07 October 2017

Hedy Lamarr: Austrian-American-Jewish-Catholic actress and inventor

I’ll soon be seeing Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story, directed by Alexandra Dean, at the Jewish Film Festival. The festival programme says: Known for her striking looks and electric onscreen persona, Lamarr’s fans never knew she possessed such a beautiful mind. An Aust­rian Jewish émigré who acted by day and drew mechanical and electronic inventions by night, Lam­arr came up with a secret communication system to help the Allies to beat the Naz­is. Bomb­shell is for lovers of history, film and science. But locating the truth about her life was tricky. All the facts below come from Encyclopaedia of World Biography.

Hedwig Kiesler (1913–2000) was born in Vienna. Her parents were Jewish and cultivated; her father Emil Kiesler was a Bank of Vienna director and her mother Gertrud Lichtwitz a concert pianist from Budapest. Hedwig attended schools in Vienna then was sent to a Swiss finishing school.

After an unsuccessful audition with her acting teacher and stage director, Max Rein­hardt, Hedwig moved into films. Her screen career began in 1930 with two Austrian films.

Hedy Lamarr and Clark Gable
Comrade X, 1940

She had several other small German-language roles, but it took con­troversy for Hedwig to be famous. In 1932 she made the film Ecstasy in Czechoslovakia, released in 1933. The film told of a young woman whose husband was impotent, causing her to seek a younger man. Two scenes were responsible for the film's notoriety and bans: a] Hedwig ran nude through a sunlit forest and b] a sex scene in which she experienced an intense orgasm.

Ecstasy attracted the attention of mil­lionaire Aust­rian arms dealer Fritz Mandl, whom teenage Hedwig met in Dec 1933 and then married. Mandl had converted from Judaism to Cathol­icism in order to be able to do business with Germany's fascist regime, and Lamarr al­so converted from Judaism to Cathol­icism in 1933. App­ar­ent­ly Mandl tried to buy and destroy every outstanding copy of the film Ecstasy. Whether out of revuls­ion to her husb­and's polit­ics or not, Hed­wig packed a case with jewellery, drug­ged her maid and fled to Paris, London and New York in 1937.

Hed­wig began negotiating with producer Louis B Mayer of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, who wanted new exotic Euro­pean talent. Hedwig had refused Mayer's dismal contract offer in London, but by the time the ship docked in New York she had a handsome MGM contract and the brand new name of Hedy Lamarr. Mayer called her The Most Beautiful Woman in the World.

Lamarr's first American film was Algiers (1938) opposite French actor Charles Boyer. A successful launch for her Amer­ican career, this film was followed by two flops, Lady of the Tropics (1939) and I Take This Woman (1940), co-starring Spencer Tracy. The actress's fortunes improved in 1940 with Boom Town star­ring Clark Gable, and Comrade X, an anti-Communist romance.

During WW2 Lamarr was an American sex symbol and star with Come Live with Me (1941), Ziegfeld Girl (1941), The Heav­enly Body and the steamy White Cargo (both 1943), in which Lamarr played a mixed-race prostitute on an African rubber plantation. In 1943 Lamarr wanted the Casab­lanca role that eventually went to Swed­ish actress Ingrid Bergman.

Lamarr also appeared in celebrity gossip columns. She dated silent comedian Charlie Chaplin in 1941, and had flings with Burgess Mered­ith. Lam­arr married producer Gene Markey in 1939, then divorced. Then she was married to English actor John Loder and had child­ren. Later Lamarr was married three more times.

Hedy Lamarr and Victor Mature
Samson and Delilah, 1949

Modernist American composer George Antheil also played an important role in Hedy's life. Antheil was as well-connected as Lamarr; he met & in 1925 mar­ried Hungarian Boski Markus, niece of Austrian play­wright Arthur Schnitzler.

Lamarr knew maths very well and had cleverly picked up practical munitions-engineering know­ledge from Mandl. In 1940 she “solved” the problem of controlling a radio-guided torpedo. Electronic data broadcast on a specific frequency could easily be jammed by enemy transmitters, so Lamarr suggested rapid changes in the broadcast freq­uency. Anth­eil, who had experim­ented with electronic musical instruments, de­vised a punch-card-like device that could synchronise a transmitter and receiver.

The pair were jointly awarded a patent for their important discovery. But credit did not help the frequency-hopping idea; it was never applied by the military during WW2. The real payoff of frequency-hopping came only decades later, when it became integral to the operation of cellular telephones and Blue-tooth systems that enabled computers to communicate with peripheral devices. Too late for Lamarr and Ant­heil's patent.

Experiment Perilous (1944) was a great film. As was the Cecil B De­Mille film Samson and Delilah (1949), with Victor Mature and Lamarr as the stars. The film combined a Biblical evangelical Christ­­ian mor­alism combined with hot sex!

Lamarr made several films in the 1950s, outside the Hollywood sys­t­em. In the Italian-made feature The Loves of Three Queens (1954) she played Helen of Troy, and then Joan of Arc in The Story of Man­kind (1958). But her heyday was past. In 1950 she auctioned off her possessions and retired from films.

raunchy poster for White Cargo, 1943

In 1967 she published an autobiography, Ecstasy and Me: My Life as a Woman, but sued her ghost writers, claiming that the book was scan­d­alous. She complained that she’d had a $7 million income but was now subsisting on a grotty pension. More litigation followed in 1974.

Lamarr was reclusive in her last years. The story of her radio transmission invent­ion became widely publicised and she received an Electronic Frontier Foundation Pion­eer Award in 1997. She died in Jan 2000 and was posthumously inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 2014.

For a biography that focused on Lamarr's scientific skills, see Richard Rhodes' book Hedy’s Folly (Doubleday).


Now my own questions. Undoubtedly Hedwig fell for Fritz Mandl’s charming personality, and was very impressed with his business acumen. But if Mandl's ties to Mussolini and Hitler were very close, how did Hedy’s Jewish parents allow their teenage daughter to marry him? And if Mandl’s own parents were Jewish, how did Hitler agree to buy the Nazis’ munitions from him? How did Hedy keep her Jewishness a total secret throughout her American life? Why was it only after her death that her child­ren learned they were Jewish.

Why did Mussolini and Hitler attend lavish parties at the Mandl home during their marriage? If one of Mandl's favourite topics at these gatherings was the technology surrounding radio-controlled missiles and torpedoes, did the American government acknowledge Hedy’s military knowledge and want to exploit it? If Lamarr was involved in a system that would allow American torpedoes and guided bombs to always reach their Nazi targets, were the Germans interested in how much knowledge she took with her to the USA after 1937? And in how much expertise she was developing with George Antheil in the USA?

Apologies. If my Comment Section doesn't work, email your comments to helenw@bigpond.net.au  and I will post them myself.


Andrew said...

What an amazing woman, who I knew little about. Some of her films sound terribly risque for their times.

Deb said...

On behalf of Bluetooth and WiFi users around the world, I thank you Hedy.

Hels said...


We normally know famous people's lives very well, even if mistakes are made, intentionally or otherwise. But Hedi Lamarr seemed to have put a HUGE effort into hiding her life.

Even her autobiography Ecstacy and Me, which was a golden opportunity for Hedi to put it out there correctly, failed.

Hels said...


My grandchildren think I am too old fashioned to understand this terminology. And they are soooo correct!

Basically Hedi Lamarr co-invented spread spectrum technology. By manipulating radio frequencies at irregular intervals between transmission and reception, they formed an unbreakable code to prevent classified messages from being intercepted by the enemy.

This spread spectrum technology (much) later galvanised the digital communications boom. Thank you Hedy.

Clavicytherium said...

Hello Hels,

I have been enjoying your recent posts, but I am having that problem again where the comment window won't open. I was properly horrified by Hitler's hangman, wondered about the effects of the flu epidemic on the war, and amazed as always by Hedy Lamarr (incidentally, she is my sister's favorite actress).
I hope I can solve this problem soon; it seems to be only for your blog.

Jim via email

Hels said...


I have had the same problem myself with one or two overseas blogs, but I didn't know what to do. So it is time to call him a Higher Help re technology - a grandchild :)

In the meantime, please email me any comments and I will add them to the Comments Section under your nick.

Hels said...

Hedy Lamarr fans may enjoy Ruth Barton's book "Hedy Lamarr: The Most Beautiful Woman in Film" because it talks about posters, clothes, jewellery etc.

mem said...

I wonder what happened to her family and to Mr Mandl ??

mem said...

well I went off searching as I often do after one of your posts :)
Her mother got to the US thanks to Heddy intervening , he dad died in 1935 before the war and Mr Mandl spent the war in Argentina where he assisted Peron in his fascist efforts . In 1955 he came back to Austria and went n producing his weapons and died in 1977. Mem

Hels said...


I knew nothing about Gertrud Kiesler's later life, so thank you. She was very fortunate to escape Europe alive.

But Fritz Mandl had a wonderful, nasty war. We know he was a pre-war owner of the arms factory in Austria, Hirtenberger Patronen Fabrik. But he moved to Brasil and then Argentina at the outset of the war, from where he got busy manufacturing and dealing in arms _very_ successfully!

Juan Peron was a member of Cabinet during the war and then vice president. He only became president in 1946. But Mandl must have been very close to Peron during the entire war because Peron gave him orders, not the nominal president Edelmiro Farrell.

Mike@Bit About Britain said...

Fascinating - and beautiful - lady. I didn't know any of this - will keep an eye open for the film.