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Hedy Lamarr
Hedy Lamarr

Review: Biography

The secret life of Hedy Lamarr Add to ...

Hedy Lamarr? Sure, I remember Hedy Lamarr. I was a 13-year-old boy in 1949 when Hedy played the starring role in Cecil 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 favourite pin-up. There was an especially sexy aura attached to Lamarr, dating from the mid-1930s, when at 17 she stared, with brief nudity, in a scandalous Czech film called Ecstasy.

Now, Richard Rhodes tells us about another side of 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 superstar'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.

Richard Rhodes is a prolific author of fiction and non-fiction, best known for his Pulitzer Prize-winning The Making of the Atomic Bomb and other books on the nuclear age. In Hedy Lamarr, he seems to have found a subject dear to his heart. He was 12 when Lamarr played Delilah. I wonder if he saw the film.

Lamarr was born Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler, in Vienna, 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 19, stunningly beautiful and infamous for her role in Ecstasy, she married Friedrich Mandl, a wealthy, Vienna-based arms manufacturer 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,” Hedy later wrote. “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.”

Hedy's Folly delights in two ways. First, in tracing the parallel lives of Lamarr and Antheil during the years between the wars. Between them, they seem to have crossed paths with everyone who was anyone in the arts, music and politics, from Benito Mussolini to Howard Hughes, from James Joyce to Clark Gable. Rhodes weaves a gossipy international, cross-cultural romp worthy of Hedda Hopper.

Second, Rhodes shows how Lamarr's knowledge of armaments and Antheil's experience with synchronizing player pianos and other mechanic musical instruments led them to a patent for a way to make radio-guided torpedoes jam-proof. Hedy wanted to do her patriotic best for her adopted country and enlisted Antheil in her cause. Their technique of synchronized “frequency-hopping” came too late to affect the outcome of the war, but eventually became incorporated into a wide variety of electronic communication devices.

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 82, Lamarr was awarded the Sixth Annual Pioneer Award of the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

Frequency-hopping and spread-spectrum technology were developed by others independently of the Lamarr-Antheil patent; the actress and the composer were not the first or the last to conceive of some version of the idea. But give this to my glamorous Delilah; she did more with her life than stand still and look stupid.

Chet Raymo is the author of more than a dozen books on science and nature, and four novels. He can be found at sciencemusings.com.

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