Hedy Lamarr’s Great Escape

“Any girl can be glamorous. All you have to do is stand still and look stupid.” —Hedy Lamarr

In A Nutshell

Before she was a Hollywood superstar, Hedy Lamarr found herself trapped in a “prison of gold.” As a teenager, the young actress married Fritz Mandl, a weapons manufacturer who kept her locked up in his mansion. Eventually, Lamarr grew so desperate that she concocted a crazy escape plan involving drugs, a disguise, and Louis B. Mayer.

The Whole Bushel

Once upon a time, Hedy Lamarr was billed as “the most beautiful woman in the world,” but this Hollywood legend was more than just a pretty face. In recent years, it’s become well known that the star of films like Algiers and Samson and Delilah played a key role in the creation of technologies like Wi-Fi and Bluetooth.

So how did Hedy change the future? Well, during World War II, Lamarr wanted to help the American war effort by creating a radio-guided torpedo, a missile that could be controlled via wireless communication. There was one little problem. Hedy had to find a way to keep the enemy from jamming the torpedo’s signal. But with the help of an avant-garde composer named George Antheuil, Lamarr developed a frequency-hopping device that would keep the Nazis at bay. Basically, there’s a transmitter and a receiver, and they’re designed to randomly and simultaneously jump from one radio frequency to another, leaving the Nazis terribly confused.

Of course, the military ignored Hedy’s idea for years, but eventually her frequency-hopping patent was rediscovered and became the basis for, well, the 21st century as we know it. While Lamarr didn’t earn a single cent for her invention (the patent expired before it was finally put to use in the ‘60s), she was awarded with an Electronic Frontier Foundation Pioneer Award a few years before she died.

But how did Hedy Lamarr come to learn so much about torpedoes and wireless communications? Well, it had a lot to do with her first husband, which brings us to the time when Hedy Lamarr went from being an imprisoned housewife to a world-class escape artist.

In 1933, the Austrian actress gained international notoriety for starring in Ecstasy, a movie that was pretty erotic for the day, complete with nudity and a rather racy sex scene. Shortly after filming, Hedy married an arms dealer named Fritz Mandl, and while their marriage might have seemed fine at first, Hedy quickly learned her husband was a major control freak. Insanely jealous, he ordered her to quit acting and then began hunting for every copy of Ecstasy in existence, hoping to wipe the film off the face of the Earth.

Even worse, Mandl turned his wife into a prisoner. Hedy wasn’t allowed to leave Mandl’s mansion unless she was accompanied by a servant. He listened to all of her telephone calls, carefully controlled her meager allowance, and kept her jewelry under lock and key. Hedy was trapped in her own home, but eventually, she began planning her escape. Whenever possible, she’d steal a ring here or a necklace there, and then she’d ask a friend to sell the jewelry and keep the money ready for when Hedy made her big break.

In the meantime, Lamarr kept her mouth shut and her ears open. As Mandl’s trophy wife, she was required to attend dinners where he would entertain wealthy officials from around the world. As a big-time weapons mogul, Hedy’s husband supplied some pretty nasty customers. When Hitler rose to power, Mandl went into business with the Third Reich, and Benito Mussolini often showed up at the mansion for dinner. Of course, while her husband was dining with devils, Hedy paid close attention to all their conversations. It was basically War School 101, and the actress learned all about missiles, radio frequencies, and how to invent the perfect weapon.

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On one occasion, Hedy did try to talk with one of her husband’s guests, but with disastrous results. According to film historian Karina Longworth, host of the podcast You Must Remember This, a British officer dropped by the mansion one evening, and when Mandl left the dining room, Hedy begged the Englishman to help her escape. The officer agreed, and later that night, Hedy started packing her bags. However, as she was preparing for the journey, Mandl burst into her bedroom and placed a record on Hedy’s Victrola. Instead of a melodious waltz, Hedy heard her own voice, pleading with the British officer for help. Mandl had bugged the dining room.

The claustrophobia, the surveillance, the constant fear—it was all too much for Hedy, and the next time her husband went on a trip, the actress went into Steve McQueen mode. She drugged one of her maids, stole the woman’s uniform, and silently crept out of the mansion. She quickly made her way to Paris, but when she arrived in the City of Lights, she received a telegram from a concerned servant, warning her that Mandl was on her trail. Instead of hiding out in France, she boarded a ship and sailed to London. Frustrated, Mandl decided it was easier just to divorce his wife than hunt her down, but Hedy’s adventures weren’t over quite yet.

Coincidentally, Hedy showed up in London right as MGM president Louis B. Mayer was finishing up some European business and getting ready to return to the US. Lamarr convinced a talent scout to set up a meeting with the movie mogul, but when Hedy first met the big man, Mayer said there was no way she could make it in America. After all, she’d starred in Ecstasy, and that sexually explicit stuff wasn’t going to fly in the States. However, Hedy was persistent and convinced Mayer that she had been forced into filming those sex scenes. With a sudden change of heart, Mayer offered the actress a six-month contract at $125 per week.

Hedy turned him down.

Lamarr knew she was worth a lot more than $125, so the two parted ways—until Hedy decided she’d made a big mistake. After all, this was her big shot at Hollywood fame, and she couldn’t just pass it up. But she couldn’t schedule another meeting with Mayer, because he was about to sail back home. Even worse, she couldn’t buy a ticket because the cruise liner was all sold out. That’s when her talent scout friend came up with a suggestion. One of his clients, a 14-year-old violinist, was traveling on the same ship. Perhaps Hedy could sneak aboard by posing as the girl’s nanny.

Without a doubt, it was the most important acting gig of Hedy’s career, and amazingly, it worked. When Mayer discovered how Lamarr had gotten aboard, he had to admit it—the girl had guts. He also noticed that Hedy was drawing quite a bit of attention from all the guys onboard. Thoroughly impressed with her courage and her looks, Mayer scrapped the six-month offer, and instead, he gave Hedy a seven-year contract, starting at $550 per week. Sailing across the Atlantic and leaving behind her twisted marriage, Hedy was finally headed for fame, fortune, and (eventually) technological glory.

Show Me The Proof

Featured photo via Wikipedia
Beautiful: The Life of Hedy Lamarr, by Stephen Michael Shearer
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