Snippet of History's Women: The Arts: Hedy Lamarr – Exotic Actress and Inventor

History's Women: The Arts: Hedy Lamarr - Exotic Actress and InventorHedy Lamarr
Exotic Actress and Inventor
1914–2000 A.D.

Back in the so-called Golden Age of Hollywood in the 1930s many attractive young American and European women often sought fame and fortune with a Hollywood movie contract. Actually nationality didn’t matter since the common connection was that they all had to be beautiful. And one of these was an Austrian actress whose beauty was not only exotic, and who also had a “past” since she’d appeared in a film with erotic scenes. However there was more to Hedwig Kiesler—Hedy Lamarr. She was also an inventor—of a device that if put to use might well have saved lives in World War II.

Born in 1914 in Vienna, Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler was the daughter of a banker and a former concert pianist who was from an aristocratic Hungarian Jewish family. Even from childhood young Miss Kiesler was interested in acting and music on film and at age 12 won a beauty contest. She also became interested in electronic technology.

To pursue her interest in a film career she got a minor job with a film company, and then advanced to being an extra, then assuming more important roles. Then came the film role that would bring her international notice.

This 1933 film was Ecstasy and became well known, but what set it apart was not just Miss Kiesler’s beauty, but also her appearance in several erotic scenes. As it was distributed, the film became popular but not especially in the U.S. where it did not pass American code requirements, that rejected distasteful film subjects. So Ecstasy was not shown for several years in the U.S. and even then in obscure venues.

Yet besides Miss Kiesler’s film roles, she also appeared on the stage and one performance in Vienna attracted more than audiences or critics, but also the interest of Friedrich Mandl, a wealthy munitions manufacturer.

The young actress found his attentions appealing and flattering, though her parents were concerned about Mandl’s connection to European dictators such as Mussolini, and later Hitler. However, they were married in 1933 and according to her later account she found her new husband to be controlling and limiting. He was particularly condemning about her appearance in Ecstasy—so much that later he attempted to buy up every available copy of the film. She later related that he kept her a virtual prisoner in their home.

Mandl’s business meant that he frequently entertained lavishly and that of course required his wife to be in attendance. Also, they also attended many technical conferences where Mrs. Mandl could continue her interest in technology.

Then in 1937 as she found marriage to Mandl to be so unbearable that she decided to leave him, and according to her later account, she disguised herself as a maid and escaped to Paris to later obtain a divorce. Another account told how just before she left she wore all her jewelry to a dinner party and then disappeared when it was over. She later wrote: “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.”

Once in London, the escapee encountered an American movie executive, Louis B. Mayer, head of MGM studios who was in Europe to sign new talent. He signed her to a contract, and once in Hollywood her name was changed to Hedy (possibly a shortened form of her own first name), and Lamarr after a formerly popular silent film star. Name changes were not unusual in Hollywood, but in this case it helped to distance her from threats from her husband, and also perhaps to hamper identification for her being in the Ecstasy film.

Once in Hollywood the newly named Hedy Lamarr began her movie career and an early film brought her new public attention. This was Algiers with Charles Boyer and the implication was that she was similar to other beautiful European stars such as Greta Garbo or Marlene Dietrich. Indeed, her unusual beauty soon entranced audiences.

However, her striking appearance and her early films had another possibly unwelcome side effect—she became typecast as not a talented actress—but as a glamorous exotic figure. Other roles were with Clark Gable in 1940’s Boom Town as then a more comedic role in Comrade X.

Perhaps her best known role was as the exotic “seductress” Tondelayo in 1942’s White Cargo. The plot was set in pre-World War I Africa on a rubber plantation and Lamarr’s character “Tondelayo” in the original play was an African native. However, since in the story she was to marry one of the white men there and since interracial relationships were definitely taboo at the time according to movie production codes, Lamarr was written as an Arab. Her character was indeed beautifully exotic, but also very materialistic, always seeking expensive gifts. Her first appearance in the film has her enter through dim light, where she appears in shadow behind a curtain.

After the war Lamarr appeared in other films but her most successful came in 1950 when she appeared in Samson and Delilah—a film that won two Oscars. Other popular roles were in a Western with Ray Milland and a Bob Hope spy spoof My Favorite Spy.

Publicly she was a glamorous movie star, but intimates knew her as a humorous, down to earth person who was far more than just a beautiful face. In fact she had a practical attitude and played the sultry roles but found them amusing. She has been quoted as saying, “Any girl can be glamorous. All she has to do is stand still and look stupid.”

During her marriage to Mandl she had accompanied him to events where she soon became interested in technological devices. As author Martin put it, “Hedy was a quick learner, and having nothing better to do so, she listened as Mandl discussed weapons with his customers and technicians. She soon knew the intricate workings of Mandl’s products—shells, grenades, and military aircraft.”

In 1940 Lamarr attended a dinner party in Hollywood, where she met composer George Anthiel, who used electronic effects with his music. They met at other events, and began to discuss the wartime events in Europe, and the subject turned to use of electronics in submarine warfare with torpedoes. Lamarr knew a great deal from what she’d learned during her time with Mandl, and she could explain how torpedoes were guided through the water by radio signals, but that there was always the chance that the enemy might jam the signals and divert the torpedo. To Lamar the solution was ”frequency hopping” where the signals were changed so quickly that enemies were unable to focus on one frequency. As Martin put it, “Attempts to jam the signals would be useless, since even if an enemy blocked one frequency that would only disrupt a tiny part of the transmission.” Anthiel became intrigued and had the expertise to work out a system of how to implement the idea.

Eventually they sent a description of the idea to the National Inventors Council and with their assistance; they applied for a patent that was granted in 1942. However, when they approached the U.S. Navy the idea was rejected because it was deemed impractical, and it was suggested that Lamarr stick to her movie work, saying she could do better by use her celebrity to sell war bonds. She responded by selling $7 million in War Bonds in one evening—but the invention was not used.

As it turned out, advances in the post-war period enabled the idea of the invention to become more practical. However, though their patent expired in 1959 the pair never made any money on the idea. Though Lamarr later expressed disappointment at no payment, a few years before her death in 2000 she did receive several prestigious awards for her invention. (Anthiel had passed away in 1959 so his award was posthumous).

After retiring from the screen, Lamarr at times was in the public eye, and at other times was a recluse. She became a U.S. citizen in 1953 and her autobiography Ecstasy and Me was published in 1966, though she disavowed many of the facts in the book. She accused the ghost writer of creative plagiarism from other sources.

By the 1970s she became more of a recluse, though she was offered several projects but none were of interest. Then In 1981 Lamarr became so much of a recluse that she seemed only to communicate by means of telephone calls to family and friends, often talking up to several hours a day—but almost never in person. She died in Florida on January 19, 2000 of heart disease.


Anne Adams is a retired church staffer. She lives in East Texas and has an historical column for a local newspaper. She has published in Christian and secular publications for more than 40 years.

Paul Martin, The Lovely with the Lovely Brain – Hedwig KieslerSecret Heroes, Everyday Americans Who Shaped Our World, HarperCollins, 2012

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