November 10, 1914– Hedy Lamarr:
“Any girl can be glamorous. All you have to do is stand still and look stupid.”
Hedy Lamarr lived a most extraordinary life. This gorgeous raven-haired Viennese actor is especially remembered for appearing nude in a swimming scene in the 1933 Czech film Ecstasy that also has a lovemaking sequence that was shocking for its time. In Europe, this movie was released as Symphonie der Liebe and it caused a sensation. The irrepressible Pope Pius XI denounced it, but Fascist leader Benito Mussolini allowed it to be shown at the Venice Film Festival.
Lamarr was born Hedwig Eva Marie Kiesler in Vienna, the daughter of a successful banker and a concert pianist. She studied acting with Max Reinhardt in Vienna. At her audition for his class, he watched her read her lines and declared that she was “The Most Beautiful Girl In The World”, which was much more important than acting skills.
When Ecstasy was released, Lamarr was married to the first of her six husbands, Fritz Mandl, a Viennese munitions manufacturer who made a fortune selling arms to those nasty Nazis. Mandl was outraged by the film and tracked down and purchased all the prints of Ecstasy that he could find so that it would not be shown. He told the press that it was not because his wife appeared nude, but because of the look on her face during the sex scenes. Fortunately, Mandl didn’t get all the prints. The Nazis seized Mandl’s factory, and Lamarr, who was Jewish, left him and fled to London.
Ecstasy arrived in the USA in 1934 and was promptly banned. It was the subject of numerous court obscenity cases in the 1930s. But, MGM studio chief Louis B. Mayer saw it and offered her a contract. It was Mayer who changed her name to Lamarr after Barbara La Marr, the silent film star that Mayer loved.
When she arrived in New York City in 1937, Lamarr understood that people knew her because of Ecstasy and she was determined to be taken seriously as an actor. She refused to display her knees for photographers who met the ship, and she asked them not to refer to her as “Hedy Kiesler”. She told the press: “Please call me Hedy Lamarr”.
She completed her first American film, Algiers, in 1938, co-starring with Charles Boyer. Algiers was a box-office hit, but it gained the most attention for Lamarr’s beauty. Because of that film, it became her destiny to play exotic, sultry women, and she did it well; but conscientiousness was not exactly what film fans wanted in a femme fatale, and most of her time on camera, Lamarr carries a concerned look.
Lamarr never achieved the level of stardom of those other European greats: Greta Garbo, Greer Garson or Marlene Dietrich. They gained fan love and critical attention for their acting chops and not just for their sex appeal. The reviews of Lamar’s films emphasized her beauty, but the critics were not as impressed with her acting.
When she played an exotic enchantress seducing British plantation owners in Africa in White Cargo (1942), Lamarr purred: “I am Tondelayo”. Her line reading became a joke for comedians; Jack Benny spoofed her on the radio with a story about an imaginary salesgirl named “Tondelayo Schwartzkopf”.
In her most famous role, she gave Victor Mature the ultimate haircut in Cecil B. DeMille‘s Biblical epic Samson And Delilah (1949). DeMille, who never ignored the box-office potential of sexy women from the Bible, had a clinging gown made for her augmented with feathers from prize peacocks from his estate.
Lamarr’s other films include Comrade X (1940) with Clark Gable, and Boom Town (1940), where she seduces Gable. She plays a showgirl with Judy Garland and Lana Turner in Ziegfeld Girl (1941); and she is with Spencer Tracy and John Garfield in Tortilla Flat (1942).
She was hard to please and turned down the lead role in Laura (1944) that went to Gene Tierney and Casablanca (1942) and Gaslight (1944). She was still ravishing when she made films like Copper Canyon (1950), A Lady Without Passport (1950), the comedy My Favorite Spy (1951), and The Story Of Mankind (1957), but her career soon faded.
Her private life was messy and sad. In early 1939, she met Gene Markey, a screenwriter and producer, and they eloped to Mexico. She divorced Markey the following year, complaining to a judge that they had been married for 14 months and that in all that time, he had spent only four evenings alone with her. The judge suggested that if she should ever consider a future marriage, she should spend more than a month getting to know the man.
Shortly after her divorce from Markey, Lamarr was a guest at a party at Janet Gaynor‘s house where she met George Antheil, a very handsome American avant-garde composer, pianist, and writer, who provided the scores for more than 30 films. Lamarr and Antheil talked about the war and how tough it was going to be to stop those damn Nazis.
Lamarr remembered hearing some conversations that had occurred between her first husband and the Nazis, who seemed determined to create some sort of device that would permit the radio control of airborne torpedoes. She and Antheil had the idea of sending synchronized radio signals on various wavelengths to the missiles. They developed a radio guidance system for Allied torpedoes that used a code, stored on a punched paper tape, to synchronize random frequencies, referred to as “frequency hopping”, with a receiver and transmitter. Antheil supplied the technical expertise for the concept and in 1942 they received a U.S. patent for the use of radio-controlled missiles that could be used against the Germans. This technique is now known as “Spread Spectrum” and it is still widely used today with a little something called “Wi-Fi”.
There was some doubt that Lamarr had the technical know-how for the project, but Antheil always gave her the credit. The U.S. government refined a version of it used by the military in the 1960s, after the original patent had expired. Lamarr and Antheil never made any money from their invention. In 1996, they were honored for their work by The Professional Engineering Society. Lamarr’s only comment was: “It’s about time”. Their work led the pair to being inducted into the National Inventors Hall Of Fame in 2014.
That’s correct, Lamarr was an immigrant who helped save the world from Fascism.
During World War II, Lamarr worked hard to sell millions of dollars in war bonds. She told an audience in Philadelphia that she was “A Gold Digger for Uncle Sam”.
In the spring of 1943, she married the British actor John Loder. She knew him for six months before she married him. They divorced three years later.
Lamarr’s other marriages, to Teddy Stauffer, a band leader who ran a nightclub in Acapulco; Howard Lee, a Texas oilman; and Lewis W. Boles, a California lawyer, each lasted a brief time and ended in divorce.
In 1943, she sued MGM because the studio failed to pay her a contractual $2,000 a week. They said they were unable to pay her what they owed because President Franklin Delano Roosevelt had issued a wartime executive order limiting all salaries to $25,000 a year. The case was settled out of court. Over the years, she was involved in several other lawsuits that did not work out so well. Among them was one against a Los Angeles department store that had accused her of shoplifting in 1966. She was acquitted of the charge and her lawsuit against the store was dismissed.
Lamarr sued the publisher and the ghostwriter Leo Guild of her memoir Ecstasy And Me: My Life As A Woman (1966). She claimed the book was “deliberately written as an obscene, shocking, scandalous, naughty, wanton, fleshy, sensual, lecherous, lustful and scarlet version of my life”. She said it was not actually written by her, and most of it was fictional. Lamarr, in turn, was sued by Gene Ringgold, who asserted that the book plagiarized material he had written in 1965 for Screen Facts Magazine.
In the 1970s, she was offered scripts, television commercials and stage projects, but she declined them all. In 1974, she filed a $10 million lawsuit against Warner Bros. claiming that the running parody of her name “Hedley Lamarr” in the Mel Brooks comedy classic Blazing Saddles infringed upon her right to privacy. Brooks said he was flattered. The studio settled out of court for an undisclosed nominal sum and an apology to Lamarr for “almost using her name”. In 1981, Lamarr moved to Miami Beach and retreated from public life.
In 1991, nearly blind and living sparingly in Florida, she was again accused of shoplifting, this time $21 worth of laxatives and eye drops. The charges were dropped in return for a promise to refrain from breaking any laws for a year.
Lamarr tried plastic surgery to preserve her beauty, but the results were disastrous, and she became addicted to pain pills.
Lamarr left this world in 2000. She returned to Austria as ashes. They were spread in the Vienna Woods, in accordance with her last wishes.
A documentary, Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story, directed by Alexandra Dean and produced by Susan Sarandon, aired on PBS American Masters in 2018.
In 1966, Lamarr asked gossip columnist Sheilah Graham:
“What happened to me? I made $7 million and yet I am on relief and they gave me all of $48 a week. Maybe I’ll go back to Europe. They want me. I have many offers.”