Brains and Beauty : the life and style of Hedy Lamarr

Born Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler on November 9th 1914, Hedy Lamar was best known for being “The World’s Most Beautiful Woman” and Hollywood Actress, but she also was an inventor whose pioneering technology would form the basis for today’s WiFi, GPS and Bluetooth systems. She’s proof that one can have brains and beauty so I’ve naturally become fascinated with her.

Growing Up

Born in Vienna, Austria to a well-to-do Jewish family Lamarr had plenty of attention from her father inspiring her to look at the world with curiosity. He would discuss with her machinery like printing presses and street cars and it’s inner workings and mechanics. These early conversations inspired Hedy and at five years of age she would often be found taking apart and reconstructing her music box in a bid to understand how it worked. Her mother also doted on her only child, and as a concert pianist introduced the young Hedy to the arts and creative world, placing her in both ballet and piano lessons.

At seven years old in Vienna

At 16 she was discovered by Max Reinhardt with her beauty overshadowing her brains, after studying acting with Reinhardt in Berlin and starring in her first small film role by 1930 (Geld auf der Straße, Money on the Street) it wasn’t until 1932 that she gained name recognition as Hedwig Kielsler after starring in the controversial film Ecstasy.

Lamarr before coming to Hollywood

After catching Austrian munitions dealer Fritz Mandl’s eye after starring in the play Sissy, they married in 1933. Hedy was deeply unhappy and was forced to play host and smile on demand amongst Mandel’s friends and shady business partners, some of whom were associated with The Nazi Party. She once said, “I knew I could never be an actress while I was his wife. He was the absolute monarch in his marriage… I was like a doll.” She escaped in 1937 by fleeing to London but took with her knowledge of wartime weaponry after hearing dinner table conversation on such topics.

Hollywood Starlet

When in London, Lamarr was introduced to Louis B. Mayer of the MGM Studios. Following this meeting she secured her ticket to Hollywood, mystifying and enchanting American audiences with her grace, beauty and accent. She initially turned down the offer of $125 a week that Mayer offered, but booked onto the same liner bound for New York as he was. During that trip, Lamarr impressed Mayer so much he raised his offer to $500 a week which was accepted. To distance herself from the “Ecstacy Lady” reputation, she changed her name to Hedy Lamarr. Her new surname was homage to the beautiful silent film actress Barbara La Mar following a suggestion from Mayer’s wife Margaret Shenberg.

Mayer billed Lamarr in Hollywood as “The Worlds Most Beautiful Woman” and an unknown but well-publicised Austrian actress creating anticipation in audiences. After being cast in Algiers, an American version of the French film Pépé le Moko opposite Boyer, Lamarr hoped she would become another Greta Garbo or Marlene Dietrich. According to one viewer, when she first appeared on screen, “everyone gasped, Lamarr’s beauty literally took one’s breath away.”

In future films, Lamarr was typecast as the archetypal glamorous seductress of exotic origin. After being cast in her second American film, I take this woman(1940), opposite Spencer Tracy under the direction of Josef Von Sternberg who regularly worked with Dietrich. Sternberg, however, was fired during the shoot and replaced by Frank Borzage. After the film was put on hold, Lamarr was cast as a mixed-race seductress opposite Robert Taylor in Lady of the Tropics (1939). When I Take this Woman was reshot by W. S. Van Dyke, Lamarr returned, with the resulting film being a flop.

Although she was successful in the “Golden Age of Hollywood” she also left her mark on technology and life as we know it now.

Hedy Lamarr and her invention

In 1942, when her career was at its heights, Lamarr received recognition in a very different field to entertainment and movie making. Along with her friend, composer George Antheil, Lamarr patented the idea of a “Secret Communication System”. This radio signaling device was a means of changing radio frequencies preventing enemies from decoding messages. Designed originally to defeat the German Nazis, the system was an important step in technology development to maintain security of not only military communications and mobile phones.

Although she wasn’t instantly recognized for her communications invention, in 1997 Lamarr and Antheil were honored with the Electronic Fronteir Foundation Pioneer Award, and she became the first female to receive the BULBIE™ Gnass Spirit of Achievement Award, considered the “Oscars” of inventing. The main reason why they were not awarded earlier was because the wide-reaching impact of the device was not known until decades later.

If you’ve enjoyed this post, why not see more about fashion history and inspirational women from the menu?

Love always kittens

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