Hedy Lamarr is a classic case of the ‘Underrated’ segment of this illustration series. Although she didn’t talk about it much, it was known that she was interested in inventing (she had a miniature lab set up in her trailer for between takes). However, mostly she was recognised only for her looks, earning the title ‘most beautiful woman in the world.’
Born Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler (1914-2000), Hedy began her film career in Germany when she was 17. She soon got married, to a weapons mogul named Fritz Mandl. Mandl soon revealed his colours as a jealous control freak, and reduced Hedy to the role of trophy wife, controlling her closely, only allowing her out of the house with a servant and controlling her tiny allowance. He even bugged the rooms in their house so he could listen in on her conversations.
Because of his job, Mandl entertained a lot of important men, and when the Third Reich rose to power he signed a deal with Hitler. He also entertained Mussolini. The upside to these dinner party companions is that Hedy was able to learn a whole lot about weaponry and war, which paid off… as soon as she finally escaped.
She took her chance when he went out of town, using the money she had squirrelled away to make her getaway to Paris, (possibly) dressed in the outfit of a maid who she had drugged. She continued on to London, and Mandl gave up his pursuit, deciding that divorce would probably be less effort.
There, she met Louis B. Mayer, president of Hollywood’s MGM studio, who proposed a contract with her. But it a pittance, and she refused. Despite this, she changed her mind, perhaps realising that she could really start afresh far away in America. Mayer’s ship back to the US was all booked up, so Hedy went back to her ingenuity, posing as a child’s nanny to sneak aboard the ship. This courageous (and nuts) act, combined with the appreciative looks her appearance gained from male passengers, persuaded Mayer to forge a new deal with her, quadrupling the length and salary that he had previously offered.
However, she hated the way she was reduced to her appearance in Hollywood, with Mayer keeping her in mediocre, ‘exotic’ or temptress roles. She said ‘Any girl can be glamorous. All you have to do is stand still and look stupid.’ Eventually she left MGM, and set up her own production company, which didn’t do so well.
While all of this was going on, she used her free time to do science. She turned her attention towards helping the war effort; she realised that to make planes fly faster, you could imitate the body shapes of the fastest fish and the fastest bird, a technique which still influences streamline designs today. In 1942, she and a composer designed a way of producing radio signals that couldn’t be jammed or intercepted by the Nazis. They submitted it to the army: they ignored it. It wasn’t used until the 1960’s, by which time the patent had run out, and she never made a penny from her ideas, which are the basis of mobile technology today. We wouldn’t have wifi without Hedy Lamarr.
Even today, in articles praising her, her work is passed off as ‘a hobby’ and ‘tinkering.’ I think that this is patronising and undermines her intellect. The attitude that beauty and smarts can’t go together is still so pervasive; it almost implies that it was a lucky break that lead to these landmark achievements. I’ve even seen the word genius put inside brackets, as though it is simply a quote and not a verifiable fact!! I know that it can be hard to be completely certain on this sort of thing, but I truly feel that a man in the same position would be praised to the heavens for being smart AND gorgeous – in fact, they absolutely would.
Her life was messy, and she was uncertain of which role she should occupy in her every day life; temptress or trophy wife or star or scientist? I think that this threw her off. I hope that if she lived today, she would no longer feel that she could occupy only one of those boxes at once.
For more about her great escape from her first marriage, click here
For a slightly patronising but otherwise nice article about her and the new documentary, click here