Hedy Lamarr was a film actress of Jewish heritage during MGM’s “Golden Age.” Called “the most beautiful woman in the world” by MGM publicists, Lamarr shared the silver screen with stars like Clark Gable and Spencer Tracy. Yet Lamarr was much more than just a pretty face. She was also an inventor who is credited with inventing frequency-hopping technology.
Hedy Lamarr’s Early Life and Career
Hedy Lamarr was born Hedwig Kiesel on November 9, 1913 in Vienna, Austria. Her parents were Jewish, with her mother being a pianist and her father a successful banker. Lamarr’s father loved technology and would explain how everything from streetcars to printing presses worked. His influence no doubt led to Lamarr’s own enthusiasm for technology later in life.
As a teen Lamarr became interested in acting and in 1933 she starred in a film titled “Ecstasy.” She played a young wife, named Eva, who is trapped in a loveless marriage to an older man and who eventually begins an affair with a young engineer. The film generated controversy because it included scenes that would be tame by modern standards: a glance of Eva’s breasts, a shot of her running naked through the forest, and an up close shot of her face during a love scene.
Also in 1933 Lamarr married a wealthy, Vienna-based arms manufacturer named Friedrich Mandl. Their marriage was an unhappy one. Mandl was extremely possessive and isolated Lamarr from other people. She would later remark that during their marriage she was given every luxury except freedom (Barton, 49). Lamarr despised their life together and after attempting to leave him in 1936, fled in 1937 disguised as one of her maids.
The Most Beautiful Woman in the World
After Lamarr left Mandl she headed for the United States and once again pursued her interest in acting. Before long she changed her name from Hedwig Kiesel to Hedy Lamarr and signed a contract with the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) studio. MGM dubbed Lamarr “The Most Beautiful Woman in the World” and her first American film, Algiers, was a box office hit.
Lamarr went on to make many other films with Hollywood stars such as Clark Gable and Spencer Tracy (Boom Town) and Victor Mature (Samson and Delilah). During this time period she married screenwriter Gene Markey, though their relationship ended in divorce in 1941.
Lamarr would eventually have six husbands in all. After Mandl and Markey, she married John Lodger (1943-47, actor), Ernest Stauffer (1951-52, restaurateur), W. Howard Lee (1953-1960, Texas oilman) and Lewis J. Boies (1963-1965, lawyer). Lamarr had two children with her third husband, John Lodger - a daughter named Denise and a son named Anthony. Hedy kept her Jewish heritage a secret throughout her life. In fact, it was only after her death that her children learned they were Jewish (Rhodes, 9).
The Invention of Frequency Hopping
One of Lamarr’s greatest regrets was that people rarely recognized her intelligence. “Any girl can be glamorous,” she once said. “All you have to do is stand still and look stupid” (Rhodes, 3).
Lamarr was a naturally gifted mathematician and during her marriage to Mandl had become familiar with concepts related to military technology. This background came to the fore in 1941 when Lamarr came up with the concept of frequency hopping. At the time radio-guided torpedoes did not have a high success rate when it came to hitting their targets during World War II. Lamarr thought frequency hopping would make it harder for enemies to detect a torpedo or intercept its signal. She shared her idea with a composer named George Antheil (who at one time had been a government inspector of US munitions) and together they submitted her idea to the U.S. Patent Office. In 1942 the patent was granted to Antheil and Lamarr under her married name “Hedy Kiesler Markey.”
Though Lamarr concept would ultimately revolutionize technology at the time the military did not want to accept military advice from a Hollywood starlet. As a result, her idea was not put into practical use until the 1960’s after her patent had expired. Today Lamarr’s concept is the basis of spread-spectrum technology, which is used for everything from Bluetooth and Wi-Fi to satellites and wireless phones.
Later Life and Death
Lamarr’s film career began to slow in the 1950’s. Her last movie was The Female Animal with Jane Powell. In 1966 she published an autobiography titled “Ecstasy and Me,” which went on to become a best seller. She also received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
In the early 1980’s Lamarr moved to Florida where she died on January 19, 2000 at the age of 86. She was cremated and her ashes were scattered in the Vienna Woods.
- Rhodes, Richard. “Hedy's Folly: The Life and Breakthrough Inventions of Hedy Lamarr, the Most Beautiful Woman in the World.” Vintage Books: New York, 2011.
- Barton, Ruth. “Hedy Lamarr: The Most Beautiful Woman in Film.” The University Press of Kentucky: Lexington, 2010.