Saturday, February 08, 2014

Hedy Lamarr? -- a Saturday reprise

Sure, I remember Hedy Lamarr. I was a 13-year-old boy in 1949 when Hedy played the starring role in Cecile B. DeMille's costume blockbuster Samson and Delilah. What 13-year-old boy is going to forget Hedy Lamarr?

By that time, she had been dubbed "the most beautiful woman in the world." In 1945, Time Magazine proclaimed Hedy Lamarr as the American soldier's favorite pin-up. There was an especially sexy aura attached to Lamarr, dating from the mid-1930s, when at age seventeen she stared, with brief nudity, in a scandalous Czech film called Ecstasy.

Now, in Hedy's Folly, Richard Rhodes tells us about another side of Hedy Lamarr, which I must admit comes as a complete surprise. Hedy was a talented inventor! She came home from her days on the Hollywood set to bury herself in the inventor's room of her super-star's mansion, complete with technical books and drafting table. Among her inventions, in collaboration with the musical composer George Antheil, was a radio guidance system for jam-proof torpedoes that incorporated an idea called "frequency hopping," which in its more modern manifestation as spread-spectrum technology is the basis for everything from cell phones to GPS.

Lamarr was born Hedwig Kiesler, in Vienna, Austria, in 1913, the only child of a well-to-do family of assimilated Jews. From an early age she dreamed of becoming a movie star, but she also had an insatiable curiosity. Her handsome, vigorous father read her books and took her on long walks, during which he would explain how everything worked, "from printing presses to streetcars," she later explained.

At age 19, stunningly beautiful and infamous for her role in Ecstasy, she married Friedrich Mandl, a wealthy, Vienna-based arms manufacture who was apparently willing to sell weapons to whoever would buy. It was a fraught, doomed marriage -- a rebellious, independent woman and a dominating, possessive man (Mandl tried to buy up every extant copy of the infamous film). But in Mandl's company she learned about armaments inside and out. "He [Mandl] had the most amazing brain," wrote Hedy later; "There was nothing he did not know."

But Hedwig Kiesler Mandl was not content to be a trophy wife. In 1937, she gathered her jewels and furs and, disguised as her maid, escaped to Paris, and eventually to Hollywood, where she was transformed by MGM into Hedy Lamarr and splashed all over the silver screen. Her inventive talents also now came to the fore. By day, she dazzled in Busby Berkeley's Ziegfeld Girl; by night, she worked on frequency-hopping. "Any girl can be glamorous," Lamarr famously said; "All you have to do is stand still and look stupid."

It took a while for the idea of frequency-hopping to mature, and not many people were aware of Lamarr's inventive accomplishments. But good things come to those who wait; in 1996, at age 82, Lamarr was awarded the Sixth Annual Pioneer Award of the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

(This is an abbreviated version of my review in the Toronto Globe & Mail. It was originally posted here in December 2011.)