Hedy Lamarr: The Pioneering Inventor That Hollywood Ignored

hedy lamarr

by Katie Rosseinsky |
Updated on

‘Any girl can look glamorous. All you have to do is stand still and look stupid.’ Coming as it did from the Disney princess lips of Hedy Lamarr (literally – her symmetrical features served as inspiration for Snow White) this might seem a surprising statement. After all, this was the woman who made glamour her profession, the actress who was billed by MGM Studios as ‘The Most Beautiful Woman in the World’ and set the gold standard for Hollywood looks (Vivien Leigh’s striking resemblance to Hedy, so the story goes, played no small part in her Gone With The Wind casting coup).

But while Hedy was undoubtedly glamorous, she certainly wasn’t stupid either. This was also the woman who, through her ground-breaking but over-looked research into ‘frequency hopping,’ shaped the Wi-Fi and Bluetooth technologies we use every day. As new documentary Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story suggests, everything about Hedy’s life was surprising. Everything, perhaps, except the part where her gender ensured she was repeatedly under-valued, side-lined, even ridiculed.

Born Hedwig Kiesler to a Jewish family in Vienna in 1914, Hedy’s first success – and notoriety – came courtesy of the 1933 German film Ecstasy, in which she became the first woman to appear completely naked on screen (her director allegedly jabbed her in the back with a needle to obtain the facial expressions required for her sex scene, an anecdote that grimly emphasizes just how long Hollywood has got off on the physical and psychological abuse of women). Shortly after, she embarked upon an unhappy marriage to Fritz Mandl, an Austrian arms dealer who supplied the Nazis with weapons and counted Mussolini as a dinner companion, eventually dressing as a maid to escape their home and flee to London. Here she met with MGM head Louis B. Mayer who, seeking another beautiful European cypher in the vein of Greta Garbo or Marlene Dietrich, gave her a shiny studio contract and a shiny new name, one that’d be more palatable to American movie-goers: Hedy Lamarr.

hedy lamarr
Hedy Lamarr at the height of her fame in 1940

Any of these incidents would be perfect fodder for a documentary, even a TV mini-series (paging Ryan Murphy…) but what follows is far more interesting. Keen to play a part in the war effort that would be less ‘trivial’ than her role as a morale-boosting pin-up girl, she became preoccupied with one question: how to prevent the Allies' radio-controlled torpedoes, from being blocked by the Nazis, and thus rendered entirely useless? With her friend George Antheil, an avant-garde composer, she devised a solution - randomly switching, or ‘hopping’ between radio frequencies to prevent the enemy from interpreting the signal. It was a ground-breaking discovery, and one that has since formed the basis of Wi-Fi, GPS and Bluetooth technology, yet it was dismissed by the US government at the time. Instead of adopting Hedy’s technique, they told the actress (who, as an Austrian emigrée, was officially classified as an alien) to get back to what they thought she did best: using her beauty to sell war bonds in the Hollywood Canteen (to her credit, she raised over $25 million, $340 in today’s money).

Her scientific work is not the only way in which Hedy was a glittering anomaly. From her forays into movie production in a time when female stars had little to no control of their own image (these days, actresses such as Reese Witherspoon and Angelina Jolie head up hugely successful production companies) to her unlikely status as the founder of Aspen’s ski resort, it’s hardly a stretch to suggest she was Hollywood’s first multi-hyphenate. For Bombshell director Alexandra Dean, it was always going to be Hedy’s endless creativity and ‘inventive mind’ that formed the crux of her film, rather than the soapier aspects of her life. ‘I wanted to see her life through that lens,’ she says. ‘So rather than being interested in her as an actress, which was a passive profession where she acted out other people’s words, I wanted to see her as a producer, where she tried to take agency and shape herself. She was always trying to invent ways to live her life in a unique fashion.’

On hand to draw parallels with contemporary Hollywood was executive producer Susan Sarandon. ‘That was the wonderful thing about working with Susan,’ Dean explains. ‘She would walk in and say, “Oh, this is something that still happens, or “You should write down what age she was when she said that, you won’t believe how young she was.” She was attuned to the story on a whole different frequency to me, because she was coming at it as a multi-hyphenate actress herself. I think she immediately understood that this was a story that needed to be championed.’

hedy lamarr

To date, Hedy’s story has formed the subject of just a handful of books and articles. For Dean, the process of piecing it together through film was ‘the world’s greatest treasure hunt,’ a search that started with her son Anthony Loder, who ‘had kept a room full of boxes of her letters and documents, tapes, microcassettes of anything she’d left on his voicemails,’ but eventually hit a stumbling block. As Dean puts it, ‘There wasn’t any good audio or video of Hedy talking about her inventions. Who would want to watch it without her telling us what actually happened?’ After compiling a list of ‘everyone alive that could have possibly talked to Hedy Lamarr,’ she got through to Fleming Meeks, a journalist who’d interviewed the star for a piece in Forbes magazine back in 1990. Crucially, he had asked her about her inventions – and, in a recording that lasted four cassette tapes (one has sadly been lost), the 76 year old actress had answered. ‘We ripped up the film that we were making six months in, and started again with these wonderful tapes,’ says Dean.

For Dean, her film is a portrait of a woman ‘who wanted to be both puppet and puppeteer, but was sometimes thwarted from being powerful in her own life.’ One of the many paradoxes of Hedy’s career is that her beauty may have formed a basis for her stardom, but it stopped others – from studio heads to US military intelligence to the movie-going public - from believing that she could ever do anything else with that stardom, to her endless frustration. Then, in the double bind that’s an all-too familiar narrative for Hollywood women, she was criticised for ageing but lampooned for her extensive plastic surgery. Eventually, she withdrew from public life, becoming a recluse. ‘People actually got angry with her for losing her looks, can you imagine?’ Dean says. ‘We know of all these Hollywood stars who ended up trapped in their homes because people couldn’t handle losing them as these beautiful icons, and blamed them for changing. Hedy was definitely a victim of that.’ Despite this, she still had her shot at turning this narrative on its head. Her plastic surgery became another outlet for her inventing and experimenting (often on herself – to varying effect), pioneering new techniques to hide scars from nips and tucks. ‘She tried to fight her way out of that like with everything in her life,’ adds the director. ‘People say to me, “Wasn’t the surgery such an admission of defeat, such a tragedy?” but not to my mind. It was her attempt to fight back. She was a legend in the plastic surgery world.’

It’s certainly frustrating that it’s taken decades for Hedy Lamarr to receive her dues, and while her story can’t fail to resonate in the era of #MeToo and Time’s Up, it’d be too reductive to see her as a Hollywood martyr. Towards the end of Bombshell, we hear Hedy read out a mantra: ‘The biggest people with the biggest minds can be shot down by the smallest people with the smallest minds. Think big anyway.’ It’s this vindication of creativity for creativity’s sake that Dean hopes will stay with her viewers. ‘What I really want people to take from the film is Hedy’s message – that idea that even if you are never recognized for your greatest achievements, which is how she felt, you must do it anyway. At the end of your life, when you’re looking back, is it the applause that matters, or what you did to try and change the world?’

Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story is released in cinemas on 9th March

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