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Hedy Lamarr, A Beauty of Genius

Hedy1 Photo: Employee(s) of MGM, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Contemporary with the divine Greta Garbo, why did Hedy Lamarr, an Austrian-born American actress, inventor extraordinaire and film producer, remain so long in the shadows? Why did the media and the scientific community ignore her?

Born in Vienna in 1914, Edwig Eva Maria Kiesler changed her name to Hedy Lamarr. She was the daughter of a well-to-do banker, learned to play the piano and took ballet lessons in her early childhood. At the age of ten she could already speak four languages. She started acting when she was seventeen and soon featured in Austrian, German and Czechoslovakian films, including in the controversial Ecstasy in which she appeared naked.

In 1937, fearing for her life as a Jew, she secretly left her husband, a converted Austrian ammunition manufacturer, and fled to Paris, then to London, where she met Louis B. Mayer, head of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer who offered her a Hollywood movie contract. He would promote her as ''the world's most beautiful woman''. Just a year later she was voted "the most promising actress'' of 1938. She starred in some 20-odd films, opposite the likes of Clark Gable, Spencer Tracy, James Stewart and Victor Mature, in such movies as Samson & Delila, Algiers, Lady of the Tropics, White Cargo, Joan of Arc, Ziegfeld Girl and Crossroads.

Between the 1930s and the end of the 1950s, Hedy Lamarr was considered one of the greatest stars of Hollywood. British moviegoers voted her the tenth best actress of 1950. She was so beautiful, with her shining green eyes, that Walt Disney took her as his model for Snow White. Ironically, he was an anti-Semite. All along, she would face the sly anti-Semitism of high-ranking people in business, science, and politics.

Hedy Lamarr married and divorced six times and had three children. She had the reputation of being a man-eater. She was also intimate with Charlie Chaplin, Marlon Brando, and Robert Capa. Yet, she would end her life in solitude and died in 2000. It was a sad conclusion for such a brilliant and incomparable personality, even though she did have her star in Hollywood's Hall of Fame.

She was 'revived' in Bombshell, Alexandra Dean's excellent documentary filmed in 2017. There are rumors that a famous contemporary actress will play in a biopic of her life.

What is exceptional in the case of Hedy Lamarr was not so much that she was a star and a professional actress, but the fact that she was a genius too.

In the 1940s, while she continued to act, she pursued engineering, her first love, even though she was self-taught. She soon collaborated with the extravagant composer and pianist George Antheil. Together, they invented a sophisticated coding system that revolutionized the transmission of signals. To counter the Nazi submarines plying the Atlantic, she created a frequency-hopping spread-spectrum signal for radio-guided torpedoes that could not be tracked or jammed. Her invention was never implemented during the war, but was first used in the invasion of Cuba 1962. Later on, this research led the way to the development of WiFi, GPS, and Bluetooth, so our 21st century technology owes her much.

To the anti-Semitism, one has to add the machismo of her times. The American government never gave her credit for her inventions, nor was she paid for them. Some of President F.D. Roosevelt's cronies went so far as to accuse her of spying for the enemy, under the pretext that she originally came from Austria. While she was thus humiliated, following the path of Marlene Dietrich, she and George Antheil went on patriotic tours, performing for the G.I.s.

Nothing made her happier than inventing things, it was a genuine passion of hers, and she did not do it for the money. It came to her naturally; she never bragged about it, saying that she was just doing some creative work. The US government and mostly private companies after the patent expired shamefully took advantage of her discoveries. Only much later, after WWII, was her work recognized by the scientific community. Her inventions were harbingers of sophisticated modern contraptions, including the mobile phone. A similar technology was applied in the construction of military drones.

Finally, in 1997, Hedy Lamarr and George Antheil were jointly honored with the Electronic Frontier Foundation's Pioneer Award. The prestigious Smithsonian Museum appraised one of her patents to six million dollars, but alas, it was too late and she never saw that money. Only posthumously, in 2014, did Hedy Lamarr and George Antheil find their place in the National Inventors Hall of Fame.

Hedy Lamarr was a beauty of genius. 

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Wednesday, 22 September 2021

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