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THOMPSON: The story of Hedy Lamarr

April 16, 2018 - 12:00 PM

 


OPINION


Women have long had it tougher than men…especially in matters of respect, recognition and equality. The struggles play out every day in real life…and have for centuries.

Women - unless they are persons of colour - aren’t a minority. But, I suspect their struggles stiffen even more when they are.

It’s all the more impressive that some women have persevered… rising to the top in various endeavours and achieving the respect and recognition they are due. However, these stories remain the exception rather than the rule.

But things are changing - finally and slowly - and it’s about time. As far as I’m concerned, girls and young women can’t see and hear too many positive stories to let them realize that anything is possible.

Perhaps one of the best stories of a woman’s struggle in a man’s world airs as a documentary next month on Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) stations.

It is the story of Hedy Lamarr…a woman of obvious beauty…who had the audacity to be smart, as well. If you’re retired or maybe a fan of Hollywood’s Golden Era - movies from 1929 through the 1950s - you know something about Lamarr. Even so, you might not know ALL about her.

You see, she made the mistake of being not just a woman…but a head-turning beauty that defined sexiness…in an industry that panders to those qualities even today.

Despite being nothing less than a genius - whose inventions affect the lives of everyone reading this column - she is most remembered for being a woman who had six failed marriages… for blowing millions of dollars…and for simply being pretty.

Hedy Lamarr
Hedy Lamarr
Image Credit: WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

Lamarr was demeaned as many women are…receiving little praise and credit for achievements…but catching every criticism for failures that are more human than gender-based.

After all, in a culture that historically reveres women when they know their places, Hedy Lamarr’s experience is in some ways…every woman’s experience.

Like most Hollywood stars, she garnered a glamorous stage name and starred in a dozen films in a 19-year career. After all, no one in America was likely to fall in love with the name Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler…no matter how beautiful she was.

She gained notoriety as an 18-year-old actress in a risqué German film “Ecstasy” - her fifth movie in Europe - in 1933. She appeared nude…quite tame by today’s standards but shocking back in the day.

She debuted in Hollywood in “Algiers” opposite Charles Boyer in 1938. Then came other successes…“Lady of the Tropics” in 1939 and “White Cargo” in1940. She was sensual and captivating on the screen…and who knows what stardom might have been had she not turned down lead roles in two blockbuster hits, “Gaslight” in 1940 and “Casablanca” in 1942.

There was nothing ordinary about Lamarr. When she was barely 20 years old, she married Austrian arms dealer Fritz Mandl in 1934. A jealous man and a bit of a control freak, Mandl practically made her more prisoner than wife. He bugged her telephone calls, read her letters coming and going, and he never allowed her to be alone or have her own money.

Three years later - after pawning jewellery one piece at a time -
she had money to escape. She drugged one of her ever-present maids, sneaked out wearing the maid’s uniform and fled to Paris. Mandl, outraged, sought her at first, but gave up and divorced her after she sailed for England.

In London, she convinced a talent scout to introduce her to visiting MGM President Louis B. Mayer. She convinced Mayer that she had what it takes for Hollywood - but turned down his initial six-month contract offer of $125 a week…about $2,200 in today’s dollars. She was - in her mind - worth more.

She realized her mistake a day later, but couldn’t get another audience with him before he sailed for New York. She couldn’t even book passage on the cruise ship…there were no tickets to be had.

Showing incredible hutzpah, Lamarr posed as the nanny of her talent scout friend’s client sailing on the ship…a 14-year-old virtuoso violinist.

Mayer was so impressed with Lamarr’s “acting” that he offered her a new contract…this one for seven years at $550 a week…about $9,700 in today’s buying power.

Lamarr demonstrated completely different skills and talents with the outbreak of World War II. A woman of unusual curiosity and intellect, she remembered the many dinners her arms dealer ex-husband hosted in the late 1930s for generals and leaders of Italy and Germany, including Benito Mussolini and Adolph Hitler. She was Jewish and hated them.

The dinner conversations often dealt with state-of-the-art weapons…missiles and torpedoes guided by radio frequency…and she literally went to school on them.

Lamarr - after long days in America un front of the camera - spent nights and weekends with some cast-off electronics equipment from friend Howard Hughes. At the time, weapons could be controlled remotely by radio frequency, but once discovered the enemy could block the frequency and render the weapons useless.

She sought a way to constantly change frequencies and make enemy blocking virtually impossible. Midway through World War II she and composer-friend George Antheil were awarded a patent for “frequency hopping” technology that allowed secure communications. She did it without a penny of support from the government…or anyone else.

The U.S. Navy didn’t use the technology until well after the war when the patent lapsed and they no longer had to pay Lamarr and  Antheil. This is the same technology that today gives each and every one of us Bluetooth and WiFi capabilities…technology worth tens…maybe hundreds…of billions of dollars.

This amazing woman didn’t stop there. She studied birds and fish so that she could advise her friend Howard Hughes about aircraft wing modifications that meant greater lift and more stable flight.

She had vision, as well. One of the most world’s toniest ski resorts today is Aspen, CO. But it was nothing until Lamarr - noticing the resemblance to her Austrian home - bought a chalet there, and pioneered Aspen’s development.

Her movie career waned in the 1950s, mostly because women had to be beautiful and young…a common double-standard even today. But she even succeeded against such unfair cultural norms, pioneering cosmetic surgery…telling surgeons where and how to make incisions so women could look younger.

Undeniably, Hedy Lamarr was a beautiful woman…an online search of photos shows that fact clearly. She was so irresistible  that in one ten-day, 16-city tour selling war bonds in the early 1940s…she raised more than $25 million.

Hedy Lamarr died not far from my home in Florida in 2000…at age 86. She was living - not in a mansion like she had known most of her life - but in a small apartment on a pauper’s income from Social Security.

Take time to watch “Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story” on PBS next month. Gather your age-appropriate kids and grandkids and friends - it’s only 89 minutes long - so they can witness at once both a hopeful and tragic story of how the times and sexual politics can conspire against you.

Beauty isn’t everything…but it shouldn’t define you…and it certainly shouldn’t hold you back.

News from © InfoTel News Ltd, 2018
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