There’s been a fair amount of buzz lately about a new documentary Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story revealing, among other things, that the actress was of Jewish ancestry (which she had denied for years); was in thrall to drugs and plastic surgery late in life; and that — she was a brilliant inventor.
This isn’t all new. Lamarr was indeed a smarty from Day One, something which initially complicated her movie ambitions.
Studio boss Louis B. Mayer had trouble figuring out Hedy Lamarr, the Austrian-born actress who broke so many Hollywood molds. As the unchallenged head of MGM, Mayer was long used to guiding and supervising the careers of countless American beauties — many from the sticks with minimal education — through the professional intricacies of “MGM University.”
But Hedy was not just another good looking, star struck babe from regional America. By the time she sat in Mayer’s Hollywood office for the first time — at the age of 23 — she had spent years leading the life of a sophisticated European aristocrat.
She was born in 1914 to a solidly bourgeois family that prized culture and the arts. Her father was a bank manager in Vienna. By 16, Hedy was already embarked on movie bit parts in silents produced at Vienna’s Sascha-Film Studio. Then that fateful journey to Prague in 1932.
She was offered a part in an Czech art film about a frustrated bride breaking free from a sexless marriage to an older man. The movie was title Ecstasy, and it involved full frontal nudity and scenes showing Hedy in the throes of intercourse with her young lover.
But then Hedy — at the ripe age of 19 — had married an enormously rich Viennese arms merchant with Nazi connections, one Friedrich Mandl, and quit acting. Hedy was Mandl’s trophy wife, and the couple lived super-lavishly.
More important, he subjected the young Hedy to countless business functions in which “fat bastards” (her words) would drone on and on about, among other things, how to design detection devices to listen to and jam radio signals that the American military used to communicate with one another. Hedy listened and learned.
Flash forward to 1940: Hedy’s career at MGM is being solidified with costarring roles (opposite Spencer Tracy) in such relatively sophisticated fare as I Take This Woman.
Not widely known is Lamarr’s years private work on a “frequency hopping” project that involves a methods of transmitting radio signals by rapidly switching a carrier among many frequency channels. Thus American radio-guided weapons would be resilient to detection by foreign enemies.
Hedy worked in combination with avant-garde composer George Antheil, 13 years her senior, and received a patent for their frequency hopping device. Despite the exigencies of World War II, U.S. military officials ignored the invention. It was long after the patent ran out that the device was finally used in the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. (Both Hedy and Antheil were posthumously inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 2014.)
Flashback: After she maritally freed herself of the dictatorial Mandl, Hedy wanted back into acting, and was interested in trying her luck in Hollywood. Assured MGM’s Mayer: You’re lovely, my dear, but I have the family point of view. At MGM we make clean pictures. We want our stars to lead clean lives. I don’t know what people would think about a girl who flits bare-assed around the screen.
Nonetheless Mayer, typically, came up with a low-ball contract offer. Hedy was insulted, and turned him down flat. Mayer, who liked feisty women, later reconsidered, and came up with an acceptable offer: $550 per week with options over seven years.
One condition — Hedy had to learn English, quickly.
On Oct. 4, 1937, Hedwig Kiesler — future Hollywood star and scientific inventor — disembarked at Los Angeles’ Union railroad station. The once naked “Ecstasy” heroine was conservatively dressed — wearing a light-colored, three-quarter length skirt and matching jacket. She was carrying a corsage of flowers.