Pretty in the Past: Hedy Lamarr

If there was anything Hedy hated to do, it was standing still and looking stupid. Onscreen Hollywood cast her as a series of foreign spies and alluring femme fatales, but in real life she was the world’s most beautiful nerd.

Sep 12, 2012 at 5:00pm | Leave a comment

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As a little girl, Hedy Kiesler dreamed of becoming a famous actress. By the time she was 16, everyone around her started to agree that her ambition was probably justified. Appearing on stage in Vienna, it was clear that she stood out from the other young ingénues. More than just pretty, her dark features held the promise of the kind of sensual beauty capable of inspiring reverence in almost everyone who came upon it. Smart directors immediately seized on this fact, most importantly Gustav Machatý, the German director who made 1933’s Ecstasy, the then-scandalous film that turned Hedy into an international star.

Marital troubles (her first husband, Friedrich Mandi, was a fascist arms manufacturer who futilely attempted to buy every available print of Ecstasy, so he could permanently destroy it) and world events kept her from Hollywood for the five years that followed her first success. When she eventually made her way to California, MGM made her change her last name to something they felt better fit her exotic appeal. As Hedy Lamarr, their publicity department ballyhooed her as “The Most Beautiful Woman in the World”. It wasn’t that hard to believe.

As stunning as she was when she appeared in Ecstasy, her five years away from the camera had allowed what had once been a promise to become a remarkable reality. Watching her first Hollywood film, Algiers, her close-ups are as powerful today as they were in 1938. They capture a face whose innate eroticism is balanced by its equally compelling weariness. This is not the face of an innocent, but of a survivor. It mesmerizes us as much with the secrets that linger under its surface as it does with its almost supernatural construction.

Her childhood dreams of stardom finally fulfilled, Hedy quickly found it wanting. She especially resented the constant attention paid to her looks, which she regarded as her least interesting attribute. In his 1962 book, The Stars, movie critic and film historian Richard Schickel quoted her thoughts on being a sex symbol—“Any girl can be glamorous. All you have to do is stand still and look stupid.”

If there was anything Hedy hated to do, it was standing still and looking stupid. Onscreen Hollywood cast her as a series of foreign spies and alluring femme fatales (such as the most famous of all biblical seductresses, which she played in her biggest hit, Samson and Delilah), but in real life she was the world’s most beautiful nerd. Fascinated by mathematics and science, she used her skills in these areas to work as an inventor whenever she wasn’t on set or posing for another photograph.

Having escaped from the Nazis, this daughter of assimilated Jewish parents wanted to find a way to help the American military, should it eventually get involved in the fight against the Axis powers. To that end, she devised a secret communication system that she believed would make radio-guided torpedoes much harder to intercept. With the help of the avant-garde composer George Antheil (Ballet Mécanique), Hedy created a method that allowed the process now called “frequency-hopping” to become possible to achieve.

They submitted their invention to the American patent office in June of 1941. A year later the patent was granted and by then the bombing of Pearl Harbor had brought the Americans into WWII. But the military wasn’t ready to accept an idea presented to them by a glamorous foreign-born movie star and offbeat musician, and they took little time in rejecting it. It would take 20 years—after the patent had expired—before the military finally appreciated the process’ potential usefulness and actually used it at sea.

Today, frequency-hopping is the underlying basis of Bluetooth, Wi-Fi and several other wireless technologies. This means that if you happen to be reading this post on your cell phone, you can at least partially thank the woman in the above photograph for helping to make this happen.

Beyond her most significant invention, Hedy would also—unknowingly—make a significant contribution to geek culture, via the comic book page. When Bob Kane and Bill Finger were looking for a female villain to pit against Batman in the first issue of his eponymous series, they created a stylish thief whose appearance was directly influenced by Lamarr’s onscreen persona. They named the character Catwoman. In recent interviews, Anne Hathaway has acknowledged the actress’ importance in the creation of the character and admitted that she copied some of Hedy’s onscreen mannerisms for her performance in The Dark Knight Rises.

Married six times (including a seven-year stint with W. Howard Lee, the Texas millionaire who would go on to also marry last week’s subject, Gene Tierney), Hedy had a rocky personal life once her film career ended. She was famously arrested twice for shoplifting in 1966 and 1991 and only occasionally came out of seclusion to sue people she felt were exploiting her name and image. In 1997, her secret life as an inventor was finally acknowledged when the Electronic Frontier Foundation presented her with an award for her work on her little-known patent. She died three years later at the age of 86.

It says something about the world that this woman who was blessed with such incredible beauty and remarkable intelligence still managed to struggle throughout much of her time in it. Some people never find a way to be comfortable inside their own skin, no matter how attractive and appealing it may be. It would be easy to say that Hedy Lamarr was a woman born in the wrong time, but I think that might be giving us more credit than we’re due. There are some things we are still reluctant to accept and I suspect one of them might be that a woman so beautiful could have so much more to offer below her extraordinary surface.

Picture Credit: Rex Features