The actress Hedy Lamarr (1914-2000) has always intrigued me. Her name was the same as my mother’s. Hedy, derived from either Hedwig or Hedvig was a name rarely given to babies born in the United States. The name peaked in the 1940′s, I’ll bet because of Ms. Lamarr.
I imagine that Hedy Lamarr’s fame somehow gave a boost to Hedy Johnson and her uncommon name. Not only that, we kids thought they looked very much alike. Perhaps that was a boost to us too.
What I didn’t realize until a few years ago was Hedy Lamarr’s World War II connection. Recently I saw that Extraordinary Women: Hedy Lamarr was scheduled to air on our PBS station.
Of course I had to watch it. The other Hedy.
Born in Vienna in 1913, Ms. Lamarr was named Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler by her Jewish parents.
My mother was born Hedvig (the Scandinavian version of the name) Elizabeth Johnson in 1921. She always liked to say that she was named after a Queen of Sweden.
Hedy Kiesler began her acting career in Europe as a teenager. She went to Berlin in 1931 and the next year was cast in the controversial Czech film Ecstasy. The movie is remembered for Hedy’s brief nude scenes and the one in which she has an orgasm. Only her face is shown but that was shocking to the audiences of the day. Ecstasy was banned in Germany and, of course, in America.
In 1933 she married Austrian Friedrich Mandl, a wealthy armaments dealer and prominent fascist. He forbade his trophy bride to return to acting. At their mansion guests included such dignitaries as Sigmund Freud and Benito Mussolini. The more Hitler’s oppressive policies increased, the more Hedy hated her husband’s dealings with him and his cronies. In the summer of 1937 she fled to London taking with her the valuable jewels Mandl had given her.
Once in London Hedy learned that MGM head Louis B. Mayer was scouting for top European actors who had fled from Germany. She met him and managed to get aboard the ocean liner he was taking to return to New York. During the voyage Mayer agreed to give Hedy a contract, but she had to change her German Jewish name to something more suitable, more “Hollywood.” Thus, Hedy Lamarr.
In spite of immediate stardom in her new home country, Ms. Lamarr was unable to fully enjoy her success knowing what was happening to fellow Austrians, her Jewish neighbors and family. Once the U.S. was officially at war, she jumped right in to help the government sell war bonds. She also served food and danced with the troops at the Hollywood Canteen.
Then, distressed by the reports of the German U-boats sinking Allied ships and prevented critical supplies from getting to Europe, Hedy teamed up with a talented musical composer, George Antheil, to develop a radio-controlled communication system which would allow Allied submarines to accurately guide their torpedoes toward the enemy submarines. What? No one in Hollywood realized that Hedy Lamarr was an intellectual! During her marriage to Mandl she was in a position to sit back during gatherings at the mansion and absorb the technical conversations of some of the brightest minds of the day, those who were associated with her husband’s armaments’ firm.
Their invention received a patent in 1942 but was rejected by the U.S. government. Hedy Lamarr returned to her film career. The decade of the ’40s was her heyday! The glamorous brunette known as “The Most Beautiful Woman in Film,” starred alongside Hollywood’s leading actors … Clark Gable, Spencer Tracy, John Garfield, Victor Mature.
By the time the ’40s were over, Hedy had been married and divorced three times. Her beauty was fading, and so were her acting opportunities. Hollywood was leaning toward ravishing blonde bombshells, a la Marilyn Monroe, rather than exotic brunettes.
The rest of Hedy Lamarr’s life is told is several books. Six marriages in all, none of them lasting long. Botched plastic surgeries. Even an arrest for shoplifting. No money, poor health.
Then in the 1990s mobile phone developers needed a way for their wireless phones to communicate with each other without jamming. An updated version of Hedy and George Antheil’s patented invention became the basis for much of our wireless technology today!
Amazingly, once again, Hedy Lamarr was rich and famous. Not for her looks but for her genius.