It seems that Austria has given the world a few game changers over the centuries. You may know about the prodigious classical music composer, Mozart; the father of psychoanalysts, Sigmund Freud; the father of modern electricity, Nikola Tesla and the Hollywood action star, former Governor and bodybuilding legend, Arnold Schwartzenegger. But let me take a step into the female spotlight for a minute and introduce you to another Austrian game changer and all-round badass, the “mother of wifi”, Hedy Lamarr.
Hedy Lamarr tops off our list as one of the Most Inspiring, Badass, Moxie Women of all Time. A strong, determined, ambitious woman of not just immense beauty, but of brains too. She was the full package. Her triumphs took her across oceans, industries and later fortified her name within the pages of history books forever.
Once dubbed ‘The Most Beautiful Woman in the World’, a fact which she claims was more a ‘curse’ than anything, she would forever astound those that would underestimate her. She was a sex symbol, a Hollywood starlet, a “secret scientist” and the reason why you’re able to use wifi on your devices right now.
Her legacy to entertainment and contribution to technology will forever be immortalised on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and in the National Inventors Hall of Fame respectively, but you can celebrate her every time you post a selfie.
The Bold and the Beautiful
Hedy Lamarr, was born Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler, to a wealthy Jewish family in Austria on the 9th November, 1914. The only child of a pianist mother and a successful banker father, she was raised Christian and received her education from a Swiss boarding school.
She was very close to her father, who would teach her about science, technology and how the world worked, until his death in 1935. This relationship would affect all her romantic relationships and subsequent failures.
In 1930, she ran away from her finishing school to work for a film studio as a script girl and soon after, as an actress. But it was the role she played at 18 in an award-winning Czech film entitled Ecstasy (English translation), where she would appear in a few nude scenes and was the first woman in a film to ever simulate an orgasm on screen, that would make her famous. Although seen as an artistic piece, this decision and film would haunt her throughout her life.
The Trophy Wife
At 19, Hedy Lamarr married Austria’s 3rd richest man, an Austrian industrialist and Nazi arms merchant, Friedrich Mandl. He was an abusive, jealous and brutal man who kept her a prisoner in their mansion and forbid her from acting.
He treated her “like a doll” or a possession, just to look pretty, be obedient, dress nice, be adorned with expensive gifts, but to not smile (“lest she look undignified”) or say much. She was also under constant surveillance as Freddy bugged the house and kept her jewellery under lock and key.
Mandl liked to entertain high-ranking Nazi Commanders and military guests in their home. As Hedy was summoned to attend, sit in the background and look pretty, she would overhear the discussions and details on new technology in weapons design. What would’ve sounded gibberish to most of us, would play a small part in the destiny of this closet nerdstress.
Underestimating her intelligence and treating her as a trophy wife, was Mandl’s biggest mistake.
To say that she was unhappy in her marriage, would be an understatement. She was living in constant fear and control and soon started planning her getaway. When Mandl was next on a business trip, she drugged her maid, stole her clothes, snuck out and made her way to Paris. With great wits, courage and cunning she escaped her husband, the Nazis and Austria.
The Rise of a Starlet
Afraid that her husband would follow her there, she soon sailed to London where she met film producer Louis B. Mayer, the cofounder of MGM Hollywood studios. After much deliberation due to her Ecstasy movie, he eventually signed her to his studio under the stage name Hedy Lamarr (in honour of silent film star Barbara La Marr) and brought her to the United States to become a Hollywood star.
Unfortunately, Hedy didn’t find the glory and fame in Hollywood she was hoping for. She didn’t fit in with the wholesome, family entertainment and musicals MO that MGM was known for back then and so was cast in less roles with limited character development.
Although her Hollywood film career spanned 27 films over 19 years, ultimately, it was Mayer’s mismanagement of her talents that hampered her acting career and had her missing out on key roles that could have made her a huge star.
Hedy was not a large woman by any means. She did have broad European shoulders and was flat-chested, and as such she didn’t fit the “ideal” image for Hollywood. Perhaps unsurprisingly, and in spite of being deemed ‘the most beautiful woman in the world’, she was still vilified as being too ‘big’, forever being told to slim down for a role. The price of fame women in the industry still face today.
She was most noted for the movies Algiers (1938), Lady of the Tropics (1939), Boom Town (1940), Ziegfeld Girl (1941), Tortilla Flat (1942), White Cargo (1942), Experiment Perilous (1944) and her big hit Samson and Delilah (1949). Her last film was The Female Animal (1958).
In her career Hedy Lamarr played alongside such actors as James Stewart, Spencer Tracy, Judy Garland, Lana Turner, Bob Hope and Clark Gable and received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 1960 for her contributions and talents to the motion picture industry.
The Hobby Inventor and Citizen Scientist
But Hedy became bored and frustrated by superficial roles that held no substance and that typically cast her as the exotic seductress with few lines. I guess playing stupid wasn’t really in her wheelhouse. So she looked elsewhere to give her life meaning.
In between movies, while her co-stars were out enjoying the highlife of parties and alcohol, Hedy was at home, changing the world. In true superhero secret identity fashion, she became an actress by day and an inventor by night, a side that she hid from most people.
She invented to challenge and amuse herself, not to become famous. It was a hobby to her, something that she had a passion for. She was a visionary, curious about how things worked and how to make them better; the sign of a true intellectual and game changer.
This curiosity would lead her to invent an improved traffic signal, a tablet that created a fizzy drink when mixed with water, an “anti-aircraft shell fitted with a proximity fuse” and she revolutionised the design of the airplane.
Howard Hughes, playboy and successful entrepreneur, known back then as one of the most “financially successful individuals in the world”, was a good friend to Hedy and encouraged her tinkering with science and inventions. He once asked for her ideas on how to make his planes faster and after reading books about the world’s fastest birds and fish, she came up with the shape of the wings that are used on aircraft today. Talk about thinking outside the box!
The Legacy Lives On
But her greatest claim to fame, although not recognised until later in life, was her invention of frequency hopping technology.
She wanted to do her part in the war effort so, in addition to selling war bonds, and together with co-inventor and former experimental composer George Antheil, they designed a remote controlled torpedo that would be protected from signal jamming using frequency hopping technology. It was based on the changing frequencies of piano rolls, which was Antheil’s area of expertise.
They patented this design in 1942 and then gave it to the US military to aid in the war, but it was instead shelved and kept under wraps, for various reasons.
Meanwhile, Louis B. Meyer closely protected the image and reputation of his beauty glamour girl, quashing all connection to her double life as an inventor and all-round brainiac. He didn’t want her to be seen as an “egghead”. Couldn’t have her intimidating men now could he?
It wasn’t until 20 years later that their invention would spark off the idea for spread spectrum technology and be used in Navy ships and then another 20 years until the public sector would create products incorporating the technology which now is the backbone of WiFi, bluetooth and GPS technology. Their invention essentially changed the way the world communicates. Not bad for an amateur hobby scientist huh?
As you can imagine, it was frustrating for Hedy to see the birth of multimillion dollar companies using her idea to create life-changing products and yet she was never mentioned, thanked, compensated or even recognised for it.
That is, not until 1997, 55 years after they proposed it and 3 years before Lamarr’s death, when they finally got the recognition that they deserved when the Electronic Frontier Foundation honoured them the Pioneer Award for their contribution to the tech industry.
Also that year, Hedy was “the first female to receive the BULBIE™ Gnass Spirit of Achievement Award, considered “The Oscars of inventing”. Then in 2014, both Hedy and George were posthumously inducted into the National Inventor’s Hall of Fame.
Hedy Lamarr. The Wife. The Mother. The Woman.
Personally, Hedy Lamarr lived a somewhat tragic life. She married six times and divorced six times, never really finding someone who could live up to the non-physical bond and respect she shared with her father.
“I am not ashamed to say that no man I ever met was my father’s equal, and I never loved any other man as much.” -Hedy Lamarr
From Friedrich Mandl, the munitions baron to producer and screenwriter Gene Markey, British actor John Loder, nightclub owner Teddy Stauffer, Texas oilman W. Howard Lee and finally her divorce lawyer Lewis W. Boles, Hedy ended up alone for the last 35 years of her life. Her longest marriage, of 7 years, was to the Texan oilman.
“Perhaps my problem in marriage – and it is the problem of many women – was to want both intimacy and independence. It is a difficult line to walk, yet both needs are important to a marriage.” -Hedy Lamarr
With her second husband, she adopted James Lamarr Markey, whom she become estranged from when he was 12 and had two children, Denise Loder and Anthony Loder, from her third marriage. There have been recent rumours that James Lamarr Markey, who was also adopted by John Loder, is actually her biological child, but the two had not spoken for 50 years. To Denise and Anthony, she was a devoted and doting mother and grandmother, till the end.
Most would think that having immense beauty and brains to match, meant that she had won the life lottery and everything would be wonderful and life would be easy and carefree. But alas, this was not the case. She blamed her beauty and how people treated her because of it, for her doomed love life. It was the biggest lesson of her existence – That beauty (and money) did not bring you happiness. She lived in a sexist era, in a misogynistic, superficial industry. Her beauty really did become her curse.
You just have to look at a photo of Hedy Lamarr to see the sullen, sultry, brooding sadness of an undervalued, misunderstood woman. Her beauty brought her unwanted attention from the wrong people. It exploited her in her youth, pigeonholed her roles as an actress, disguised her intelligence as a scientist and labelled her a sex pot. She endured much backlash and judgement based on her choices in life and as such, never really lived up to her potential awesomeness.
Maybe it was because she was born and lived in the turbulent times of war, because she entered the film industry as a young impressionable teenager that took advantage of her, because her beloved father died when she was 20, because she was homesick for her motherland Austria or because she was never taken seriously as an actress or intellectual, that she became closed-off and somewhat cold, bitter. Who could blame her?
She knew what the world, men in particular, expected of her and although it made her frustrated and eventually bored, she played it to a tee. It was like her life was a character she portrayed in one of her movies, never really revealing the true woman underneath.
“My face has been a misfortune. It has attracted six unsuccessful marriage partners. It has attracted all the wrong people into my boudoir and 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.” -Hedy Lamarr
While her beauty may have been a curse, it certainly opened many doors for her. It was not until she was older and her beauty began to fade, that she perhaps realised this. Hollywood had turned its back on her as she aged. She desperately tried to cling to the beauty that she was known for in hopes of reviving her acting career by having plastic surgery, but that went horribly wrong.
The last few years of her life, she never saw anyone, only communicating (even to her children) via the phone. The beauty had faded and been distorted and she never was taken seriously as an intellectual, until it was too late. Hedy Lamarr died from natural causes in her sleep, a recluse in her Florida home in 2000, at the age of 85.
Her Influence Today
Hedy Lamarr is a shining example to women everywhere. There aren’t too many actresses that could boast their induction into the National Inventors Hall of Fame or who could design weapons of mass destruction, in their spare time. A bombshell indeed. She broke boundaries, pre-conceptions and the rules.
She was an outspoken, bold, brave, independent and rebellious woman. Which, for the 1940’s, made her a rare breed. When things didn’t go her way or worked against her, she had the courage to make a change or find a different path. She never followed the crowd or felt insecure or inferior. She did her own thing, despite the judgement, the disapproval or the unconventionality of it all.
When her tyrant of a husband (Mandl) kept her hostage, she bravely broke free. When she met Louis B. Meyer, she did everything she could to prove to him she was worth taking a chance on. She left her home, her mother (who later joined her) and country and started a new life on her own, in America. Growing up in Tinsel town in her suggestible years, would surely stunt anyone emotionally.
When others were drinking and partying, she was learning. She invested in her own education, teaching herself how to do things and bettering herself. She didn’t let the fact that she didn’t have any formal training or degree, hold her back from her love for inventing and to make the world a better place.
She didn’t let her setbacks, misfortunes or her past mistakes hold her back or control her future. She was fiesty, assertive, a real go-getter and went after what she wanted. She had the strength, courage and determination to create her own way. Perhaps if she were born in a different time, she would have been more appreciated and valued for the gem that she was.
She was the rare contrast of beauty, brains and badass and proved that you should never judge a book by its cover. She used her natural talents and skills for the greater good and is an inspiration to women, not just in the science and technology industry, but to all who want to make an impact in male-dominated fields.
Hedy Lamarr had the makings of a real life heroine. There’s no wonder then, that she has also been the influence for DC Comic’s Catwoman, embodied in Anne Hathaway’s Catwoman character in The Dark Knight Rises as well as the inspiration for the character Whitney Frost in the TV series Agent Carter.
If her legacy doesn’t live on through the powerful female characters depicted in our movies and tv shows, then it will surely live on in the films she has made, the inventions that she created and the advancements in communications technology, which has allowed this fangirl to send out this article to inspire you, and remember her by.