Hedy Lamarr: The Most Beautiful Woman in Film

Hedy Lamarr: The Most Beautiful Woman in Film

by Ruth Barton


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Hedy Lamarr's life was punctuated by salacious rumors and public scandal, but it was her stunning looks and classic Hollywood glamour that continuously captivated audiences. Born Hedwig Kiesler, she escaped an unhappy marriage with arms dealer Fritz Mandl in Austria to try her luck in Hollywood, where her striking appearance made her a screen legend. Her notorious nude role in the erotic Czech film Ecstasy (1933), as well as her work with Cecil B. DeMille (Samson and Delilah, 1949), Walter Wanger (Algiers, 1938), and studio executive Louis B. Mayer catapulted her alluring and provocative reputation as a high-profile sex symbol.

In Hedy Lamarr: The Most Beautiful Woman in Film, Ruth Barton explores the many facets of the screen legend, including her life as an inventor. Working with avant-garde composer and film scorer George Antheil, Lamarr helped to develop and patent spread spectrum technology, which is still used in mobile phone communication. However, despite her screen persona and scientific success, Lamarr's personal life caused quite a scandal. A string of failed marriages, a lawsuit against her publisher regarding her sensational autobiography, and shoplifting charges made her infamous beyond her celebrity.

Drawing on extensive research into both the recorded truths of Lamarr's life and the rumors that made her notorious, Barton recognizes Lamarr's contributions to both film and technology while revealing the controversial and conflicted woman underneath. Hedy Lamarr: The Most Beautiful Woman in Film illuminates the life of a classic Hollywood icon.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780813136547
Publisher: University Press of Kentucky
Publication date: 01/12/2012
Series: Screen Classics Series
Pages: 312
Sales rank: 716,885
Product dimensions: 8.60(w) x 5.70(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

Ruth Barton is lecturer in Film Studies at Trinity College Dublin. She has written several books on Irish cinema, including Jim Sheridan: Framing the Nation (Liffey), Irish National Cinema (Routledge) and Acting Irish in Hollywood (Irish Academic Press). She is a regular contributor to arts programs on national radio and is an occasional book reviewer for the Irish Times.

Read an Excerpt

Hedy Lamarr

The Most Beautiful Woman in Film
By Ruth Barton

The University Press of Kentucky

Copyright © 2010 The University Press of Kentucky
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8131-2604-3



On a September day in 1973, Richard Dow, a caretaker at the Hollywood Wax Museum, started his workday as usual. "I walked down the dark corridors to the back of the museum, and I reached behind a black curtain to turn on a sequence of spotlights," he told reporters afterward. It was then that he saw the demolished figure of Madame Tussaud. "The more lights I switched on, the more damage I saw. I walked down one corridor and I tripped over the head of a mad scientist." Now feeling more than a little uneasy, Dow started to take stock of the damage. All in all, thirteen statues had been destroyed. These included: Jean Harlow, Vivien Leigh, Susan Hayward, Tyrone Power, Sony Bono, a couple of U.S. presidents, and Hedy Lamarr. "Now we'll have to keep a security man on after hours," mused Spoony Singh, the museum owner. "We used to have a watchman. We went through a string of them. But they complain of having to be there all alone with those wax figures. After a while some of them claimed they could see the figures moving." The break-in led the museum to take stock of its silent luminaries; sadly Hedy Lamarr did not make the cut. She was melted down and later replaced by Angelina Jolie as Lara Croft.

If that break-in had occurred two or three de cades later, the outcome for the Viennese actress, whose reputation derived from a brief, naked run through a wooded copse, followed by a swim, filmed by a long-forgotten Czech director for a 1930s Europe an art film, might have been otherwise. When Hedy Lamarr arrived in America, her reputation preceded her. Few people had seen Ecstasy, the film that had made her famous. Fewer would later remember the plot of Ecstasy or their last glimpse (depending on which version they saw) of the character played by Hedwig Kiesler, as the eighteen-year-old was then called, on the station platform in the early hours of the morning, gently kissing her sleeping lover, folding her coat under his head, and walking away from him.

If art preempted life in the most curious manner in these early years of the soon-to-be renamed Hedy Lamarr, so too would there never be a shortage of stories and anecdotes to accompany her later progress through Hollywood. In the 1930s and through the war years, magazines competed to put her photograph on their covers, and gossip columnists revelled in her every move. Simultaneously, and with one voice, film critics agreed that Hedy Lamarr could not act. What did it matter, when she had been proclaimed the most beautiful woman in the world?

Her last film appearance was in 1958. Subsequently, she became best-known for a salacious autobiography (Ecstasy and Me: My Life as a Woman), published in 1966, and for a string of legal cases, most infamously involving shoplifting. She lived out her final years as a virtual recluse, her sight seriously impaired and her once-beautiful face destroyed by plastic surgery.

Since her death in 2000, and even somewhat before that, Hedy Lamarr's reputation has grown. To quite a large extent, this has been because of her increasing fame as an inventor; her design, with the American avant-garde composer George Antheil, for a long-range torpedo-guidance system forms the basis of our modern mobile telephone technology and also played a major part in the Cuban missile crisis. Several retrospectives of her Hollywood films have been staged, both in her hometown of Vienna and on American television. Documentaries have been produced, exploring her career, her personality, and her legacy. She is the subject of numerous Internet sites and entries.

Can waxworks come alive? Why the comeback? What is now so intriguing about the pampered only child of a well-off Viennese banker and his pianist wife, and her (mis)fortunes in exile? In part, this intrigue is due to our fascination with the stories of émigrés who fled fascist Europe for America. Although she is only one of many Europeans who found refuge in Hollywood, Hedy is one of the few high-profile women to have done so on her terms, rather than as the wife or daughter of a more famous man or as the protégée of an established director. Her continued insistence on doing things on her own terms was equally remarkable, even if it contributed toward making her the difficult individual she was.

The pages of this book are littered with anecdotes concerning the pranks her directors and costars played on her, particularly during the filming of love sequences. Without giving too much away in advance, they involve variously pins, bananas, batons, and suggestive comments, as well as picking her up by the ass and throwing her off the set. Maybe such behavior is still acceptable; certainly it was when Hedy was undergoing what passed for screen-acting training—most of the perpetrators of these pranks claimed they were prompted by a desire to see her express emotion. Cecil B. DeMille spoke of the challenge of breaking through her "impassive air," and with her beauty came a coldness that many men found threatening. In small ways, and often inadequately, Hedy took her revenge. She also married six times, which hardly makes her a feminist icon, nor do many of her other activities or her statements about sex and marriage—she told Zsa Zsa Gabor that "If a man sends me flowers, I always look to see if a diamond bracelet is hidden among the blossoms. If there isn't one, I don't see the point of flowers." In role after role she played strong women who knew what they wanted— most often sexual satisfaction, professional satisfaction, and wealth. If she got her man, it was not because she was the cute-as-apple-pie good girl whom the entire neighborhood loved and the community respected; the opposite rather. Hedy made a career out of playing bad women, characters who threatened the veneer of respectability established by the community; in Hollywood, these were usually foreigners. In her case, they were often exotic natives, of which the most famous is her half-Arab Tondelayo in the 1942 version of White Cargo. Her roles came to an end in the complacent 1950s, when home and hearth were the order of the day and foreigners were dismissed as communists.

Most people assumed that she couldn't be beautiful and clever or independent or self-aware. Only a few of her fellow workers realized how much more lay below the glacial surface. One of these, as will be detailed, was King Vidor. Another was that equally displaced, unhappy, and eventually unhinged Europe an in Hollywood, George Sanders:

When I first met Hedy Lamarr, about twenty years ago, she was so beautiful that everybody would stop talking when she came into a room. Wherever she went she was the cynosure of all eyes. I don't think anyone concerned himself very much about whether or not there was anything behind her beauty, he was too busy gaping at her. Of her conversation I can remember nothing: when she spoke one did not listen, one just watched her mouth moving and marvelled at the exquisite shapes made by her lips. She was, in consequence, rather frequently misunderstood.

Since then, attitudes have changed. They haven't altered beyond recognition and many of the prejudices that Hollywood harbored against Hedy Lamarr are still experienced by young women with ambition. Yet, today's world welcomes the combination of brains and beauty and is, perhaps, a little more understanding of what a previous generation of women had to become in order to succeed in any professional capacity.

Or maybe that's wishful thinking. The 2008 fictionalized biography What Almost Happened to Hedy Lamarr: 1940-1967, written by the actress's alleged friend, Devra Z. Hill, with contributions by Jody Babydol Gibson, tells of a Hollywood actress named Hedy Lamarr whose career is apparently best summarized by detailed accounts of her sexual romps and power-hungry manipulations. Her hold, for instance, on the weary studio boss, Beldin (presumably modeled on the already larger-than-life, Louis B. Mayer), who gave her her Hollywood break, is facilitated by the photographs she took of an incident in which he inadvertently throttled an aspiring actress with his over-zealous fellatio requirements. That the book is written as a soft porn narrative ought to be no surprise given Jody Babydol Gibson's notoriety as the Hollywood brothel keeper whose tell-all publication, Secrets of a Hollywood Super Madam, named a string of high-profile celebrities as clients of her lucrative global escort agency. Hill herself, whose résumé includes masters' and doctoral degrees from unaccredited universities and a career as a self-help nutritionist, claims that the star asked her to write her biography. After Hedy's arrest for shoplifting, Hill developed scruples and decided not to continue. Few scruples are evident in this publication, which has sold itself on its suggestion that Hedy was Hitler's mistress, although in fact Hitler is never mentioned in the book and the suggestion is particularly obnoxious. So much for friendship.

While there's no point in being prudish when writing about Hedy Lamarr, there's little to be added in this respect to her own Ecstasy and Me, outside of what Devra Hill and Jody Babydol Gibson have cooked up. This disputed autobiography has become the official narrative of her life and most writers on her borrow from it generously. It is a run-through of the story of her life and career, heavily laced with spicy details of lesbian affairs, lovers (both named and unnamed), and the maneuverings of Hollywood's power brokers, most notably Louis B. Mayer. It concludes with transcripts from her sessions with a psychoanalyst. Later, Hedy pronounced that none of this was true and sued the ghostwriters. Yet, if much of Ecstasy and Me is fatuous 1960s pseudo-analysis, equally, much of it is, as will be detailed, factual. The account also omits certain key details, to which this text will return.

Mention the name Hedy Lamarr to a passing stranger and they are likely to whoop, "It's not Hedy, it's Hedley. Hedley Lamarr!" If they follow this up with loud flatulence effects, it is only in case you have missed their reference to Mel Brooks's Blazing Saddles, a cheery deconstruction of the classic Western, one of whose central characters is the unscrupulous attorney general, Hedley Lamarr (Harvey Korman). Already in 1974 when Brooks made his comedy, few people could name a Hedy Lamarr film. By the time of her death in 2000, she was another ghost of the 1940s, a name that conjured up the glamour of Hollywood stardom and its perennial whiff of de cadence. She responded to Brooks's jokes with a lawsuit; by then, that was the way she communicated with the world outside whatever small apartment she currently inhabited.

My own interest in writing this biography was to explore the consequences of leading a life that was based on an image, and how that life became increasingly fictionalized. I'm interested in how Hedy's image, often literally (in the form of a portrait or painting), threatened to overwhelm her reality and how she fought to hold her own in a system that she both despised and needed.

I am curious, too, why Hedy Lamarr has been so neglected by post-1960s feminist historians who have reclaimed equally difficult figures such as Joan Crawford or Bette Davis or Marilyn Monroe. One of the few of these to pay attention to Hedy (as I hesitate to call her) was Jeanine Basinger. In her book, A Woman's View: How Hollywood Spoke to Women, 1930-1960, she divides the women of that era into three types: "fantasies," whose appeal was primarily to men; "real women," women who seemed real and recognizable to women in the audience; and "exaggerated women," a mixture of the real and the unreal, larger than life characters, such as those played by Bette Davis, whose exaggerated predicaments were understood and enjoyed most of all by women. Within these parameters, Hedy Lamarr falls into the first category, which Basinger also terms "dream images." This unreality is the key to understanding her film per for mances; if she was wooden, she was also unreadable, lending an ambiguous quality to the parts she played. This in turn disrupted Hollywood's commitment to narrative clarity and its privileging of plot. Writing of Greta Garbo, an actress to whom Hedy was often compared in her early years, Roland Barthes proposes that "her face was not to have any reality except that of its perfection, which was intellectual more than formal." Hedy too was defined by her face which, like Garbo's, was most discussed as an archetype of beauty. Of her own contribution to the acting profession, she is reputed to have commented that "Any girl can be glamorous. All you have to do is stand still and look stupid." She never looked stupid, and, indeed, she may never have said this.

The first significant account of Hedy Lamarr's life and career, outside Ecstasy and Me, was Christopher Young's The Films of Hedy Lamarr, published in 1978. It replicates much of the material from the so-called autobiography. Young, who was a devoted fan, interviewed Hedy for his book and she seems to have provided him with much the same information that she gave (or did not give) to her ghostwriters. It is now out of print.

Since then Diane Negra has analyzed Hedy Lamarr's career as a metaphor for American interventionism and analyzed how the narrative of her escape from her first husband, munitions baron Fritz Mandl, and her embrace of American values came to symbolize America's rescue of a de cadent but powerless old Europe. Peter Körte has applied his imaginative and more Europe-centered approach to the star, writing Hedy Lamarr: Die Stumme Sirene (2000), which is less a biography and more a series of musings on the potency of her image.

The other sympathetic commentator on Hedy Kiesler, subsequently Lamarr, is Jan-Christopher Horak, who has argued for the importance of the star's strong prewar female characters, her "in de pen dent, sexually aggressive women of questionable morality," who always appeared morally ambiguous to middle-class eyes because they foregrounded rather than glossed over the exchange of sex for money. My decision to write about Hedy Lamarr started with a series of coincidences that drew me to her life story. They began with a now-forgotten Irish film star, called Constance Smith, whose life I researched for a book, Acting Irish in Hollywood (2006), on Irish film stars in Hollywood. Connie, as she was known, made her film breakthrough in 1946 after winning a Hedy Lamarr look-alike contest organized by an Irish film magazine. Trading on her looks and frequently let down by her lack of acting skills, Connie made it to En gland and on to Hollywood, where she was placed under contract to 20th Century Fox. Little educated, with no family support and few compatriots to keep an eye on her, Connie at first floundered and then fell from grace, her career determined by latent alcoholism and a long-term relationship with the equally unreliable, but considerably more famous, British documentarist, Paul Rotha. Connie's story ran parallel to that of Hedy in many ways; they even shared a director, Jean Negulesco. But unlike the Austrian, the Irish actress never learned how to better the system, and her life ended in utter destitution. Hedy was rumored to have died destitute too, though she didn't. Stories like Constance Smith's are seldom told, since failure is so invisible. But many, many of the exiles and émigrés who traveled to Hollywood in search of riches ended up having more in common with Connie than Hedy.


Excerpted from Hedy Lamarr by Ruth Barton Copyright © 2010 by The University Press of Kentucky . Excerpted by permission of The University Press of Kentucky. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents


Introduction: Waxworks....................1
1. A Childhood in Döbling....................9
2. The Most Beautiful Girl in the World....................16
3. Ecstasy....................29
4. Fritz Mandl....................43
5. The Most Beautiful Woman in the World....................59
6. To the Casbah!....................70
7. This Dame Is Exotic....................79
8. The Siren of the Picture Show....................100
9. The Rather Unfeminine Occupation of Inventor....................113
10. Enter: Loder....................126
11. Exit: Loder....................140
12. In de pen dence....................152
13. No Man Leaves Delilah!....................169
14. Acapulco....................176
15. Houston, Texas....................189
16. A Filthy, Nauseating Story....................204
17. Final Years....................220
Appendix: Lichtwitz Family Tree....................235

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