Jammed Reception

AP Photo

Actress Hedy Lamarr, along with composer George Antheil, designed and patented in 1942 a communications system that has become the underlying technology of the cellular phone. Here she is in 1941.

Had she been a man, she might have been remembered as a folk-hero inventor, the genius without formal schooling who transformed an era, a mid-20th century Thomas Edison.

Instead, she spent her life in a very public form of solitary confinement:  prisoner of the role of Hollywood goddess, sentenced for her beauty.

The woman was Hedy Lamarr. A new documentary about her, Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story, is making the world round of film festivals. Wanting a release both from ever-fiercer summer heat and from politics, I went to the Jerusalem screening. The air conditioner coped with climate change. The escape from politics was less successful—unless you leave gender, immigration, and identity out of politics.

Here's the side of her life that was publicly visible. She grew up as Hedwig Kiesler, daughter of a wealthy Viennese couple. In her teens, her startling beauty gave her entree to the Central European film world. Her biggest role was in a 1933 Czech movie, Extase (Ecstasy), in which she portrayed a young woman who fled an older husband for a younger lover. Some blurred nudity and a simulated orgasm turned the film into a scandal that she never escaped.

An arms manufacturer stalked the young star, courted her, convinced her to marry him and then jealously kept her near him. A pattern was set: The husband, like the Extase directory, looked at her and saw only his own fantasies.

Life half-imitating art, she fled—not to a lover, but to London. There, as it happened, American producer Louise B. Mayer was talent-hunting. He gave her a Hollywood contract and a name, Hedy Lamarr, crafted to erase her past. Her timing was exquisite: She found a place in America just months before the Anschluss.

In Hollywood, Bombshell recounts, she was considered so stunning that light-haired stars dyed their hair dark to imitate her. As a captive of the studio system, she was cast only as an exotic seductress. Lamarr's most successful role was as Delilah in Cecil B. DeMille's Samson and Delilah. She married briefly and repeatedly. The husbands, it seems, never actually saw her, only her face.

As she aged, she tried plastic surgery to preserve her career. It didn't work. In the footage of her in Bombshell from late in her life, Lamarr looks mutilated. She made herself a prisoner in her apartment, talking for hours on the phone, seeing no one, or rather letting no one see her.

Now here's another side of Lamarr, the part that wasn't in film magazines: As a small child, she could take apart a music box and put it back together perfectly. Her father encouraged her creativity. She loved science. In Austria, while married to an arms-maker who considered her arm candy, she sponged up engineering ideas. In America, she met aeronautic pioneer Howard Hughes, who discovered that this particular actress was also a genius with better ideas for wing design.

During World War II, as German submarines attacked trans-Atlantic shipping, Lamarr wanted to contribute to the American war effort. She decided to solve the problem with using radio-guided torpedoes against U-boats: The enemy could jam the frequency used to control the torpedoes. She had a solution: If the transmitter and receiver hopped from frequency to frequency in tandem, they'd evade the jamming. She worked together with a composer, George Antheil, who had a thing for player pianos. A miniaturized mechanism, based on the one that made the pianos change notes, would make radios rapidly switch frequencies.

They patented their idea and offered it to the U.S. military. The military did nothing with it. A secret weapon designed by an actress, particularly one whose only public persona was sex symbol, couldn't be serious. Nonetheless, Bombshell recounts, the government expropriated her patent rights, at least temporarily—on the grounds that she was an enemy alien.

Unknown to Lamarr, though, frequency-hopping didn't die. The patent sat unused just long enough for her claim to expire. Then the concept was put to use—not just in arms but in civilian uses, eventually including cellphone and wireless technology, where interference is a matter of circumstance rather than jamming. Lamarr never made a cent on it, though in the last years of her life she gained recognition. The erstwhile scandal-rag cover girl now appeared on the cover of Innovation and Technology.

Bombshell, falling into a common pitfall of biographies, spends too much time on Lamarr's long descent, and misses the chance to tell more about the glorious separate life of her invention. Even so, the injustice of talent ignored and of rewards stolen comes across powerfully. Men's thoughts when they looked at Hedy Lamarr were 100 percent effective at jamming any reception of her brilliance.

Too briefly, the film alludes to two more facets of Lamarr's life. One is that she was an immigrant. Even as she tried to help America win the war, she was judged an “enemy alien” based on the country she'd left. As the Trump refugee ban shows, this kind of madness is still with us.

And a final twist to the story: In her way, Lamarr was a refugee as well as an immigrant. She fled an abusive husband, not a murderous regime. But the Vienna she left was already a place of rising anti-Semitism and would soon be part of the Third Reich. And as assimilated as her family was, Hedwig Kiesler was a Jew.

Somewhere between Vienna and London, or between London and Los Angeles, Hedy Lamarr decided to erase that part of her identity. It meant leaving part of herself permanently hidden. She never told her own children.

She wasn't alone, though by the nature of the phenomenon we don't know how common it was. It was difficult, and already frightening, to be a Jew in Europe when she left. What happened afterward made it blindingly terrifying. Besides, if everyone disliked you, it was tempting to dislike yourself. Absorbing your oppressor's prejudices is basic to the experience of oppression. Even if you found a safe haven in America, or Canada or Australia, could you be sure it would stay a haven? If you are hated for your history rather than your skin color, there's a temptation to amputate your history.

I don't judge. We who live in safer times and more welcoming places cannot. Stepping out of the theater into the evening breeze of Jerusalem, I could only think that while everyone stared at Hedy Lamarr, there was so much that no one saw. 

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