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The International Writers Magazine

The most beautiful woman in the world and the godmother of mobile phone and WiFi technology

Hedy Lamarr
Colin Todhunter

 I have just had the privilege of spending an evening with the most beautiful woman in the world. I had been watching a Hollywood film from 1949, the biblical epic “Samson and Delilah” starring Hedy Lamarr and Victor Mature in the two lead roles.

Hedy Lamarr is quite simply an icon. She was at that time at her peak and was known as the most beautiful woman in the world. And based on that film, she was indeed heartbreakingly beautiful. If the god of the Old Testament had wanted any steamy seductress to test Samson’s steely will, then Hedy Lamarr would have been her. Although everything about the film now appears rather dated, the theme is timeless. It is an emotively classic tale of love, deceit, bitter revenge and lasting remorse. And like the theme of the film, the beauty that Hedy Lamarr exuded on screen, with her alabaster skin, raven hair and carmine lips, also transcends time.

Ms Lamarr was part of the "Golden Age of Hollywood," a time long before the media were in a position to pry into every facet of a star's life and disenchant the wonderfully enchanting. Seeing Ms Lamarr in a film screened way back in 1949 was as inspirational as it was saddening. Part of me yearned to gain a glimpse of an era when movie gods and goddesses adorned the silver screen – a world that had not then been stripped bare by numbing standardisation, cynicism and the constant pervasive gaze of the media.

Or is it just the case that the past always seems more enticing simply because it can never be recaptured? I don’t think so. I think that if I had been born early enough to sit in the cinema in 1949 to watch Ms Lamarr on screen then what I would have felt would have been quite different when in 2006 I sit in a theatre to watch the current crop of Hollywood actresses such as Angelina Jolie or Sandra Bullock.

Hedy Lamarr was a banker’s daughter and was born in 1913 as Hedwig Eva Kiesler. She died January 19 2000 and has the somewhat dubious record of being the first of the true Hollywood greats to die this century. Perhaps she was no fantastic actress. But she didn’t have to be. Her perfect features rarely displayed any emotion. That was part of her appeal. Her declaration that "any girl can be glamorous - all you have to do is stand still and be stupid" remains a somewhat accurate description of her roles in movies such as Algiers, 1938, Ziegfield Girl, 1941 and Tortilla Flat, 1942. But even if all she tended to do was stand still, she nevertheless succeeded in having supreme presence. And that presence often had a purpose according to Ms Lamarr: She once said, "If you use your imagination, you can look at any actress and see her nude. I hope to make you use your imagination." Ms Lamarr has inspired millions of imaginations over the years.

She married six times, complaining that most men felt inferior to her and that some day she wished to meet a superior inferior man. She said that she enjoyed countless hundreds pursuing her and found the attention of men very flattering. Ms Lamarr once stated: “I like oversexed people. The few I know were always talented and sensitive. I’m oversexed and I’ve never kept that a secret.”

She rose to notoriety on the basis of a 1932 Czech film, Ecstasy, in which she did the backstroke nude in a woodland lake and engaged in cinema’s first fake orgasm. Ms Lamarr once said that she remembered all too well the premiere of Ecstasy: "I watched my bare bottom bounce across the screen and my mother and father sat there in shock.”

The image of her sun-dappled nakedness won her many admirers, most prominently munitions millionaire Friz Mandl, a Nazi sympathizer who dealt arms to Hitler. During her four-year marriage to Mandl, she listened and learned about advanced weaponry when he took her to all his business meetings as his showpiece wife. She grew to hate the Nazis as well as her husband and had to eventually escape from him by fleeing to London with some cash and jewellery where she met MGM studio boss Louis B. Mayer

So how did such an unlikely figure as a Hollywood movie queen come to invent the basis of modern communications technology? Well, Lamarr had learned about the latest in weapons technology at her husband's munitions plants and by accompanying him during his business meetings. When she met composer George Antheil in 1940 she shared with him what she knew about the design of remote-controlled torpedoes, which were vulnerable to detection and jamming.

Lamarr believed the solution was to broadcast the weapon’s signals on rapidly changing frequencies. She and Antheil developed a frequency-hopping system by incorporating the basic technological principles of the piano. The invention enabled both the transmitting and receiving stations of a remote-control torpedo to change at intervals. They received a U.S. Patent in 1942, but their research was largely ignored at the time, with some government officials being more than a little cynical by possibly envisioning a piano strapped to a torpedo.

Eventually the invention was used and Antheil later said that the whole concept was really all down to Lamarr, not him. Her frequency-hopping idea served as the basis for modern spread-spectrum communication technology used in devices ranging from cordless telephones to WiFi Internet connections. In 1997, both she and the then deceased Antheil received a pretigious Electronic Frontier Foundation Award for the invention. Her son collected the award on her behalf and played an audio recording of Lamarr, who was then 83, thanking the foundation. That was the first time her voice had been heard in public for over twenty years.
During her lifetime, she thought that she never received due recognition for the invention. She was of course right and she never received any financial remuneration for it either. Georg Misch, the director of the film Calling Hedy Lamarr (2004), is reported to have said that in her later years, Lamarr felt that the world owed her something. It may well have.

In honour of Lamarr, Germany, Austria and Switzerland now celebrate “Inventor’s Day” on November 9, her birthday. The aims of the celebration are to encourage people to develop their own ideas to bring about a change for the better and to remind people of forgotten inventors. In the realm of science, it seems quite fitting that Ms Lamarr has become somewhat of a role model, particularly for girls and young women.

Lamarr was intelligent, articulate, daring and self-confident and seemed to have had everything going for her. She packed so much into her life and said that she could excuse everything but boredom as boring people don't have to stay that way. Lamarr was always a sworn enemy of convention, despising the conventional in anything, even the arts. The secret of life, according to Hedy Lamarr, was to get involved, to try everything, to join everything and to meet everybody. Her attitude to death mirrored her attitude toward life. She once said that she didn’t fear death because she didn’t fear anything she didn’t understand.
As her looks began to fade in the 1950s, she was offered fewer and fewer roles. But she said she stopped getting high-profile jobs because she wouldn't sleep with a film executive to get ahead. In a 1970 interview she said that her problem was being a hell of a nice dame. In the same interview she went on to say that the most horrible whores are famous and she did what she did for love whereas the others did it for money: she loved the job first and foremost and the money took care of itself.

Her 1999 statement showed that she had a firm grasp of reality and priorities, "Films have a certain place in a certain time period, technology is forever” – no doubt having in mind the lasting impact of her invention, the spread spectrum. Her beauty also had a certain place in time but during her somewhat lonely, post-stardom days she sought to patch her fading looks with too many plastic surgery operations and became semi-reclusive. 

Hedy Lamarr once said that after a taste of stardom, everything else is poverty and that to be a star is to own the world and all the people in it. It was reported that she kept out of the public eye later in life because she didn’t want people to see her old and frail. So it would be easy to attempt to highlight the ultimate tragedy of Hedy Lamarr’s demise from top actress and most beautiful woman in the world to fading looks and being a rather reclusive figure in her old age. But I won’t. Ms Lamarr is on record as saying that she always craved to experience the new, the unknown and the unpredictable and as a result her life definitely had its twists and turns. But it was not one of tragedy. She was once quoted as having said that she would like to have “Thanks for such a colourful life” engraved on her tombstone. Her life was certainly that.
Regardless of her difficulties in later lfe, Hedy Lamarr will forever remain a reminder of a rapidly fading age. She will forever remain a testament to true beauty. "No man leaves Delilah," she says to Victor Mature immediately after she had betrayed him. And, based on her looks and intellect alone, I could never imagine why any man ever would have ever wanted to.

Hedy Lamarr is one of the true greats of Hollywood and will forever remain immortalised on film as the most beautiful woman in the world. In an ironic twist of fate, we may now see just how enchanting she actually was by even watching her films on our mobile phones. The world in which we live is a very strange place. And it is indeed a much sadder one without her. Some stars are inspirational; a few select ones are uniquely so. Hedy Lamarr is one of them.

Hedy Lamarr was born in Vienna on 9 November 1913. She died in Altamonte Springs, Florida, on 19 January 2000.

©  Colin Todhunter April 2007

See the interview with Hedy's son here

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