Hedy Lamarr had it all: beauty, brains, fame and fortune. For a few years she had the world, or at least Tinseltown, at her feet. And she blew it. So what went wrong? Was Hedy the victim of forces beyond her control or of her own character flaws. Or was she just plain unlucky?
Hedy Lamarr arrives in Hollywood in October 1937. She has just fled Vienna, her husband Fritz Mandl, and the looming threat of a Nazi invasion. Taking the train to Paris and then crossing the Channel to England, she has discovered that Louis B Mayer, MGM’s head honcho, is in London and looking for talent. Somehow, she manages to arrange a meeting with him. He’s worried about the scandal surrounding her appearance in Ecstasy but not blind to her charms (how could he be?). So he offers Hedy a bulk-standard, six-month contract with MGM at $125 a week. Which she flatly rejects. She’s has her own idea of what she’s worth and she’s not going to be pushed around.
Still, Hedy is in a pretty desperate situation and, after a meeting with Robert Ritchie, one of Mayer’s talent scouts, she changes her mind. But then it turns out that the mogul is leaving the next day for France in order to catch the superliner Normandie back to the US. Getting a berth requires the sale of most of her jewels as well as some subterfuge (the voyage is already fully booked). On board, Hedy, in a gown by Alix, dazzles her fellow passengers, and the effect is not lost on Mayer, who ups his offer to a seven-year contract beginning at $550 a week.
So by the time Hedy Lamarr arrives in Hollywood (her name changed by MGM from Hedwig Kiesler to Hedy Lamarr), she has proved that she is daring, ambitious, determined and resourceful. Those are qualities she is going to need in spades. But that’s far from the whole story. Ever since she was a little girl, she’s wanted to be an actress in spite of being, by all accounts, a very private person. Is that because acting can be a form of escapism for her and, if so, what demons is she struggling with? Well, for one thing she believes that her mother wanted a boy and didn’t really like her. Then, married at age 19 and dominated by her husband Fritz Mandl, she likely feels she needs to take back control of her life.
Now, put yourself in her shoes for a minute. She’s 23 years old. She’s in a strange city with a culture very different from that in which she’s grown up. She can speak only a few phrases of English so she struggles to communicate with those around her. And she knows no-one. Columnist Sheilah Graham, out on the town at the Beverly Hills Brown Derby one Saturday evening that winter, spots Hedy at a table all by herself. Her partner, F Scott Fitzgerald, wryly observes: “How typical of Hollywood, the most beautiful girl in the world alone on a Saturday night.”
Hedy Lamarr – beauty
And beauty is a recurring theme, the dominant theme, when it comes to Hedy Lamarr. Jet-black tresses, cherry-red lips, porcelain complexion… Hedy’s looks are classic and exotic, innocent and alluring, making her the perfect model for two very different movie legends: Disney’s Snow White on the one hand and, on the other, Catwoman in the original Batman comics.
What immediately strikes you when you look at Hedy in her movies or her stills is just how staggeringly beautiful she is – drop-dead gorgeous. And a different kind of beauty from the blondes who have been fashionable through the thirties, a fact that’s not lost on her audiences or the other Hollywood actresses.
In Those Glorious Glamour Years: Classic Hollywood Costume Design of the 1930s, Margaret J. Bailey, a historian of film costume, observes:
After her ﬁrst appearance on the screen in Algiers, drugstores experienced a run on hair dyes, and soon everybody, including starlets and established luminaries like Crawford and Joan Bennett, had changed their locks from blonde or brown to jet black. The Lamarr hairdo with the part in the middle and the tall Lamarr look became the new standard of glamour. Shock waves were felt not only in personal beauty, but also in the realm of fashion, in particularly, the hat. Somehow that three letter word seems inadequate when describing what Lamarr wore in her ﬁrst ﬁlms. Lamarr veils, snoods, turbans, and such swept the fashion world and millinery companies would overnight ﬁll the hunger for the new cinema image. Not everyone could affect the Lamarr styles, but just about everyone tried. Turbans and snoods became the fashion for Forties headgear.
Suddenly, Hedy’s image is everywhere. Overnight she becomes a star. In December 1938 she is named Glamour Girl of 1938 by the popular press. Hollywood gossip columnist Hedda Hopper describes Hedy as “orchidaceous.”
There’s no doubt that she looks gorgeous in stills. In fact, David O Selznick, producer of Gone with the Wind, refers in a memo to Hedy as having “actually been established [as a Hollywood star] purely by photography.” And yet, the photographers themselves are less than enthusiastic. Hungarian lensman Laszlo Willinger, who has photographed Hedy in Vienna as well as in Hollywood, complains to John Kobal:
How do you make Hedy Lamarr sexy? She has nothing to give. It wasn’t as simple as showing legs or cleavage. She was not very adept at posing. She was just… She felt if she sat there, that was enough. You try to bring it to some life by changing the lighting, moving in closer to the head, whatever, because nothing changed her face. It never occurred to me that one could wake her up… and nobody ever did.
Then there’s Virgil Apger, another MGM snapper who remembers:
She thought she knew it all and was forever telling you what to do. She was beautiful – she had great skin texture – but I don’t recall anybody saying they enjoyed shooting her. She never came alive, except to keep making damned uncouth remarks to the people I had around me.
Legendary photographer George Hurrell feels much the same way, having ﬁrst photographed Hedy soon after her arrival in Hollywood. He tells John Kobal:
I didn’t get too much out of Hedy because she was so static. Stunning. But it was the nature of her, she was so phlegmatic, she didn’t project anything. It was just a mood thing. And she had just one style. It didn’t vary particularly. She had a pretty good body. But she wouldn’t dress for it. She was always dressing in black. She liked suits. You can’t do anything – a woman in a suit is a dead duck.
Some clues there to what Hedy is like and why her career will crash and burn. But on a more positive note, when Clarence Sinclair Bull, head of MGM’s stills studio, visits Hedy to take some shots of her at home, she prepares lunch for him herself. “This is the ﬁrst time a star’s ever done this for me,” he remarks. “Oh, I always ﬁx my lunch by the kitchen sink when I’m alone. It’s easier,” says Hedy (Hedda Hopper’s Hollywood, Los Angeles Times, October 13, 1941).
Hedy is a looker and knows how to turn it to her advantage. According to June Allyson, “No doubt about it, she was stunning and she knew how to look at a man with an intimate little smile that turned him on.” Men are drawn to her like bees to honey, and people are so blinded by her beauty that they struggle to see beyond it. The default response seems to be that she’s just decorative, should stick to being an ornament, should not get involved in “real” acting. Bosley Crowther, notorious critic of The New York Times, is typical in his review of Lady of the Tropics, admittedly a lousy movie:
Now that she has inadvisedly been given an opportunity to act, it is necessary to report that she is essentially one of those museum pieces, like the Mona Lisa, who were more beautiful in repose.
But Hedy Lamarr can act. She may not have the dramatic prowess of a Bette Davis or a Barbara Stanwyck, but watch her in The Strange Woman and you’ll see a subtle and nuanced performance that brings to life Jenny’s (her character’s) ambiguity. What’s more, it seems there is more to Hedy Lamarr than just a perfect face.
Hedy Lamarr – brains
Perhaps the most astonishing thing about Hedy Lamarr, and it would certainly have baffled Bosley Crowther, is that her name is on the patent for a technology which would pave the way for both cellular networks and Bluetooth. Hedy, it turns out, is a smart cookie.
Perhaps the most astonishing thing about Hedy Lamarr, and it would certainly have baffled Bosley Crowther, is that her name (as Hedy Kiesler Markey) appears on the patent for a technology which will pave the way for both cellular networks and Bluetooth. So what’s going on here?
One day in 1940, dress designer, Adrian, one of Hedy’s closest friends, asks her along for dinner. Also there is the multi-talented George Antheil, not just the self-styled Bad Boy of American music (and partner in crime of Orson Welles for The Lady from Shanghai) but also something of an expert on endocrinology – he’s published three books about glands. Hedy’s interest is in finding out about the possibility of breast enlargement – something that Louis B Mayer has suggested to her. Antheil assures her that that would not be a problem. According to his autobiography, at the end of the evening, Hedy leaves before him and uses her lipstick to scrawl her phone number on his car window.
That’s not an invitation to be taken lightly. So he invites her round to his place for dinner and discussion. Fascinating as Hedy’s breasts undoubtedly are, the conversation does eventually move on to the prospect of the US entering the war in Europe. Hedy feels she should be doing something to help the Allies. She is also convinced she has something to offer in that regard because she used to eavesdrop on Fritz Mandl’s (her munitions manufacturer ex-husband) discussions about weapons technology.
She said she knew a good deal about new munitions and various secret weapons, some of which she had invented herself, and that she was thinking seriously of quitting M.G.M. and going to Washington, D.C., to offer her services to the newly established Inventors’ Council.
The challenge they set themselves is to find a way to stop the Germans from jamming the signals controlling the radio-guided torpedoes fired at their U-boats, which are playing havoc with the British shipping trying to cross the Atlantic. The solution the pair come up with is a radio-directed torpedo based on a transmitter and receiver, programmed to shift continually and at random through 88 different frequencies. The programming is done by paper tape inspired by the paper-rolls Antheil has used to synchronise player pianos. This is the invention they submit to the government for a US patent under the title of Secret Communication System.
The invention is covered in the October 1 1941 edition of The New York Times:
HEDY LAMARR – Actress Devises ‘Red-Hot’ Apparatus for Use in Defense
So vital is her discovery to national defense that government officials will not allow publication of its details. Colonel L. B. Lent, chief engineer of the National Inventors Council, classed Miss Lamarr’s invention as in the ‘red-hot’ category. The only inkling of what it might be was the announcement that it was related to remote control of apparatus employed in warfare.
When their patent application is approved in August 1942, Hedy and Antheil offer it to the US government. But the powers-that-be just sit on it, regarding the device as too unwieldy. They are more interested in having Hedy do some tours to sell war bonds. She accepts the invitation and throws herself wholeheartedly behind the initiative.
All the ships dispatched to defend the US during the Cuban Missile Crisis will be equipped with frequency-hopping technology (the paper rolls replaced by electronic circuitry) to secure their communications. But the technology itself will remain a secret until it is declassified in 1981. By the time its commercial potential is realized, the patent will have expired and others will profit hugely from it. It will not be until 1997 that Hedy and Antheil (by this time deceased) will be officially recognized for their invention and receive the sixth annual Electronic Frontier Foundation’s Pioneer Award. Hedy will be inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame posthumously in 2014.
Is the idea behind spread spectrum a one-off for Hedy? It’s difficult to know. There’s a story about her at age five taking apart and reassembling a music box. Antheil is certainly impressed by her inquisitiveness and ingenuity. And in interviews towards the end of her life she talks about how, while she was dating Howard Hughes, she designed a new wing shape to make his planes more aerodynamic. That’s about the size of it. Whatever her credentials as an inventor, though, Hedy Lamarr is no airhead. When she leaves MGM in 1945, she partners with Jack Chertok, producer of The Conspirators (one of her 1942 movies) to set up Mars Productions, a production company. She goes on to produce The Strange Woman (1946 – arguably the showcase for her finest performance) and Dishonored Lady (1947) as well as attempting to make further movies in Italy. She amasses a considerable art collection that includes works by the likes of Modigliani, Chagall, Rodin, Dufy, Vlaminck, Rouault, Utrillo and Renoir. And late in life she proves herself to be quite an astute investor so that when she dies in 2000, she leaves behind an estate worth $3.3 million – mainly shares.
Hedy Lamarr – bad judgment
Unfortunately, intelligence doesn’t necessarily translate into good judgment, let alone wisdom. Hedy is not afraid to make decisions and in too many cases she opts for the wrong course of action. This is the case with regard to both her professional and her private life. With the benefit of hindsight, Hedy will admit that she had poor taste both in scripts and in husbands. It’s difficult to argue with that.
Let’s start with her career. The movies in which an actor or actress appears can make or break their career. When she arrives in Hollywood, Hedy realizes that the place is full of wannabees looking for roles, that her contract makes no guarantees and that if she’s to be successful she has to engineer an opening.
She’s fortunate to run into Charles Boyer at a party; it is thanks to him that she gets a starring role in Algiers, her first and breakthrough Hollywood movie. She’s unfortunate that even after she makes headlines, her employers, Louis B Mayer and MGM, have pretty much no idea how to use her. They do a great job of building her image through a stream of glamorous stills. But the films in which they cast her range from second-rate to downright bad.
Worst of all, in 1942 Mayer turns down Warner Bros when they come calling, refusing to loan Hedy out to star opposite Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca. Instead, she ends up in the toe-curling White Cargo. Two years later, Hedy has opportunities to star in Laura and Gaslight. She rejects both of them (Gene Tierney and Ingrid Bergman say hi!). Had she appeared in just one of that trio of films, how different might her career trajectory have been and how differently might she be remembered? As it is, how many Hedy Lamarr movies can you remember off the top of your head? None, right?
Relatively early in her career, a certain litigiousness starts to characterize Hedy’s affairs. In 1943, she sues Loew’s and MGM for failing to pay her the $2,000 a week stipulated in her contract. They claim that the reason for this is a wartime executive order, issued by President Roosevelt, limiting salaries to $25,000 a year. The case is settled out of court. But as time goes by, it does seem as if Hedy is rather too keen on litigation, and this tendency will dog her for pretty much the rest of her life because all too often courts will fail to find in her favour.
More often than not, Hedy’s litigation has to do with money. Hedy’s attitude to it is ambiguous. On the one hand, money matters to her and she worries about not having enough of it. On the other, she spends lavishly, which for a time she can afford to do. She gets into the habit of living in the best homes with the finest furnishings, amassing an amazing art collection, and travelling whenever and wherever she wants.
After she leaves MGM in late summer 1945, she sets up her own production company, Mars Productions, in partnership with Jack Chertok, producer of her 1944 film, The Conspirators. They manage to find financial backing from producer, Howard Stromberg and their first film, The Strange Woman, is a bit of a triumph even though Hedy doesn’t get on with chosen director Edgar Ulmer. But their second movie, Dishonored Lady, is a turkey.
Hedy’s career is brought back from the brink by her appearance in Cecil B DeMille’s outrageous biblical epic Samson and Delilah (1949), the highest grossing movie of the decade. But she falls out with Paramount by refusing to help promote the film unless paid top dollar to do so.
Soon she is sinking her fortune into her own productions, taking advantage of the facilities offered by Rome. She’s well out of her depth, her projects end in failure and she runs out of road. She’s over-reached herself – spent too much money, fallen out with too many people (she’s acquired a reputation for being difficult to work with), burnt too many bridges.
In her autobiography she summarizes her attitude to money:
I figured out that I had made—and spent—some $30 million. … I advise everybody not to save; spend your money. Most people save all their lives and give it to somebody else. Money is to be enjoyed.
Hedy Lamarr’s private life is messy and sad. She is married and divorced six times: to munitions magnate Fritz Mandl: screenwriter Gene Markey; actor John Loder; nightclub owner Ernest Stauffer; oil millionaire W Howard Lee; and lawyer Lewis W Boies Jr. None of her marriages last more than six years and she doesn’t always maximize what she could get from her divorce settlements. Meanwhile, she has many affairs. Sadly, such turmoil is not unusual for attractive women trying to make careers in Hollywood.
By the mid-1960s, Hedy struggles to pay her utility bills and doesn’t always know where her next meal is coming from. Her ghost-written, sexed-up autobiography, Ecstasy and Me, published in 1966, is a pretty desperate attempt to raise some much-needed money. But she’s horrified when she reads it and (surprise, surprise!) contests its accuracy in court. Much of the content is indeed dubious and sensational.
She reaches her nadir when she is arrested for shoplifting in 1966 and again in 1991. She is fortunate to get away with it on both occasions.
Hedy Lamarr – what to make of her?
Let’s be clear from the outset. Hedy Lamarr is no angel. She has quite a temper and can be difficult to live with – John Loder, her third husband, should know. And as she establishes herself as a star, she gains a reputation (dubious at first but increasingly credible) as a real prima donna.
But it would be unfair to see her as just a spoiled diva who gets what’s coming to her. There are certainly some extenuating factors. Let’s start with her looks. Reflecting on her life, Hedy would suggest that:
My face has been my misfortune. It has attracted six unsuccessful marriage partners. It has attracted all the wrong people into my boudoir My face is a mask I can’t remove. I must live with it. I curse it.
She embodies the fate of so many beautiful women drawn to Hollywood, preyed upon and spat out. And it’s worth adding that, as Richard Avedon observed, beauty can be isolating. Hedy is undoubtedly lonely in the US and it’s easy to imagine that her looks and her shyness being a fatal combination for her. In 1952, actor Farley Granger attended a private party at which he recalled seeing Hedy:
She was very shy, very quiet, and very retiring. She just kind of receded almost into the woodwork. She kept very much to herself, you know.
Indeed, what comes through as you read Hedy Lamarr’s biographies and interviews with those who knew her is that she is a very private person. So, while acting may provide a channel for the more extrovert side of her personality, perhaps it turns out not to be the ideal career for her. In Hedy Lamarr Reveals She’ll Retire from Films in the January 24 1951 edition of the Los Angeles Examiner, gossip columnist Louella Parsons quotes a letter:
To straighten out all various statements about my retiring from the screen I want you to know it is true for the simple reason that I would like the privilege of a private life. As for marriage it is the normal desire of any woman, when I find the man I love enough to be my husband and father of my children.
Fond love to you,
By the late-1940s if not before, perhaps because of the mounting pressure and expectations, Hedy’s mind seems to be in a fragile state. Again, her public confidante is Louella Parsons, who reveals in The Strange Case of Hedy Lamarr (Photoplay, September, 1947) that, “with all the things in her past, and all she still holds of the material things of life, Hedy has been dangerously close to a nervous breakdown for the past year and she is still far from well.”
Her former co-star, John Fraser, paints a harrowing picture of Hedy’s mental decline in an email to Stephen Shearer:
In 1952 Hedy was neurotic and completely unable to communicate socially. In company, she was unaware of anyone but herself. Her need to be the centre of attention meant that whenever she appeared in public, she launched into a meaningless monologue. She was accompanied by her PA, Frankie Dawson and sometimes by her psychiatrist, who wasn’t doing her much good.
From around the mid-1950s to the early-1970s, Hedy is treated by New York physician Max Jacobson, nicknamed “Miracle Max” and “Dr Feelgood.” He has arrived in New York from Berlin in 1936 and his practice attracts the rich and famous including an impressive roster of Hollywood movie celebrities – Lauren Bacall, Ingrid Bergman, Humphrey Bogart, Yul Brynner, Montgomery Clift, Cecil B DeMille, Marlene Dietrich, Judy Garland, Liza Minnelli, Marilyn Monroe, David O Selznick, Elizabeth Taylor and Billy Wilder. According to Wikipedia, Jacobson is known for his “miracle tissue regenerator” shots, which consist of amphetamines, animal hormones, bone marrow, enzymes, human placenta, painkillers, steroids, and multivitamins.
Add to such a lethal cocktail of drugs the shock Hedy suffers when, in December 1958, her 11-year-old son, Anthony, out riding his bike, is hit by a car and seriously injured, and her erratic behaviour is hardly surprising. To compound matters, as her looks fade in the 1960s she undergoes some pretty disastrous cosmetic surgery that leaves her reluctant to show her face in public.
The last word on Hedy Lamarr goes to John Fraser:
She had been fawned upon, indulged and exploited ever since she had reached the age of puberty. Her extraordinary intelligence did not encompass wisdom. How could she have learnt about the values that matter, about kindness and acceptance and laughter, in the Dream Factory that is Hollywood? She had been thrust into the limelight at a pitilessly early age, been devoured by rapacious lovers and producers who saw her ravishing beauty as a ticket to success, and who looked elsewhere when she began to grow older. Beauty and money in moderation are undoubtedly a blessing. In excess, they are surely a curse.
Want to know more about Hedy Lamarr?
The two main sources for this piece are Hedy’s autobiography Ecstasy and Me (to be read with a large pinch of salt) and Stephen Michael Shearer’s Beautiful: The Life of Hedy Lamarr. Other titles are available at Amazon and elsewehere. Alexandra Dean’s documentary film, Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story, provides an overview of her life, shining a spotlight on her prowess as an inventor.