Hedy Lamarr (1914 - 2000)

Hedy Lamarr
Hedy Lamarr

Hedy Lamarr, throughout the 1940's, was regarded by many as the most beautiful woman in movies, in a field with strong competition. She became one of the most successful actresses of the late 1930's and early 1940's, appearing in over 25 movies opposite top leading men like Clark Gable, James Stewart and Spencer Tracy.

As well as classic features and a powerful screen presence she also had a top class brain - in 1942, at the height of her Hollywood career, she patented a frequency-switching system for torpedo guidance, a form of 'spread spectrum' technology that was two decades ahead of its time and which later became the key to secure military communications and to modern mobile phone technology.

In Hollywood she often played the threatening 'exotic other woman.' Betrayal, suicide attempts, and psychological instability were the hallmarks of many of the parts she played - Hollywood's way of ensuring that the hero would choose the all-American gal instead of the outwardly gorgeous foreigner.

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Hedy Lamarr was born Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler on November 9, 1914 in Vienna, Austria. She had an uneventful middle class upbringing but as a teenager she became fascinated by the cinema and she decided to leave school and become an actress. She studied the piano and ballet and was discovered by Max Reinhardt, the theatre and film director. He brought her to his acting school in Berlin and after she returned to Vienna she began her first job in the movie industry as a script girl.

Hedy soon started to act and starred in her first film aged just 17, a German movie called 'Geld Auf Der Strase'. Her talent and beauty led to major parts in three more German movies in 1931 and the following year she shot to international fame when she starred in a Czechoslovak film 'Ekstase'. Her nude swimming scene, although tame by today's standards, became notorious. Her character runs naked from an enraged husband, and then has sex with a young man in a hut in the woods. It brought her to the attention of the Hollywood producers and money men and she was soon signed up by Louis B. Mayer of MGM with the proviso that she should change her name. She became Hedy Lamarr, taking her surname from the beautiful silent movie star of the 1920's, Barbara La Marr.

Hedy Lamarr made her Hollywood debut as Gaby opposite Charles Boyer in 'Algiers' in 1938. This was followed a year later by 'Lady of the Tropics' in 1939, 'Boom Town' in 1940, 'I Take This Woman' with Spencer Tracy in 1940, and 'Ziegfeld Girl' in 1941 alongside Judy Garland and Lana Turner. In 1942 she landed a plum role again opposite Spencer Tracy in the classic 'White Cargo' and again she gave a much praised performance in 'Tortilla Flat' in the same year. In all she made 18 movies during the 1940's. The most successful at the box office was in 1949 when she appeared as Delilah opposite Victor Mature's Samson in the epic 'Samson and Delilah'.

Her career quickly lost its momentum after 1950 as Hedy's looks faded and younger actresses began to appear. In 1951 she co-starred with Bob Hope in 'My Favorite Spy' but she made few films afterwards, one of her last roles being that of Joan of Arc in Irwin Allen's very poorly received epic 'The Story of Mankind' in 1957.

She retired in 1958 at the age of forty-four, leaving her legacy as the woman who had injected wartime Hollywood with a dose of sensuality combined with timeless beauty.

She also left another legacy, a remarkable by-product of her first marriage, to Friedrich Mandl, 13 years her senior, and chairman of an Austrian armaments firm. During their four year marriage she became a leading light in Viennese society, frequently entertaining, (and captivating), heads of state including Hitler and Mussolini. Her husband's company dealt in control systems of military aircraft and Hedy obviously paid attention during the dinner conversations because she was subsequently able to invent and patent a torpedo guidance device that was years ahead of its time. The concept which she developed lies behind the principal anti-jamming device used today in the U.S. government's defense communication satellite system. A quite astonishing achievement.

Lamarr was married and divorced a total of six times and had two children and one adopted son. After divorcing Friedrich Mandl in 1937 she was married to Gene Markey, screenwriter and producer, from 1939-41, then John Loder, actor, from 1943-47. In 1951 she married restauranteur and nightclub owner Ernest Stauffer, then Texas oilman W. Howard Lee from 1953-60, who later became the husband of another film star, Gene Tierney. Finally from 1963-5 she was married to her divorce lawyer, Lewis J. Boies. In 1942 she also found time to become engaged to two actors, Fred Doederlein and later, George Montgomery.

Hedy published her autobiography 'Ecstasy and Me' in 1967 and then settled down in Florida, hitting the headlines again in 1991 when, aged 78, she was arrested for shoplifting. Charges were eventually dropped.

Hedy Lamarr died in Florida on January 19, 2000, aged 85.

Hedy Lamarr Academy Awards

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