11 Things We Learned About Hedy Lamarr From Bombshell
At the height of her fame in the 1940s, Hedy Lamarr was hailed as the most beautiful face in Hollywood. Her roles in films like Ziegfeld Girl (1941) and Samson and Delilah (1949) made her a household name, but the work she did off-screen reflected a completely different side of the glamorous Hollywood A-lister. She helped develop frequency hopping technology in an effort to aid the Allied Forces during World War II. Her invention would eventually become the basis for sophisticated military gear, Bluetooth, and Wi-Fi, but it wasn’t until 1990 that her accomplishments were recognized in a story for Forbes.
Now, decades later, the original audio recording from that Forbes interview has been unearthed. Lamarr’s story in her own words is featured in Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story, a new documentary written and directed by Alexandra Dean, which details the life of the icon. Here are 11 things we learned about Lamarr from the film, which is in theaters now.
1. SHE WAS AN INVENTOR FROM AN EARLY AGE.
Born in Austria in 1914 as Hedwig Eva Marie Kiesler, Hedy’s urge to tinker was evident early on. According to her son, Anthony Loder, she showed an interest in technology at age five. “She took an old-fashioned music box apart and put it back together again,” he said. As she grew older, Lamarr became more curious and her inventions grew more ambitious.
2. HER FAVORITE SUBJECT WAS CHEMISTRY.
As a student at a private school in Vienna, Lamarr enjoyed mixing together materials in her chemistry class. Many years later she told Forbes journalist Fleming Meeks that she was quite good at it. But instead of furthering her education, Lamarr pursued a career in cinema as a teenager.
3. HITLER BANNED HER FIRST FILM.
Hedy received her first acting credit in the Czech-Austrian romance Ecstasy (1933). The film was controversial for its day, and Hedy’s performance caused the biggest stir: In the movie she appears nude and simulates what was likely the first female orgasm in a feature film. But the risque content wasn’t Hitler’s reason for condemning the film: He told the U.S. press he banned it because the lead actress was Jewish.
4. SHE NEGOTIATED A HIGHER SALARY FROM MGM.
As Jewish actors and actresses were fleeing the Nazis, Louis B. Mayer of MGM came to Europe with the plan to sign some of them to his studio for a cheap price. When he met Hedy he said he was willing to pay her $125 a week, an offer she immediately refused. “She said, ‘I’m sorry that’s not good enough’ and walked out," said Richard Rhodes, author of the biography Hedy’s Folly. “People didn’t usually turn down Metro-Goldwyn Mayer.” But Hedy wasn’t about to let the opportunity slip away from her. She booked passage to America on the same ship Mayer was taking. Once on board, she put on her most becoming dress and jewelry and walked through the dining hall, making sure she passed Mayer’s table on the way. “I don’t know why, I don’t know what, but all of a sudden I got $500 every week,” Hedy said.
5. LOUIS B. MAYER’S WIFE CHOSE HER LAST NAME.
After persuading Hedy to work with him, Mayer decided she needed a new name to match her Hollywood persona. His wife Margaret suggested she take the name of her favorite silent film star Barbara La Marr. The last name also sounds like the French word for the sea (la mer), adding to its romantic appeal.
6. SHE WAS THE INSPIRATION FOR SNOW WHITE.
The first Disney princess Snow White was modeled on Lamarr’s classic beauty. That’s not the only iconic cartoon she inspired. Batman creators Bob Kane and Bill Finger said they referred to the actress when creating Catwoman.
7. SHE DATED JOHN F. KENNEDY.
In addition to her six husbands, Lamarr dated plenty of famous men. She even saw John F. Kennedy for a brief period before he became president. Lamarr described the conversation leading up to their date: “He said, ‘What can I bring you?’ I said oranges, because I like vitamin C.”
8. HER INVENTION COULD HAVE CHANGED THE WAR.
Even as she rose to stardom, Lamarr never forgot the war ravaging her home continent. One issue she learned of concerned the U.S. Navy. The torpedoes shot from American submarines were controlled by radio waves, but German forces were jamming the signals before the weapons reached their targets. Hedy came up with a solution: Make radio signals impossible to detect by sending them through rapidly-changing frequencies. “It was so obvious,” she said. “They shot torpedoes in all directions and never hit the target so I invented something that does.”
She dubbed her invention “frequency hopping.” She collaborated with her friend and famous pianist George Antheil to work the concept into a usable design. They successfully applied for a patent, but unfortunately weren’t able to get the Navy to take the idea seriously during World War II.
9. SHE SENT HER BODY DOUBLE TO COURT IN HER PLACE.
The day Lamarr was set to testify in court over her divorce from her fifth husband, Howard Lee, her son got into a serious car accident. “Stressed and traumatized to the point of breakdown, she sent her Hollywood body double to testify in her place,” Rhodes said. This angered the judge so much that he slashed her share of the divorce settlement.
10. SHE HATED HER BOOK.
Hedy Lamarr’s 1966 autobiography Ecstasy and Me was written by a ghost writer. “Hedy’s manager was allegedly paid to get her to sign off on what turned out to be a salacious tell-all,” Bombshell producer Adam Haggiag said. “It focused on her sexuality and made her the butt of a joke.” Hedy had planned to write a more authentic version of her life story, but she died without publishing a second book.
11. SHE WAS NEVER PAID FOR HER INVENTION.
Though it was shelved at first, frequency hopping turned out to be hugely influential. The early technology can be seen in GPS, Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, and military satellites today, and the total market value of the invention is estimated to be about $30 billion. But Lamarr was never paid for her contribution. In 1969, she learned that her designs had become widespread in Navy vessels. There’s evidence that the military used her patent before it expired, but by the time she became aware of this her window to sue them had already passed. While she wasn’t compensated, Lamarr did eventually receive the recognition she deserved for her work. In 2014, she was posthumously inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame. Her son Anthony said, “She would love to be remembered as someone who contributed to the well-being of humankind.”