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On Today’s Menu:
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** Share some birthday cake for an inventor and 1940s movie star.
** Linger to consider another determined, glamorous, self-inventive woman.
** Savor a last ½ cup smiling over a small girl trick-or-treating in Hollywood.
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I don’t have to work on ideas, they come naturally…
Inventions are very easy for me to do.
– Hedy Lamarr1
Slice of Cake:
She created her own reality.
– Diane Kruger3
She was a beautiful actress and a brilliant inventor. Both.
She was known from the age of 16 for her beauty on film.
She was awarded at the age 82 for a ‘revolutionary’ invention.
Sadly, the pressures and failures of the former
kept her from being able to fully enjoy the latter.
Here’s Hedy Lamarr’s life,
told in 4 movie reels:
Reel One ~
Choose and take what you want.
– Emil Kiesler
advice to his daughter Hedy2
Even as a very little girl, Hedy was curious about how things worked.
At age 5, she took apart a toy music box, examined all the pieces, then put it back together again.2
Her father would walk with her through the busy Vienna streets and explain to her how streetcars ran on electricity, how electricity ran through wires, how wires ran to a generator plant that turned coal-fired steam into energy.
Hedy adored her father. He shared her enthusiasm for technology and answered her many questions as best he could.
Early in high school, Hedy’s favorite class was chemistry.
Reel Two ~
Success & Consequences
When adolescence hit, Hedy discovered a new generator of power: her face.
Her ability to attract attention from adults, both men and women, became clear by the age of 15.
Recognizing the career potential of this, Hedy walked into a film studio in Berlin at age 16 and within a week, she was in a movie.2
Her first major starring role was both wildly successful and much too sexually explicit for 1930s Germany. Or for Austria, either.
Her father was furious with her.1
Back home in Vienna, Hedy pivoted to theater. She was again wildly successful in a leading role—this time on the stage, playing a heroic queen from Austrian history.
Her father was again proud of her.
Proud, and afraid. War was growing nearer, and Austria was leaning more and more toward Nazism. As assimilated Jews, Hedy’s family was vulnerable.
Hedy’s parents encouraged her marriage to a powerful man, an arms supplier, who they thought would keep her (and them) safe.4
Soon Hedy felt that safety was impossible for her in Austria—and she realized that she was going to need to escape her own husband as well as her country.
When her father died, Hedy knew it was time to go.
By sewing jewelry into her coat lining, and impersonating a maid, she was able to flee to London, and then on to America.2
Reel Three ~
Out of one glamorous trap
and into another.
Aboard ship, between the time she sailed from England and before landing in New York, Hedy had not only signed on with a major Hollywood studio but, after rejecting the initial offer of $125 per week (the standard contract salary), she was able to increase her pay to $500/week.
Once at MGM, though, she found herself tied to a restrictive studio system where she had little control.
She fought for good roles, but was given campy films like White Cargo or silly ones like The Heavenly Body.
She fought for artistic control, and even produced three movies on her own.
She married, divorced, made millions, lost millions.
Throughout everything, she kept inventing.
She had a fully equipped ‘inventing table’ at home.
Howard Hughes bought her a smaller, portable set of equipment to keep on movie sets in her trailer, so she could work on her inventions between takes.
Hughes said to her: “Anything you want my scientists to do for you, just ask ‘em, and they will do it.” 2
I thought the aeroplanes were too slow,
so I decided that’s not right. They shouldn’t be square, the wings…
So I bought a book of fish and
I bought a book of birds,
and then used the fastest bird, connected it with the fastest fish.
I drew it together and showed it to Howard Hughes
and he said, ‘You are a genius.’
– Hedy Lamarr 1
In other words, she revolutionized aerodynamic design for the airplane industry.
But that isn’t even her most influential innovation.
During WW2, Hedy was desperate to do something to help defeat Hitler. She focused on how treacherous the Atlantic crossing had become. The U.S. Navy needed a better torpedo guidance system because German submarines were sinking merchant ships in catastrophic numbers.
Hedy came up with the idea of frequency hopping. She figured out that communication on one frequency can be jammed, but if it quickly hops around from one frequency to another, it becomes un-jammable.
For help with implementation, she didn’t call an engineer. She asked a musician, George Antheil.
George was an avant-garde musical composer whose ‘Ballet Mecanique,’ required synchronizing 16 player pianos.
The invention Hedy and George developed used the idea of the paper roll of a player piano. George suggested that if the pattern of holes in the paper roll of a player piano can activate the piano keys, why not use something similar to control and coordinate Hedy’s frequency hopping communications? If a ship and a torpedo both have an encoded roll that starts at the same time and turns at the same speed, it can control the pattern of frequencies and allow un-jammable communication between them. (Perhaps Hedy was also remembering the mechanism of her music box, her first engineering project as a 5-year-old.)
The system they created used 88 frequencies in all.
(Probably not coincidentally, there are 88 keys on a piano.)
On August 11, 1942, Hedy and George were granted US Patent 2,292,387.
The patent reads: This invention relates broadly to secret communication systems involving the use of carrier waves of different frequencies, and is especially useful in the remote control of dirigible craft, such as torpedoes.
Unfortunately, the Navy was unwilling to use their invention.
Reel four ~
She would love to be remembered as someone who
contributed to the well-being of humankind.
– Anthony Loder, Hedy’s son.2
Her two children speak of how loving and warm Hedy was as a mother when they were growing up, but then how difficult her life and her relationships became later on.2
In 1966, she was cast in her last film, but gave up the role after collapsing from ‘nervous exhaustion.’
(Zsa Zsa Gabor took over her role.)
A tragic combination of repeated failed plastic surgeries and the long-term harm of addictive, studio-sponsored drugs led Hedy into becoming reclusive in later life.
For years she talked of writing her autobiography, but no book every appeared. She died in 2000 with her family believing she never got to tell her own story.
She had asked to have her ashes spread in Austria’s Vienna Woods,
and her son honored that wish.
Bonus Reel ~
An asteroid named Lamarr
With the advent of cellphones, there began to be talk about the fact that this new technology is based on an old patent, now expired, that had been held by Hedy Lamarr.
It turns out, Hedy’s frequency hopping idea is the basis of spread spectrum technology (now using electronic controls rather than paper rolls), and it is essential for not only Wifi and Bluetooth™, but GPS and the government’s billion-dollar military satellites.2
In 1997, the Invention Convention’s Bulbie Award was granted to Hedy Lamarr for “her lifetime achievement in developing the basis for spread spectrum technology, now being utilized in cellular telephones and internet-based technology.”5
She sent her son Tony to accept the award in her place.2
Two more honors I think Hedy would have enjoyed:
Every year on her birthday, Austria now celebrates Inventors’ Day (Tag der Erfinder), to “encourage ideas and to support inventors, visionaries and eccentrics to see things in a different light.”
And in August 2019, asteroid ‘32730 Lamarr’ was named in her honor.
But it was in 2016, sixteen years after Hedy died, that a reporter found 4 cassette tapes. They were from a lost interview that Fleming Meeks of Forbes magazine recorded in April 20, 1990 with Hedy Lamarr.2
On those tapes, Hedy finally told her own story, in her own words.1
Happy 105th Birthday
** Hedy Lamarr **
– born November 9, 1914
in Vienna, Austria
I’ve been thinking this week about what power we have to reinvent ourselves.
I had someone in my life who was also glamorous, also stubborn and creative.
Like Hedy Lamarr, my husband’s grandmother was born in 1914.
Like Hedy Lamarr, she re-invented herself.
She was born with the name Freda, a name she didn’t like.
It wasn’t glamorous enough, and—
as Freda observed—
Glamorous women were treated better in life.
Freda graduated high school and immediately married.
It was only then that she saw her birth certificate for the first time.
She found a middle name she’d never known about.
The birth certificate said: Freda Devorah.
And since Devorah could be Deborah, that meant
Freda could now be Debbie.
With her new name, Debbie transformed her life.
Debbie could have blond hair, stylish clothes, a beautiful home.
After her husband bought a Desoto car dealership, Debbie could drive convertibles, and have a new car every year.
Debbie could be glamorous.
And her role model was Zsa Zsa Gabor.
Debbie’s daughter, Lois, wrote:
Most of the women in our neighborhood were housewives who wore loose dresses and sensible shoes. But my mother was a glamorous woman.
Being only five feet tall, she wore very high heels. In summer, she wore full skirts and low-necked blouses; in winter, tailored suits. How did she learn to dress so well? To put on make-up? To stay slim? Where did she get the knowledge and determination to make being stylish her life’s focus?
My friends wished they had a mother like mine. They appreciated her beauty and her style. I focused on what I needed from her and couldn’t get—intimacy. But this seemed to be something she feared.
My mother rarely talked about her past. She wanted to leave it behind. She was ashamed that her father was a junk man who drove a horse and wagon through the back alleys of Detroit, looking for discarded items he could sell. She described him as a “used tire and metal dealer.” She was ashamed that her shoes had holes in them and she had to stuff them with newspapers to keep out the snow.
No wonder she valued comfort and glamour above all else. No wonder she had trouble accepting that I couldn’t welcome her gifts—all the things she worked so hard to learn, ways to succeed in life that she wanted to teach me. It frustrated both of us that we wanted different things in life.
Debbie’s great talent was interior design, and though she never felt able to make a career, she loved helping family with home renovation projects. When her husband bought the Harbor Bar & Restaurant in Detroit, she redesigned the entire restaurant.
Debbie was a loving grandmother and great-grandmother. She helped every one of her great-grandchildren to go to college. They called her Great Grandma Debbie or GGD. Debbie like this—
Gigi Dee sounded glamorous enough.
Somehow, in her last years, we got beyond our disappointments well enough to stay warm and loving toward each other. Now, the challenge for me is accepting the ways she and I missed each other, grieving, and letting go.
I always admired my grandmother-in-law Debbie. She had such a clear sense of herself. She knew what she wanted in life. And she worked hard to create it for herself.
Debbie lived to be 100 years old. She lived her way, all the way.
“Half Cup More”
Debbie’s life had one brief overlap with Hedy Lamarr’s.
For one year in the mid-1940s they were neighbors in Beverly Hills.
Lois was 7 years old, and she remembers trick-or-treating
at Hedy Lamarr’s house around the corner.
That was the year Hedy had one baby, with another on the way.
A maid in a smart black-and-white uniform
answered the door and gave Lois a candied apple.
By the next Halloween, Lois’ father had moved their family
back to Detroit.
I’ll read you something pretty:
People are unreasonable, illogical, and self-centered.
Love them anyway.
If you do good, people will accuse you of selfish alterative motives.
Do good anyway.
The biggest people with the biggest ideas can be shot down by the
smallest people with the smallest minds.
Think big anyway.
What you spend years building may be destroyed overnight.
Give the world the best you have and you’ll be kicked into the teeth.
Give the world the best you’ve got anyway.
– Hedy Lamarr 1
Thank you for reading!
— Kelly J Hardesty
Scroll down to the end—and you can leave me note!
Always so lovely to hear from you.
You Can Read More…
notes and footnotes:
Here’s a fun google doodle
of Hedy Lamarr from 2015
Interview with Hedy Lamarr,
recorded on tape on April 20, 1990
by Fleming Meeks
Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story (2017)
written and directed by Alexandra Dean.
It’s based largely on Hedy’s own words in that
lost interview with Fleming Meeks.
Diane Kruger is an actor on a tv series which is still-untitled—
going by the name ‘The Hedy Project’—
Set to air in 2020, it’s a fictionalized life story,
with Gal Godot playing Hedy Lamarr.
(Godot played Wonder Woman in 2017.)
The Only Woman in the Room
a novel by Marie Benedict
A Starlet’s Secret Life–as an Engineer
by Peter Y Hong
Los Angeles Times
August. 30, 1997
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© Kelly J Hardesty 2023