Actress Hedy Lamarr was also a brilliant inventor who spent a lot of time in what’s now Playa Vista
By Shanee Edwards
“Any girl can be glamorous,” actress Hedy Lamarr once said. “All you have to do is stand still and look stupid.”
Lamarr was certainly glamorous, but definitely not stupid. Bewitchingly beautiful, few people know she also had a brilliant, inventive mind. Her work as an inventor has largely been overlooked — until now.
The new documentary “Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story,” directed by Alexandra Dean, remembers her as the tech heroine she truly was.
After fleeing the Nazis in her native Austria, Lamarr’s good looks landed her a movie contract with MGM. Once in Hollywood, she rose to stardom beginning in the late 1930s. Her alabaster face framed by dark wavy hair was even the inspiration for Disney’s Snow White.
While Lamarr is known for starring in hit films like “Boom Town” (1940) and “Samson and Delilah” (1949), she spent much of her time off-screen developing new technology, even keeping a mini-lab that was given to her by Howard Hughes in her dressing room.
In her own words: “Inventions are easy for me to do. I don’t have to work on ideas; they come naturally.”
During World War II, Lamarr wanted to put her natural ability to work for the war effort. When she learned that radio-controlled torpedoes could be easily be jammed by the Nazis, she and musician George Anthiel developed an entirely new frequency-hopping technology. Communications could be kept secure by switching the frequencies to patterns only known to the Americans and their allies. This is the same technology used today in cellphones, Bluetooth and secure Wi-Fi.
After patenting the technology, Lamarr and Anthiel donated it to the United States government, who sat on it. Ironically, Lamarr was asked to help the war effort in a different way — by using her star power to sell war bonds, which she begrudgingly did. It wasn’t until the Cuban Missile Crisis that the military began to use her technology, which is still in use today. In 1997, at the end of her life, Lamarr finally received credit for her ideas.
But frequency hopping wasn’t her only contribution to science. After Howard Hughes became interested in Lamarr romantically, she wanted to contribute to the field of aviation. She studied the fastest fish and birds to redesign more aerodynamic airplane wings and spent a lot of time at the headquarters of Hughes Aircraft Co., the land on which Playa Vista was built.
“Bombshell” director Dean describes Lamarr and Hughes’ relationship as different than his other affairs.
“Apparently, Hughes would take all the starlets to his little apartments above the cafeteria [now office space for YouTube]. Hedy was clearly part of that parade of starlets that he would take back to the hidden rooms. He would tell all of those starlets that his engineers are at their disposal, which was kind of a hollow offer. Ava Gardner even writes about it in her autobiography. But Hedy was the only one who went, ‘Oh, brilliant, yeah!’ and was more interested in that in some ways than the man.”
In a letter to her mother, Lamarr wrote that Hughes proposed marriage to her but she declined because he was too controlling, much like her first husband. She was married three times in all.
“That was a good reason for her to steer clear of marriage to Hughes,” says Dean, “even though in some ways, they had twin minds.”
As a filmmaker, Dean had a specific reason for choosing Lamarr as the subject of her first documentary: to help draw attention to female inventors who often get overlooked.
“I was looking for a story to remind everybody that inventors come in all shapes and sizes and all genders. We shouldn’t just fund a Thomas Edison knockoff.”
Dean hopes women in tech will find Lamarr’s story inspirational.
“It’s always helpful to know someone came before and blazed a trail,” says Dean, “but she’s also a good parable to study — you want to remind yourself why you do what you do and how to forge the best path in the world. Hedy’s story makes us think about the legacy we want to leave behind.”
“Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story” is currently airing on PBS and also available on DVD.