This Day in Jewish History

2000: Hedy Lamarr, Actress and Inventor of Torpedo Anti-jamming Technology, Dies

The star of the racy 'Ecstasy’ led a drama-filled life, with six husbands and three children, before fizzling out in Florida.

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On January 19, 2000, the actress -- and inventor -- Hedy Lamarr died, at the age of 85. The Viennese-born Lamarr became a Hollywood film star after immigrating to the United States in 1937, yet it was another of her achievements that could qualify her for immortality: co-inventing technology to help radio-guided torpedoes avoid enemy detection.

Despite her exotic beauty, Lamarr never acquired the type of distinctive screen persona that might have turned her into a presence similar to an Ingrid Bergman or Greta Garbo. Nor was her achievement as the co-inventor of missile technology during World War II exploited at the time by the U.S. Navy, although elements of her invention made their way into contemporary creations like global-positioning systems and Bluetooth technology.

Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler was born in Vienna on November 9, 1914, to Emil Kiesler, a banker, and the former Trude Lichtwitz, a pianist from a socially prominent Budapest family. Both her parents were born Jews (a cousin, Friedrich Kiesler, was the designer of Jerusalem’s Shrine of the Book), although one Lamarr biographer says her mother had converted to Catholicism, while another says Hedwig was registered as a Jew at birth. In any event, Lamarr never acknowledged her Jewish background, even to her own children.

In 1933, the year that Lamarr starred in what is now her most well-known film, the Czech production “Ecstasy,” she also married the Viennese munitions magnate Friedrich Mandl, one of Austria’s wealthiest men. The half-Jewish Mandl sold arms to many of the European countries that would fight on both sides in World War II, and hosted both Hitler and Mussolini at his castle in the 1930s.

Fritz Mandl was not happy with “Ecstasy,” in which the 19-year-old Hedwig Kiesler is seen fully nude, first swimming and then chasing after a stallion, and in which her face is photographed in close-up as her character has an orgasm (she used method acting to simulate the climax, she later wrote). The film is in fact very far from being pornographic, but it was scandalous at the time in Austria, and Fritz Mandl bought up as many copies of it as he could.

Hedy escapes

Her husband’s controlling character finally led Hedy to escape her marriage, in 1937. She made her way to Paris and then London, where she met Louis B. Mayer, who offered her a Hollywood movie contract.

It was Mayer who insisted that she change her name to “Hedy Lamarr,” inspired by a silent film star, Barbara La Marr, who had died in 1926. (Many years later, Hedy Lamarr sued the makers of the 1974 Mel Brooks movie “Blazing Saddles” for invasion of privacy for naming the character played by Harvey Korman “Hedley Lamarr.” The sides settled out of court.)

Lamarr had her American screen premiere in 1938, playing opposite Charles Boyer in MGM’s “Algiers.” In the next two decades, she appeared in another 26 films, the most successful of which was “Samson and Delilah,” directed by Cecil B. DeMille, in which she played opposite Victor Mature.

Hedy Lamarr was married six times, all told, and was mother to three children, one of them adopted. Perhaps her most interesting connection, however, was with the modernist composer George Antheil, her partner in the 1942 patent she received for “spread-system” communication.

Antheil was a polymath whose expertise included endocrinology, and he and Lamar became friends when he was recommended to her as someone who could make suggestions for enlarging her breasts. (He later wrote that she was “the most beautiful woman on earth,” and that her breasts were “fine, real postpituitary,” high praise in Antheil’s book.)

Together, Lamarr and Antheil teamed up to develop a system that was meant to help radio-controlled torpedoes avoid having their radio signals jammed, something that would cause them to go off-course. (She had learned a lot about munitions from her first husband; Antheil had already composed music that employed remote control of automated instruments.) They patented their invention and offered it at no cost to the U.S. Navy, but the navy didn’t get around to employing the technology until the 1960s.

Much more recently, the technology has had application in cellphone engineering and in satellite systems.

Lamarr’s last decades were sad and somewhat ignominious. She lost most of her vision, published a salacious, told-to autobiography that she later sued her publisher over, saying that her ghost writer had made up many of the lewd anecdotes recounted in it, and she was arrested twice for shoplifting. For the most part, she lived a reclusive life in Florida, where she died of heart disease, in the town of Casselberry on January 19, 2000.

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