Hedy Lamarr: Cell Phone Princess

"Any girl can be glamorous. All you have to do is stand still and look stupid," the gorgeous Austrian actress Hedy Lamarr was attributed with saying. Hedy Lamarr was always portrayed as a girl, innocent on her beauty - almost listless. Her lovely face at times was her curse, for such a smart woman. Sadly, after an arrest and record of shoplifting, her name became almost a joke that would supercede her reputation rather than her intelligence. However, Lamarr would later be credited for inventing a technology that would contributed to cell phone, bluetooth and drone advancements.

Born to a Jewish family in Austria, Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler was the only child of Trude and Emil Kiesler. In 1914, her father was a successful banker and her mother was a Budapest upper-class pianist. Despite the Jewish birth, her mother raised her as Christian since she had converted to Catholicism. Her heritage was kept secret initially, perhaps due to the time period; however, her mother acknowledged her heritage by listing "Hebrew" as her race when she applied for American citizenship.

Marriage. The Austrian Rapunzel.

When Hedy was 16, she dropped out of school to become an actress after meeting producer Max Reinhardt at a party. She received training in the theater and later she was employed as a script girl, before getting her start in the controversial film Ecstasy. She was depicted as a neglected young wife in a small role that was noted for nude scenes amongst other scandal. It was banned from release in several markets including the United States - seemingly due to the mature themes - but more likely because of the number of Jewish crew that was employed. It was also reported that in order to get some sort of emotion out of her, Hedy was pricked in the backside with a safety pin to correct her "listless" appearance or stoicism. 

Almost like a princess story, Hedy married Friedrich Mandl, a military arms merchant (think Lord of War) who was the third-richest man in Austria. She was 18 and he was 33. However, just like Rapunzel in the tower, she found this marriage intolerable. Mandl was reportedly overly controlling and had objected to her role in Ecstasy.  He did not want an actress but rather a trophy wife. Lamarr felt like a prisoner in Schloss Schwarzenau.

Mandl sold arms to Italy and despite his Jewish background, he also had ties to the Nazi government. Certainly others had forged similar connections in an attempt at self-preservation.  Supposedly, Mussolini and Hitler had even attended parties at their castle. Mandl allowed his "trophy wife" to accompany him to business meetings and Hedy's natural talent for science came to the surface as she met scientists and pioneers in the military technology field. However, "the prison of gold," in her words, was not all it was cracked up to be. Just like a story from the French Revolution, she disguised herself as a maid and fled to Paris. In one account of her escape, she dressed for a dinner party wearing her most expensive jewelry and then simply disappeared. She had been secretly hiding other valuables, sending some to Paris before drugging a servant during one of Mandl's hunting trips so that she could sneak out. She had even endured having her correspondence monitored and conversations recorded by Mandl (sounds like modern day stalking--right?).  No matter what accounts you read, she was a refugee on the run from her husband.

Hollywood. Straight Out of A Harlequin Novel.

In 1937, Louis B. Mayer was looking for talent in Europe. He met the "Ecstasy lady" and she changed her name to Hedy Lamarr at his persuasion. Mayer promoted her as the "world's most beautiful woman" despite not wanting to initially sign her. He didn't think it was appropriate for American audiences to see a naked woman in a film (a stigma from her Ectasy film) even though she claimed she was young and it was considered an "artsy film." She posed as a governess on the ocean crossing and gained more respect of the movie mogul. In 1938, she starred in Algiers, a film with Charles Boyer, and was an instant sensation. There had been a publicity campagin to bill her as an Austrian actress so audiences had growing excitement. Mayer tapped her to be the next Greta Garbo or Marlene Dietrich. She later starred against other major male leads of that time including Clark Gable, Spencer Tracy, John Garfield, Robert Young. She also starred along side Lana Turner and Judy Garland. Amazingly she had achieved success despite not speaking the language--her early roles were learned phonetically and relied heavily on expression.  After learning English her career really got going.

The Inventor. Yup, she was Beautiful AND Smart.

Despite having 18 films behind her in the 1940s, she also had two children. She starred in the highest-grossing film of 1949: Samson and Delilah.  Even I saw that one! Her image is what I think of when I think Delilah from the Bible. She even did comedy with Bob Hope in My Favorite Spy.  Even with her prolific movie credits, her career ultimately went into decline. She turned to inventing as a way to relieve her boredom--a girl after my own heart.

Hedy Lamarr

She invented an improved traffic stoplight and a tablet that would create a carbonated drink when dissolved in water. So cool...  She was self-taught and I love that she did this in her free time. Howard Hughes even helped finance the tablet invention though it didn't taste that great which kept it from really taking off.  Other efforts were more successful.  With World War 2 on-going, she designed a jam-proof radio guidance system for torpedoes- yeah, seriously badass. She also drafted an early frequency-hopping, spread-spectrum technology with the help of a composer, George Antheil.  They even got a U.S. patent for that one (does this sound familiar yet?).  Hedy combined munitions knowledge she gained from her jailkeeper (aka first husband) with an understanding that radio-controlled torpedoes could easily be jammed.  She and Antheil then added a concept taken from piano rolls to design the frequency hopping technology. Unfortunately, the technology was difficult to implement and the Department of Defense, specifically the Navy, was suspicious of inventions not generated by the military. So their invention did not get the attention it deserved initially.  But this technology helped to later lay the foundation for spread spectrum communication technology used in modern day technologies such as code division multiple access (CDMA), Wi-Fi networks and Bluetooth--now you feeling me?. Sadly, the composer and the actress were not inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame until after their death.

Later On. Yah Yah Yah.

Okay, at this point I can get into her six husbands. I can get into how she was arrested for shoplifting in 1966--the charges were dropped. There was second set of charges for laxatives and eye drops in Florida. Hey, maybe she didn't realize- and was absent minded? These charges were also dropped. There was some skepticism over her autobiography. But to be honest, I don't want to dig deeper on this one. I want to remember the woman who was an inventor, who was brave enough to embrace a daring roll and to pursue a career in a foreign land. 


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