Hedy Lamarr was described as the most beautiful woman in the world in the 1940s
When the washed-up Hollywood star Hedy Lamarr published a ghostwritten autobiography in 1966 it proved to be a lurid rehashing of her sexual exploits, her six marriages and her drug use.
There was no mention of her role in developing a piece of technology that can claim to be a precursor to some of the most groundbreaking innovations of the internet age.
But tomorrow a new documentary entitled Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story to be screened at this year’s Jewish Film Festival, will reveal she was an inventor of note who came up with a mouldbreaking weapons communication system in the Second World War.
Part of the reason she has not been taken seriously for so many years is that when she arrived on the liner Normandie in New York in 1937 she was known as the Ecstasy Girl thanks to an ill-judged role in a scandalous art fi lm of that name four years earlier.
I knew I could never be an actress while I was his wifeLoading...
Then a beautiful Austrian actress named Hedy Keisler, she was just 18 when she was persuaded to appear in the Czech fi lm in which she played a young woman named Eva who is married to a much older man.
One day Eva decides to interrupt her horse riding with a skinny dip in a nearby lake. When her mount runs off with her clothing draped across its back a naked Eva is shown pursuing it through the countryside.
A strapping young man who happens to be passing likes what he sees and in time one thing leads to another.
As the couple make love the director revels in close ups of the actress’s face in the throes of an orgasm. Keisler’s gasps of pleasure went down in history as the fi rst female orgasm to be depicted in a non-pornographic fi lm.
Given the year was 1933, you have a recipe for outrage. “Unsuitable, immoral and lascivious,” was the judgment of one reviewer. The Pope denounced it in the Vatican newspaper.
Hedy and James Stewart in 1941 movie Come Live With Me
And when copies found their way to the US offi cials confi scated the fi lm under the indecency provisions of the Tariff Act.
Hedy’s husband Fritz Mandl, an arms dealer and munitions manufacturer 14 years her senior who was reputed to be the third richest man in Austria, attempted to buy and destroy every copy of the fi lm he could fi nd in order to minimise the disgrace.
And from then on Hedy was kept a virtual prisoner in their castle home, Schloss Schwarzenau. There our story might have ended if our heroine’s beauty had not been allied to a strong personality.
“I knew I could never be an actress while I was his wife,” she once said of Mandl. “He was the absolute monarch in his marriage. I was like a doll. I was like a thing, some object of art which had to be guarded – and imprisoned – having no mind, no life of its own.”
There are two versions of what happened next. One has it that she disguised herself as her maid and fl ed abroad, the other that she persuaded Mandl to let her wear all of her jewellery to a dinner party, then disappeared afterwards.
Lamarr in ‘Samson And Delilah’
Whatever the truth of the matter, she ended up in London where she met Louis B Mayer, the head of MGM, who was in Europe scouting for talent.
Wowed by her glamour and sophistication, Mayer offered her a movie contract, renamed her in memory of the late silent fi lm star Barbara La Marr and when she arrived in Hollywood began promoting her as the “world’s most beautiful woman”.
She made her American debut in the 1938 thriller Algiers and was an immediate sensation. Undergraduates at Columbia University voted her the girl with whom they would most like to be marooned on a desert island.
Another person entranced by this star in the making was the aviation tycoon Howard Hughes. He sent her fl owers, took her out to dinner and showered her with expensive gifts. In the course of their relationship he became one of the few people to be exposed to her fl air for innovation.
While she had no formal scientifi c training, Lamarr was a great one for “tinkering” and in her spare time worked on a wide range of projects from an improved traffi c light to a tablet that would dissolve in water to create a carbonated drink.
Lady of the Tropics film poster
“Inventing was her hobby,” says Bombshell director Alexandra Dean. “It was her refl ex. It was how she dealt with the problems of the world. She did it in such a quiet way most people didn’t even know.”
At the time, Hughes was trying to work out how to make his planes fl y faster. Lamarr decided that the problem was that the wings were too square and so she studied the builds of the fastest birds and fi sh in order to create a new kind of wing shape.
When she showed it to Hughes, he apparently said: “You’re a genius.” The relationship with the eccentric Hughes did not last but Lamarr’s fi lm career took off. In 1940 she appeared opposite Clark Gable fi rst in Boom Town and then Comrade X.
A year later she was cast alongside Lana Turner and Judy Garland in Ziegfeld Girl and starred in Come Live With Me opposite Jimmy Stewart. But by now the Nazis’ march across Europe was well under way and Lamarr was determined to do her bit for the Allied cause.
Some say her patriotic fervour could be traced back to a desire to subvert the greed of her former husband. In her autobiography, Lamarr – who was Jewish – said that Fritz Mandl struck up close business ties with the Third Reich.
Co-inventor George Antheil
She even claimed that Hitler and the Italian fascist leader Benito Mussolini attended parties at Mandl’s home. She had often accompanied her arms-dealer husband to business meetings, where he conferred with Nazi experts about cutting-edge military technology, including airborne torpedoes.
It emerged that these radio-controlled missiles could easily be jammed, thereby causing them to go off course. Using the knowledge gleaned from these interactions, Lamarr began working on a solution in the workshop she had set up in her Hollywood home and came up with the idea of creating a frequencyhopping signal that could not be tracked or jammed.
With the help of a friend called George Antheil, a composer and pianist, she created a system based on the 88 keys on a piano and the pair submitted their patent for their idea in June, 1941.
A little more than a year later they were granted a patent for it. While their idea was not implemented by the US Navy until the Second World War had ended, history has proved it to be both practical and years ahead of its time.
Indeed it paved the way for groundbreaking innovations such as the WiFi and Bluetooth technologies that keep us connected today. Lamarr and Antheil were later showered with scientifi c testimonials and they were inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 2014, 14 years after her death at the age of 86.
Not bad for an actress who appeared in 35 fi lms including 1949 hit Samson And Delilah with Victor Mature.