It’s hard to find a bad photograph of silver screen beauty Hedy Lamarr, who was born 100 years ago this month.
Although only appearing in some two dozen Hollywood productions, starting with “Algiers” in 1938 and ending just 20 years later with “The Female Animal,” Lamarr’s picture-perfect image dazzled devoted admirers who christened her “the most beautiful woman in the world.”
“It’s hard to imagine being so well-known for your looks all your life, then having to face growing old,” said her daughter, Denise Loder-DeLuca, who runs the web site hedylamarr.com. “For most women it’s tough, but to be known as the most beautiful woman in the world – that’s a lot of pressure.”
Lamarr’s career began in Europe where she appeared in films as Hedwig Kiesler, her Austrian birth name. After moving to Hollywood, her stunning screen persona and soft accent were captivating. Just ask Victor Mature’s character in “Samson and Delilah” (1949) who was enslaved – and shaved – by her allure!
Lamarr’s beauty was truly a scene stealer – no easy task when working alongside screen legends Spencer Tracy and Clark Gable in 1940’s “Boom Town.”
“She doesn’t come on until half way through ‘Boom Town’ and when she does, the whole film picks up,” said Loder-DeLuca.
In fact, actresses of the day tried to copy Lamarr’s look by parting their hair down the middle.
“Not only actresses, a lot of other women too,” noted Loder-DeLuca. “But that’s not uncommon. Like Jennifer Aniston – everyone wanted her haircut when she was on ‘Friends.’”
Even in her later years, Lamarr remained stylish.
“We were once out in New York when she was in her late 70s and she was wearing a scarf, sunglasses, cool jeans, and a beautiful coat,” her daughter recalled. “People didn’t know who she was, but they would come up and ask, ‘Who are you? You must be somebody!’ She just had a natural flare about her that people noticed.”
Lamarr moved to Florida late in life, but it wasn’t until after she died in 2000 that a little-known aspect of her life surfaced.
“When I was young, she would tell us about this anti-missile device she had invented,” said Loder-DeLuca. “I’d say, ‘Yeah, right mom!’ like any kid probably would. Then when I was an adult, a professor sent me a copy of a science magazine that had her on the cover and had an article about what she had done. So I called her and said, ‘So you really did invent that!’ She said, ‘I’ve been telling you that for years!’ When she died, it was really the first time the press had talked about it.”
After her move to America, Lamarr had befriended American musician George Antheil in 1940 and both shared a passionate dislike of Hitler and Mussolini’s goal of world domination. The unlikely partnering of an actress and a composer yielded a US patent for a “Secret Communication System” which the pair believed could help make US guided munitions immune from enemy jamming by employing a system of constantly changing radio frequencies, known as frequency hopping.
“She came up with the idea, and George Antheil figured out how to do it,” explained Loder-DeLuca. “She was very smart and had learned a lot about weapons from her first husband.”
Unfortunately, Lamarr and Antheil failed to renew their patent losing the potential to make a fortune when their idea was later applied to commercial radio and became the basis for spread-spectrum broadcast communications technologies used today is such familiar applications as wireless Internet, cell phones, and defense satellites.
“I have a book of famous inventors on my coffee table,” Loder-DeLuca said. “They are mostly elderly men; then there’s my glamorous mother among them!”
“She had more than just beauty,” she added. “She had class, intelligence, and charm, and the camera loved her.”
Nick Thomas teaches at Auburn University at Montgomery, Ala., and has written features, columns, and interviews for over 450 magazines and newspapers.