Last year more women than ever were elected to serve in Congress, making up a historic number of 118 seats (31 more than the previous year). Now, 2019 has freshly started and we have yet, another barrier being broken. Not in Congress, not politics, but in certain aspects as dramatic: The Oscars. The Academy has voted, the results are out. A total of 15 females took home the golden statue: Lady Gaga for best original song, Ruth E. Carter for costume design, Hannah Beachler for best production design. Women won the best documentary, best animation for short-film, best action scene and many more.
It’s a good time for being a woman and therefore it is a good time to remember one, one that lived in a time when things were much different than they are today. We want to celebrate the life of Hedy Lamarr, a woman, an actress, a scientist. Hedy wore many hats, yet wore all of them gracefully.
Often regarded as one of the most beautiful actresses of all time. Hedy was born in 1914 in Vienna as Hedwig Kiesler, the daughter of a Jewish banker and a concert pianist. This favorable economic background gave her the opportunity to be exposed to things that were of the privilege of the very few at that time. She learned different languages, she learned about arts and fell in love with acting. At the same time, she kept a sweet spot for maths and science, handling the subjects with a natural talent and ease. It was at a very young age that Hedy started to a battle between the world of science and the world of arts. A conflict that would follow her throughout her life.
Besides her devoted passions, she possessed a rare beauty, so particular that would make men and women stop and look at her whenever she crossed a room. Her looks and love for acting, led her – almost without trying – to land acting roles in different Austrian movies. She appeared in many small roles until one movie changed her career forever, giving her worldwide fame.
In 1932, she appeared in the controversial German movie Ecstasy. The movie made history when it showed Hedy naked, or while simulating an orgasm. The media stunt was in part because of Heidi’s beauty, but mostly because It was the first-ever movie screen an orgasm in a non-pornographic film. The tape was condemned everywhere in Europe and by the Pope. Yet, the scandal brought fame to Hedy, following the classic “all publicity is good publicity”.
It was during this time that she met her first husband: Fritz Mendel, a very wealthy entrepreneur that made his fortune providing ammunition for the Nazis and the fascists. Marring Fritz was a way of reaching financial stability and living the life of a great lady. The marriage didn’t last long though. She soon realized that she became a trophy wife, a women that Fritz could show-off at important dinners. She was deprived of either studying science or performing art. She had all the beautiful things she could ever want, besides freedom.
Her life became more difficult with the increasing jealousy of her husband and her father death. She had to choose a different path for her future. Europe was on the verge of a war and Jews were not welcome anymore in Hitler’s plans and England was the closest safe port where she could go. So, without speaking any English, she fled Vienna to London disguised as a maid. She sewed all her jewelry inside her clothes and was ready to start a new life.
In the British capital, the Hollywood movie scene caught her attention. In that time, the American producer Luis Mayer was in London to scout for actresses fleeing from Nazi Germany. Hedwig was a perfect choice. Mr. Mayer right after meeting her offered her a steady salary of 150$ a week and a promise of no extra naked scenes. She refused it, thinking that she deserved better. But she was determined enough to find her way to Hollywood and to persuade Mr. Meyer that she was worthy of more.
She booked a cabin on the same boat as Mr. Mayer trying to obtain a better offer before approaching the New York port. With poor English but great determination, she successfully convinced Mr. Meyer to give her a shot. The only condition was that she needed a new name and identity, more suitable for an anti-german Hollywood: Hedy Lamarr was finally born. By the time she landed in New York, she was already known as the great new discovery of Luis Mayer. She became a media sensation. Her first American movie was a major success and she soon became a symbol of aspiration for many women.
It didn’t take her long to fall in love in this new country. She met Gene Markey, a screenwriter. The two soon got married and adopted a son. Her life was once again smiling at Hedy. After a few months of an almost infinite honeymoon, things started to turn badly. She found out Merkey was having affairs with other actresses, immediately putting an end to their marriage. She then found herself alone to raise the adopted son, less than a year after the wedding ceremony.
To keep herself distracted after those events, Lamarr infused herself completely into work. She was on the peak of her fame, starring in many movies in the 1940s. Now single, she had more time to focus on her second passion: science. At night, after a long day of filming, she worked on her inventions. During those years she was very close to Howard Huges – the American inventor (famously portrayed by Di Caprio in the movie Aviator) and helped him in the design of his planes. Her contribution was fundamental in increasing the flying speed of planes. Among the various creations, she developed a compressed version of coca cola for soldiers to drink pops even at war.
In the early 40s, the world war seemed to be turning in the favor of Hitler’s side and she was eager to help as much as she could in subverting the situation. With the help of George Antheil, a highly trained musician, and composer, she started to design a radio guidance system for Allied torpedos that was unseen at the time. The odd duo gave birth to the frequency hopping communication system. With that invention, the Americans could fire torpedos securely with the assurance that it would not be a target and destroyed before hitting German submarines. George and Hedy received a patent for their invention and offered the idea to the Navy. However, it didn’t encounter military success and it was never used during the war.
Frustrated, Hedy put her science spirit aside, knowing that her fame could help the Allies in a different way. She traveled throughout the USA, selling debt certificates to raise money for the army. She sold $25 million of war bonds – $343 million in today’s money – even if she was not yet an American citizen. Having done her part and the allies obtaining new victories, she turned her attention back to acting. She starred in the highest grossing movies of the 40s and the 50s. But the ’50s was a period of transformation in Holywood. A period in which Hedy would find that her beauty and acting was not anymore appreciated.
Holywood was going through a transformation. Marilyn Monroe was the most shining star and a new wave of American Actress had arrived. In her late 30s, she struggled to find roles that would suit her and a difficult period of her life began. Moreover, her personal life continued to be turbulent. She went through two other divorces and gave birth to two kids, in which previous biographies tell us that she had difficulties being a mother.
Through the ’60s and ’70s, she was offered several scripts, television commercials, and stage projects but none piqued her interest. Instead, she invested her money and time into movie production, trying to create her own perfect role. She failed, however, ostracized by all the big studios that didn’t like independent actors, leaving her with no money and no jobs. She then retired from the screen, further from the public eye.
Hedy continues to live a very private life, until the last years of her life when her off-screen contribution in the Second World War finally received the recognition and praise it deserved.
In the ’90s, the world was going through a digital transformation and mobile communication was booming. There was a need to develop a system that would allow phones to communicate with one another wirelessly. The US, although didn’t accept her technology in the WWII, discovered that they could use the principles of her invention to incorporate into Bluetooth technology and Wi-Fi. Hedy finally was acknowledged for her off-screen work and huge corporations awarded her for her scientific achievements. Since 1998, Germany, Austria, and Switzerland celebrate her legacy on the Inventor’s Day in the 9th of November, the day Lamar was born.
This year, 105 days after her birth, we celebrate Hedy Lamarr, a woman ahead of her time. She died in 2000 at age 86, finally being recognized for the off-screen ventures she brought to life.