If you were asked who the most beautiful woman in the world is today, the names of Angelina Jolie, Kate Upton or Monica Bellucci might come to mind. In the 1940s, the person deemed to be “the” most beautiful woman in the world was Hedy Lamarr. The glamorous pin-up girl, who starred in dozens of American movies, got her start in a very risqué Czech film in 1933.
Who knew her intellectual traits would outlast her Hollywood image and that one day she’d be inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame? With prophetic wisdom, she said, “Films have a certain place in a certain time period. Technology is forever.”
Hedy Lamarr was born Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler, to Emil Kiesler and Gertrud Lichtwitz Kiesler on 9 November 1914 in Vienna, Austria. Her father, a banker, and her concert pianist mother, seemed to have given their only child a comfortable lifestyle with private language, ballet, art, and piano lessons.
She was still in her teens when her movie career began and she married Friedrich (Fritz) Mandl, the first of her six husbands. Mandl was an armaments manufacturer and reportedly one of the richest men in Austria. He was fourteen years her senior and reportedly very controlling of his young wife, insisting that she be seen at his side at social events and even at business meetings. There was much talk about military technology. It’s likely that Mandl had no idea of how much Lamarr was absorbing in his meetings with scientists or in conversations when she and Mandl entertained Hitler and Mussolini in their castle home. Lamarr was especially interested in radio control of torpedoes and how hard it was to direct them to targets.
Whether it was because of Mandl’s controlling ways, because he was intent on stopping her acting career, or because of her dislike of his business dealings with Nazis (even though he was half-Jewish), Lamarr could no longer tolerate being married to him. She contrived a way to escape from their well-guarded home by disguising herself as a maid. In an adventure worthy of a movie itself, she managed to get herself to Paris where she met Louis B. Mayer, who hired her with the condition that she change her name to Hedy Lamarr. We find Hedwig Mandl on the UK Outward departure Lists from Southampton, departing England on the Normandie on 25 September 1937. The UK passenger lists are in alphabetical order so if we were to leave it at that, we would likely have missed the fact that on the New York Passenger Arrival Lists, she is listed as a housewife and right next to her name is that of Sonja Henie who gives her occupation as a film actress. Backing up published stories that she signed her contract on board the ship, Louis B. Mayer, who gives his address as Metro Goldwyn Mayer Studios, Culver City, Calif., is also on board.
Interestingly, when Hedwig Kiesler Mandl Markey (“professionally known as Hedy Lamarr”) declared her intention to become an American citizen in the U.S. District Court at Los Angeles, she said that she had married Eugene Markey in Mexicali, Mexico on 4 March 1939 and that her last foreign address was Ensenada, Mexico, and she emigrated to the United States from Tijuana, Mexico “afoot” for permanent residence in San Ysidro, California.
It wasn’t until 1953, that Hedy Lamarr, by now “formerly Stauffer” (the third husband she had divorced) completed the naturalization process and became an American citizen.
When the 1940 Census was taken, Hedy was living in Los Angeles with her second husband, Gene Markey, son James, a nurse, a valet, and a chauffeur.
Her marriage to Markey lasted only a short time and soon after it ended, she was dating Charlie Chaplin and starring in movies with Clark Gable, Spencer Tracy, Victor Mature, and Charles Boyer to name a few. According to a number of published sources, even as Lamarr was becoming famous as a Hollywood star, she used spare hours to work on inventions that included an improved stoplight and a tablet that could be dissolved in water to produce a carbonated beverage.
It was reportedly at a cocktail party in 1941, that Lamarr met composer George Antheil and became engaged in a conversation about their shared interests. Lamarr had discovered that ships could easily jam radio controlled torpedoes because they were guided by radio signals that were sent over a single frequency. Antheil had worked with remote control technology and spread spectrum sequences that he had used in his compositions and player pianos.
With the aim of helping to sink Nazi ships, they began their work. In 1942, they patented a secret communication system that could reduce the danger of detection or jamming torpedoes by dividing up the radio signal and spreading it out. Their version of frequency hopping used a piano roll to “hop” between 88 frequencies and Lamarr’s work is now recognized as a model for wireless technology.
Unfortunately, at the time of Lamarr’s “Secret Communications System” patent, now called “code division multiple access” or CDMA, the military declared it a top secret so neither she nor her co-inventor would be recognized for their pioneering work that became the basis for the technology that continues to drive worldwide mobile telecommunications such as Bluetooth and Wi-Fi systems.
It wasn’t until 21 May 2014 that Hedy Lamarr was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame and she received at least some of the recognition she deserved for her technological contributions that revolutionized and changed people’s lives.
Hedy Lamarr died on 19 June 2000 in Casselberry, Florida, at the age of 86. In addition to her professional name, obituaries included her maiden name (Hedwig Kiesler) and her six married names: Mandl, Markey, Loder, Stauffer, Lee, and Boies. According to her wishes, her ashes were scattered over the Vienna Woods in Austria.
In another piece of wisdom imparted to the world, Hedy Lamarr said: “The world isn’t getting any easier. With all these new inventions, I believe that people are hurried more and pushed more…The hurried way is not the right way. You need time for everything – time to work, time to play, time to rest.”
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