Hand color tinted photo of Hedy Lamarr from the 1942 movie, Tortilla Flat
Hedy Lamarr (9 November 1913 – 19 January 2000) was an Austro-American actress and mathematician, celebrated for her great beauty, who was a major contract star of MGM’s “Golden Age.”
Mathematically talented, Lamarr and composer George Antheil invented an early technique for spread spectrum communications and frequency hopping, necessary for wireless communication from the pre-computer age to the present day.
When she worked with Max Reinhardt in Berlin, he called her the “most beautiful woman in Europe” due to her “strikingly dark exotic looks,” a sentiment widely shared by her audiences and critics. She gained fame after starring in Gustav Machatý’s Ecstasy, a film which featured closeups of her character during orgasm in one scene, as well as full frontal nude shots of her in another scene, both very unusual for the socially conservative period in which the bulk of her career took place.
In early 1933 Lamarr starred in Gustav Machatý’s film, Ecstasy, (Extase in German and Czech), which was filmed in Prague, Czechoslovakia. Lamarr’s role was that of a neglected young wife married to an indifferent older man. The film became notorious for Lamarr’s face in the throes of orgasm filmed in close-up and her full nudity in scenes where she is seen swimming and running through the woods. Friedrich Mandl, her first husband, objected to what he felt was exploitation of his wife, and “the expression on her face” during the simulated orgasm. He purportedly bought up as many copies of Ecstasy as he could find in an attempt to restrict its public viewing. In an autobiography of Lamarr written in later years, she insists that all sexual activity in the film was simulated; the orgasm achieved using “method acting reality.” The authenticity of passion was attained by the film director’s off-screen manipulation of a safety pin strategically poking her bottom.
The 19-year old Lamarr had married Mandl, a man 13 years her senior on August 10, 1933. Friedrich Mandl, reputed to be the third richest man in Austria was a munitions manufacturer. In her autobiography Ecstasy and Me, Lamarr described Mandl as an extremely controlling man who prevented her from pursuing her acting career and kept her a virtual prisoner, confined to their castle home, “Schloss Schwarzenau.” Though half-Jewish, Mandl had close social and business ties to the fascist governments of Italy and Germany, selling munitions to Mussolini. In Ecstasy and Me, Lamarr wrote that both Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini attended the lavish parties they hosted in their home. Mandl had Lamarr accompany him to business meetings where he conferred with scientists and other professionals involved in military technology. These conferences became Lamarr’s introduction to the field of applied science and the ground that nurtured her latent talent in the scientific field.
Lamarr’s marriage to Mandl became insupportable for her and she devised a ruse to separate herself from both the marriage and the country. In Ecstasy and Me, she claimed to have disguised herself as her own maid and fled to Paris. Rumors stated that Lamarr persuaded Mandl to let her wear all of her jewelry for a dinner, then disappeared.
First she went to Paris, then met Louis B. Mayer in London. Mayer hired her and insisted that she change her name to Hedy Lamarr—she had been known as “the Ecstasy lady”—choosing the surname in homage to a beautiful film star of the silent era, Barbara La Marr, who had died in 1926 from tuberculosis. She received good reviews for her American film debut in Algiers (1938) with Charles Boyer, who asked that Lamarr be cast after meeting her at a party. In Hollywood, she was invariably cast as the archetypal glamorous seductress of exotic origins. Lamarr played opposite the era’s most popular leading men. Her many films include Boom Town (1940) with Clark Gable and Spencer Tracy, Comrade X with Gable, White Cargo (1942), and Tortilla Flat (1942) with Tracy and John Garfield, based on the novel by John Steinbeck. In 1941, Lamarr was cast alongside two other Hollywood stars, Lana Turner and Judy Garland in the musical extravaganza Ziegfeld Girl.
White Cargo, one of Lamarr’s biggest hits at MGM, contains, arguably, her most memorable film quote delivered with hints of a provocative invitation: “I am Tondelayo. I make tiffin for you?” Lamarr made 18 films from 1940 to 1949 even though she had two children during that time (in 1945 and 1947). After leaving MGM in 1945, she enjoyed her biggest success as Delilah in Cecil B. DeMille’s Samson and Delilah, the highest-grossing film of 1949, with Victor Mature as the Biblical strongman. However, following her comedic turn opposite Bob Hope in My Favorite Spy (1951), her career went into decline. She appeared only sporadically in films after 1950, one of her last roles being that of Joan of Arc in Irwin Allen’s critically panned epic The Story of Mankind (1957).
Frequency-hopping spread-spectrum invention
Avant garde composer George Antheil, a son of German immigrants and neighbor of Lamarr, had experimented with automated control of musical instruments, including his music for Ballet Mécanique, originally written for Fernand Léger’s 1924 abstract film. This score involved multiple player pianos playing simultaneously.
Together, Antheil and Lamarr submitted the idea of a secret communication system in June 1941. On August 11, 1942, U.S. Patent 2,292,387 was granted to Antheil and “Hedy Kiesler Markey,” Lamarr’s married name at the time. This early version of frequency hopping used a piano roll to change between 88 frequencies and was intended to make radio-guided torpedoes harder for enemies to detect or jam. Although a presentation of the technique was soon made to the U.S. Navy, it met with opposition and was not adopted.
The idea was not implemented in the USA until 1962, when it was used by U.S. military ships during a blockade of Cuba after the patent had expired. Perhaps owing to this lag in development, the patent was little known until 1997, when the Electronic Frontier Foundation gave Lamarr an award for this contribution. In 1998, Ottawa wireless technology developer Wi-LAN Inc. acquired a 49 percent claim to the patent from Lamarr for an undisclosed amount of stock (Eliza Schmidkunz, Inside GNSS). Antheil had died in 1959.
Lamarr’s and Antheil’s frequency-hopping idea serves as a basis for modern spread-spectrum communication technology, such as Bluetooth, COFDM used in Wi-Fi network connections, and CDMA used in some cordless and wireless telephones. Blackwell, Martin, and Vernam’s 1920 patent Secrecy Communication System (1598673) seems to lay the communications groundwork for Kiesler and Antheil’s patent, which employed the techniques in the autonomous control of torpedoes.
Lamarr wanted to join the National Inventors Council but was reportedly told by NIC member Charles F. Kettering and others that she could better help the war effort by using her celebrity status to sell War Bonds.
Lamarr became a naturalized citizen of the United States on April 10, 1953.
In 1966, Lamarr was arrested for shoplifting in Los Angeles. The charges were eventually dropped. In 1991, she was arrested on the same charge in Florida, this time for $21.48 worth of laxatives and eye drops. She pleaded “no contest” to avoid a court appearance, and in return for a promise to refrain from breaking any laws for a year, the charges were once again dropped.
According to her autobiography, Ecstasy and Me (1966), once while running away from Friedrich Mandl, she slipped into a brothel and hid in an empty room. While her husband searched the brothel, a man entered the room and she had sex with him so she could remain hidden. She was finally successful in escaping when she hired a new maid who resembled her; she drugged the maid and used her uniform as a disguise to escape. Lamarr later sued the publisher, saying that many of the anecdotes in the book, which was described by a judge as “filthy, nauseating, and revolting,” were fabricated by its ghost writer, Leo Guild. She was also sued in Federal Court by Gene Ringgold, who asserts that the actress’s autobiography contains material from an article he wrote about her for the magazine Screen Facts in 1965. The publication of her autobiography Ecstasy and Me (1967) took place about a year after accusations of shoplifting, and a year after Andy Warhol’s short film Hedy (1966), also known as The Shoplifter. The shoplifting charges coincided with a failed return to the screen in Picture Mommy Dead (1966). The role was ultimately filled by Zsa Zsa Gabor. Ecstasy and Me begins in a despondent mood, with this reference:
On a recent evening, sitting home alone suffering and brooding about my treatment at the police station because of an incident in a department store, and being replaced by Zsa Zsa Gabor in a motion picture (imagine how that pleased the ego!) I figured out that I had made – and spent – some thirty million dollars. Yet earlier that day I had been unable to pay for a sandwich at Schwab’s drug store.
The 1970s were a decade of increasing seclusion for Lamarr. She was offered several scripts, television commercials, and stage projects, but none inspired her interest. In 1974, Lamarr filed an invasion of privacy lawsuit to the tune of $10 million for the unauthorized use of her name in the Mel Brooks satire Blazing Saddles; the case was settled out of court. Tired of the life of a celebrity and with her eyesight failing, Lamarr retreated from public life and settled in Miami Beach, Florida, in 1981.
For several years beginning in 1997, the boxes of CorelDRAW’s software suites were graced by a large Corel-drawn image of Hedy Lamarr. The picture won CorelDRAW’s yearly software suite cover design contest in 1996. Lamarr sued Corel for using the image without her permission. Corel countered that she did not own rights to the image. The parties reached an undisclosed settlement in 1998.
For her contribution to the motion picture industry, Hedy Lamarr has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 6247 Hollywood Blvd.
Lamarr died in Casselberry, Florida, on January 19, 2000, aged 86, from natural causes. Her son Anthony Loder took her ashes to Austria and spread them in the Vienna Woods, in accordance with her last wishes.