea. Given Lamarr’s nationality it was seized as enemy alien property but she was considered American enough to help the war effort in another way – by selling war bonds in exchange for kisses at rallies.

“It’s so resonant today at a time when it is becoming increasingly uncomfortable for immigrants here in the United States,” says Dean. “We have to take a moment and really think about the people who identified as American but came here as immigrants and what they did for this country. This country was built by immigrants – without them we wouldn’t have the America we have today.”

The studio system was taking its toll on Lamarr, who became a regular of Max Jacobson – AKA Dr Feelgood – who administered speed to high-profile “patients” including JF Kennedy. He was also one of the various affairs Lamarr was rumoured to have had alongside her six failed marriages. After the deterioration of her career, she became withdrawn and reclusive as the subject of ridicule after botched plastic surgery, undertaken to preserve the only aspect of herself she’d ever been valued for – her beauty.

“When she started to age she lost all her power dramatically and was considered a ridiculous, monstrous figure for having lost her looks. Before she even did the plastic surgery, she was considered horrendous and disfigured,” says Dean.

“It is so shocking and made me think, goodness, what do we do to women in this culture as they age? I’m not sure that’s changed and the more I worked on the film the more it bothered me. I hope it provokes a conversation about whether that’s where our value should lie.”

It’s an aspect of the film that attracted Susan Sarandon, who’s credited as producer, to the project. “Susan was drawn to the story of this brilliant, complicated woman who was misunderstood and under-appreciated in her lifetime, and as an actress Susan understood some of what Hedy had gone through,” says Dean.

“She was kind of a mother hen and really allowed this film to happen. She’s extremely warm and very motherly.”

Years after Lamarr had faded into obscurity, her invention turned up on naval ships during the 1962 Cuban missile crisis, by which time her patent has expired and she was given no financial reward, or even credit. In more recent years the technology has led to the development of wifi, GPS and Bluetooth.

Lamarr died in 2000, aged 85, having been recognised for her achievement three years earlier with an Electronic Frontier Foundation award, but like so many greats her brilliance is only being fully recognised after her lifetime. Still, Dean says, there are people who question the legitimacy of the story.

“Perhaps because she was beautiful or perhaps because men with PhDs and a life in science didn’t come up with what this beautiful actress who left school at 15 did, I still get phone calls now from scientists disputing Hedy’s legitimacy. Maybe Hedy threatens their world balance. But we’ve seen the notebooks, we’ve got the evidence,” says Dean, whose film relies heavily on tapes recovered from journalist Fleming Meeks, who managed to get Lamarr to tell her story in later life.

Now, with support from an LA entertainment tech company, Dean has set up a Hedy Lamarr scholarship for women aiming for careers in the industry.

“Hedy’s story was really presented to me as an urban myth that I had fallen for so it became something I had to prove once we started filming. I had to find out how she’d done it, I had to find her voice confirming she’d done it and I had to find her letters. We did finally do all that and we managed to stitch the truth back together, which I’m really proud of. I’m just sad that the world disbelieved her for so long.”

Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story is in cinemas now 

If you liked this article, we think you’ll enjoy these:

Interact: Responses to Patently brilliant

Leave a reply

Your email address will not be published.