Lamarr, Hedy (1913–2000)

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Lamarr, Hedy (1913–2000)

Austrian-born American motion-picture star and inventor of the electronic frequency-hopping technology now used in satellites and cellular phones. Name variations: H.K. Markey; Hedwig Kiesler. Born Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler in Vienna, Austria, on November 9, 1913; found dead in her home in Orlando, Florida, on January 19, 2000; daughter of Emil Kiesler and Gertrud (Lichtwitz) Kiesler; married Friedrich (Fritz) Mandl (the proprietor of one of Central Europe's leading munitions manufacturing plants,the Hirtenberger Patronen Fabrik); married Gene Markey (a Hollywood writer and producer); married John Loder (a British actor), in 1943 (divorced 1946); married Ted Stauffer (an ex-bandleader); married W. Howard Lee (a Texas oil refiner); married Lewis Boies (a lawyer); children: (second marriage) James Markey (adopted); (third marriage) Denise Hedwig Loder; Anthony John Loder.

Her film Ecstasy, in which she appeared nude in a swimming scene, created an international scandal (1933); arrived in U.S. (1937); changed her name to Hedy Lamarr and co-starred in Algiers (1938); received a patent with composer George Antheil for a radio-controlled torpedo (1942); one of the last survivors from the Golden Age of Hollywood.

Filmography in U.S., unless otherwise noted: (short) Geld auf der Strasse (Ger., 1930); Die Blumenfrau von Lindenau (Sturm in Wasserglas, Ger.-Aus., 1931); Wir brauchen kein Geld (Man braucht kein Geld or We Don't Need Money or His Majesty King Ballyhoo, Ger., 1931); Die Koffer des Herrn O.F. (Mr. O.F.'s Suitcases, Ger., 1931); Extase (Symphonie der Liebe or Ecstasy, Czech., 1933); Algiers (1938); Lady of the Tropics (1939); I Take This Woman (1940); Boom Town (1940); Comrade X (1940); Come Live With Me (1941); Ziegfeld Girl (1941); H.M. Pulham, Esq. (1941); Tortilla Flat (1942); Crossroads (1942); White Cargo (1942); The Heavenly Body (1944); The Conspirators (1944); Experiment Perilous (1944); Her Highness and the Bellboy (1945); The Strange Woman (1946); Dishonored Lady (1947); Let's Live a Little (1948); Samson and Delilah (1949); A Lady Without a Passport (1950); Copper Canyon (1950); My Favorite Spy (1951); Eterna Femmina (L'Amante di Paride or Love of Three Queens or The Face That Launched a Thousand Ships, It.-Fr., 1954); The Story of Mankind (1957); The Female Animal (1958); Instant Karma (1990).

Although internationally famous as a Hollywood femme fatale, Hedy Lamarr was also an inventor whose work with composer George Antheil laid the groundwork for both military communications systems and the mobile telephone systems now in use around the world. She was born Hedwig Kiesler in 1913 in Vienna, the only child in a wealthy assimilated Jewish family, less than a year before the outbreak of World War I. Her father Emil was a bank director and her mother Gertrud was a concert pianist who gave up her career to raise their daughter. Known to friends and family as Hedy, Lamarr attended Vienna's most exclusive private schools but showed little interest in her studies. While enrolled in a finishing school, she signed up for a course in design, an unusual subject to pursue for a pampered daughter of Vienna's upper class. During these years, she showed a rebellious streak when on several occasions she ran away from home (always returning, however, to the comforts of her parents' apartment).

By now a remarkably attractive young woman, Lamarr skipped school one day, going instead to Vienna's version of Hollywood, the Sascha Film Studios. While there, she overheard director Alexis Granowsky discuss the casting of a bit part in his upcoming silent film. Although her audition for the part was "terrible," she was hired nevertheless. Now hooked on an acting career, she persuaded her parents to let her drop out of school to devote herself to mastering the dramatic arts. Lamarr attended the renowned acting school of Max Reinhardt in Berlin, where Rein-hardt was so convinced of her potential as an actress that he personally took her on as a pupil.

While still at school, she so impressed the director of the film Geld auf der Strasse (Money on the Street), Georg Jacoby, that she was given another bit part. Soon after, Jacoby chose her for a larger role. During this time, she also appeared on stage, rapidly improving her acting skills and advancing to second leads; she was in the first Austrian production of Noel Coward's Private Lives. Good reviews resulted in an offer for her first leading role in a film, in Wir brauchen kein Geld (We Don't Need Money), in which she performed opposite Heinz Rühmann. Wir brauchen kein Geld was not a hit, but the next film in which she starred, Die Koffer des Herrn O.F. (Mr. O.F.'s Suitcases), was both a critical and box-office success.

By this time, Lamarr was being thought of in film circles as a potential star, and she took advantage of her growing reputation by accepting an offer in 1932 to appear in a film by the Czech director Gustav Machaty. With a working title of Symphonie der Liebe (Symphony of Love), the film's script called for its lead actress to appear nude in two brief scenes. It was explained to her that these would be extreme long shots, and she signed up for the project. When the film was released in 1933 under the title Extase (Ecstasy), it became a worldwide sensation, not only for the nude scenes (one of which shows Lamarr swimming), but also for several sizzling depictions of love-making. Although the film appears tame by contemporary cinematic standards, in its day it was regarded as outrageously daring. Religious commentators including Pope Pius XI denounced it as a threat to public morality. The film was banned in Nazi Germany, partly because the

newly established Hitler dictatorship claimed to be defending traditional moral values and also because Lamarr, being of Jewish ancestry, was regarded as a particular affront to a new state based on anti-Semitic principles. The film was also banned in the United States, where Puritanism still held sway in theory if not always in practice; it would finally be released to the public only after several court decisions.

While her name (then still Hedy Kiesler) was becoming notorious throughout the world, Lamarr married one of Austria's richest men, Friedrich (Fritz) Mandl, the proprietor of one of Central Europe's leading munitions manufacturing plants, the Hirtenberger Patronen Fabrik. Ruthless in pursuit of profits, Mandl sold his wares to all comers including fascist dictators Hitler and Mussolini. He regarded his beautiful young wife as a trophy and was enraged by the international sensation caused by her appearance in Ecstasy. Determined that his wife's nude and love scenes not be seen in public, Mandl tried to track down and buy all prints of the film. Eventually, after spending a large sum of money, he admitted defeat, and the film went on to become a classic of sorts.

After several years of marriage, Lamarr found herself restless. She thought her husband dull and his often shady business dealings morally offensive. Mandl was obsessively jealous, refusing to let her appear on stage even under the most proper circumstances. Meanwhile, Europe slid toward war and anti-Semitism in both Germany and Austria became ever more aggressive. Lamarr decided to flee Vienna for a freer, safer environment. After several failed attempts to leave her powerful husband, she finally succeeded in 1937, going first to Paris and then London. She managed to bring along her most valuable jewels as well as the bulk of a glamorous wardrobe.

In London, she met a Hollywood talent scout who arranged a meeting with movie mogul Louis B. Mayer. On the lookout for new stars in Europe, Mayer at first rejected Lamarr because of her connection with the scandalous film Ecstasy. Changing his mind, he then offered her a sum she regarded as insulting, leading to a firm refusal on her part. Finally, Mayer offered her a financially acceptable seven-year contract with the MGM studio, and she signed. At this point, Mayer insisted that she adopt a new, American-sounding name (her last name, Kiesler, reminded him of a Yiddish term for buttocks). Thus, Hedwig Kiesler became Hedy Lamarr, a name that derived from Barbara La Marr , a silent-film star Mayer admired. Hedy arrived in New York City in style, having crossed the Atlantic on the elegant French liner Normandie. She refused to display her knees for the New York photographers and reporters who met her at the pier, and instructed them to no longer write about her as Hedy Kiesler: "Please," she said, "call me Hedy Lamarr."

Lamarr's debut film project in Hollywood, A New York Cinderella, was an attempt to turn the Viennese beauty into an instant American superstar. Directed by Josef von Sternberg and costarring Spencer Tracy, this film was apparently ill-fated from the start. Mayer's constant interference and Tracy's deepening dissatisfaction finally led to the abandonment of shooting. A chance meeting of Lamarr and the noted French actor Charles Boyer at a party led to Boyer's urging his producer, Walter Wanger, to cast her as his co-star in Algiers. This was a remake of a much grittier French film (Pépé le Moko), with Lamarr playing the role of a slumming society lady who is the protagonist's fatal passion. Algiers was a smash hit, and Hedy Lamarr's disturbing beauty became legendary. Undergraduate males at Columbia University voted her the woman they would most like to be marooned with on a desert island. Women began to wear their hair as Lamarr did, parted down the middle. Although her films would feature escapist, arguably mindless plots, Lamarr was able to create the persona of a distinctly foreign and decadent temptress.

Her next film, Lady of the Tropics (1939), was successful with audiences but did not win critical acclaim. Writing in The New York Times, Bosley Crowther told his readers, "It is necessary to report that she is essentially one of those museum pieces, like the Mona Lisa, who were more beautiful in repose." Over the next few years, Lamarr appeared in a number of successful films, including Comrade X and Boom Town (both with Clark Gable), I Take This Woman, Ziegfeld Girl, and Tortilla Flat (with Spencer Tracy and John Garfield). Even more successful film roles eluded her when she turned down memorable parts that then went to Gene Tierney (Laura) and Ingrid Bergman (Casablanca and Gaslight).

In 1940, the glamorous actress became involved in the world of science, technology and warfare. She met the film composer George Antheil at a Hollywood dinner party that year, and the two soon discovered they had much more in common than their careers. Their conversation turned to Lamarr's Austrian past, including the threat of Nazi Germany and the education about weapons she had received during her marriage to Fritz Mandl. Lamarr, who felt guilty about earning so much money in Hollywood while millions of people in Europe and elsewhere suffered in wartime, wanted to make a contribution to the defeat of the Nazis. She talked about another femme fatale, Mata Hari (Margaretha Zelle ), who had been both a seductress and a military expert, although her plans had turned out badly.

Antheil quickly became aware that Lamarr had amassed considerable knowledge about armaments and weapons systems during her years as the wife of a leading arms manufacturer in Austria. She revealed to him her desire to quit MGM and move to Washington, D.C., to work for the National Inventors' Council, an organization newly established to facilitate inventions useful for national defense. Antheil dissuaded Lamarr from leaving California, arguing that she could do more good boosting the nation's morale by remaining in Hollywood. So Lamarr worked at the Hollywood Canteen, entertaining soldiers, and sold war bonds on nationwide tours (she told a Philadelphia crowd that she was just "a gold digger for Uncle Sam," and on one evening alone sold $7 million in war bonds).

Working intensively with Antheil over a period of several weeks, Lamarr explained her idea. Ships under attack often wasted several torpedoes before they hit a target. Such wastage not only endangered the vessel, but it benefited the enemy and munitions barons like her ex-husband Fritz Mandl. Lamarr proposed to Antheil that they work on a design for a radio-controlled torpedo that could successfully respond to shifting targets, unstable weather conditions, and rising and falling tides. The Germans had successfully circumvented radio-controlled missiles by jamming them; Lamarr wanted to come up with an anti-jamming device. The actress and the composer proved to be an ideal inventing team: Lamarr had both a natural bent for technology and considerable information from her years with Mandl, and Antheil was an artist with a strong interest in modern inventions. In his most famous composition, the controversial Ballet Mecanique, Antheil had solved the complex problems of command and control—synchronizing a musical composition performed by 16 player pianos—by use of punched tape.

"A simple radio signal sent to control a torpedo was too easy to block," writes Elizabeth Weise . "But what if the signal hopped from frequency to frequency at split-second intervals? Anyone trying to listen in or jam it would hear only random noise… but if the sender and the receiver were hopping in synch, the message would come through loud and clear." Basically, the Lamarr-Antheil idea boiled down to this communication process known as "frequency hopping" across 88 radio frequencies that enabled transmitter and receiver to be fully synchronized. In their team effort, it was Lamarr who brought up the idea of radio control of the weapon, while Antheil's contribution was to suggest the specific method of coordination of signals. By December 1940, they had sent a description of their system to the National Inventors' Council in Washington, D.C. In their application for a joint patent for a "Secret Communication System," filed on June 10, 1941, the invention used slotted paper rolls similar to player piano rolls to synchronize the frequency changes in transmitter and receiver (the fact that the idea called for the use of 88 frequencies also links it to musical-technological origins, an obvious reminder of the exact number of keys found on a piano). With some technical assistance from a professor at the California Institute of Technology, the final details of the invention were worked out, and it was specified in the patent application's description that the torpedo could be steered to its target by a high-altitude observation plane. When the patent was granted on August 11, 1942, Hedy Lamarr was listed as "H.K. Markey"—a name she retained although she had already been divorced for two years from her second husband, Hollywood writer and producer Gene Markey.

National Science Foundation">

I was a 15-year-old fussing around with a crystal radio set just trying to get a signal in 1941 and, here she was, intellectually articulating a control mechanism for torpedo guidance systems.

—David Hughes, National Science Foundation

In the bureaucratic chaos of wartime, the Lamarr-Antheil patent gathered dust in a Washington file. Apparently, some Navy people who read the patent papers hastily concluded, after seeing the word "player piano" in the text, that somehow a device as bulky as a player piano would have to be jammed into a torpedo. After two decades, the inventors' patent rights to exclusive use or licensing of the device expired. Neither Lamarr nor Antheil, who died in 1959, would ever earn a cent from their invention. Although shunned by the U.S. Navy, the basic Lamarr-Antheil concept had been a sound one, and in 1957 it was reviewed by engineers at the Sylvania Electronic Systems Division in Buffalo, New York. Using modern electronics rather than piano rolls, Sylvania's engineering staff created a system that emerged as a basic tool for secure military communications. It was installed in time to be utilized on American ships sent to enforce a blockade on Cuba in 1962 during the missile crisis, using mainframe computers to protect U.S. military messages from the Soviets.

The essential principle of the Lamarr-Antheil Communication System remains valid. Microchips and digital signal processing have made the technique ready for a mass market, and, by relying on state-of-the-art spread-spectrum technology, it enables mobile telephone transmitters to serve ever more customers. These networks function in principle on the idea first developed by Lamarr and Antheil. Instead of sending a signal on a single frequency, however, the transmitter sends a signal over hundreds of frequencies in coded form. Since the receiver also recognizes the same code, it accepts only that one signal, thus enabling many cellular phones in the same crowded area to receive signals that do not interact with each other. Technological descendants of their original 1942 patent are also used to speed satellite signals across the globe, and frequency hopping remains at the heart of the $25 billion Milstar defense communication satellite system. Although in the final decades of her life, stories appeared occasionally in the media about Hedy Lamarr's inventive talents, it was not until 1997 that she (and, posthumously, George Antheil) were given official recognition for this important discovery. In that year, she received a prestigious Pioneer Award from the Electronic Frontier Foundation. Her only comment on this occasion was, "It's about time."

In 1943, Lamarr began a three-year marriage to her third husband, British actor John Loder, with whom she had a daughter, Denise Hedwig Loder , and a son, Anthony John Loder. She had earlier adopted a son, James Markey, while married to Gene Markey. Lamarr was increasingly frustrated in her film roles. In the 1942 film White Cargo, she played a seductress on a plantation in a British African colony. Her line "I am Tondelayo" became perfect foil for comedians including Jack Benny, who created a character on his radio show named Tondelayo Schwartzkopf, an imaginary salesgirl. In one of her best-known roles, as Delilah in Cecil B. De Mille's 1949 Biblical epic Samson and Delilah (co-starring Victor Mature), she wore a clinging gown made out of feathers from De Mille's personal collection of prize peacocks.

By the early 1950s, starring roles were getting more difficult for Lamarr to find, and she sometimes turned down important roles she did not care for, including one in De Mille's circus epic, The Greatest Show on Earth. After divorcing Loder, she married and divorced ex-bandleader Ted Stauffer, and then married a Texas oil refiner, W. Howard Lee. She persuaded Lee to bankroll an Italian-made epic, Eterna Femmina, a film in which she portrayed in fantasy episodes such important historical women as Helen of Troy, the Empress Josephine , and Genevieve de Brabant . A financial disaster, the film turned up on television years later, drastically cut, under a new title, The Love of Three Queens. Lamarr's final appearances on film, in the late 1950s, included her roles in The Story of Mankind, in which she shared the spotlight with the Marx Brothers and Ronald Colman, among others. In 1957, she gave a critically well-received performance in The Female Animal, playing a drunken film star on the skids. Still beautiful at the end of her movie career, she disappointed her many fans when in years to come it became clear that her Hollywood days were over.

Lamarr had divorced W. Howard Lee by 1960. Soon after, she married Lewis Boies, the lawyer who had represented her during the acrimonious divorce from Lee. Like all of her other marriages, this too soon failed, lasting less than two years. By this time, she was no longer a wealthy woman. Lamarr spent considerable sums of money on legal fees, exhibiting as early as the 1940s a tendency toward litigiousness. (In 1943, she sued Loews and MGM because they had failed to pay her $2,000 a week as specified in her contract. Her employers argued that a wartime executive order issued by Franklin D. Roosevelt limiting all salaries to $25,000 a year tied their hands in the matter. Lamarr persisted and the parties finally settled out of court.) In 1966, she made headlines when she went on trial in Los Angeles on a charge of shoplifting from a local department store. She was found not guilty by the jury, and a suit she initiated against the store was dismissed. (During an interview with syndicated columnist Sheilah Graham , Lamarr answered her own rhetorical question: "What happened to me? I made $7 million and yet I was on relief and they gave me all of $48 a week.")

The best known of her lawsuits was that which Lamarr directed against the publisher and ghostwriter of her spicy 1966 autobiography, Ecstasy and Me: My Life as a Woman. In her suit, she alleged that both publisher and writer had presented a negative image of her life by having "deliberately written [a book that was] obscene, shocking, scandalous, naughty, wanton, fleshy, sensual, lecherous, lustful and scarlet." The case dragged out for years, and she eventually lost the lawsuit and a great deal of money. She found solace in her children and in a new passion, painting. Some of her canvases were highly regarded and exhibited in New York galleries. In 1991, living modestly on a very tight budget in Florida, Lamarr was once more in lurid headlines when she was accused of shoplifting $21 worth of personal-care items from a drugstore.

Hedy Lamarr had achieved star status without ever appearing in an indisputably immortal motion picture. "To be a star is to own the world and all the people in it," she noted. "After a taste of stardom, everything else is poverty." The extraordinary beauty from Vienna, a gifted inventor and one of the last survivors of a legendary era of Hollywood stars, died in her modest Florida home in January 2000.


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John Haag , Associate Professor of History, University of Georgia, Athens, Georgia

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Lamarr, Hedy (1913–2000)

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