At her birth in 1913, Hedy Lamarr
was named Hedwig Eva Maria by her parents, Emil and Gertrude Kiesler, a prosperous Jewish couple in Vienna, as the days of the Austrio-Hungarian Empire were drawing to a close. Little “Hedy” loved to walk in the Vienna Woods with her father Emil, a banker with the mind of an inventive engineer. He explained how innovations from printing presses to street cars worked and captured his daughter’s imagination. For the rest of her life, Hedwig Kiesler would retain a deep love for those memories of her woodland walks and a keen understanding of mechanical engineering.
Her engineering interests ran in stark contrast to the rest of her aspirations. Even as a small girl, she loved to pretend she was onstage. People found her beauty and charm a powerful draw but generally ignored her “unfeminine” scientific brain. For most of the world in the 20th century, sexiness and braininess seemed mutually contradictory. And Hedy Kiesler had enormous sex appeal, even as a teenager. She appeared fully nude in her first film, the Czech production Ecstasy, which included an explicit love scene. She was 19 years old, and her parents (not surprisingly) were appalled. But many other viewers were entranced, particularly Austrian arms dealer Friedrich Mandl, who aggressively pursued her for several months before she accepted his proposal. When they married, Mandl spent over $300,000 attempting to buy up all the existing reels of Ecstasy so that no one else would see his wife in the risqué film. He forbade her from working as an actress and forced her to remain in privileged isolation at his family castle during the early 1930s.
Sometimes Mandl had visitors, clients interested in buying his armaments, including a rising leader named Adolf Hitler
. He enjoyed showing off his beautiful young wife while they discussed details about military technology. All the while Kiesler kept her engineering know-how and her Jewish identity a secret. In 1937, Kiesler escaped her controlling husband, taking her jewelry and fleeing first to Paris and then to London. It was in London where she met the movie producer Louis B. Mayer
and restyled herself as Hedy Lamarr. With World War II breaking out, she left Europe for California, and her movie career took off. Lamarr enjoyed great success in her early Hollywood career. She stared alongside actors such as Clark Gable
, 1940), Lana Turner
and Judy Garland
, 1941), Tracy and John Garfield (Tortilla Flat
, 1942) and Bob Hope
(My Favorite Spy
In 1941, Lamarr partnered with her neighbor George Antheil, a music composer who was researching musical signals and radio waves, in a unique process to help with the U.S. war effort. Using knowledge of torpedoes that she acquired during her first marriage, she and Antheil invented a communication system for torpedoes that switched frequencies back and forth, making it very difficult to detect. Lamarr and Antheil received a patent in 1942 for their Secret Communication System. During the war, the US Navy decided the system was too expensive to adopt, but by 1962 it was widely used. Eventually, “frequency hopping” would form the basis of spread spectrum communication technology—what we now know as Wi-Fi.
Lamarr’s scientific ability did not appeal to Hollywood publicists, who preferred the easier job of emphasizing her sophisticated beauty. In fact, few people knew about her patent until 1997, when the Electronic Frontier Foundation presented her with the Pioneer Award. By that time, Lamarr was living as recluse on a tight budget with six failed marriages behind her. “I figured out that I had made—and spent—some 30 million dollars,” she lamented late in life. In 2000, at the age of 86, Lamarr died peacefully in her sleep. At her request, her ashes were scattered in the Vienna Woods where she had walked with her father as a young girl, learning about everything from printing presses to street cars.