It seems the entire Internet recently discovered the Hedy Lamarr patent story. She would’ve been 100 on November 9th. Hedy Lamarr was a beautiful actress in the 1930′s-40′s, but also is the named co-inventor on patent number 2292387, on August 11th 1942, for an anti-jamming system for guiding torpedoes. The system relied on a frequency hopping scheme, employing a player piano roll to switch frequencies. Frequency hopping is a type of spread spectrum technology that eventually made its way into the modern cell phone.
Great story, right? Beautiful actress by day is secretly a brilliant inventor by night. Today, it’s clear that Lamarr was a seriously complicated and arguably awesome woman; for decades, she was just a broken, bitter lady, the spoiled wreckage of the star system.
Born Hedwig Kiesler (signs with this name the patent), in Viena, to a well-to-do Jewish family was accustomed to a high end style of life —private tutors, schooling in Switzerland and, when she came of age, a much-anticipated debut into society. After her father died, she saw herself drawn into Czech filmmaker Gustav Machatý’s soft-porn like production, Extase, to face the threat of poverty under debts. She was only 16 at the time, but 50 years of sexism later would prove too difficult for her to escape the “misstep” of being the Ecstasy Girl and the image it would dictate for her.
Soon after this film she married one of the top four munition dealers in all of Europe, Fritz Mandl, who, in her own words, “always treated me like a doll. I had to spend all my time giving and going to parties, wearing smart clothes, taking pleasure trips to Switzerland, North Africa, the Riviera…”. Does not sound that awful to me! But wait. This is mid-XX Century Europe, who do you think would be attending those parties? Her role in his life was to be decorative while he had the boys over for dinner to talk shop. Boys like Mussolini, Göring, and the top munition makers of Central Europe. Lamarr wanted out—not before having retained a lot of crucial information that would serve her well later on, but Mandl exercised firm control over her every doing and forced her into isolation while he tried to get hands on and destroy every single copy of Extase, the film that was driving him jealous mad.
This is the point where Hedy will try to escape her “prison”, but it is not clear how. Her unauthorised memoirs (this is case where you a have a ghostwriter do the work for you and he just goes out of hand) say that she would hide in a brothel and even have sex with some john, but other sources say she drug her maid and fled in her costume to Paris. Anyhow, she arrived in London and met with MGM’s head Louis B. Mayer and signed her passport to Hollywood as Hedy Lamarr to become seriously big box office. Would Lamarr be the lady who slept in makeup and hated feminism? Or would she be the 1930s version of Tina Fey with her predilection towards Sabor de Soledad?
MGM obviously wanted the glamour girl, but she seemed to be a hard nut to crack, and then a love polygon spread all over the press involving her boyfriend at the time comedian Gardiner, Joan Bennett and her ex-husband Gene Markey and her new romance Walter Wanger—a producer with whom Lamarr had worked before and who forced Bennett to dye black to look like Hedy for Trade Winds! This, Lamarr’s outspoken criticism of MGM and the fact that she was actually not a very good actress were a few reasons for her failing career.
She also tried luck with her own production company, where she worked with a string of B-list co-producers, in an attempt to do something different than what MGM had made her into. A few more skimpy clothed roles for Hollywood and that would be it. Her beauty, her face, and the way it looked in the throes of pleasure, became her prison. By the late ‘60s, she was on her sixth husband, whom she had just divorced when she was arrested for first time for shoplifting in 1966 in LA. The charges were dropped, but one of Andy Warhol’s disciples made a film, Hedy Goes Shopping, with a transvestite thoroughly (and very effectively) lampooning her post-filmic career, unfortunate plastic surgery and all.
And the book came out. She claimed that several parts of it had been fabricated by her ghostwriter, and sued the publisher for libel in her own memoir. But the judge finally ruled against her after being easily convinced of her “notoriously bad” reputation for “morality, integrity, and honest dealing”, that she was desperate and all she had to sell was her sex life.
But this is only how Hollywood destroyed her celebrity image, the one that, gladly, we least remember her for.
In the meantime, Hedy asked once George Antheil at a dinner party about having breast augmentation—something that does not favour at all an argument on her defiance over the industry’s treatment to women and sexuality, but still. I don’t see how but the conversation went south and she ended up discussing frequency hopping over some blueprints from her first husband, too focused on war tactics, she had managed to smuggle with her to America and signing a patent archive. George was an American back from living in Paris, one of the pre-war avant gardists, his real medium being music. A brilliant composer, who managed to synchronize numerous player pianos for a one-man show at Carnegie Hall, but now that nothing much was going on with his music he had found a new passion in endocrinology. For drawing up the patent they enlisted the help of Professor Samuel Stuart Mackeown of Caltech’s Radio Development Section.
She might have made a few of bad decisions —6 husbands! That is at least 5 bad decisions there— but whether it is quoting Goethe, discovering a new headdress or patenting a way for missiles to go undetected, Lamarr consistently startled those who had just settled down to the idea that she must be another typical beauty with a negligent I.Q. In 1997 —George already dead— she explained that George did the technical job for their patent together, while she was “merely” creative, because she did not know how to implement it. But he, in his own 1945 memoirs, gives full credit to Lamarr, claiming his work on the patent was “merely” technical and that she was intimately involved. She did not have a technical education, therefore no clue on solving triple integrals… but hey, in the end engineering is really all about creativity, right?
Hedy Lamarr: Sex Object and Hedy Lamarr: Lady Inventor was too difficult for the press to reconcile and her patent was not properly recognised until 1997, when The Electric Frontier Foundation honored her job. But it wasn’t until after her death in 2000 that her image began to shift from scandalous, washed-up star to celebrated scientist. In fact, her significance to film history has become little more than a footnote alongside other bigger stars. And don’t mistake me, I am fully aware that the patent merit is not just, if at all, hers, but I interpret her story as a reminder that values like intelligence and self-determination are still today positioned as mutually exclusive of beautiful and glamorous. And we face this dilemma every day, just revisit what you think about when you see your typical [put bitchface’s name here] in publicity photos. I will confess that I thought about Kim Kardashian when knowing about the sex tape Extase as Hedy’s claim to fame!
She wasn’t an engineer. He was musician. She was bored and wanted more boobs. He was short of cash and looking to sell his book. She used to be married to a European weapon dealer. Whom she hated. She had blueprints and had overheard many World War II situations back in Viena. The first thoughts of torpedos that were remote controlled dated as far back as 1930, and the idea of frequency hopping had been around at least as early as 1929 when Polish engineer Leonard Danilewicz (who among other things built the German’s Enigma coding machines for the British) came up with the notion. But how could she possible know about jamming? Heard over the Mandl dinner table? Relies her intellect, perhaps, in having been able to rob the Nazis of avant garde military technology? Interesting…