Hollywood’s Brightest Bombshell – The Hedy Lamarr Story: Documentary about Hollywood wild-child Hedy Lamarr. Fleeing to America after escaping her Nazi sympathiser husband, Hedy Lamarr conquered Hollywood. Known as ‘the most beautiful woman in the world’, she was infamous for her marriages and affairs, from Spencer Tracy to JFK.
This film rediscovers her not only as an actress, but as the brilliant mind who co-invented 1940s wireless technology.
Hollywood’s Brightest Bombshell – The Hedy Lamarr Story
Hedy Lamarr was an American actress, inventor, and film producer. She appeared in 30 films over a 28-year career, and co-invented an early version of frequency-hopping spread spectrum communication for torpedo guidance.
Hedy Lamarr was born in Vienna, Austria-Hungary, and acted in a number of Austrian, German, and Czech films in her brief early film career, including the controversial Ecstasy (1933). In 1937, she fled from her husband, a wealthy Austrian ammunition manufacturer, secretly moving to Paris and then on to London. There she met Louis B. Mayer, head of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) studio, who offered her a Hollywood movie contract, where he began promoting her as “the world’s most beautiful woman”.
She became a star through her performance in Algiers (1938), her first American film. She starred opposite Clark Gable in Boom Town and Comrade X (both 1940), and James Stewart in Come Live with Me and Ziegfeld Girl (both 1941). Her other MGM films include Lady of the Tropics (1939), H.M. Pulham, Esq. (1941), as well as Crossroads and White Cargo (both 1942); she was also borrowed by Warner Bros. for The Conspirators, and by RKO for Experiment Perilous (both 1944). Dismayed by being typecast, Lamarr co-founded a new production studio and starred in its films: The Strange Woman (1946), and Dishonored Lady (1947). Her greatest success was as Delilah in Cecil B. DeMille’s Samson and Delilah (1949). She also acted on television before the release of her final film, The Female Animal (1958). She was honored with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 1960.
At the beginning of World War II, Hedy Lamarr and composer George Antheil developed a radio guidance system using frequency-hopping spread spectrum technology for Allied torpedoes, intended to defeat the threat of jamming by the Axis powers. She also helped improve aircraft aerodynamics for Howard Hughes while they dated during the war. Although the US Navy did not adopt Lamarr and Antheil’s invention until 1957, various spread-spectrum techniques are incorporated into Bluetooth technology and are similar to methods used in legacy versions of Wi-Fi. Recognition of the value of their work resulted in the pair being posthumously inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 2014.
The Hedy Lamarr Story – Frequency-hopping spread spectrum
During World War II, Lamarr learned that radio-controlled torpedoes, an emerging technology in naval war, could easily be jammed and set off course. She thought of creating a frequency-hopping signal that could not be tracked or jammed. She conceived an idea and contacted her friend, composer and pianist George Antheil, to help her implement it. Together they developed a device for doing that, when he succeeded by synchronizing a miniaturized player-piano mechanism with radio signals. They drafted designs for the frequency-hopping system, which they patented. Antheil recalled:
“We began talking about the war, which, in the late summer of 1940, was looking most extremely black. Hedy said that she did not feel very comfortable, sitting there in Hollywood and making lots of money when things were in such a state. She said that she knew a good deal about munitions and various secret weapons … and that she was thinking seriously of quitting MGM and going to Washington, D.C., to offer her services to the newly established National Inventors Council.”
As quoted from a 1945 Stars and Stripes interview, “Hedy modestly admitted she did only ‘creative work on the invention’, while the composer and author George Antheil, ‘did the really important chemical part’. Hedy Lamarr was not too clear about how the device worked, but she remembered that she and Antheil sat down on her living room rug and were using a silver match box with the matches simulating the wiring of the invented ‘thing’. She said that at the start of the war ‘British fliers were over hostile territory as soon as they crossed the channel, but German aviators were over friendly territory most of the way to England… I got the idea for my invention when I tried to think of some way to even the balance for the British. A radio controlled torpedo, I thought would do it.'”
Hedy Lamarr – Later years
Lamarr became a naturalized citizen of the United States at age 38 on April 10, 1953. Her autobiography, Ecstasy and Me, was published in 1966. In a 1969 interview on The Merv Griffin Show, she said that she did not write it and claimed that much was fictional. Lamarr sued the publisher in 1966 to halt publication, saying that many details were fabricated by its ghost writer, Leo Guild. She lost the suit. In 1967, Lamarr was sued by Gene Ringgold, who asserted that the book plagiarized material from an article he had written in 1965 for Screen Facts magazine.
In the late 1950s, Lamarr designed and, with husband W. Howard Lee, developed the Villa LaMarr ski resort in Aspen, Colorado. After their divorce, her husband gained this resort.
In 1966, Lamarr was arrested in Los Angeles for shoplifting. The charges were eventually dropped. In 1991, she was arrested on the same charge in Florida, this time for stealing $21.48 worth of laxatives and eye drops. She pleaded no contest to avoid a court appearance, and the charges were dropped in return for her promise to refrain from breaking any laws for a year.
During the 1970s, Lamarr lived in increasing seclusion. She was offered several scripts, television commercials, and stage projects, but none piqued her interest. In 1974, she filed a $10 million lawsuit against Warner Bros., claiming that the running parody of her name (“Hedley Lamarr”) featured in the Mel Brooks comedy Blazing Saddles infringed her right to privacy. Brooks said he was flattered; the studio settled out of court for an undisclosed nominal sum and an apology to Lamarr for “almost using her name”. Brooks said that Lamarr “never got the joke”. With her eyesight failing, Lamarr retreated from public life and settled in Miami Beach, Florida, in 1981.
Hedy Lamarr died in Casselberry, Florida, on January 19, 2000, of heart disease, aged 85. According to her wishes, she was cremated and her son Anthony Loder spread her ashes in Austria’s Vienna Woods.