“Any girl can be glamorous. All you have to do is stand still and look stupid.” So said Hedy Lamarr in reference to her career as a Hollywood actress, yet she was far from stupid. As well as acting, Lamarr helped develop a radio guidance system for torpedoes, which inspired future Bluetooth and GPS technologies. Yet, Lamarr’s lengthy career in the film industry continues to overshadow her intelligence and scientific achievements.
Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler was born on 9th November 1914 in Vienna, which was then in Austria-Hungary. She was the only child of Jewish parents Gertrud “Trude” Kiesler (1894-1977) and Emil Kiesler (1880-1935), although her mother had converted to Catholicism and raised Lamarr as such.
At age 12, Lamarr entered and won a beauty contest in Vienna and developed a fascination with film and theatre. So, she began attending acting classes. Yet, at the same time, Lamarr attended a private school, where she studied piano, ballet, language and natural sciences. During her spare time, Lamarr accompanied her father on walks and listened to his explanations about the workings of different technologies.
Desperate to start an acting career, Lamarr forged her mother’s signature on an application to work as a script girl for Sascha-Film, the largest Austrian film production company of the silent film era. The role involved overseeing the continuity of the film, which included ensuring clothes, props, scenery, and so forth appeared at the right moments. Yet, Lamarr longed to act and was no doubt thrilled to star as an extra in the 1930 film Money on the Street.
The film brought her to the attention of the Austrian producer Max Reinhardt (1873-1943), who cast her in a play called The Weaker Sex. Enamoured with her performance at the Theater in der Josefstadt, Reinhardt persuaded Lamarr to travel with him to Berlin. Whilst she readily agreed, on arrival she was snatched up by the Russian theatre producer Alexis Granowsky (1890-1937), who cast her in The Trunks of Mr. O.F. (1931). Following this, Lamarr played the lead role in the German comedy film No Money Needed (1932).
In 1933, the Czech film producer Gustav Machatý (1901-63) cast Lamarr in the lead role of Ecstasy, an erotic romantic drama. Lamarr, billed as Heddie Kiesler, played Eva Jermann, the neglected young wife of an ignorant older man. Fed up of being ignored, Eva files for divorce and falls in love with a younger man, which makes her ex-husband jealous.
The film portrayed sexual intercourse, although never showing more than the actors’ faces. There were also brief nude scenes, which gave Ecstasy and Lamarr a notorious reputation. Despite giving Lamarr international recognition, the film was considered overly sexual in the United States and Germany, where it was subsequently banned.
Dismayed with the infamous reputation brought on by Ecstasy, Lamarr retreated from cinematography and focused on the theatre. Lamarr played the lead roles in several plays, often receiving roses from her admirers. Fans tried to sneak backstage to meet her after each performance, including the alleged third-richest man in Austria, Friedrich Mandl (1900-77). Initially, Lamarr sent Mandl away, but his determination to speak to her, plus his charm and personality, won her over.
Lamarr’s parents disapproved of her relationship with Mandl. He often attended parties with Benito Mussolini and Adolf Hitler, despite their opposing political beliefs. Yet, Lamarr ignored her parents’ warnings and married Mandl in Vienna on 10th August 1933. At 18, Lamarr was much younger than the 33-year-old previously married Mandl. Initially, living with Mandl in his castle-like home, Schloss Schwarzenau, probably felt like a fairytale, but after he disapproved of her role in Ecstasy and prevented her from further acting, the illusion soon wore off.
Feeling like a prisoner, Lamarr only left Schloss Schwarzenau to accompany her husband to business meetings, where he met with scientists involved with military technology. Whilst she felt disheartened about her marriage, the meetings enhanced her knowledge and scientific talent. Unfortunately, not even these meetings made her situation bearable, so Lamarr fled to the United Kingdom in 1937. Writing about her relationship with Mandl thirty years later, Lamarr said, “I knew very soon that I could never be an actress while I was his wife. … 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.”
Shortly after arriving in London, Louis B. Mayer (1884-1957), the co-founder of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios (MGM), approached Lamarr, offering her $125 a week to work with him in Hollywood. She refused the proposal but decided to travel to the United States anyway. Travelling on the same liner as Mayer, she impressed him enough to raise his offer to $500, which she accepted. Following his advice, she changed her acting name to Hedy Lamarr to distance herself from the reputation she garnered as Heddie Kiesler. The surname was suggested by Mayer’s wife, a fan of the late silent-film actress Barbara La Marr (1896-1926).
After promoting Lamarr as the “world’s most beautiful woman,” Mayer loaned her to the film producer Walter Wanger (1894-1968), who wanted to make an English version of the French film, Pépé le Moko (1937). Titled Algiers (1938), Lamarr played Gaby, a beautiful woman who attracts the attention of a thief called Pepe le Moko. Lamarr’s beauty “took one’s breath away,” and Algiers inspired the 1942 film Casablanca, written with Lamarr in mind. When Mayer refused to release Lamarr from her contract, the lead role went to Ingrid Bergman (1915-82).
Following the success of Lamarr’s first American film, she was frequently typecast as “the archetypal glamorous seductress of exotic origin”. She portrayed such roles in Lady of the Tropics (1939) and I Take This Woman (1940), as well as Boom Town (1940) and Comrade X (1940) alongside “The King of Hollywood” Clark Gable (1901-60). Lamarr also starred with James Stewart (1908-97) in Come Live with Me (1941) and Ziegfeld Girl (1941), the latter also featuring Judy Garland (1922-69).
In 1939, Lamarr married the American author and screenwriter Eugene Willford “Gene” Markey (1895-1980). Rather than having children of their own, Lamarr and Markey adopted James Lamarr Markey (1939). At least, that is what they told the world. Many years later, James discovered he was Lamarr’s biological son with the actor John Loder (1898-1988), who Lamarr married in 1943 after divorcing Markey in 1941.
During the war years, Lamarr continued acting, starring in films such as White Cargo (1942), The Heavenly Body (1944) and The Conspirators (1944). In 1945, she made her final film under her contract with MGM, Her Highness and the Bellboy, in which she played a princess who fell in love with a New Yorker.
During her Hollywood years, Lamarr often felt homesick, although she helped her mother escape to the United States following the Anschluss in 1938. Lamarr also did not understand why so many Americans adored her and found the notion of signing autographs peculiar. In her spare time, Lamarr developed concepts for inventions, for example, a tablet that would dissolve in water to create a carbonated drink. She even advised aviation tycoon Howard Hughes (1905-76) to make his aeroplanes more streamlined.
When the Americans entered the Second World War, Lamarr desired to help and attempted to join the National Inventors Council. The NIC repeatedly refused her application and suggested she sell war bonds instead. Whilst she agreed to attend war bond rallies, Lamarr’s desire to invent something to aid the war did not abate. After learning that radio-controlled torpedoes could be jammed and set off course, Lamarr devised on paper a frequency-hopping signal that could not be tracked or jammed. Lamarr asked a friend and pianist, George Antheil (1900-59), to help her make the device. Lamarr told him that she “did not feel very comfortable, sitting there in Hollywood and making lots of money when the world was in such a state”, so Antheil agreed to help.
By synchronizing a small player-piano mechanism with radio signals, Antheil made Lamarr’s invention a reality, and she was granted a patent under US Patent 2,292,387 on 11th August 1942. Lamarr used her married name, Hedy Kiesler Markey, to keep her passion for science separate from her Hollywood career. Unfortunately, Lamarr’s device was too technologically advanced for the US Navy to implement. They also refused to consider inventions by non-military personnel.
Disheartened by the rejection, Lamarr returned to acting and married John Loder in 1943. As well as their son James, who Loder adopted (perhaps he did not know he was the biological father), they had two children, Denise (1945) and Anthony (1947).
Whilst Lamarr left MGM in 1945, she did not stop acting. Lamarr briefly formed a production company with the producer Jack Chertok (1906-95) and made the thriller The Strange Woman (1946), in which she also starred. The film went over budget and only made minor profits, as did their second thriller, Dishonored Lady (1947). An attempt at a comedy, Let’s Live a Little (1948), also failed to make much profit.
After the third flop, Lamarr gave up her attempts to produce a successful film and returned to acting for other companies. By this time, she had also divorced John Loder. Following these unhappy years, Lamarr finally enjoyed her biggest success when she started as Delilah in Paramount Pictures’ Samson and Delilah (1949). Based on the Biblical story about a strongman whose secret lies in his uncut hair from the Book of Judges, it was the third highest-grossing film ever at the time of its release.
Lamarr was chosen to play Delilah from a large selection of actresses, which included Joan Crawford, Rita Hayworth, Maureen O’Hara, Lucille Ball and Vivien Leigh. Burt Lancaster was the first choice to play Samson, but due to injury, he declined. Instead, Victor Mature (1913-99) was given the role. The film remained true to the Biblical story, except for making Delilah the younger sister of Samson’s wife, played by Angela Lansbury (b. 1925). At the 23rd Academy Awards in 1951, Samson and Delilah won for Best Color Art Direction and Best Color Costume Design.
In 1950, Lamarr returned to MGM and starred in A Lady Without Passport (1950), which unfortunately flopped. After this, Lamarr starred in two Paramount films, Copper Canyon (1950) and My Favorite Spy (1951), but neither achieved the same accolades as Samson and Delilah.
After marrying “swing-king” Ernst Heinrich “Teddy” Stauffer in 1951, a marriage that only lasted a year, Lamarr’s career went into decline. After her fifth marriage in 1953, this time to a Texas oilman called W. Howard Lee, she travelled to Italy to star in Loves of Three Queens, in which she played multiple roles. On returning to the US, Lamarr starred as Joan of Arc in The Story of Mankind (1957) and the lead in The Female Animal (1958). In 1960, Lamarr was honoured with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, but in 1966, while filming Picture Mommy Dead, she collapsed from nervous exhaustion and was replaced by Zsa Zsa Gabor (1917-2016). Lamarr never acted again.
In 1960, Lamarr divorced her fifth husband, and three years later, married her divorce lawyer, Lewis J. Boies. Sadly, Lamarr’s sixth marriage only lasted two years, after which she remained single for the rest of her life.
In an attempt to remain popular in the Hollywood industry, Lamarr agreed to let Leo Guild and Cy Rice ghostwrite her autobiography Ecstasy and Me: My Life as a Woman. Unfortunately, she did not read what they had written before it went to publication and only realised afterwards that the book was “fictional, false, vulgar, scandalous, libellous and obscene.” When questioned about the autobiography on the Merv Griffin Show, Lamarr responded, “That’s not my book.”
Whilst the 1960s resulted in the end of Hedy Lamarr’s acting career, her 1942 invention was finally used by the US Navy. After updating the design, Navy ships were equipped with the device in 1962 during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Unfortunately, Lamarr did not receive recognition for the invention until 1997, when the Electronic Frontier Foundation honoured Lamarr and Antheil with a special Pioneer Award. Lamarr also became the first woman to receive the Invention Convention’s BULBIE Gnass Spirit of Achievement Award.
From the 1970s onwards, Lamarr lived a secluded lifestyle. She turned down opportunities to appear in television commercials and stage shows due to disinterest and failing eyesight. In 1981, Lamarr moved to Miami Beach, Florida, where she rarely left the house. Instead, she spent six to seven hours on the phone with friends and family rather than seeing them in person.
On 19th January 2000, Hedy Lamarr passed away from heart disease at the age of 89. Following her final wishes, her son Anthony flew to Vienna to scatter her ashes in the Vienna Woods. Lamarr’s life as an actress was celebrated during her lifetime, but her contribution to science and technology remained largely unknown. Using her original invention, scientists have made significant developments, leading to many devices used in the 21st century, such as GPS, Bluetooth and Wi-Fi.
In recognition of her contribution to science, the Austrian Institute for Quantum Optics and Quantum Information (IQOQI) named the quantum telescope on the roof of the University of Vienna after Lamarr in 2013. The following year, Lamarr was posthumously inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame for her development of frequency-hopping spread spectrum technology. The same year, the Vienna Central Cemetery erected a monument in her memory.
On 9th November 2015, on what would have been Hedy Lamarr’s 101st birthday, Google honoured her with a “Google Doodle” on their homepage (although not in the United Kingdom). Designed by Jennifer Hom, the animated video illustration tells Lamarr’s story, emphasising both her acting and scientific careers. Using film posters from the 1940s, Hom drew the glamorous movie star but emphasised Lamarr was more interested in helping the Allied war effort during World War II than in the roles she was being offered on screen.
In 2019, Lamarr received her most recent posthumous honour when her name was given to an asteroid. The 32730 Lamarr was first spotted in 1951 by German astronomer Karl Wilhelm Reinmuth (1892-1979). It remained unnamed until 2019.
Whilst there was no doubt Hedy Lamarr was a talented, beautiful actress, gender stereotypes prevented her from achieving her full potential as a scientist and inventor. She is not credited with the invention of Wi-Fi or Bluetooth, but her initial ideas helped many people develop the technologies relied upon today. It is impossible to imagine what Lamarr could have created if given the chance, and the posthumous awards and recognition barely make up for the lack of opportunity women had in the early 20th century.