Studio boss Louis B. Mayer had trouble figuring out Hedy Lamarr. Why, you ask? Read on.
Joe Morella and Frank Segers, your Classic Movie guys here again with another look at the fascinating life and career of “Ms. Ecstasy,” the Austrian-born actress who broke so many Hollywood molds. (Mrs. Norman Maine is booking plane tickets to Vienna as we speak.)
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.
“When Mayer asked his new ‘discovery’ how she liked Hollywood so far, Hedy surprised him by frankly stating that she was rather let down,” writes Stephen Michael Shearer, the author of “Beautiful: The Life of Hedy Lamarr.”
“Usually Mayer was answered with gushing words of appreciation by his young hopefuls. But with Hedy he was confronted with a lady of class, and her response threw him.”
She was born in 1914 to a solidly bourgeois family that prized culture and the arts. Her father was a bank manager in Vienna. Her mother, a frustrated concert pianist, instilled in her only child a love of music.
By 16, Hedy was already embarked on movie bit parts in silents produced at Vienna’s Sascha-Film Studio. Stage parts followed, including a Berlin stint at the school run by theatrical producer Max Reinhardt (where she met another young student by the name of Otto Preminger).
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.
As we have pointed out in our Hedy blog covering “Ecstasy,” the movie nearly shot down her Hollywood career before it even started.
Mayer was appalled by the film.
But before he would convey his view in person to Hedy, she –at the ripe age of 19 — had married an enormously rich Viennese arms merchant, and quit acting. Hedy was Fritz Mandl’s trophy wife, and the couple lived super-lavishly.
There was the sumptuous 10-room Vienna apartment. Also, the seven servants, the nine chauffered autos and the the country home called Castle Schwarzenau.
Luxurious dinner parties for at least 30 guests were the norm. There were two butlers and a large roster of servants to cater these events. Dinner was served on golden plates.
And, on one occasion, Mayer — on a European talent-scouting jaunt — turned up as one of those dinner party guests. He was fascinated by Hedy’s beauty (who wasn’t then?) but was turned off by her inability to speak much English. Also, “Ecstasy” was much on his mind.
Cut ahead years later to a luxury hotel suite in London. Mayer was sitting as tall as he could at his desk, opposite Hedy. By this time she was in her early 20’s, and had freed herself from the gilded but stifling marriage to Mandl, a control freak on steroids who was given to fits of jealousy.
She wanted back into acting, and was interested in trying her luck in Hollywood.
“You’re lovely, my dear, but I have the family point of view,” enunciated Mayer.
“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, used the occasion to make Hedy a low-ball contract offer. She 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 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.
The newly christened Hedy Lamarr’s Hollywood movie career was about to begin.