Hedy Lamarr: Great Sluts in History

Cropped screenshot of Hedy Lamarr from the trailer for the film Come Live with Me (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Austrian-born actress Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler was a goddess on screen… and a techno-geek in her spare time.

She first scampered into movies in Germany in 1930, with her nude scenes and simulated orgasm in 1933’s Extase (Ecstacy) at age 18 raising controversy.

At the time of the movie’s release, she was married to munitions manufacturer Friedrich Mandl, one of Hitler’s best buds. According to her autobiography, he was a controlling SOB, keeping her a virtual prisoner in his castle. But as one benefit of this, Hedy was brought along by Mandl to business meetings with scientists and military technical experts, where she absorbed a fair amount of information about their strategies and techniques.

In 1937 she escaped to Paris, where she met Louis B. Mayer, head of MGM, who was delighted to add the exotic looking beauty to his roster of studio talent.  He promoted her as “the world’s most beautiful woman.”

Cropped screenshot of Hedy Lamarr from the trailer for the film Lady of the Tropics (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

With a new last name chosen in tribute to silent film star Barbara La Marr, Hedy La Marr would begin her Hollywood career with a film called Algiers, and go on to make dozens of movies in the 1930’s and 1940’s.

However her film roles did not satisfy her active mind. From Wikipedia:

White Cargo one of Lamarr’s biggest hits at MGM, contains, arguably, her most memorable film quote delivered with hints of a provocative invitation: “I am Tondelayo. I make tiffin for you?” This line typifies many of Lamarr’s roles, which emphasized her beauty and sexuality but were light on lines. The lack of acting challenges bored Lamarr, and she turned to inventing to relieve her boredom.

Apparently three kids and five additional marriages didn’t scratch that intellectual itch, either.

Among Hedy’s inventions was an improved traffic stoplight, and a fizzy beverage tablet that was not a hit. But her main claim to fame, today, as an inventor, was her co-creation (with composer George Antheil) of frequency hopping spread-spectrum.

Hop What?

So, what is frequency hopping spread-spectrum technology, and why should we care?

I’m not a techno-geek, but as I understand it, wireless technology in the 1940’s consisted of the sender and receiver tuning in to a particular frequency, like playing spies with the walky-talkies in your neighborhood as a kid, you both send/receive messages using channel 8, for example.

The problem, in wartime (and other times), it’s pretty easy for the enemy to discover what channel you’re using (even if you’re using code), and to jam or disrupt your communications. Start broadcasting on another channel: lather, rinse, repeat.

Hedy thought if they could find a way that communications could be sent and received via a system that hopped across a spectrum, that nobody would be able to intercept or jam ALL of them.  She and her neighbor, who was also a composer, devised and patented a system on 1941 based on the 88 keys of the piano, and… it works.

The US did not, ultimately, put it to use during World War II, But almost every human being does, today, because her invention became the backbone for the digital technology that makes cellphones, fax machines, and Bluetooth possible.  So if you sent or received a text, or used a wireless device, thank Hedy LaMarr and George Antheil.

The Tell-All Autobiography – or Is It?

Ecstacy and Me was published in 1966, and Hedy would later sue the publisher, claiming her ghostwriter had slipped in fictional anecdotes. So, is it a perhaps too true recounting of her life, that she later regretted divulging, or full of details that might have been “filthy, nauseating, and revolting,” according to one judge, but also, false?

In her later years, Hedy’s life would be less than pretty. She was arrested for shoplifting, and there were rumors of pill addiction and botched plastic surgery. She died in Florida in 2000 at the age of 85, and her ashes were spread in the Vienna Woods. She also has an honorary grave in Vienna’s Central Cemetery, and a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

About the Great Sluts in History series:
What makes a woman a “slut,” anyway? From Lillith to Jezebel to Sandra Fluke, it seems that whenever women are in positions of power, open about their sexuality, “too outspoken,” or heaven forbid, all three, they are labeled sluts by some men (and sometimes other women), in an attempt to shame them into “knowing their place.” And into meekly accepting “their place.”

This series will look at flawed and wonderful heroines throughout history who insisted on “Following their own weird,” no matter how much it cost them to do so. And how, by doing so, they made the world better for all humans, of all genders, who followed them.

“…it is no longer acceptable to discuss women’s rights as separate from human rights… If there is one message that echoes forth from this conference, let it be that human rights are women’s rights and women’s rights are human rights, once and for all.” ~Hillary Rodham Clinton, 1995

What did you know about this goddess of the silver and smartphone screen?
Do you have a favorite Hedy LaMarr movie to recommend?
Your thoughts?