American Icon: Hedy Lamarr

Hedy Lamarr...Intelligence Before Beauty

 

Today, society throws around adjectives like beautiful, amazing and great like they are worthless currency.

But there was a time when those words actually meant something. You don’t have to go back too far, just far enough to the 1930s when Hedwig Kiesler was embarking on her acting career, starring in a series of German and Czech films that included the then-racy “Ecstasy” in which she appeared nude, enough to catch the attention of Hollywood.

Movie fans know Kiesler better as Hedy Lamarr; the studios forced the name-change, primarily so she would not be associated with her earlier film work.

In America, her acting career blossomed. She was cast opposite such leading men as Clark Gable, Spencer Tracy and Jimmy Stewart. Her list of credits includes such epics as “Algiers”, “White Cargo” and Cecil B. DeMille’s “Samson and Delilah.”

At one time, Lamarr was considered the most beautiful woman in the world, a title given to her by acclaimed stage director Max Reinhardt. “She commanded the screen not so much for her acting, which at best was passably droll and arch, but rather for the perfect beauty of her face, with its colliding sensuality and innocence, and for the subtle irony and sly intelligence that animated her work with screen partners like Clark Gable, Jimmy Stewart and Charles Boyer,” writes John Adams in his NY Times review of Richard Rhodes book, Hedy’s Folly: The Life and Breakthrough Inventions of Hedy Lamarr, the Most Beautiful Woman in the World.

Like the title suggests, Hedy was more than just a beautiful face. Hedy herself acknowledged that, “Any girl can be glamorous. All you have to do is stand still and look stupid.”

Hedy was anything but, though she was forever-associated with her looks.  

Rhodes’ book dispels that notion, finding a depth in Hedy that many had overlooked. You see, Hedy was curious so she researched and she invented. Many inventions, like an improved Kleenex box and a new traffic signal, failed.

But one did not. It was a radio-controlled torpedo guidance system which Hedy created with Hollywood composer George Antheil. The pair met at a dinner in 1940 and quickly struck a friendship. Two years later, the inquisitive minds received a patent for their torpedo system, spending countless hours planning, designing and redesigning the device which used frequency hopping that later became the basis for smart bombs currently used by the military. But Hedy’s work also had more practical implications on everyday society; the system is the foundation for wireless technologies, like Bluetooth and Wi-Fi, we all use today.

While Hedy’s invention was revolutionary, it was ignored by the Navy during the war, partially because of her status as a movie star who happened to be a woman who happened to be beautiful. Lamarr and Antheil (he died in 1950) were eventually honored for their work in 1997 by the Electronic Frontier Foundation which presented the pair with the Pioneer Award.

Despite society’s norms at the time, Hedy’s life was proof that a woman can have a profound impact on the world not solely with her looks, but with her mind. She was a true icon, paving the way for women and what they can achieve and inspiring them to enter fields like science, engineering and technology.

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Words of an Icon: “I can excuse everything but boredom. Boring people don’t have to stay that way.” – Hedy Lamarr

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