Heddy Lamarr: The Scientific Circe

I am one wholeheartedly concurs with Louis B. Mayer that Heddy Lamarr (Hedwig Eva Marie Kiesler, (1914-2000) was the world’s most beautiful woman, edging out even my favorite (Vivien Leigh, whom we wrote about a few days ago) and Ava Gardner (whose moment of perfection was a gossamer, brief thing), both of whom were much better actresses. Apart from those taken during her last couple of decades, I’ve never seen a photo of Heddy Lamarr that didn’t stop my heart cold and raise my temperature (as contradictory as that sounds).

Much like Greta Garbo, Marlene Dietrich, and the slightly later Ingrid Bergman, Lamarr was a foreign import, who came with a naughty reputation. Lamarr had acted in her native Vienna, Berlin, and Prague, where the erotically charged film Ecstacy (1933) made her reputation. That same year, she married arms manufacturer Fritz Mandl, one of the wealthiest men in Austria. Heddy was Jewish, and her husband was half-Jewish, though he identified as Catholic and forced her to convert. He then gleefully and apparently without a conscience, proceeded to seek profit from the rearmament of (Nazi) Germany. Heddy fled the country and her controlling husband around the time of the Anschluss and also got her mother out. It was in London a few months later that Mayer met up with her, which was her path to Hollywood.

Lamarr had the kind of sex appeal that had not been seen since the time of the vamps of the silent era. Indeed she took her screen name from one of them, Barbara La Marr, who had been billed as ‘The Girl Who Was Too Beautiful”. Unlike most of the silent actresses, though, hers was not an expressive mask, it was more impassive in the manner of Garbo. It was a face that drew you to it; it didn’t have to do anything. Unfortunately for her, she arrived in Hollywood during its period of maximum contrived wholesomeness, so her assets were not used to maximum advantage. Yes, she played many femme fatales, but the Production Code prevented her from revisiting anything like Ecstacy level notoriety. Still it shone through somehow. She possess a quality I associate with Bettie Page, and the Good Girl Art of Bill Ward. Batman’s Bob Kane is said to have derived partial inspiration for Catwoman from Lamarr’s image. And while she proved to be a genius in many areas, acting was not one of them. The medocrity of Hollywood and Lamarr’s own limitations combined to give us a very short list of remembered films from her body of work. These pictures include her first American film Algiers (1938, a partial model for Casablanca), Boom Town (1940), Ziegfeld Girl (1941), White Cargo (1942), White Cargo (1942), Samson and Delilah (1949). and My Favorite Spy (1951) with Bob Hope.

There have been a number of books, documentaries, plays and dramatic films in recent years (my friend Elyse Singer wrote one of them) that testify to a previously little-known and possibly more important legacy of Lamarr’s: she was an inventor. As a girl and young woman she had kept her ears open during conversations with her father (a banker, who explained the world to her) and her first husband (who manufactured weapons of destruction). Her artistic mind leapt to solutions which less creatively inclined people might never venture towards. Her idea for “frequency hopping” (now the most famous of her innovations) involved a mechanism that would coordinate radio transmitters and receivers to keep switching channels in sync with one another, allowing communication that could evade being intercepted by the enemy. This became especially useful in guided torpedoes. How’s that for revenge on the Nazis who took over her country? The U.S. military did not adopt the technology in time for it to help win World War Two, but they did began to use it years later. The simple but bold concept reminds me a lot Philo T. Farnsworth’s vision that led to the breakthrough in television technology. Elaborations on Lamarr’s original idea are today used in Wi-Fi and Bluetooth technology. She also advised Howard Hughes on the streamlining of his airplanes, invented a powdered soft drink, refined trafiic light design, and many other useful patents.

Obviously a woman this beautiful and this brilliant was going to be a handful for any significant other. She married five additional husbands after Mandl. Like Garbo, she was also somewhat withdrawn, and not inclined to mingle in Hollywood social life. This had its drawbacks around the time of her 40th birthday, just as the studio system was being dismantled. In 1954 she self-produced a starring vehicle called Loves of Three Queens. Produced in Italy, it consisted of three episodes from a failed TV series she had pitched in the wake of the success of Samson and Delilah, in which she played all the great women from history. She bet the farm on it, and lost her investment. Next she played against type as Joan of Arc in Irwin Allen’s unintentionally hilariorius The Story of Mankind (1957). The Female Animal (1958) was her last film.

Around this time, she developed a Colorado ski resort called Villa LaMarr with her fifth husband W. Howard Lee. But they divorced in 1960; Lee got custody of that property.

In 1966, recently divorced from his sixth and final husband, Lamarr seemed primed for a comeback of sorts. Her ghostwritten autobiography Ecstacy and Me came out, and was slated to star in the horror film Picture Mommy Dead. But she had some kind of breakdown on the set and was replaced by — wait for it — Zsa Zsa Gabor. That same year she was arrested in Los Angeles for shoplifting. Not a good year.

In 1969 and 1970 she did a lot of television — David Frost, Merv Griffin, Mike Douglas, Dick Cavett. After this she became a recluse — again, like Garbo and Dietrich. In 1974 her named was jokingly referenced in Mel Brooks’s Blazing Saddles. Fair warning: if you react to this post with some sort of joke about that, I will have nothing but scorn and contempt for your lameness. You don’t write off a combination of Venus and Einstein with a one-liner.