Hedy Lamarr was known in Hollywood as "the most beautiful woman in the world," and she also invented the technology that ultimately led to WiFi.
Once an epoch, a beauty is born that is so clear and rich that it short-circuits all other perceptions or logic. For instance, Helen of Troy, Mata Hari, and of course, Hedy Lamarr.
The Austrian-born actress dropped jaws and expectations wherever she went; in midcentury America, a woman that beautiful was seldom taken seriously. “American men, as a group, seem to be interested in only two things, money, and breasts,” she was quoted saying, “It seems a very narrow outlook.” Narrow indeed.
Beneath her jet-colored bob ticked a mind of science, forever dissecting, analyzing, and forecasting. Her first-rate mind would create technology that perhaps outwitted the Nazis and certainly did lead to today’s technology for Bluetooth and Wifi.
Hedy Lamarr’s Early Life
Hedwig Kiesler was born into the gilded world of belle-epoque Vienna in 1914. On the cusp of World War I, the Austrian capital swirled with art and music and philosophy. Lamarr’s father, Emil, was a successful banker and her mother, Gertrud, was a concert pianist. The family had roots from Spain to Hungary and shared the Jewish faith.
The beloved daughter no doubt developed a taste for the arts and was unsurprisingly drawn to the glow of the Austrian cinema scene.
In addition to the arts, the spark of Lamarr’s scientific curiosity can also be traced back to her childhood. Her father shared her fascination for technology and science and would often dissect the machinations of the world around them with his little raven-haired daughter.
That curious girl became a woman who could turn heads even in cosmopolitan Vienna. She decided to try her hand at acting, winning bit parts, until she caught her big break.
This modest early success led to a film that would shock the world — 1933’s Ekstase, or Ectasy. Lamarr’s character, Eva, was a bride blushing in hope and nuptial novelty when she discovered that her husband had very little appetite for physical affection. Unable to be intimate with her husband, Eva returned to her family’s estate and found comfort, and her passion, in the arms of the blue-collar Adam. Finding her spirit, but losing her husband in the process, Lamarr’s character learned that fulfillment comes at a price.
Lamarr’s portrayal of Eva was racy even for the relatively unbuttoned pre-World-War-II Austria. In one scene, her horse absconds with her clothing and she’s forced to tear through the fields after him in the nude. Lamarr also portrayed what may be the first female orgasm captured on theatrical film.
“Pope Pius XI denounced it, but Mussolini issued a permit so that it could be shown at the Venice Film Festival. It won no awards there but attracted attentive audiences, most of them men,” read Lamarr’s New York Times obituary.
Lamarr’s popularity with male audiences and dictators — a connection that would prove prescient — went on to titillate and shock film-goers even though her performances were so often decried in conservative America under the Hays Code. Even after Lamarr ingratiated herself into Hollywood, she’d often be referred to as “the Ecstasy girl.”
With her career just budding, Lamarr caught the eye of another up-and-coming Austrian: 30-something Friedrich Mandl, known as Fritz, a semi-notorious arms dealer. He showered Lamarr with roses and gifts, and eventually, the two were engaged.
Mandl and Lamarr shared many qualities: Austrian roots, a Jewish origin, and a strong thirst to make a dent on the world. Mandl’s ambition manifested in acquiring and selling arms mostly to Europe’s strongmen like Benito Mussolini and Adolf Hitler. His profession rankled Lamarr’s parents, but the 19-year-old starlet followed her own current and married Mandl anyway.
Happily ever after seemed not too distant to young Lamarr, basking in Mandl’s affluence at his country estate, attention and gifts poured on her. Yet, she soon intuited that Mandl wasn’t seeking a partner but rather another collectible to store in his villa near the Czech border.
“I knew very soon that I could never be an actress while I was his wife,” Lamarr remembered, according to Hedy’s Folly: The Life and Breakthrough Inventions of Hedy Lamarr, The Most Beautiful Woman in The World by Richard Rhodes.”He was the absolute monarch in his marriage,” she once said. “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.”
Lamarr was right and Mandl soon became obsessed over tracking down and destroying copies of Ecstasy, confining his wife on screen and in reality to his property.
Draped in beautiful clothes and starved of any challenge, Lamarr played the part of dutiful trophy wife night after night sharing candlelit dinners with the brutes her husband armed. Lamarr may have been masked in rouge and silk, but her clockwork mind absorbed these dull dinners and filed them away.
Much like her character Eva, She began to ache to escape her glittering boredom — and she did.
The story of how Lamarr escaped her marriage to Mandl takes many forms. In one version, she begs a British officer who was visiting to help her flee. Mandl later came into her room, insisting that she listen to a new record he’d found. Instead of the waft of violins or early jazz, she heard her own voice pleading with the officer. Mandl had bugged the room and thwarted her.
In another, she’d drugged a maid and escaped in her clothes. Yet another iteration has her convincing her husband to allow her to sport every piece of jewelry she owned to dinner and slipped out after. Lamarr was a born exaggerator.
However she did it, Lamarr did manage to flee and found a temporary haven in Paris in 1937. Mandl had no intention of letting her go and she received word he planned to collect his trophy wife there. Lamarr kept on moving until she reached London and it was there that she had a star-crossed meeting that changed her life.
An Ocean Crossing And A Career Made
Louis B. Mayer was scouting for talent in Europe when he met an Austrian actress that seemed to be carved from marble. Lowballing her, he offered $125 a week. Lamarr, as always, knew her worth and rejected it.
The tenacious Viennese took charge as she often did and booked passage on Mayer’s return ship to America, posing as a nanny. Not quite fluent in English yet, by the time the ship docked, every man on board was more than half in love with her and she’d convinced Mayer to take her on at $500 a week.
As she stepped onto American soil, she was reborn as Hedy Lamarr, either named for the late silent film star Barbara La Marr or for the French term for the sea itself, la mer.
Lamarr more or less instantly lit up Hollywood. Her first American film, Algiers in 1938 was a massive success and was said to have later inspired Casablanca. Lamarr then found a niche as the untouchable European, similar to Greta Garbo or Marlene Dietrich, whose look-but-don’t-touch air belied inner passion. She’d oscillate between this and “exotic temptress” roles for most of Hollywood, such as in White Cargo, where she plays a mixed-race Jezebel-type clad in skins.
Not enjoying resting on her laurels, she tried to find her light with films like Tortilla Flat and Boom Town playing a more rounded character in both, but Hollywood seemed intent on portraying her only as a princess or a temptress.
Lamarr once mused: “The brains of people are more interesting than the looks I think.”
Finally, A Mind At Work
Safe in the hills of Hollywood, news of Nazi abominations in her homeland and throughout the world inspired Lamarr’s tinkering. She wanted to give her adoptive country an edge in the war in a way that the Axis powers couldn’t crack.
She tapped into the mindset of the enemy, likely recalling the endless candlelit dinners with warlords and dictators she endured at the behest of her arms-dealing husband.
She teamed up with musician George Antheil to manifest a technology that would change the world, called “frequency hopping.” It was a secret code in which a radio’s transmitter and receiver would beam a frequency unreadable to anyone without the code. The sender and receiver would alternate frequencies on the shared random code, guaranteeing secrecy.
Like the inventors, the concept had roots in the arts and entertainment. The frequencies floated in the air like music waves and the concept of twin codes that swapped the signal as they went echoed that of player pianos’ scored music.
Frequency hopping was designed to combat Nazi intelligence intercepting American missiles. If the Nazis couldn’t read the frequency, their warships wouldn’t be able to dodge the incoming blast.
The military shelved the brilliant design which could have saved lives and ended the war. Everyone seemed content to let the glamorous star help with the war effort by pitching in at the Hollywood Canteen rather than to pioneer tech innovations.
Lamarr and Antheil’s plan wouldn’t see the light of day for many years, but would still serve to change the world.
Lamarr’s Later Life And Scientific Legacy
One of Lamarr’s most telling philosophies was: “Any girl can be glamorous. All you have to do is stand still and look stupid.”
Sadly, this was her legacy for many decades. The screen goddess left behind a string of six husbands and a difficult domestic life. She and her first son, James, effectively ended contact during his childhood and he was raised by another family. She was treated as a joke for most of the second half of the 20th century for a litigious reputation, self-seclusion, and a shoplifting scandal in the 60s. She died in her Florida home in 2000.
But Lamarr’s genius did have a second life. The frequency-hopping technology was applied during the Cuban Missile Crisis and later was adapted to create the WiFi and Bluetooth that have today shaped the world. Eventually, her intellect was reunited with her name.
In 2014, she was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame and dozens of articles, books, plays, and documentaries have since shone the light on her mind instead of her appearance.
Hedy Lamarr played many roles, most of which did not measure up to the woman behind them. But one role captured her in a prescient way and most certainly not on purpose. In Ziegfeld Girl, Lamarr portrays a glamorized and gauzy 1940s-modern. She wears a headdress of stars. As dazzling as they are, their wattage is dim compared to what was inside.