To be dubbed the most beautiful woman in the world in Hollywood. A town full of beautiful women, past and present. So Hedy Lamarr must have been an extraordinary woman to behold.
Born Hedwig Eva Marie Kiesler on 9th November 1914 in Vienna, Austria. Born initially into comfort, thanks to her father’s job as bank director. Sadly he died in 1935 during the Holocaust. Leaving Hedy and her mother struggling for years to come.
During the early 1920’s Hedy was discovered by Max Reinhardt and brought to Berlin. First Hedy was employed as script girl, then as an actress.
In 1933, Lamarr gained international attention with her controversial role in ‘Ecstasy’. Two scenes cemented ‘Ecstasy’ notoriety; first was Lamarr’s nude swim in lake. Second and the one that really proved to be ‘too much’ was a scene that depicts Hedy having an orgasm (or ecstasy). When a woman as beautiful as Hedy goes skinny dipping, surely this is a force for good. However one more personal pressure of Hedy’s notoriety was the reaction of her husband. In the same year that ‘Ecstasy’ was released, Hedy married her first husband Frederic Mandl. On the surface being married to one of the wealthiest industrialist in Austria, life would be beyond comfortable. Mandl was in fact, a controlling and possessive man who according to her book ‘Ecstasy and Me’ (published in 1966) kept Hedy as a virtual prisoner in their castle. To say that a control freak would react badly to seeing their wife appearing to be throws of passion is an understatement. Mandl tried to destroy as many copies of the film as he could. Hedy finally had enough and fled to Los Angeles.
Once scouted by Louis B Mayer himself in 1937, signing her to MGM. Changing her surname to Lamarr in honour of tragic starlet Barbara La Marr and capitalising on her infamy with ‘Ecstasy’, Mayer dubbed Lamarr ‘The Esctasy Girl’. Her MGM debut was ‘Algiers’ in 1938. Unsurprisingly, the camera adored Lamarr as much in America as it had in Austria. Appearing in ‘Boom Town’ (1940), ‘Ziegfeld Girl’ (1941) ‘White Cargo’ (1942) and ‘Dishonoured Woman’ (1947). Her biggest hit was in the biblical adaptation ‘Sampson and Delilah’ in 1945. Though her career was profitable, the good times were not to last. After the failure of ‘My Favourite Spy’ in 1951, Lamarr worked sporadically during the 1950’s. One of her last appearances was in ‘The Story of Mankind’ in 1957. Typically playing exotic beauties or seductresses. Lamarr was bored with being typecasting as only a pretty face with no substance. Eventually Lamarr tired of Hollywood and left for good.
Arguably Lamarr’s greatest achievement was not her illustrious Hollywood career, but her contribution to technology. Admittedly I am a functioning Luddite who has a vague understanding of most modern mechanisms. So please bear with me if you find wholes in my understanding of Lamarr’s phenomenal work. In 1942, during WWII Lamarr and George Antheil developed and patented a ‘Secret Communication System’. The aim was to solve the problem of Germany and her allies blocking signals from radio-missile. Thanks to Lamarr’s idea of changing frequencies simultaneously to avoid interception by any enemies. Once the transistor was created and later downsized, the advancement was astonishing. Even today, Lamarr’s invention is used in phones today. While her film career is more glamorous and frankly easier to understand. Her contribution to technology is more groundbreaking and affective to all of us. With such revolutionary achievement, it is little surprise that Lamarr was inducted in the National Inventor’s Hall of Fame in 2014.
Despite such an awe inspiring legacy, Lamarr’s later years were shambolic. In both 1966 and 1991, Lamarr was arrested for shoplifting, but the charges were dropped each time. Procured 6 husbands (as is typical in show business circles, all ended in divorce). Fearing that her legendary looks were failing, Lamarr had had cosmetic surgery. Which proved to be a total disaster.
All the stresses of her chaotic life took a toll and eventually died on 19th January 2000, aged 85. Her cause of death was listed as multiple heart failures. Such a waste of an extraordinary woman. Her image has been immortalised in animation. Lamarr was said to be the inspiration behind Catwoman and Disney’s depiction of Snow White. I am glad that the full weight of Lamarr’s achievement is being valued. She gave us much to enjoy.