Monday, March 12, 2018

Beautiful Face, Beautiful Mind: "Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story"


As a 5-year-old she completely took apart and put back together her toy music box. She was a child who was very close to her father, a bank director with an interest in inventing. Regularly during their walks through Vienna, where she was born in 1914, he would explain to her the inner workings of mechanical devices they encountered on these outings. She was captivated. And she became interested in inventing things herself; it came easily to her, she said.

Hedy Kiesler grew up to be beautiful, consummately beautiful. Aware of this and ambitious, she became an actress as a teenager and starred in a scandalous film titled Ecstasy in 1933. It made her an international sensation, for she appeared nude in the sexually implicit feature.

Hedy married her first husband, Fritz Mandl, an extremely wealthy arms manufacturer and prominent Austrian fascist, in 1933. She literally escaped this marriage a few years later by slipping out of their enormous mansion disguised as a maid. Still in her early 20s, she made her way to London and eventually sailed to the US in hopes of breaking into American movies; she was soon under contract to MGM. It was L.B. Mayer’s wife who suggested Hedy’s last name be changed to “Lamarr,” a nod to silent star Barbara Lamarr.

In 1938, MGM released a remake of French director Julien Duvivier’s classic work of poetic realism, Pepe le Moko (1937). Retitled Algiers the film starred Charles Boyer who chose Hedy, in her first assignment for MGM, as his leading lady; she became a star with the film's success.

Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story (2017), a documentary written and directed by Alexandra Dean and produced by Susan Sarandon, follows Lamarr’s life from early days in Vienna until her death in Florida in January 2000. While her early life, Hollywood career and later life are fascinating, it is her work as an inventor that is the main focus of the film. That a woman of her incredible beauty, glamour and fame first patented (with composer George Antheil) the concept, frequency hopping, so intimately connected to the development of WiFi, Bluetooth and GPS, may seem not only incongruous but also jaw-dropping. Yet it is true. The documentary traces Hedy’s initial interest in developing a frequency hopping spread spectrum signal during World War II as a means of ensuring that the signals that regulated radio-controlled torpedoes could not be jammed. She worked with Antheil on how her concept could be realized and their design was patented in 1942. It wasn’t until the mid-‘50s that the invention began to be applied, and it wasn’t until the 1990s that she began to be acknowledged for her ingenuity and profound contribution to improving wireless security.

Secret Communications System

Meanwhile, Hedy Lamarr’s career as an actress had gone through dramatic ups and downs, marriages came and went and, like so many of the famous and powerful of the mid-century era, she fell into the orbit of the notorious “Dr. Feelgood,” Max Jacobson. Dr. Jacobson told his patients that the elixir he injected into them was a “vitamin shot." In truth, he was shooting his clientele up with methamphetamine. According to her children, Lamarr’s behavior during this period was erratic and at times violent.

Then there were the shoplifting scandals (if only Winona Ryder had been aware of the fallout Hedy Lamarr suffered from these widely publicized incidents). And, in her very late years, she “closed the door,” disappeared into her home refusing to see anyone at all including family members and close friends. Like Marlene Dietrich and so many other vaunted beauties, the fading of her looks was devastating for her. She went under the knife repeatedly, excessively, and disastrously.

And yet, on the tapes she made in an interview with Forbes reporter Fleming Meeks in 1990, and in taped conversations with her son Anthony Loder, she is articulate, philosophical and seems reconciled to life’s unending “one damned thing after another” (Winston Churchill). Valued only for her looks, never receiving any financial compensation for her invention – and she went through a period of insolvency that brought on a nervous collapse – it all seems too much to bear. But she bore it, living to age 85, long enough to receive recognition, if not money, for her most successful invention, the "Secret Communications System."

Bombshell provides quite a bit more about Hedy Lamarr’s remarkable life. Currently in release around the country, the documentary is set to air on PBS later in 2018. Don’t miss it.

6 comments:

  1. I am looking for to seeing this. An amazing woman.

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    1. ...and more so than I described here, John. I didn't even touch on her role in the emergence of Aspen, CO, as a ski resort.

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  2. This is indeed an incredible story Lady Eve - thank you for highlighting this new documentary. It was at a party at Adrian's house that Hedy talked to George Antheil about this idea she had. She wrote her phone numer in lipstick on his car widshield. They later talked more and developed the frequency hopping ideas. George Antheil was interesting himself - having composed the "Ballet Mecanique" in Paris that caused riots.

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    1. I hope will see this film, Christian. The "lipstick on the windshield" incident is mentioned in the doc, and apparently one reason Hedy chose to collaborate with Antheil had to do with his knowledge of player pianos, the operation of which is connected to how their frequency hopping design functioned.

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  3. Hedy Lamar was a fascinating woman off-screen and on. I've always believed that the camera lens loved her like no other actress.

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    1. I agree, Rick. In the film, Mel Brooks talks about how dazzled he was by her as a young boy, thus "Hedley Lamarr" decades later...

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