Hedy Lamarr was born as Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler on November 9, 1914 in Vienna, Austria-Hungary. Her parents were both from Jewish families – her father Emil Kiesler was a successful bank director and her mother Gertrud “Trude” Kiesler was a pianist and Budapest native.
Hedy grew up as the only child in an upper-middle class household. She showed an interest in acting and performing from a young age. Her mother encouraged her artistic talents. However, her father tried to discourage her from pursuing acting and instead focus more on her schooling. This divided interest would shape much of Hedy’s early life.
Discovering Her Passion for Acting
As a teenager, Hedy began pursuing acting more seriously by taking acting classes with theatre director Max Reinhardt. Her first break came at age 16 when she appeared in her first film, Geld auf der Straße (Money on the Street) in 1930.
Although it was only a small role, this represented a major step for Hedy. Over the next few years she steadily took on bigger parts, establishing herself as a rising star in Austria and Germany. This period represented her acting apprenticeship when she soaked up knowledge from respected directors like Reinhardt.<div style=”border: 1px solid #ddd;padding: 5px;overflow-x: scroll;width:100%; “>
|Geld auf der Straße
|Storm in a Water Glass
Table 1: Some of Hedy Lamarr’s early film roles in Austria (1930-1933)
Scandal and Controversy with Ecstasy
Hedy reached international notoriety in 1933 after appearing nude in the Czech film Ecstasy. Although tame by today’s standards, the film created scandal at the time for showing sexual pleasure.
Hedy later said she was unaware just how controversial the film would become. But the scandal soon made her famous across Europe.
The controversy also created major issues with her father. He eventually obtained control of Hedy’s finances to try preventing her from acting. Their relationship deteriorated badly. She would later become estranged from her father and even adopt a new last name – Lamarr.
Brief, Failed Marriage to Fritz Mandl
In 1933, at age 19, Hedy met Fritz Mandl, a prominent Austrian fascist munitions manufacturer reputedly involved in selling arms to Italian and German governments. Despite their age difference (Mandl was 33 years her senior), the two married that year.
Hedy later described the marriage as controlling and abusive. Mandl tried to limit her acting career and took measures to “control” her. Due to his business dealings, she also had to accompany him to business dinners, granting her exposure to various weaponry, important scientists, and military and political figures.
After suffering years of emotional abuse, Hedy fled the marriage by disguising herself as her maid and escaping to Paris. The two officially divorced in 1937. This broken marriage granted Hedy greater resolve to take control of her own career.
Flight to Hollywood and First Years as Film Star
After escaping Paris, Hedy first stopped briefly in London in 1937. But aware people were actively searching for her, she soon booked a voyage to America to get farther out of reach from her ex-husband.
With just $400 in cash but a few expensive pieces of jewelry, Hedy arrived by ship to New York in 1938. She had dreams of getting into Hollywood as an actress. One of her first nights in the city she tried getting into MGM studio boss Louis B. Mayer’s hotel room by sneaking in through the backdoor.
Ultimately the ploy failed but she was able to get Mayer’s attention. Mayer soon offered her an MGM studio contract. Due to her strong similarity to other European actresses, he convinced her to change her name to Hedy Lamarr.
Early Success in Hollywood
Despite lacking English skills, Lamarr enjoyed almost immediate box office success during her first year in Hollywood. Her foreign beauty and allure made her an instant icon.
Her first American film Algiers (1938) opposite Charles Boyer caused a sensation, labeling her the most beautiful woman to appear in film. The costumes and fashion she brought over from Paris also started new trends, endearing her to fashion designers. She received countless requests to model leading fashion.
Building on her momentum, MGM studio boss L B Mayer saw the opportunity to turn Hedy into a major star along the lines of Greta Garbo. He carefully managed her career over the next several years, shaping her public persona and putting her in high profile romantic films opposite leading men like Spencer Tracy, Clark Gable and even Jimmy Stewart.<div style=”border: 1px solid #ddd;padding: 5px;overflow-x: scroll;width:100%; “>
|Lady of the Tropics
|I Take This Woman
|Come Live With Me
Table 2: Some of Hedy Lamarr’s early Hollywood leading roles opposite famous leading men (1938-1940)
For a brief period, Lamarr ranked among Hollywood’s highest paid actresses. However she often grew frustrated, feeling typecast and under-challenged with the simplified roles she was given. She also reportedly did not get along well with studio boss Mayer who tried to maintain rigid control over her public image.
Wartime Work: Frequency Hopping and Bond Rallies
At the beginning of World War II, Hedy wanted to contribute to the war effort and not just entertain the troops. Both from her failed marriage and natural curiosity and intellect, she had absorbed a great deal of technical knowledge about military technology like missiles and torpedoes.
After meeting avant-garde composer George Antheil at a 1940 party, Lamarr had the idea that radio signals could be made unjammable if they constantly changed frequencies in some coordinated code. The pair worked in her apartment on the system which they called “frequency hopping”.
They received a patent in 1942 and promptly provided their invention to the U.S Navy. But at the time, the importance of their frequency hopping secure communication system was not appreciated and the Navy did not adopt it. The patent expired quietly in 1959.
The technology lay dormant for over a decade until the Cuban Missile Crisis made people realize its importance. The standards for WiFi, CDMA, and Bluetooth still use frequency hopping based on Lamarr’s original work. In retrospect, her ingenious idea provided a key foundation for modern wireless communications.
Lamarr’s Pop Culture Celebrity Reaches Its Peak
During WWII Lamarr was very active selling war bonds. She reportedly raised over $25 million by selling kisses for war bonds. She also entertained the troops and took part in morale boosting stage shows with other celebrities like Bob Hope.
Her peak of fame probably came during this 1940-45 period when her unique European beauty made her wildly popular among American troops abroad. She was voted “most promising new star” in 1939 and “most beautiful star” in 1941. The war-time period represented the peak of her pop culture celebrity and fame.<div style=”border: 1px solid #ddd;padding: 5px;overflow-x: scroll;width:100%; “>
|Voted “Most Promising New Star”
|Voted “Most Beautiful Star”
|Received Pioneer Award from Electronic Frontier Foundation
Table 3: Peak Pop Culture Celebrity Period for Hedy Lamarr
However she became deeply dissatisfied with the quality of roles offered to her at MGM. Outside of her 1945 hit Her Highness and the Bellboy, most of her films during the period received weak critical praise and low box office returns.
Later Life – More Inventions, Reclusiveness
Following some mediocre films after WWII, Lamarr grew increasingly frustrated with her acting career in Hollywood. She felt typecast as merely a glamorous foreign beauty but was never taken seriously as an actress or given complex, challenging roles.
In 1949, she made her last MGM film and a year later her contract was terminated altogether. She continued acting sporadically throughout the 1950s, appearing in some theater work and independent films
Hedy Lamarr lived an extraordinary life. She escaped war-torn Europe to become a major Hollywood star and icon of glamour during the 1940s. Yet she was frustrated in her acting career and wanted to be more than just eye candy on the silver screen.
Lamarr was also a brilliant inventor who tried to help the war effort by creating a secure communication system based on frequency hopping. Though underappreciated at the time, her ingenious invention provided a foundation of wireless technology we rely on today with WiFi and Bluetooth.
In many ways Lamarr pioneered the concept of a female celebrity who had both beauty and brains. She co-created groundbreaking technology during WWII. Yet the dominant society at the time only valued her physical appearance and box office draw. Ironically as she grew older and pursued more creative outlets, the public lost interest in her earlier star power.
Towards the end of her life she became withdrawn and something of a recluse. But the IT revolution happening around her sparked renewed appreciation for her forward thinking technological ideas decades earlier. Though Lamarr became disillusioned with fame later on, the world learned not underestimate both her beautiful face as well as her beautiful mind.
Frequently Asked Questions
What was Hedy Lamarr’s first film role?
Hedy Lamarr’s (then still known as Hedy Kiesler) first film role was in the 1930 Austrian film Geld auf der Straße (Money on the Street). She was only 16 but the bit part marked her acting debut. A year later in 1931 she took on a larger role as Eva in Storm in a Water Glass. Her big breakthrough came in the controversial 1933 Czech film Ecstasy.
Why did she change her name to Hedy Lamarr?
Hedy Lamarr originally went by her married name Hedy Kiesler when she first arrived in Hollywood in 1938. But MGM studio head Louis B. Mayer thought her surname sounded too Jewish and foreign. He persuaded her to adopt a new screen name “Hedy Lamarr” to de-emphasize her Austrian Jewish heritage.
What famous lead actors did Hedy Lamarr co-star with during her peak stardom?
During her peak Hollywood stardom from around 1938-1945, Hedy Lamarr appeared opposite some of the most famous leading male actors of all time. These co-stars included:
- Charles Boyer in Algiers (1938)
- Robert Taylor in Lady of the Tropics (1939)
- Spencer Tracy in I Take This Woman (1940)
- Clark Gable in Boom Town (1940)
- Jimmy Stewart in Come Live With Me (1940)
Why did MGM terminate Lamarr’s studio contract in 1950?
MGM studio boss Louis Mayer originally hoped to mold Hedy Lamarr into MGM’s newest exotic European screen goddess along the lines of Greta Garbo. But as Lamarr matured in Hollywood she became unhappy with her simple roles that focused too much on her beauty. Most of her films in the mid to late 1940s lost money. So in 1950 with the relationship strained, MGM terminated Lamarr’s contract.
What modern technologies rely on Hedy Lamarr’s WWII “frequency hopping” invention?
Though underappreciated at the time, Lamarr’s frequency hopping communication system from WWII provided a key foundation of:
- Spread spectrum technology
- WiFi networks
- CDMA cellular networks
- Bluetooth wireless standards
So things we use everyday like accessing WiFi on a smartphone or laptop ultimately goes back to Lamarr’s groundbreaking wartime idea.