Vienna-Born Hedy Lamarr began her acting career at the age of sixteen under the auspices of German impresario Max Reinhardt, and appeared in mediocre German cinematic fare in the early 1930s. She broke through in a major way with Czech director Gustav Machaty’s orgasmic Extase (Ecstasy, 1933), in which she frolicked naked through a sylvan glade, a state of constant sexual arousal feigned by the director sticking pins in her derriére. An excited buzz greeted her “artistic” performance, and though her munitions magnate husband, Fritz Mandl, attempted to buy and destroy all prints of the film, Extase saw a worldwide release.
Thus, Hedy had achieved a modicum of stardom in the U.S. before ever even setting eyes on the promised land of Hollywood. Life in the Mandl castle wasn’t all it was cracked up to be, apparently, and one night during dinner, a bejeweled-from-head-to-toe Hedy excused herself from the table, drugged her maid, and escaped her pampered but controlled existence by crawling out a bathroom window. Not surprisingly, the star-struck Lamarr emerged in Lotus Land, under personal contract with M-G-M’s second “M,” Louis B. Mayer.
Mayer went straight to work publicizing his Austrian import as “the most beautiful woman in films,” as the successor to siren Greta Garbo, who was then in the decline of her star trajectory. He loaned the newcomer out to producer Walter Wanger, who employed her in her first starring role, opposite Charles Boyer, in Algiers (1938). Unfortunately, the hyperactive studio publicity engine couldn’t compensate for the fact that Lamarr didn’t have enough charisma or talent to back up her undeniable beauty and sleepy-eyed sexuality.
Clever tag-lines like “You too will be ‘Hedy’ with delight and your verdict will be Lamarrvelous” couldn’t mask the fact that, when called upon to do much more than decorate a scene, she couldn’t always deliver the goods. Lamarr’s most entertaining showings came in Ziegfeld Girl (1941), H.M. Pulham Esq. (1942), and in Cecil B. DeMille’s Samson and Delilah (1949). Audiences cringed at her pitiable attempt to portray Joan of Arc in 1957’s The Story of Mankind — it was no wonder that she disappeared from the screen the following year.
Nothing much was heard of Lamarr for awhile, until word of an arrest for shoplifting hit the papers, ushering in a wave of public sympathy for her. She cleared some of her debts by penning (and later recanting) a tell-all autobiography, Ecstasy and Me, and by suing Mel Brooks for using the character name “Hedley Lamarr” in his film Blazing Saddles. The last reported sighting of Lamarr was in the low-budget flick Instant Karma (1990), in which she appeared in the role of “Movie Goddess.”
As it turns out, there was so much more to Lamarr than just a beautiful face and a mediocre acting ability — she was also an ingenious inventor. In 1940, not long after arriving in the States, Lamarr attended a Hollywood dinner party, where she made the acquaintance of avant-garde composer George Antheil. They were both greatly disturbed by the Nazi domination of Europe — a subject Lamarr was all too familiar with, considering the fact that her former husband, Fritz Mandl, conducted business with both Hitler and Mussolini, and had even socialized with them from time to time while she was still married to him (Lamarr called Hitler “posturing,” Mussolini “pompous”).
In a subsequent meeting with Antheil, Lamarr articulated a brainstorm she had for creating an anti-jamming device to be used for radio-controlled torpedo guidance. You see, the twenty-six-year-old actress had been listening very carefully to all of her arms manufacturer husband’s business-dinner conversations, and two years later, the fleshed-out concept she and Antheil outlined was awarded a U.S. patent. Their “secret communication system,” known now as frequency hopping (so-called, because a signal is broadcast over a seemingly random series of radio frequencies in split-second “hops” that render it unintelligible and impossible to jam), was first implemented in 1962 — three years after the forward-thinking inventors’ patent had expired, incidentally — in the secure military communications systems of the U.S. ships that were sent to blockade Cuba.
Lamarr and Antheil never earned a cent from their invention, which became the principal anti-jamming method utilized by the U.S. government’s $25 billion Milstar defense communications satellite system. Frequency hopping is also the technological concept underlying wireless Internet transmission and the latest cellular communication. Kinda makes you wonder what Lamarr would have been capable of had she not been convinced to go back to selling war bonds.