‘Bombshell’ myth of Hedy Lamarr

February 14, 2018 GMT

When filmmaker Alexandra Dean first heard that Hedy Lamarr - considered one of the most beautiful actresses of the 1940s - was also an inventor who held a patent on an antijamming device for radio-controlled torpedoes, she wasn’t quite sure if she could believe it.

How could the same person celebrated for her looks in such films as “White Cargo,” “Her Highness and the Bellboy” and “Samson and Delilah” also have a starring role in devising the concept behind frequency hopping, a method for foiling enemies in World War II who wanted to jam our signals, and the basis for much of the technology used in the country’s defense communications system?


“I had training as an investigative journalist, so you have to have a really strong skeptical streak to take that on as a career,” Dean said by phone from New York. “I was aware of how much we wanted as a culture to have her having done that.”

After some digging, Dean, who cut her journalistic teeth as a documentary producer at PBS and Bloomberg Television, discovered this rare fact to be true. Now, she has put the story on screen in the documentary “Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story,” the kickoff movie for this year’s Bechdel Film Festival on Thursday night at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.

Agony and ‘Ecstasy’

Apart from her contributions to science, which have only been widely publicized in the past couple of decades, Lamarr led a fascinating life that was far more than champagne and celebrity.

While Lamarr, born Hedwig Keisler, had achieved some success as an actress in her native Austria, Adolf Hitler took a personal dislike to her and berated her publicly for her religion and one of her movies. She was Jewish, though she didn’t particularly identify with her Jewish heritage, and starred in the 1933 film “Ecstasy,” a movie that shocked German audiences of the day with what was considered explicit sexuality.

Even though she was married to well-connected munitions manufacturer Friedrich Mandl, who supplied Hitler with arms, and who was part Jewish himself, Lamarr figured it was only a matter of time before the late-night knock on the door was for her. She fled her country and marriage under the cover of darkness, ultimately landing in Hollywood, where she became part of Louis B. Mayer’s MGM acting stable. Studio execs liked everything about Lamarr - except for her religion, even though Mayer was Jewish himself.

Dean believes all this subterfuge left her psychologically scarred.


“I can’t think of any other way to describe it because I’ve talked to many people about what it would cause when you are singled out by Hitler for your religion when he’s about to annihilate your people,” she said. “He publicly called out that she was Jewish when she made ‘Ecstasy’ and then banned the film because of her Judaism.

“She had to flee in the middle of the night (from) her Nazi collaborator husband. She had to leave behind everyone she loved and watched them struggle to get out of Europe. And then she had to pretend that wasn’t who she was because when she got to Hollywood, they handed her a new biography, which said she was Catholic.”

All the while, she liked to tinker with inventions in her off hours, earning her the admiration and friendship of Howard Hughes. While others in Hollywood didn’t quite understand her, composer and fellow techie George Antheil, got her immediately. According to Forbes, when they first met at a Hollywood dinner party, they spoke of technology all night and she laid out her ideas for a jamming system. A couple of years later, their sketches earned them a patent for a “secret communication system” though they received no financial compensation and little recognition for their work, something that long rankled Lamarr until her death in 2000.

The more things change ...

It’s tempting to think that if Lamarr were coming along now in Hollywood, she would be feted as much for brains as for beauty. But Dean isn’t so sure.

“We would pay her a lot of lip service. There would be a lot of articles and enthusiasm about this young girl, and she’d probably have a huge viral following on Facebook and Twitter and Instagram,” said Dean, who has produced news reports about the troubles of female entrepreneurs and inventors in Silicon Valley. “But, at the same time, she would have a hard time raising money for her actual brilliant ideas. She would go to Silicon Valley and have the same problem I saw all those young inventors have.”

Dean also isn’t sure what Lamarr, who married six times and briefly lived in Houston when she was married to oil man W. Howard Lee in the ’50s, would think of the #MeToo and#TimesUp movements.

“People are so much of their times, and Hedy was conflicted when it came to the role of women,” Dean said. “But if she were born today, I think she would be a product of our times. And, with her bravery, I think she would have been leading the movement. I think she would have been championing Rose McGowan. I think she would have been right there on the barricades.”