In her autobiography, the one time “most beautiful woman in the world” wrote, “When I die I want on my gravestone, ‘Thank you very much for a colorful life.’” Her life was colorful, indeed; and in ways that can hardly be imagined.
Her name was Hedy Lamarr, and her extraordinary beauty was only eclipsed by her astounding intellect. The raven-haired movie star shimmered in Hollywood’s Golden Age of the 30’s and 40’s but her true luminescence was not found on the silver screen. It was in her “drawing room,” at her Hollywood home, where she invented the foundation for technologies that you and billions of others are likely using at this very moment.
The epitaph she wished for on her tombstone becomes the perfect metaphor for her life, as the mere thought of her traverses in the far reaches of the mind, evoking myriad meanings along the way.
What did she mean by it. Was she thanking God? Her fans? The whole of humanity? Was it the opposite? Did she mean it as a subtle tribute to her forgotten notoriety or her unconventional story, parts of which she was ashamed? The answer can never be known but a look into her fascinating life can at least offer some clues.
By most accounts, she was born in 1914 in Vienna, Austria, an auspicious year in that it was the year that the prince of her country, The Archduke Ferdinand was assassinated, thereby setting in motion the chain of events that would lead her to her dual existence — Hollywood movie star by day, reclusive inventor by night (even fellow recluse Howard Hughes funded some of her work).
In her early life she was well cared for by her well-to-do parents who doted on her as their only child. She was accorded all the benefits such a station in life provides. She was educated by private tutors and demonstrated a marked intellect early on, learning several European languages with ease and in short order.
But like many a teenager, school was not her passion, she longed to become an actress. Demonstrating her pluck in the first of many clever diversions, young Hedy altered a late permission slip into one that encompassed the entire day and snuck into a local studio, managing to get the attention of the director of an upcoming film.
By her own account her audition was terrible but the director apparently saw something special in her as he brought her onboard “for the sake of development.” She approached her parents about leaving her studies for a career in acting and, overcoming their initial resistance, her protective parents relented.
It wasn’t long before her “big break” came, one she would both credit as a great gift and her greatest shame. She would star in a film by a famed Czechoslovakian filmmaker titled Symphony of Love, a simple tale of a young woman who marries a much older man.
There is a scene in the film in which she is bathing in a secluded lake having put her clothes on her horse to keep them safe. The horse wanders off presenting quite the dilemma for the unclad maiden. A handsome young man sees the abandoned horse and after chasing it down endeavors to find its owner.
The rest of the story is probably obvious to all. This made Hedy the first woman in history to be filmed in the nude, a distinction which would haunt her the rest of her life.
According to Hedy in her autobiography, she claims she refused to take her clothes off. She demanded that the director show it to her in the script. The director responded that if she didn’t do it the picture would be ruined and implied that he would go to her family for damages.
She again refused but was eventually persuaded when the director agreed to film her from a distance, upon a hill. The teenage girl, and future inventor, was apparently unaware of the invention of the telescopic lens. The shots were anything but at a distance.
When the movie was screened in Paris, the crowd began spontaneously shouting “Ecstasy!” Ecstasy!” and the name of the film was quickly changed. By todays standards the film would not even merit an R rating but judged by the societal mores of 1933, it was positively scandalous.
While “Ecstasy” was in post-production, Hedy appeared in a play about the tragic life of Empress Elizabeth of Austria. In the audience was the head of a prominent munitions company. His name was Fritz Mandl. A man who was accustomed to getting what he wanted and what he wanted was Hedy.
Though it is not known if she ever really loved him, her parents did. They pursued the marriage of their 20 year-old daughter to the powerful man intently and they were soon wed. He gave her everything thing she could ever want but the one thing she needed most — freedom.
He called her “Hasi” which means little bunny. He looked at her as a trinket, a trophy to be brought out to be admired and then returned to its case. Hedy was no little bunny and as Franz would soon come to know, she would not be put in a case, no matter how beautifully gilded.
But the marriage and its trophy case prison was not a waste. Not to future generations, that is. Fritz, as one of the leading arms dealers in the world, hosted extravagant dinners for his belligerent customers.
Hedy was trotted out to look beautiful for the likes of Hitler, Mussolini and Stalin, with all of whom she is said to have had dined. Mussolini was intoxicated by her beauty most and would stare at her for hours on end. She had to rebuff his advances on more than one occasion.
Enchanting as she was, they all treated her with indifference when it came to discussing the matters of war armaments. Behind her radiant glow was a brain of even greater luminescence.
She listened and learned. She catalogued in her mind the strengths and the weaknesses of the weapon systems, how they worked; what they did. Her knowledge and the application of that knowledge would benefit the world in ways that even she could not imagine.
Married for four long years to a controlling man was enough for Hedy. She had a staff of dozens dedicated to her needs but they were all under the employ of her husband. He would pay them bonuses to spy on her and report back to him her every move.
He travelled often and he put his staff each in the role of de facto prison guard. She could come and go as she pleased as long as she didn’t leave their sight. Someone was always watching her. If she were to ever try to escape, she knew she would only get one chance.
The same clever girl who had snuck into her first audition, put together a masterful plan. She hired a maid named Laura who shared her general build, height, hair color, etc. Putting her acting training in the task, she began mimicking Laura’s mannerisms and speech and reinforced it all by spending a great deal of time with her.
After a while the time had come to put her plan into motion. Her useful maid (who was spying on her like the others) one day asked if she could take leave to visit her boyfriend in Paris. The beautiful prisoner at once agreed and spent the next several days helping the unsuspecting maid to plan her trip, knowing all the details of her leave would be necessary in pulling off the ruse.
On the afternoon just before Laura’s departure to the train station where she would make way to Paris, Hedy invited Laura to share a farewell cup of tea and asked her to go to the kitchen for some milk and lemon.
Making use of the time, Hedy dissolved six sleeping pill tablets into her dupe’s cup of tea. She had been informed by a doctor to whom she had feigned insomnia, that six pills was the maximum dose. Knowing that Laura liked a lot of sugar, she believed the plan would work.
It did. As she was in a hurry to see her boyfriend, the unfortunate maid quickly consumed the tea and almost instantly began to yawn. The mistress of the house suggested she lay down for a bit and before she could utter an answer she was fast asleep.
True to her plan, the clever beauty tucked Laura into her own bed and bundled her up so that all that was showing was the tiniest bit of her hair, which of course, was the same color and texture as her own.
Hedy Quickly changed into a maid’s uniform that she had secreted away earlier, grabbed the suitcases she had packed in stealth and made her way to Laura’s room where she would don her overcoat, hat and locate the keys to her car.
Next, she move down the hallway where she at once greeted by the butler. She walked by him hurriedly but did not speak. She gave him the wave that she had been practicing. “Have a nice time Laura. Don’t do anything that I wouldn’t do,” he said, as she scurried toward the door.
She made it to just outside the threshold. The gardener raised up his head, alerted by the sound of the door. At first it looked as if he were coming to talk to her but he merely walked in front of her on his way to the garden shed.
She made it to Laura’s old ragged car but found the chauffeur in her path. Like the others, if he discovered her ruse, he would not hesitate to put her back into the trophy case. But like the others, he bought the ploy and thinking it was Laura, simply lowered his head and casually said, “Have a good time,” before returning to the work he was in. She nodded and waved without speaking, just as before, and then hopped in the car and drove away.
Hedy’s plan worked almost too well. She arrived at the train station with a few hours to spare. The train was not yet due. Would Laura wake up? Would the butler, gardener or chauffeur replay the images of her departure in their minds and find something amiss?
Every stare of the passengers on the platform elicited fear and loathing in her mind. What was her husband capable of after suffering the embarrassment of a runaway wife?
Mercifully the train arrived on time and she was off. Her ego-centric husband was so embarrassed by Hedy’s departure that he said nothing and did not contest the divorce when Hedy sought it shortly thereafter. She arrived in London sometime later a single woman. She was free at last.
By now, the world was well aware of the actress who had starred in Ecstasy. As a consequence, she was invited to perform in a few stage productions and at some point caught the eye of a well known American agent named Bob Richie. Richie had the ear of Louis B. Mayer of Metro Goldwyn Mayer, the most powerful man in Hollywood and insisted that Hedy meet him.
She didn’t know who he was but reluctantly agreed. The meeting did not go well. Mayer was aware of her part in Ecstasy and insisted that was something impossible for the American public to overcome. In her broken English she defended herself vigorously and explained what had happened.
Ritchie for his part, recounted to Mayer all Hedy’s positive attributes, her alluring beauty and presence, chief among them. Next he said something that would infuriate her. He told Mayer that like all hollywood starlets she would do anything to be signed up. Hedy stormed toward the door.
She was determined not to be used again. The studio head, seeing her passion, stopped her at the door and took another look at her. He paused and then offered her $125 a week which made her even more angry. She turned and walked out the door to the sound of Mayer’s dismissive “Good night.”
Being the clever woman that she was, “Good night” was not the end of it. She found out through Ritchie that Mr. Mayer was to travel back to America on an ocean liner and promptly bought herself a ticket. During the trip she put herself on parade in the very spots she knew he would be. He was clearly charmed by her. Near the end of the voyage he asked her to come to his stateroom.
She agreed and when she walked to the the room she found him dictating to his secretary. A moment of silence past and then his secretary handed him the papers she was typing. He handed them to Hedy. It was a contract for $500 a week, a tidy sum in those days. The only thing he asked of her was to learn english and to change her last name to Lamarr, which she agreed.
The bold and unflinching beauty was sailing onward to stardom.
Hedy Lamarr, as she was newly styled, worked hard to learn English and with her captivating beauty quickly became a star. The typical movie star life bored her, however, and while most of her peers ravished themselves in rabid self-indulgence she preferred the quiet of her “drawing room.” She would either leave all the parties early or not go at all to be at home thinking and inventing.
Her passion to create became all the more intense after September 17th 1940, in the aftermath of what was to her and the world a horrifying event — the sinking of the S.S. City of Benares, a steam liner which was evacuating children from war-torn England. It was torpedoed in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean by a German U-boat. 77 children were among the dead.
She could not believe such barbarity was possible and perpetrated by people who spoke her native tongue. Having met Hitler, Mussolini and the Axis leaders she knew this would not be the last such disaster. She vowed then and there that she would do everything in her power aid in their defeat.
In her drawing room she began plans to help the allies. She contacted the war department and offered her services. Not surprisingly, they didn’t take her seriously despite the fact that she had lived among the enemy. But a chance meeting with a man named George Antheil gave her hope that she could contribute. His background in composing music, particularly his knowledge of the pianola (a self playing piano) turned out to be just the spark that would bring her ideas to fruition.
Hedy’s idea was to make the allies torpedoes more accurate and therefore turn the tide against the German U-boats. Using her knowledge gleaned secretly from her oppressive ex-husband’s dinner table, she knew the inner-workings of torpedoes and believed she had an idea to make the allies far superior.
The problem inherent in a torpedo was its accuracy. Most of the “deadly fish” weren’t deadly at all; they would miss their mark more often than not, especially the allied version which was less reliable than its German counterpart. Together they worked furiously to develop a way to synchronize the the torpedo and the operator so that the torpedo could be controlled remotely and thus guided to its intended target.
They used the idea of the mechanics of the pianola (a roll of paper with slots that when turned, instructs the keys to depress and strike the piano chord) as inspiration to craft an ingenious method for electronically controlling the torpedo without the possibility of the enemy jamming the signal.
They called it The Secret Communication System. It was on this day, August 11th, 1942, that the U.S. Patent office issued patent number 2,292,387 to Hedy and George for their extraordinary invention.
The problem is no one knew it was extraordinary at the time. When the war ended, their was no big push for improvements to weapon systems. The ingenious invention languished in the patent office for decades before it was dusted off for use. Or did it?
Hedy and George’s patent expired in 1957 but we do know that on at least one occasion (probably more) the Navy pulled the patent sheet out of the files and shared it with the military. In the mid-fifties the navy wanted a way to track and destroy enemy submarines and used their ideas in the development of a sonar system. This in turn, opened up a chain of use over the ensuing decades and through many iterations it has become one of the most ubiquitous applications of all time.
The technical world knows it today as frequency-hopping spread spectrum.
We recognize it as the basis for Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, cell phones, GPS and myriad other products that enrich and color (and sometimes complicate) our lives everyday.
Now we know what her tombstone epitaph means…
Hedy, thank you very much for a colorful life!
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