Visible Women

Forgotten Women: The screen star who was also an inventor

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Anna-Marie Crowhurst
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Forgotten Women is a series dedicated to giving women of history the exposure they deserve. This week, we take a look at the life of Hedy Lamarr, who was a true icon of the Golden Age of cinema and an aeronautics expert who pioneered a World War Two communications system.

Hedy Lamarr was one of the Thirties’ most glamorous movie stars. She was marketed by her studio as the “world’s most beautiful woman” and had six husbands. So far, so Hollywood. 

But because life distributes its gifts unfairly, Lamarr was also a serious inventor who co-created a radio-guidance system for torpedoes that was used by the US army and paved the way for Bluetooth, GPS and wifi. And because life is unfair, even with Lamarr’s brains and looks, her invention was ignored for two decades. Because surely a screen siren couldn’t dream up something that amazing?

Lamarr was born Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler in 1914 in Vienna, the daughter of a bank manager and a pianist mother. She was 18 when she starred in the film that made her name – 1933’s Ecstasy

In Europe it was considered an art film, but its US release simultaneously scandalised a and titillated audiences – both for its nudity and for what’s considered cinema’s first non-pornographic depiction of female orgasm. 

In a highly erotic scene, the camera lingers in close-up on Lamarr’s ecstatic reactions as her lover, it’s implied, goes to work off-camera… the music swells… the overhead light flickers… although it’s pretty tame by today’s standards. 

Hedy Lamarr and Victor Mature in Samson and Delilah

Meanwhile, Lamarr had entangled herself in an unhappy marriage to a controlling Nazi sympathiser. Escaping Austria in disguise, she landed in Paris in 1937 and met MGM founder Louis B Mayer. After a name change, Lamarr began playing mysterious seductresses opposite Hollywood’s leading men. 

Her US film debut was 1938’s Algiers opposite Charles Boyer. She acted with Clark Gable and Spencer Tracy and made more than 30 films, as well as many headlines. She married twice between 1939 and 1947 and had three children. 

In 1949, Lamarr starred in her first Technicolor film, Cecil B DeMille’s Samson And Delilah. But then the roles began to drop off. Lamarr was frustrated with being typecast by her looks. “Any girl can be glamorous,” she said. “All you have to do is stand still and look stupid.” 

Hedy Lamarr in Ziegfeld Girl

Seeking new purpose, Lamarr began inventing and had a drafting table installed in her studio. She created streamlined designs for the wings of the aeroplanes of businessman Howard Hughes, her then-boyfriend, to help them fly faster. 

When World War Two hit, Lamarr had an idea. Together with her composer friend George Antheil, she worked on a “secret communication system” to guide Allied torpedoes safely and jam the frequencies of German ones. Though in 1942 they were awarded a patent for the technology, it was not employed until the Sixties, when it became the basis of wifi systems used today. 

In later years, Lamarr became a recluse and underwent extensive plastic surgery to preserve her looks. She died aged 85 in 2000. A new documentary, Bombshell (out 9 March), features a rediscovered interview from 1990 in which she spoke of her hobby. 

“Inventions are easy for me to do,” she said. “I suppose I just came from a different planet.”

The Forgotten Women series is part of Stylist’s Visible Women campaign, dedicated to raising the profiles of brilliant women past and present. Find out more about the campaign here, and see more Visible Women stories here.

Images: Josie Jammet / Rex Features