I usually look at the day’s anniversaries on Wikipedia. Today, 11th of August, one of those mentioned is the issue of the 1942 US patent of “Secret Communications System”, inventor “H. K. Markey et al”.
H. K. Markey was better known as Hedy Lamarr. The “K” is for “Kiesler”, her maiden name, and “Markey”, her married name at the time of the patent application. The “et al” was her friend George Antheil, a Hollywood composer.
Hedy Lamarr was born Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler on 9th November 1914 in Vienna. In her teens Hedy attended drama school in Berlin and performed on stage and on screen in small roles. In 1931 she was cast in her first significant film role in Man braucht kein Geld with Heinz Rühmann.
In 1933, she made cinema history for being the first woman to walk across the screen naked in a commercially distributed film, the Czech production, Symphonie der Liebe (also distributed under the title Ecstacy). Shortly after the Austrian release of the notorious film, on 10th August 1933, Hedy was placed into an arranged marriage with one the richest and most powerful men in Europe, Austrian munitions maker, Fritz Alexander Mandl. Mandl was intensely jealous of his stunning young bride and kept her a prisoner at home. He also attempted, unsuccessfully, to buy up all the prints of Symphonie der Liebe.
After four years of unhappy marriage, Hedy rebelled. In 1937, she drugged her maid and fled from the Mandl castle in disguise, first to Paris then London.
In London, Hedy appeared briefly in stage productions, before sailing on the Normandie to New York. On the cross-Atlantic trip, Hedy secured her future in Hollywood by successfully charming a seven-year contract out of fellow passenger Louis B. Mayer of MGM.
In Hollywood, Hedy was given a new name, Lamarr, after the silent screen siren, Barbara La Marr. Her first American film, Algiers, was a glittering success, which established her as “the most beautiful woman in the world”. For a while Hedy was proclaimed the successor to Garbo, she was given the full benefits of the MGM publicity machine just as Garbo herself was proving awkward to handle and faltering at the box-office. However, Hedy’s development as an actress was restricted by the reputation she held for the nude scene in Ecstacy, and her beauty may have prejudiced studio bosses into overlooking her for more demanding roles.
Therefore, in spite of being cast in a wide range of films, opposite MGM’s most famous male stars: Clark Gable, James Stewart, Robert Taylor and Spencer Tracy, in costume dramas, comedies, musicals, her roles remained much the same. Consequently, Hedy never became quite as successful, artistically or commercially, as her fellow emigrés Greta Garbo and Marlene Dietrich, despite the critically acclaimed performances in Comrade X and H.M. Pulham Esq.
Mayer began to lose interest in his protegé, particularly since she was proving far too difficult to please: she made serious mistakes in choosing scripts, turning down the leads in Casblanca, Gaslight and Saratoga Trunk, and left the field clear for Ingrid Bergman. By the forties, Lamarr’s film career had stalled.
During the Second World War Hedy took an active part in the Hollywood Canteen entertaining the GIs, signing autographs and selling war bonds. As part of one promotion, anyone that purchased $25,000 worth of bonds could get a kiss from Hedy Lamarr. She sold $7 million worth in one night.
Perhaps she had learned something of armaments in her first marriage to Mandl, but a further patriotic contribution to the war effort was to design and patent the “Secret Communications System”, (technically a scheme for spread-spectrum, frequency-hopping radio), aimed at defeating enemy radio jamming and allowing torpedoes to hit their targets. It was 20 years before it was deployed in US Navy torpedoes, and 40 years before it began to be used in civilian and military radio systems. Today, systems such as Bluetooth and cellular mobiles use the concepts. The original patent is referenced by many subsequent ones, right up to the present.
After the War her career began to slide further downhill. Nevertheless, she celebrated her biggest success in her last memorable film, Cecil B. De Mille’s full colour biblical epic, Samson and Delilah. The film was a huge hit and became the number one box-office success for 1949. Lamarr was cast in a handful of films in the 1950s before exiting from the silver screen in 1957.
A comeback attempt a decade later to star in Picture Mommy Dead failed, in part due to Hedy’s shock arrest on 28 January 1966 in Los Angeles on shoplifting charges. Though acquitted by a 10-2 jury vote, Hedy lost her comeback role. The publication of her autobiography in the same year created another scandal. Ecstasy and Me: My life as a Woman revealed many intimate details about her and Hollywood. She tried unsuccessfully to sue her ghostwriter for defrauding her of her good name. Following this, Lamarr faded from the public eye and moved first to New York, and from there in the 80s to Florida.
On the 19th of January 2000, Hedy Lamarr was found dead at her Florida home. She was 86.