Hedy Lamarr: My face is a mask I cannot remove: I must always live with it

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It’s a common enough story. Publisher prints salacious book about Hollywood star’s love life. Hollywood star takes publisher to court. But in one key respect, the case of Hedy Lamarr v Macfadden-Bartell was wonderfully unusual: the book that prompted her to sue was her own autobiography. Having been celebrated as ‘the most beautiful woman in the world’ in the 1930s and 1940s, Lamarr had hoped that her ghost-written memoir would revive her career in 1966, but when she read the finished text of Ecstasy and Me, she deemed it “fictional, false, vulgar, scandalous, libelous and obscene”. Alas, the judge ruled against her, publishing went ahead, and Lamarr got the kind of publicity she hadn’t bargained for.

Readers everywhere learned how she and her third husband, John Loder, attempted to beat an acquaintance’s 19-times-in-one-weekend lovemaking record. They learned how another of Lamarr’s partners hired a team of sculptors and make-up artists to fashion a rubber sex doll that was identical to her in every detail. They also learned about a less spurious claim to fame: when the teenage Lamarr starred in a Czech-Austrian romantic drama, Ecstasy, in 1933, she became the first actress in history to feign an orgasm on film.

But what the memoir didn’t say about Lamarr was far more remarkable. There is no mention of it in the book, but during World War Two, she developed a radio-guided torpedo system, and the ‘spread-spectrum’ technology it fostered would one day be used in mobile phones and wi-fi connections. Even without any fictional, false and libellous material, the Austrian actress’s biography is more astonishing than that of almost any other Hollywood star.

One of her many new fans was Friedrich Mandl, an armaments manufacturer and the third richest man in Austria. After an eight-week engagement, he and Kiesler were married, and she – still a teenager – was ushered into a life of regal opulence. On one trip to Paris, Mandl asked his wife if she liked the sparkling jewels on display in the window at Cartier. When she nodded, Mandl immediately bought her every one of them. But Kiesler felt “strangled to death by luxury”. Obsessively jealous, Mandl tried to buy and destroy every print of Ecstasy, and he refused to let her visit her friends or go to the theatre. The only role he allowed her was that of a trophy wife, sitting decoratively at the dining table while he talked munitions with his powerful guests, Mussolini included.

There are several contradictory accounts of the marriage’s end: the most dramatic tale has Kiesler drugging her maid with sleeping pills, putting on her uniform and dashing off to Paris in disguise. What isn’t disputed is that she left Mandl in 1937, and that in 1938, renamed Hedy Lamarr, she starred in a Hollywood film, Algiers. Audiences and critics were stunned. “She is young, vital, and sure to be a sensation,” wrote one reviewer. “One doesn’t really notice if she can act – she’s that beautiful!”

Perhaps it was. Her hobby was inventing, and while other Hollywood stars were at parties, Lamarr was at home, tinkering with a design for a traffic light, or experimenting with a soluble fizzy-drink tablet. Her most revolutionary idea was one she hoped would help the Allies win World War Two. Having gleaned invaluable information on weaponry at Mandl’s dinner parties, she came up with the concept of a synchronised ‘frequency-hopping’ system: in order to stop enemies jamming the radio signals between a plane and a guided torpedo, their communications would keep jumping simultaneously to new frequencies. Working in partnership with George Antheil, the avant-garde composer, Lamarr was granted a patent in 1942, but her invention was rejected by the US Navy. It was simply too far ahead of its time.

Overdue recognition

Decades later, she and the world learnt that her innovations had been incorporated into mobile-phone technology, and in 1996, four years before her death at the age of 85, the Electronic Frontier Foundation honoured her and Antheil with its Pioneer Award. But it was a tardy consolation prize for someone who had become known as a bitter recluse. After Lamarr’s stardom waned in Hollywood, she retired to Florida, and hit the headlines only when she was arrested for shoplifting, or when she had ruinous plastic surgery – or when she published, and then disowned, the sleazy autobiography.

My face is a mask I cannot remove: I must always live with it. I curse it – Hedy Lamarr

Some devotees see Lamarr as a victim of sexist prejudice: a woman too attractive to be taken seriously either as an actress or an inventor. Lamarr herself encouraged this interpretation. Her face, she wrote, “brought me tragedy and heartache for five decades. My face is a mask I cannot remove: I must always live with it. I curse it.” But the Lamarr-as-victim narrative makes her seem weak and passive, whereas in fact she took control of her destiny time and again, whether she was fleeing from a Swiss finishing school or a tyrannical husband. In Hollywood, she would go out and fight for the roles she wanted: instructing her agent to phone DeMille, pushing Orson Welles to direct her as Lady Macbeth. She was just as determined when it came to turning down the roles she didn’t want, or upsetting studio bosses by forgoing publicity tours. Lamarr may not have made the wisest choices, but those choices were her own. By Nicholas Barber

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