Hedy Lamarr’s Forgotten, Frustrated Career as a Wartime Inventor


The Hollywood screen legend Hedy Lamarr was born Hedwig Kiesler, theonly child of wealthy, assimilated Jewish parents in Vienna. She grew upimbibing the city’s brilliant cultural life and decadent sophistication.At eighteen, she became notorious for flitting across the screen nakedand simulating an orgasm—a cinematic first!—in the film “Ecstasy,” from1933, which was condemned by the Pope and banned by Hitler (though fordifferent reasons). Four years later, she fled to London, escaping bothrising anti-Semitism and the first of her six marriages, to an Austrianmunitions tycoon allied with the Nazis. There, a film agent took her toa hotel to meet “a little man,” as she later recalled him—Louis B.Mayer, the head of M-G-M. Before long, she was stepping off an oceanliner in New York to the flash of photographers’ bulbs, with a new nameand a five-hundred-dollar-a-week studio contract. Yet the mostsurprising turn in her already wild life—her career as an inventor—hadyet to begin.

Lamarr’s favorite hobby involved taking things apart, tinkering, and,once the Second World War started, dreaming up ideas to help the Alliedcause. Working in her home laboratory or in her trailer on set, shecreated new designs to streamline her boyfriend Howard Hughes’sairplanes. Her most significant invention—for which she received apatent, though she never profited from it—was created in collaborationwith the avant-garde composer George Antheil, with whom she devised acoded form of radio communication to securely guide Allied torpedoes totheir targets. “Frequency hopping,” as she called it, is now widelyemployed in wireless-communication technology ranging from G.P.S. toBluetooth and Wi-Fi.

In “Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story,” a new documentary by AlexandraDean, film scholars and historians of technology, together with Lamarr’sfamily, friends, and biographers, present a portrait of a brilliantwoman undone by the world’s fixation on her famous face—a portrait madeeven sharper and more poignant by Dean’s inclusion of newly discoveredaudio tapes of Lamarr as a recluse in her seventies, alternatelydrug-addled and charming. “I think Hedy had her greatest power as ateen-ager—I don’t think you can beat the power of walking into a roomand having people lose their breath at the sight of you,” Dean said at aspecial, women-only screening of “Bombshell,” sponsored by the New YorkHall of Science and held at the offices of Two Sigma, a high-tech hedgefund in Manhattan. “But she didn’t know what to do with that power. And,when at last she managed to do something incredible to try to change theworld, she got little or no recognition for it.” It was thisfrustration, Dean said, that seemed to resonate most with the women shehad encountered at screenings across the country. “What if our powerarc, as women, is different from what we assume it to be?” she asked.“We have to talk, cry, scream about that a little bit in order to changeit.”

At a “networking reception” held after the screening, Jeanne M.Sullivan, a self-described “longtime venture capitalist,” was chattingwith Anna Ewing, the former chief information officer at Nasdaq.Sullivan told me that she identified with Lamarr’s tendency to dissectthings. “You know those tests that tell people what you are like, andyou have to choose between taking apart a clock and climbing amountain?” she asked. “I was always the take-apart-a-clock person. Afterthis movie, I feel like going home tonight and invent something.” DariaShifrina, a senior at Stuyvesant High School who works as an “explainer”at the Hall of Science, and Satbir Multani, a former explainer who nowruns the museum’s design lab, both said that Lamarr’s struggle forrecognition reminded them of their own immigrant families. Marcia Bueno,who was born in Ecuador and now oversees the museum’s Career Ladderprogram, agreed. Military brass ignored Lamarr’s invention and told thestar, who was not yet a U.S. citizen, that she’d be better off sellingwar bonds—so she did. But, at one point during the war, the U.S.government seized her patent as “enemy alien” property. “I liked it whenshe said, I was American enough to sell war bonds, but I was an alienwhen it came to my invention!” Bueno said.

Later in the evening, Dean was telling me about a new film she’s workingon, braiding together the stories of six women inventors, including twoscientists who developed the revolutionary gene-editing technology CRISPR ,when an older woman approached us. “Was it very painful, making thisfilm?” she asked. The filmmaker demurred before being pulled away, but the woman, Bernice Grafstein, aged eighty-eight, the Vincentand Brooke Astor Distinguished Professor in Neuroscience at WeillCornell Medicine, hung around to talk to me. Her specialty, back in theday when she did groundbreaking research, was nerve regeneration. “WhenI was the first female president of the Society for Neuroscience, in thenineteen-eighties, about thirty per cent of the members were women,” sherecalled. “Unfortunately, the big numbers are always in the earlystages, post-docs—they thin out as you go up the ladder.”

What Grafstein found most moving in the film was something that every scientist—indeed, everycreative person—encounters at some point. “She had this thing, thispatent, and she just hit a wall with it,” Grafstein said. “And shecouldn’t get past that wall. I don’t think it was because she was awoman. I think it was because she didn’t have the context to developit.” Though she is sometimes asked to mentor young women hoping for acareer in science, Grafstein admitted that she doesn’t feel entirelycompetent doing so. “My career was so different from anything they arelikely to experience that I don’t know what to say to them,” she said.“I had one thing which they don’t have, and that was great visibility.When I walked into a meeting, I was the girl. The girl . Everybody knewwho I was, instantly.” She laughed. “So that was a good beginning.”

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