Hedy Lamarr

The Beauty and the Brain

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

Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler was born in Vienna in the year that the First World War began. Later known as the screen star Hedy Lamarr, the clever Austrian would play an interesting off-screen role as an inventor in the Second World War – on the side of her adopted US homeland. This is just one of many facts that make Lamarr’s biography quite unlike that of most film stars..

Hedy Lamarr

Four-disc collection of Lamarr’s films: Algiers, Dishonored Lady, Let’s Live a Little, and Strange Woman. Get the DVD from Amazon.com.

While she shocked European society and gained notoriety with her 10-minute nude swimming scene in the 1933 Austrian-Czech film Ecstasy (Extase, Buy the DVD), still appearing in the credits as Hedy Kiesler, she is perhaps best known today because of the Mel Brooks Western parody, Blazing Saddles (1973). Brooks used the running gag of a villainous character named “Hedley Lamarr” (Harvey Korman) who had to constantly correct people who kept calling him “Hedy.” (It was in that same classic film that Madeline Kahn masterfully portrayed a lisping spoof of Marlene Dietrich.) But such superficial recognition does an injustice to the attractive and highly intelligent Lamarr, who made her last film in 1958.

Hedy Lamarr got her marquee name from MGM’s Louis B. Mayer, in remembrance of the beautiful silent-film star Barbara La Marr (born Rheatha Watson in 1896), who had died of a drug overdose in 1926. Mayer’s renaming of his new star was also intended to erase any last traces of the Ecstasy scandal. After all, the film had been banned in America. Her new name was so unfamiliar to her that Lamarr misspelled it when she first arrived in Hollywood in 1937 and signed the hotel register at the famous Chateau Marmont on Sunset Boulevard (“Bills to be sent to Louis B. Mayer at MGM.”).

At Mayer’s invitation, Lamarr had come to Hollywood from exile in London. She had recently divorced her domineering, pro-Nazi husband and literally escaped from Austria, leaving behind a blossoming Austrian-German film career. Mayer’s plans to turn this advocate of unclothed beauty into family entertainment (“We make clean pictures.”) would not be entirely successful.

Hedy the Inventor
Hedy Lamarr is one of 150 “information pioneers” chosen by BCS, The Chartered Institute for IT. BCS selected people who have helped to shape the information society that we live in today. Other IT pioneers selected include Albert Einstein and Konrad Zuse. Learn more at the Information Pioneers website. (See video below.)

Six Husbands and one Patent
Austrian industrialist Fritz Mandl became Lamarr’s first husband in 1933 when she was barely twenty. Notable for his unsuccessful attempt to buy up all existing prints of his wife’s bare-all Ecstasy appearance, Mandl was also the first in a long chain of Lamarr divorces. The former banker’s daughter later became a regular customer of Nevada’s six-week divorce mill in Reno, a trend that ran through husband number six. But if she was a poor judge of spouses, she compensated for that as a famous glamour queen of the 1930s and ’40s, dubbed immodestly by Mayer again as “the most beautiful girl in the world.”

Lamarr's patent

A portion of the 1942 patent granted to Lamarr (under her H.K. Markey name) and George Antheil. Ironically, it expired in 1959, the same year Antheil died. IMAGE COURTESY Chris Baumont’s Antheil site.

But surely one of the most fascinating chapters in Lamarr’s life and career had nothing to do with her film career and everything to do with her brain power. How many movie stars can you name, who hold the patent on a significant technological breakthrough? It’s a story even Hollywood couldn’t have invented. Hedy Lamarr shares the title to a 1942 patent, under her then legal name Hedy Kiesler Markey, for a “secret communication system” intended for use as a radio guidance device for U.S. Navy torpedoes. Along with her co-inventor and avant-garde musician George Antheil (1900-1959), Lamarr came up with the idea of “frequency hopping” to quickly shift the radio signals of control devices, making them invulnerable to radio interference or jamming, a feat of technological prowess that was only formally acknowledged by the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) in March 1997 — even more belatedly for Mr. Antheil, who died in 1959. But for the 83-year-old Lamarr, then a Florida retiree, “It was about time.” (See the video below for more about Hedy and her invention.)

The US military simply let the patent languish in their archives, in part because the technology of the time was not up to implementing such a system, and it is only now – in the age of the digital mobile phone – that Antheil’s and Lamarr’s system has come into its own. Instead of “frequency hopping,” today’s technical term is “spread spectrum,” but the basic idea is the same. The FCC allotted a special section of the radio spectrum for an experiment using the spread spectrum to make wireless phone calls more secure from eavesdroppers. First used secretly by the US military in the 1960s, commercial interests could hardly wait to use this “new” technology in the 1990s. A lot of money has been lavished on the process, which has the added benefit of allowing more cell-phone users to use the existing frequency spectrum. Unfortunately for Lamarr, who could have used some of that money, her patent expired long ago.

Ad with Hedy Lamarr

Hedy Lamarr appeared in the most unexpected places in the ’90s! But the question arises: Did Hedy get a dime from Corel for her “Image is Everything” in this ad and on the product package? Well, not until she sued the Corel corporation for $250,000 — and won.

After peaking in the 1940s, the popular wartime pinup girl’s film career started to decline, partly because of some of her own decisions about the roles she would take. For example, she turned down roles in Gaslight and Casablanca that were later filled by Ingrid Bergman. Despite an occasional plum role, such as her strong performance in The Strange Woman (1946) and her sultry portrayal of Delilah in Cecil B. DeMille’s Samson and Delilah (1949, with Lamarr on loan to Paramount from MGM), Lamarr found herself in increasingly weaker films. The scandal of her frequent trips to Reno didn’t help matters, and an attempt to revive her career in Italy in the early 1950s proved unsuccessful. Her cinematic swan song was in 1958 in The Female Animal, a movie that few critics rate highly. Her part in Slaughter on 10th Avenue a year earlier had ended up on the cutting room floor.

VIDEOInformation Pioneers: Hedy Lamarr
from Information Pioneers on Vimeo.

In the 1950s Lamarr made occasional television appearances. She was a guest star on “The Bob Hope Show” and on various game and talk shows. In 1965 she made headlines by being arrested for shoplifting. (An event that was repeated in 1991.) In 1966 Lamarr published her tell-all autobiography, Ecstasy and Me: My Life as a Woman, but she later sued her ghostwriters for misrepresentation. She also had some success as a songwriter in the 1980s.

The retired Lamarr lived modestly in Florida. Her last residence was in Casselberry, Florida (north of Orlando), where she moved in October 1999. She never returned to her homeland of Austria until after her death. She died on January 19, 2000, just weeks after celebrating her 85th birthday on November 9, 1999. Following her wishes, her son Anthony Loder took her ashes back to Austria to be spread in the Vienna Woods. Proposed plans for a memorial grave of honor in Vienna were delayed for 14 years! In 2014, on the anniversary of her 100th birthday (November 9), Lamarr was granted an honorary grave in Vienna’s Central Cemetery.

Books About Hedy

Next | Germans in Hollywood

Hedy Lamarr Filmography (Selected films)

Die Koffer des Herrn O.F. (1931)
Director: Alexis Granowsky. This German production (transl., “The Suitcases of Mr. O.F.”) is one of three films Lamarr made in 1931, the first year of her film career. Peter Lorre, another Austrian who would later be in Hollywood, was featured in this production.

Extase | Ecstasy (1933)
Director: Gustav Machaty. Lamarr (Kiesler) makes film history in the altogether in this Austrian-Czech production. Supposedly one of the first nude scenes in cinema history. Get the DVD from Amazon.com.

'Algiers' DVD

Algiers, with Charles Boyer, was Lamarr’s first Hollywood film.
DVD: Algiers from Amazon.com

Algiers (1938)
Director: John Cromwell. Lamarr’s first Hollywood movie co-starred Charles Boyer. It is a remake of the 1937 French film Pepe le Moko and was remade yet again as the musical Casbah (1948), in which Peter Lorre played a police detective.
DVD: Silver Screen Legends: Hedy Lamarr – Four Lamarr films: Algiers, Dishonored Lady, Let’s Live a Little, and Strange Woman.

Lady of the Tropics (1939)
Director: Jack Conway. Lamarr’s co-star is Robert Taylor. Also features the German actor Joseph Schildkraut. Lamarr plays Manon, a half-Vietnamese beauty in French Indochina.

I Take This Woman (1940)
Director: W.S. Van Dyke. Spencer Tracy is a doctor who sacrifices everything for the ungrateful Lamarr in this box-office flop that went through three directors, starting with Josef von Sternberg.

Boom Town (1940)
Directors: George Sidney, Jack Conway, Rudolf Ising. This box-office hit features Lamarr, Clark Gable, Spencer Tracy, and Claudette Colbert in a Texas oil boom town.
DVD: Boom Town (from Amazon.com)

Comrade X (1940)
Director: King Vidor. Clark Gable tries to romance Lamarr, a reluctant Russian streetcar conductor. Also features the Austrian actor Oscar Homolka and the German actor Sig Ruman.

Ziegfield Girl (1941)
Directors: Robert Z. Leonard, Busby Berkeley. Spectacular Busby Berkeley numbers plus stars Lana Turner, James Stewart, Judy Garland, and Lamarr make this a classic MGM musical drama.
DVD: Ziegfield Girl (from Amazon.com)

H.M. Pulham, Esq. (1941)
Director: King Vidor. Marvin (Lamarr) is a beautiful business woman who changes Harry’s (Robert Young) life.

Tortilla Flat (1942)
Director: Victor Fleming. This Steinbeck saga is one of Lamarr’s better films. Also stars Spencer Tracy, John Garfield, and Frank Morgan.

White Cargo (1942)
Director: Richard Thorpe. Lamarr as the alluring Tandelayo in hot love scenes in Africa. With Walter Pidgeon, Frank Morgan, Richard Carlson. A remake of the 1929 original.

The Heavenly Body (1944)
Director: Alexander Hall. William Powell plays Lamarr’s jealous astronomer husband. Leonard Maltin: “Hedy is heavenly, but script is silly.”

'Ecstasy' DVD

Lamarr made Ecstasy in Europe in 1930. Get the DVD from Amazon.com.

The Conspirators (1944)
Director: Jean Negulesco. Hedy joins fellow Austrians Paul Henreid and Peter Lorre, as well as Sydney Greenstreet in this pale imitation of Casablanca set in Lisbon. Despite using half of the Casablanca cast, the best reason to watch is a gorgeous Hedy.

Her Highness and the Bellboy (1945)
Director: Richard Thorpe. Lamarr as a princess in New York City. With June Allyson and Robert Walker.

The Strange Woman (1946)
Directed by the Austrian Edgar Ulmer and co-starring George Sanders. Most critics rate this Lamarr’s best film performance.
DVD: Dishonored Lady + Strange Woman (from Amazon.com)

Dishonored Lady (1947)
Director: Robert Stevenson. One of Lamarr’s weaker films.
DVD: Dishonored Lady + Strange Woman (from Amazon.com)

Let’s Live a Little (1948)
Director: Richard Wallace. Lamarr and Robert Cummings experience the complications of a workplace romance in the 1940s.
DVD: Silver Screen Legends: Hedy Lamarr – Four Lamarr films: Algiers, Dishonored Lady, Let’s Live a Little, and Strange Woman.

Samson and Delilah (1949)
Director: Cecile B. DeMille. An above-average DeMille Technicolor spectacle starring Lamarr as Delilah and Victor Mature (of Swiss parentage) as Samson. Just ignore the laughable Samson versus the lion duel.

Copper Canyon (1950)
Director: John Farrow. Lamarr is the female lead in this post-Civil War Western also starring Ray Milland and Macdonald Carey.
DVD: Copper Canyon (from Amazon.com)

A Lady Without Passport (1950)
Director: Joseph H. Lewis. Hedy tries to leave Havana and her past behind her.

My Favorite Spy (1951)
Director: Norman Z. McLeod. Lamarr lends her beauty to this Bob Hope comedy, with Mike Mazurki playing a heavy.

L’eterna femmina / L’amante di Paride (1954, Italy)
Botched and uncompleted by director Marc Allegret, the original three hours (L’eterna femmina) were cut to 90 minutes by Austrian co-director Edgar Ulmer, then released in the U.S. as The Face That Launched a Thousand Ships with Lamarr as Helen of Troy. Also known as Loves of Three Queens.

The Story of Mankind (1957)
Director: Irwin Allen. Hedy as Joan of Arc. The star-studded cast is lost in a rambling, clichéd film that can’t even be saved by the brothers Marx, Ronald Colman, Cedric Hardwicke, Vincent Price, Virginia Mayo, and others. Peter Lorre makes a cameo appearance.

The Female Animal (1958)
Director: Harry Keller. Lamarr’s final screen appearance is in a weak variation of Billy Wilder’s great Sunset Boulevard. “Sad waste of Lamarr as mature Hollywood star…” (Leonard Maltin).

Hedy Lamarr appeared in several US television productions in the 1950s, including episodes of “Four Star Revue” (1952), “Shower of Stars” (1957), “The George Gobel Show” (1957), and “Zane Grey Theater” (1957). She was a guest on many other TV variety, quiz, and talk shows in the ’50s and ’60s, including two appearances on “What’s My Line?” (1957, 1958) and an appearance on “The Dick Cavett Show” (1969).

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