April 6, 2018:

As a rather shallow movie buff who prefers Clint Eastwood to Fellini, I never knew much about Hedy Lamarr except that her name was the inspiration for a great running gag in Mel Brook’s classic, “Blazing Saddles”. Mel as Governor Lepetomane continually annoys Lieutenant Governor, Hedley Lamarr by addressing him as “Hedy”. So, I was quite intrigued to recently read that Lamarr was not only a beautiful actress but also designed a radio control system that became the underlying technology for Wi-Fi networks, CDMA, and Bluetooth. The story is told in a new BBC documentary “Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story”.

Early Years
Born Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler in Vienna, Austria in 1913, she was “discovered” at the age of 16 by movie producer Max Reinhardt. In 1933, at the age of 20 she starred in Gustav Machaty’s film, “Ecstasy” and created international controversy because of her torrid love making scenes.  That same year, the starlet married 33-year-old Friedrich Mandl, a rich Austrian arms merchant who had close ties to the Nazi government and Mussolini’s fascist government. Both Mussolini and Hitler attended parties at the Mandl estate. Her controlling husband prevented her from pursuing her acting career and kept her as a virtual prisoner at their castle. Still, Mandl recognized her mathematical aptitude and brought her to meetings with Nazi scientists.  These conferences brought out the starlet’s scientific talents and gave her insights into radio technologies.

Frustrated with her marriage and appalled by the Nazis, she disguised herself as her maid and escaped to Paris in 1937. There she met producer Louis B. Mayer who brought her to Hollywood and promoted her as the “world’s most beautiful woman”. She changed her name to Hedy Lamarr and in 1938 made her American film debut in “Algiers.” According to one viewer, “When her face first appeared on the screen, everyone gasped. Her beauty literally took one’s breath away.”

The Secret Communications System
Lamarr was inspired to help the allied war effort and started working on an early form of “spread spectrum” telecommunications along with her Hollywood neighbor, the avantgarde composer George Antheil. They theorized that radio-controlled torpedoes could easily be jammed, thereby causing the torpedo to go off course. Using a method similar to the way piano rolls work, the duo designed a frequency-hopping system that would continually change the radio signals sent to the torpedo. They were granted a patent in 1942 but their invention wouldn’t receive widespread adoption until the invention of the transistor. 

Lamarr made 18 films in the 1940s including 1949’s top grossing movie, “Samson and Delilah” however, she became increasingly frustrated that her roles were more about her beauty than acting skills. Lamarr once said that her face was her “misfortune” and “a mask I cannot remove”. The actor, George Sanders observed that Lamarr was “so beautiful that everybody would stop talking when she came into a room”. She was the model for Disney’s “Snow White” and later was the inspiration for Batman’s “Cat Woman”.

In the 1950s, Lamarr made some dubious career choices including taking a comedic role opposite Bob Hope in “My Favorite Spy” and a disastrous role as Joan of Arc in a bomb entitled “The Story of Mankind”.
Bored with both her career and the Hollywood party scene, Lamarr began inventing again. She once said “Inventions are easy for me to do. I suppose I just came from a different planet.” Lamarr’s inventions included an improved traffic stoplight, a tablet that dissolved in water to create a carbonated drink, and a skin-tautening technique based on the principles of the accordion

Lamarr divorced for the sixth and final time in 1965 and lived as a recluse for her final 35 years. In 1997, she received the Electronic Frontier Foundation Pioneer Award for her contributions to wireless technology. When the foundation called and informed her of the award, Lamarr’s first words were ‘Well, it’s about time.’” She died three years later at the age of 85.  In 2014, Lamarr was posthumously inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame.

Hedy versus Hedley
In 1974, Ms. Lamarr filed a $10 million lawsuit against Warner Brothers, claiming that the parody of her name in Blazing Saddles infringed her right to privacy. The studio settled out of court for an undisclosed sum and an apology to Lamarr for “almost using her name”.
Mel Brooks said, “Hedy never got the joke”.

Have a great weekend.

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