Birth: November 9, 1914
Death: January 19, 2000
Florida, United States
Hedy Lamarr was born as Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler on November 9, 1914 in Vienna, Austria. She was the only child of successful banker Emil and pianist Gertrud. Her parents were Jewish, a fact Hedy would later deny after growing up during the rise of fascism. Little Hedwig could not pronounce her name, so she called herself Hedy and the name stuck. The family lived a very upper-class lifestyle and Hedy was surrounded by maids and nannies.
Like most upper-class children, she often went to the theatre and the little girl fell in love with the stage. She started re-enacting everything she saw and told kids at school that she was going to be a star. During her teenage years it became apparent that Hedy was a rare beauty who usually got whatever she wanted. At sixteen years old she went to the most famous movie studio in Vienna to ask for a job. She was hired as a script girl and was able to convince her parents to let her drop out of school, as they were under the impression that she would quickly quit the job on her own accord.
Hedy was ambitious: she lobbied for a role in a movie at the studio and it worked. She was given small parts in Money on the Street (1930) and Storm in a Water Glass (1931). She then moved to Berlin to study acting at the school of famed director Max Reinhardt. She stood out and he cast her in small roles in his plays The Weaker Sex and Private Lives.
But Hedy was a romantic and soon she fell in love. She left everything behind and moved to Prague to be with her boyfriend. While there, Hedy was offered the leading role in the film Ecstasy, playing the neglected wife of an older man at eighteen years old. The film was artistic and erotic for its time and Hedy had a brief nude scene in it. But more controversial was her face being shown in the throes of orgasm, which was reportedly mimicked by the director sticking her with a safety pin. In Europe, the film was immediately hailed as an artistic masterpiece. The Vatican condemned it though, as did Hedy’s own parents. She quickly retreated to Vienna.
Not to be discouraged, Hedy soon went back to the stage to star as empress Sissy in a play. Hedy became so popular in Vienna theatre circles, that men would ask her out all the time. One of them was the third-richest man in Austria Friedrich ‘Fritz’ Mandl, chairman of a leading weapon factory. She liked his determination and confidence. Although born Jewish, Fritz had converted to Catholicism and had ties to Benito Mussolini and later Alfred Hitler. A sensitive issue, since many Jewish artists, like Hedy’s former director Max Reinhardt, were fleeing Europe because of the rise of fascism. But Hedy was not paying attention to the political situation and she quickly accepted Fritz’ wedding proposal. They wed after eight weeks and at Fritz’ insistence she quit her work, subsequently declining an offer from American studio Paramount.
Nineteen year old Hedy was content at the start of her marriage. She had every luxury imaginable and mostly entertained important guests. But Hedy soon became lonely and realised she had become a ‘trophy wife’. More unnerving, was the fact that Fritz was extremely possessive and jealous. She was not allowed to go out alone and staff held the keys to their house so that she could not leave when her husband was at work. Meanwhile her father passed away from a heart attack, leaving Hedy devastated. After two attempts to flee, Hedy finally succeeded in late 1937 by dressing up as one of the servants.
Hedy took refuge in England, where the boss of major Hollywood studio MGM, Louis B. Mayer, was staying as well. She arranged a meeting with him, but he was unsure of her because of the controversial nature of Ecstacy and Hedy’s inability to speak English well. Not to be underestimated, Hedy made sure she was on the same boat to America as Mayer. When he saw the effect the beautiful Hedy had on the men aboard, he offered her a contract.
When Hedy arrived in Hollywood, her English was still lacking and she was lonely. In these days, the studio assigned their actors to roles. But MGM did not know what to make of her, so there were no roles available. She found a companion in comedian Reginald Gardiner and the two started dating. While at a party with Reginald, she met producer Walter Wanger who felt that she was perfect for a role in his new film Algiers. The film proved to be a great success and Hedy was hailed as a new star. Her glamorous European aura gave boss Louis B. Mayer hope that she would be the next Greta Garbo.
He promoted Hedy as ‘the most beautiful woman in the world’. Her new star status offered Hedy a new level of control over her life: she was financially independent enough to buy her own home, a small ranch in Beverly Hills. With Mayer’s help, she also evacuated her mother to England to escape the unsafe Vienna.
Her next role would be in the film I Take This Woman, the only film Louis B. Mayer would ever produce himself. Unfortunately, filming was a disaster from the start and the film was eventually shelved, after losing one million in production costs.
During her time off, Hedy broke up with Reginald and started dating film producer Gene Markey. Their courtship was a short one: after four weeks Hedy married the almost twenty year older Gene. Immediately after the wedding, Hedy started filming her next feature Lady of the Tropics with Robert Taylor. She was cast as an exotic love interest to the male protagonist, a role that she would be typecast in forever more. The film opened to mixed reviews, but did make a substantial amount of money. Still, Hollywood was disappointed. Hedy had been built up to be the next superstar and the movies she made were mediocre at best. Hedy agreed and sued MGM for a breach of contract because she was offered so few roles. She eventually settled and received a pay raise. But the damage had been done: Louis B. Mayer was disappointed in her success and her attitude and he quickly lost interest in her as his new star.
In October 1939 Hedy and Gene adopted a baby boy they named James. But their relationship was strained and both parties were pre-occupied with their work. After the filming of Boom Town, Hedy announced her divorce after sixteen months of marriage. Hedy would have custody of James.
In the summer of 1940, Hedy met someone who would change her life and their friendship would have an impact on the world to come. At a dinner party she was introduced to composer, pianist and inventor George Antheil, whose work she had admired. They kept in touch and one evening they discussed the missiles that had hit boats filled with families trying to flee war-torn Europe. A lot of these devices were jammed and set off course, hurting the innocent. Hedy had learned a great deal about ammunition from listening to conversations her ex-husband Fritz, who owned a weapon factory, had with colleagues and politicians. She told George about an idea she had for a radio-directed torpedo. With this invention a missile would never miss its mark and the enemy could not pick up on its signal. The two went to work and ended up drafting designs for a frequency hopping system. They patented it, which was a time consuming endeavour. So for the time being, Hedy went back to work.
Boom Town opened to great success and MGM took advantage by letting Hedy star in Comrade X, Come Live With Me and Ziegfeld Girl back to back. The films did well at the box-office, but Hedy’s parts were still shallow. Hedy voiced her frustration at the lack of good roles she was getting to the press and was quickly put on a sabbatical because of ‘illness’ by the studio. Hedy wasn’t bothered, because she had more important things on her mind. She desperately wanted to help with the war-effort and offered her services to the Inventor’s Council. They brushed her off and felt that she was of more use by being an actress. Although most people in Hollywood saw Hedy’s inventions as a cute hobby, there were those who realised her potential.
Business man and inventor Howard Hughes gave her access to his team of scientists and Hedy designed a new wing shape to make his beloved airplanes more aerodynamic. When the patent for the frequency hopping system was accepted, Hedy and George offered their invention to the National Inventor’s Council. Although there was excitement around the project at first, the invention was never picked up.
In the summer of 1941 Hedy was called back to work and she received a role in H.M. Pullham, Esq., followed by Tortilla Flat and Crossroads. Privately, Hedy was in a good place. Her mother was finally able to flee England and lived close to Hedy and little James now. Hedy again offered to lend her services for the war effort, hoping to put her inventions to good use, this time to the government. They advised her to use her fame by selling war bonds. So she went on tour, going on stage and signing autographs while encouraging people to buy them. In ten days she had sold $25 million worth of war bonds. Afterwards, she volunteered most of her time at The Hollywood Canteen, which entertained servicemen and –women.
It was at The Hollywood Canteen, where a lot of entertainers helped out, that she met fellow actor John Loder. John and Hedy were both Europeans from upper-class families and they quickly found themselves drawn to each other. A few months later, the pair were married.
Hedy’s movies still weren’t up to the standard she desperately wanted them to be. She had been assigned to do perhaps her most controversial film: White Cargo, in which she plays a seductive African woman who turns out to be Arabic. She went on to film The Heavenly Body, The Conspirators and Experiment Perilous, which all did reasonably well. None were the box-office successes that were expected of ‘the most beautiful woman in the world’ though. Hedy was becoming wary of Hollywood, the frustrations about her career and she needed more and more breaks in between filming.
In 1944 Hedy found out that she was pregnant, which made her excited but nervous. John had adopted James, but the boy was usually away at boarding school. While pregnant, she filmed Her Highness and the Bellboy, which was her last film under her contract at MGM. MGM boss Louis B. Mayer was happy to be rid of the ‘difficult’ Hedy and Hedy was happy to finally be able to choose her own films. In May 1944 Hedy gave birth to a baby girl she named Denise. The baby was in a breech and the labour proved to be traumatic for Hedy. She experienced what we would now call a postpartum depression. She began seeing a psychoanalyst, but her marriage to John was unravelling.
Still, Hedy was inspired to finally take the lead in her career. She set up a production company and chose The Strange Woman as her first film, followed by Dishonoured Lady. The latter featured her husband John, but working together was not enough to save their marriage. After filming, Hedy announced her second pregnancy and her divorce. Her second pregnancy was a difficult one, she was exhausted from her personal and professional problems and suffered multiple bouts of the flu. In March 1947 she gave birth to a baby boy she named Anthony.
Meanwhile, James was still at boarding school and he was causing trouble. Hedy did not know how to deal with this amid her already stressful life. When a teacher offered to take James in, Hedy obliged and she never spoke to James again. Only towards the end of her life would they regain contact through letters and phone calls. Nobody ever truly understood why Hedy chose to cut James out of her life. The truth was that Hedy was acting more erratic by the day. Working in Hollywood under The Studio System, she had been taught to take ‘uppers’ to wake up in the morning and ‘downers’ to sleep at night. Hollywood liked to keep its stars on a tight schedule and these prescription drugs were common place. Like many stars of her day, Hedy kept using these drugs when she wasn’t filming and self-medicated. It’s been suggested by those closest to her, that this took a toll on her mental health.
Searching for Happiness
Meanwhile, Hedy tried to maintain her superstar status. She arranged a meeting with director Cecil B. DeMille and landed the coveted role of Delilah in his film Samson and Delilah. This was a golden move: the film brought in $5,5 million upon its release and became the highest grossing picture of the decade. Hedy was praised for her performance and she was on top once again. Unfortunately, the next film she accepted proved to be another flop: A Lady Without a Passport. Her next few films did reasonably well, but once again Hedy had lost momentum. So she focused on the one thing that seemed to be missing from her life: a partner. In 1951, while vacationing in Acapulco with her children, she met hotel owner Ted Stauffer and Hedy wasted no time in re-arranging her life. She sold her house and furniture, moved to Mexico and married Ted. But she soon missed California and could not adapt to living in a vacation hotspot. After seven months, Hedy and her children moved back to America and Hedy obtained a divorce.
She knew that she did not have a moment to lose when it came to her career, so she embarked on a big project: producing and starring in her own epic feature. She went to Italy to film Loves of Three Queens. The film cost her more money than she had counted on and it was never even released in The United States. Hedy married Texas oilman W. Howard Lee in 1953. Again, Hedy packed up her children to start a new life, this time in Houston. Her children loved Howard and Hedy settled in, decorating her new home and trying to be a housewife. But Hollywood still beckoned: she filmed The Story of Mankind and The Female Animal during her marriage. Neither were well received, but Hedy soon spent more and more time in California. Her marriage was not working out and in 1960 the pair divorced. What followed was a big lawsuit regarding Howard’s assets. Hedy had trouble coping after the divorce and she reportedly suffered a nervous breakdown.
Hedy took some time for herself, travelled frequently and started feeling better. But her decisions would cause her trouble again and again. In 1963 she married her divorce lawyer Lewis Boies, only to divorce two years later.
In 1966 she was set to play in the film Picture Mommy Dead, only to be replaced with Zsa Zsa Gabor when she was arrested for shoplifting. The press jumped on the shoplifting scandal and ensuing trial, though the charges were eventually dropped. Much worse for her reputation was the release of the (auto)biography Ecstasy and Me. The book was in the hands of two ghost writers and Hedy was shocked when she read it. It was filled with stories that were simply not true and rife with sexual anecdotes. She sued, but the book was released anyway and became a major bestseller. Hedy withdrew from Hollywood in the 1970’s and focused more on her personal life. She dated, though nothing serious came of it, and became a grandmother.
For someone who was once called ‘the most beautiful woman in the world’, old age was daunting and she had multiple plastic surgery procedures done. In the 1980’s Hedy moved to Miami Beach to have more privacy. She did not go out much and had lost part of her eyesight due to cataracts. In 1991 she was arrested once more for shoplifting, but again the charges were dropped. By now she lived in Florida, almost in complete seclusion. She did not want the pressure of being ‘Hedy Lamarr’ anymore and all of the plastic surgery had taken its toll on her looks. She would only see a handful of friends who lived close by, but refused to see even her children and grandchildren. Hedy would spend hours a day on the phone and enjoyed simple things such as swimming and watching television.
The late 90’s brought some sunshine to Hedy’s life: her and George Antheil’s patent for frequency hopping may have been expired, but the invention had been instrumental in many ways. An updated version of the invention was used in Navy ships during the Cuban missile crisis and in the 80’s it had been cleared for commercial use. Since then, it was used to create such modern day technology as Bluetooth and Wi-Fi. Her invention was now worth billions of dollars, but she never received any of it. People were realizing a glamorous actress of Hollywood’s Golden Age had been an inventor and she finally got a little bit of recognition. Hedy received awards such as the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s Pioneer Award and a BULBIE Gnass Spirit of Achievement Bronze Award in the late 90’s. She said that she was happy her work had not been done in vain and her son Anthony picked up the awards on her behalf.
Hedy passed away in her home in Florida of natural causes on January 19, 2000. She had a private funeral. Her children spread her ashes in the woods in Vienna where she had played as a child, as per her request. Since her death, Hedy’s work as an inventor has gotten more recognition. She was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 2014 and has been the subject of multiple documentaries. This day and age, Hedy is an example of beauty and brains, who hopefully inspires people to look beneath the surface.