She outwitted her pro-Nazi husband, was the first actress to appear nude on the big screen, and helped invent the technology for mobile phones. But the story of this wayward beauty reads like a Hollywood tragedy.
The young woman's hands shook as she slipped three sleeping pills into her maid's coffee cup and then rushed out of the servant's quarters. Terrified of being caught, she ran through the rooms of her husband's palace to the sanctuary of her bedroom. There, she pulled out a suitcase and began filling it with clothes, jewellery and money, stuffing in as many diamonds as she could. With no time to waste, she took out a maid's uniform she had hidden, quickly changed, then grabbed the bulging suitcase and raced to the car outside. Frantically, she turned the key in the ignition. It was only when the engine revved into life that she allowed herself to believe that, at last, she was free.
The rest of Hedy Lamarr's life would turn out to be as dramatic as her escape from Vienna that day in 1937. Leaving behind a tyrannical millionaire husband who had kept her a virtual prisoner during their four-year marriage, Lamarr fled to the US, where Hollywood soon turned the ambitious actress into a star.
A raven-haired beauty, her smouldering looks broke the mould of the platinum blondes who had preceded her, and when she made her Hollywood movie debut, it started a trend for a new breed of sultry brunettes. Many of them outstripped Lamarr's meagre talents, but they could rarely match her beauty. Cast opposite heart-throbs like Clark Gable and Spencer Tracy, Lamarr pouted prettily through more than 25 films, although her limited acting ability meant her performances won little praise.
Bizarrely, Lamarr's greatest success in life was as an inventor. During World War II, she devised an idea for a radio communications system to help prevent the enemy from detecting messages, and although it wasn't put into use then, modern technological breakthroughs like mobile phones wouldn't work today without her groundbreaking discovery.
Even by Hollywood standards, her personal life was outrageous. She was a self-confessed nymphomaniac who allegedly had sexual affairs with men and women, and managed to get through six husbands. She had three children; one who disliked her so much he didn't speak to her for six years, while another claims she abandoned him as a small boy.
As her Hollywood career waned, Lamarr's life became increasingly chaotic. Twice arrested for shoplifting, the frazzled former star began suing anyone who used her name without permission (including director Mel Brooks for mocking her in Blazing Saddles). She also published a lurid autobiography, Ecstasy And Me: My Life As A Woman, in 1967, then later claimed the ghost-written book was "fictional, false, vulgar,
scandalous, libellous and obscene".
She might have, by her own estimates, earned $30 million in Hollywood, but by the age of 50, she was living on benefits, her face so distorted from surgery that her son said she looked like "Frankenstein's monster". "To the world, my mother was a screen legend, a beauty who had it all," said son Anthony after her death on January 19, 2000 at the age of 86. "But behind closed doors, she was addicted to drugs, terrified of losing her looks. Half her life was a glittering dream, but the second half was a tragic waste."
Born on November 9, 1913 in Vienna to a wealthy Jewish couple, Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler was the only child of Emil, a banker, and Gertrude, a concert pianist. The family employed servants and tutors, and "Princess Hedy", as everyone called her, was educated at private girls' schools. Obsessed with movie magazines, the teenager wandered one day into the local film school, where a director was casting for a movie, Geld Auf Der Strasse (Money On The Street). Seeing potential in the pretty girl, he gave her a bit part in the 1930 film. She then decided to drop out of school and move to Berlin to study acting under the tutelage of theatre director Max Reinhardt.
Before the age of 18, Hedwig had appeared onstage in Noël Coward's Private Lives and in a further two film comedies, but it was her performance in the 1933 Czech film Extase (Ecstasy) that gave Hedwig her first real taste of fame - and notoriety. She might have thought she was making "a harmless little sex romp", but Ecstasy contained what's thought to be cinema's first nude scene and on-screen faked orgasm. Hedwig insisted she was tricked into appearing naked after director Gustav Machatý assured her he would film at a distance; he then used a telephoto lens. She also claimed that her ecstatic reaction in the orgasm scene was only achieved after Machatý stuck pins in her bottom. The world was outraged, Pope Pius XI was appalled, and Hedwig was launched on her scandalous way.
One person who was incensed by the movie was millionaire munitions magnate Fritz Mandl, whom Hedwig married on August 10, 1933. Described as "handsome, magnetic ... and utterly ruthless", he banned his new bride from acting and spent millions trying to buy up every copy of the film. Mandl was a powerful man who sold arms to the Nazis and Hedwig, unable to work because of his possessiveness, was forced to play hostess to guests like Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini, both of whom she despised. (Like Hedwig, Mandl also came from a Jewish background, although he had converted to Catholicism and was keen for his young wife to also appear Catholic; it's unknown whether the Nazis ever knew either of their backgrounds.) Her home was a magnificent Viennese palace, but with an army of servants employed as guards, Hedwig lived like a bird in a gilded cage. She was kept under virtual house arrest, and when she did go out, Hedwig believed she was often followed.
Four years into the claustrophobic marriage, Hedwig made her dramatic escape, taking a train from Vienna to Paris, then London. While hiding out in Claridge's hotel, she met Metro Goldwyn Mayer (MGM) mogul Louis B Mayer, who was scouting for new talent. When she heard Mayer was heading back to the US, Hedwig cashed in her jewellery for a one-way ticket and spent the voyage persuading him to sign her up. By the time the ship docked in New York, she had a new name (after the late silent-film star Barbara La Marr, who Mayer had adored) and a seven-year contract.
Lamarr's Hollywood movie debut was in Algiers, in 1938, playing a beautiful Parisian tourist who seduces a jewel thief. An instant box-office sensation, showbiz paper Variety said "she brings to the picture an abundance of good looks, acting talent and enticement", while her exotic look caused blonde starlets to go brunette. MGM billed her "The Most Beautiful Girl In The World". But the accolades were short-lived: her next film, 1939's Lady Of The Tropics, flopped. Like the Mona Lisa, said The New York Times, Lamarr was "more beautiful in repose".
The same year, she married screenwriter Gene Markey in Mexico, having known him for less than a month. Twenty years her senior, they divorced in 1941 after adopting a baby son, James, who later claimed he was shipped off to school at age 11 and never saw his mother again. By that point in her life, Lamarr was a major star, commanding $250,000 a movie opposite Tinseltown's leading men. Yet despite her beauty, Lamarr had gained a reputation for being temperamental and detached. Industry insiders dubbed her "Headache" Lamarr. "I'm not difficult, I am definite," she said.
Ironically, her legacy was a brilliant invention. At a party in 1940, Lamarr
was introduced to George Antheil, an avant-garde composer, and mentioned an idea she'd had - possibly as a result of eavesdropping on Mandl's armament business conversations in Vienna - that Lamarr believed would help the war effort. At the end of the evening, she scrawled her phone number in red lipstick on the windscreen of his car, and the next day Antheil arranged to see her.
Sitting on the living room floor in her Beverly Hills home, Lamarr used a silver matchbox to explain her idea for a "frequency-hopping" device, which would use different radio wavelengths to prevent missiles from being jammed or intercepted by the Nazis. Antheil was intrigued. Famous for writing the world's first composition for mechanically operated pianos, he realised that synchronising pianos and radio frequencies wasn't dissimilar, and agreed to use his expertise to develop her idea.
In 1942, they hit the headlines when they received a patent for their communications system, with The New York Times reporting: "Actress Devises 'Red-Hot' Apparatus for Use in Defense". The patent expired in 1959 before it was put into use, but the technology was employed in the '60s during the Cuban missile crisis, and is the basis for modern devices like mobile phones and wireless internet.
Despite Lamarr's sharp mind, by 1949 it looked as though her career was over. There was only one highlight: her performance in Cecil B DeMille's Samson And Delilah, where some maintain she carried the film. It went on to become the biggest box-office hit of that year, but Lamarr failed to capitalise on its success. She refused to do publicity for subsequent films, including the 1951 Bob Hope comedy My Favorite Spy, and after dire performances as Helen of Troy (in Loves Of Three Queens) and Joan of Arc (The Story Of Mankind), Hollywood had lost interest by the end of the '50s.
Turning to plastic surgery to preserve the looks she was terrified of losing, Lamarr had to endure disastrous results. "She had her breasts enlarged, her cheeks raised, her lips made bigger, and much, much more," said Anthony. "She had plastic surgery thinking it could revive her looks and her career, but it backfired and distorted her beauty."
Anthony, born in 1947 during her marriage to third husband John Loder, also claimed his mother was addicted to drugs, which caused frightening mood swings. "MGM gave her drugs to wake her up, to keep her going, to help her nap ... The drugs made her irritable. She was short-tempered, impatient, unpredictable, erratic and unstable. Once, she dropped a fork on the kitchen floor, and when I didn't pick it up instantly she whacked me across the face."
Despite his mother's multiple marriages, Anthony revealed she never
really found the love she was looking for: "There were companions and sexual partners, but she never had a deep connection with anyone." Her marriage to fourth husband, hotelier Teddy Stauffer, lasted nine months while the fifth, to Texan oil tycoon W Howard Lee, ended after seven years. Lamarr claimed she never saw a penny of their divorce settlement, but compensated by marrying her lawyer instead. "I was broke and hungry ... I felt I had to marry," she said of her sixth husband, Lewis J Boies. The marriage lasted a year and ended in 1964.
Alone and impoverished, Lamarr found herself living in a run-down apartment in LA, surviving on stale bread and "powders that you add water to because it was cheaper than canned or frozen foods". In January 1966, she was arrested for shoplifting $86 worth of goods from a department store. She was acquitted, but the stress of the trial cost her a comeback role in Picture Mommy Dead: when the studio limo arrived to collect her for filming, she had checked into hospital suffering from nervous exhaustion. Instead, the only movie hit for Lamarr that year was as a result of Andy Warhol's cruel send-up, Hedy, in which a drag queen played the part of the washed-up, surgery-scarred actress.
Eventually, Lamarr began making a career out of suing people; she wasted thousands of dollars on ridiculous lawsuits (including one against a newspaper that printed a picture of a two-headed goat called Hedy Lamarr). According to Anthony, "The only thing that saved her, not long before her death, was that a major computer company used her image in its packaging without permission, thinking she was dead. She sued and settled for around $3 million."
In 1991, she was arrested again for stealing toiletries from a chemist near her home in Orlando, Florida. No formal charges were laid, but Lamarr said she was "sick and tired of being in the limelight". Even so, she would often stop strangers in the street and say: "Would you believe I was once a famous star?" She once noted cynically that, "Any girl can be glamorous. All you have to do is stand still and look stupid."
"My face has been my misfortune," she wrote in her autobiography. "It has attracted all the wrong people into my boudoir and brought me tragedy and heartache ... My face is a mask I cannot remove." Her words may sound as over-dramatic as some of her film roles, but Lamarr was both blessed and cursed by her beauty. When her looks lost their lustre and Hollywood turned its back, she never recovered. "To be a star is to own the world and all the people in it," she once opined. "After a taste of stardom, everything else is poverty."