With all due respect, so far as movies are concerned, the Jewish “Wonder Woman” of 2017 is not Gal Gadot but Hedwig Kiesler (1914-2000), born in Vienna and reborn in Hollywood as Hedy Lamarr.
As detailed in Alexandra Dean’s affecting new documentary Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story, and recent biographies by Ruth Barton and Richard Rhodes, Lamarr was not only the most beautiful woman in Hollywood—the icon whose look inspired Disney’s Snow White, Bob Kane’s Catwoman, and blonde star Joan Bennett’s brunette makeover, the subject of the adolescent Andy Warhol’s earliest recorded drawing—but quite possibly the smartest person in the movie industry of any gender.
By day, she wore her bejeweled, plumed working clothes for MGM’s Ziegfeld Girl. By night, she assumed her secret—or perhaps, actual—identity as an amateur inventor, developing a “frequency hopping” radio device, with her colleague, the avant-garde composer George Antheil, that anticipated contemporary wireless communication.
Hers was a particular sort of Jewish life. Hedwig Kiesler was the only child of wealthy Jewish parents, living in Döbling, an affluent, heavily Jewish neighborhood in north-central Vienna. Her father was a bank manager; her mother was would-be concert pianist who converted to Catholicism. (The distinguished architect and theater designer Frederick Kiesler was a cousin.) Hedy attended a predominantly Jewish secondary school whose students had included Sigmund Freud’s daughters.
Blessed (or cursed) with startling beauty, Hedy added two middle names (Eva Maria), dropped out of school and began acting at 16; something of a wild child, she was notorious at 18 for swimming nude and feigning orgasm in Czech director Gustav Machaty’s 1933 Ecstasy. More artful than salacious, and censored throughout the world although, according to Bombshell, it was banned in Nazi Germany because Hedy was a Jew. (In fact, the movie only briefly banned, and then released extensively recut under the title Symphony of Love, with both Goebbels and Göring keeping prints of the original; it was Machaty who was denied the possibility of working for the Nazis, once they discovered he was of Jewish descent.)
Back in Vienna, Hedy redeemed herself on stage playing Elizabeth of Bavaria, the future bride of the Austrian emperor Franz Joseph I, in the operetta Sissy. (Two decades later, the role would make a film star of another teenager Romy Schneider.) Thanks to Sissy, Hedy married the millionaire munitions manufacturer Fritz Mandl, a seller of arms to Nazi Germany, despite his Jewish heritage. The wedding was Catholic, the marriage was stormy. Hedy escaped Mandl and Austria on her third attempt, a year ahead of the Anschluss. After a brief time in London, where she attracted the attention of Louis B. Mayer, she arrived in America at 22, with no English, a new last name, and a contract with MGM.
Once in Hollywood, Lamarr was typically cast as uncanny “others,” characters that Barton calls “exotic dames.” These ranged from worldly bad girls in Algiers (1938) and Boom Town (1940), to the winsome Soviet Communist true believer in King Vidor’s ham-fisted screwball comedy Comrade X (1940), to a European refugee in Come Live With Me (1941), to characters meant to be of mixed race, as in Lady of the Tropics (1939) and, most risibly, the jungle movie White Cargo (1942), for which, New York Times critic Bosley Crowther noted, she was “given a mahogany finish” to play the “native” femme fatal, Tondelayo.
Lamarr’s remote, haunting beauty nearly justifies a number of otherwise inconsequential films, mostly released just before and during WWII. In fact, she had something else on her mind. A child who took apart and reassembled a music box at age 5, a young woman who listened in silence (and, however bored, evidently forgot nothing) while her husband and his associates discussed innovations in the arms trade at dinner, Lamarr had what can only be described as mechanical genius.
Her hobby was inventing—something that, of all the men in her life, only Howard Hughes seemed to appreciate—and as war broke out in Europe, she sought to invent something that would help defeat the Nazis. Together with Antheil, the 26-year-old Lamarr developed plans for a radio-controlled torpedo that by switching from one frequency to another, could elude enemy detection and jamming. (The idea for frequency hopping came in part from Antheil’s attempt to synchronize player pianos; the knowledge of weaponry was Hedy’s.)
The two sent their proposal to the National Inventors Council in late 1940 and applied for a patent in 1941. Their plan for a guided torpedo reached the U.S. Navy later that year and was rejected as too heavy—although the Patent Office did issue two patents on the Antheil-Lamarr “secret communication system.” The Navy acquired the patents and did nothing until, once expired around 1960, the plans became the basis for the similar “spread spectrum” technology that would ultimately lead to Wi-Fi, surveillance drones, satellite communications, GPS, and many cordless phones.
Lamarr and Antheil never made a dime.
Lamarr’s best-known Hollywood role was that of the Old Testament vixen in Cecil B. DeMille’s Samson and Delilah (1949), an enormously popular movie that triumphantly revived the old-time religion of spectacle, sex, and sanctimony DeMille perfected in the 1920s. Slim and sultry, Lamarr—then 35—plays the Bible’s most infamous vixen with a certain ironic conviction. It’s one of her few great performances. She was not only aware that she’d landed the role of her career but also, as a child of the Viennese haute bourgeoisie (and a veteran of psychoanalysis), was sufficiently sophisticated to appreciate the outrageous sadomasochism of the movie’s love story, and, also its pathos.
Had she been a better actress, Lamarr might have had a career like that of the Swedish-born actress Ingrid Bergman. (Lamarr was, in fact, considered for Casablanca as Bergman had been for Algiers). There is a sense in which she was her own Delilah, upstaged by her remarkable good looks. Less an actress than a presence, Lamarr was physically bewitching, yet also bewitched. In a tribute published in December 1941 issue of the Surrealist journal View, the artist and movie fan Joseph Cornell called her “the enchanted wanderer,” an anachronistic figure who spoke “the poetic and evocative language of the silent film” amid the soundtrack’s “empty roar.”
Lamarr’s unearthly beauty seems all the more mysterious as a mask concealing a complex inner life. Even as she worked out her destiny, on screen and off, in a Hollywood dreamland, many of her childhood friends and relations were consumed by the Holocaust—although she did manage to bring her mother to America. Selling war bonds, dancing with GIs at the Hollywood Canteen, Lamarr strenuously supported the United States war effort (she also had openly progressive politics, as an earlier supporter of Henry Wallace) but her feelings as a survivor are unknown. Her children were grown and, as her daughter Denise Loder Colton recounts in Bombshell, completely taken aback to learn—not from her—that their mother was Jewish.
But if Lamarr never spoke of her origins, she was nonetheless drawn to Hollywood’s Viennese Jews, men who would certainly have known from whence she came and understood her ambivalence. She was close to the agent Paul Kohner, had an affair with Otto Preminger, dated Billy Wilder, and made a movie with Edgar G. Ulmer, her major attempt at producing, aptly titled Strange Woman (1946). However, her five American husbands, the last of whom was her divorce lawyer, were, in Herman Wouk’s phrase, gentile to the bone.
Lamarr might be compared to a multistage rocket, jettisoning aspects of her life as she ascended into the stratosphere—her Jewishness, her first few husbands, and an adopted child fell away. So did her unrecognized career as an inventor. Even without this baggage, she herself fell in the 1950s from movie star to TV guest celebrity, a marginally more dignified version of her contemporary and sometime rival Zsa Zsa Gabor (another hidden Jew, born in the wreckage of the Austro-Hungarian Empire). According to Lamarr’s son, Anthony Loder, interviewed in Bombshell, Lamarr became dependent on jet-set methamphetamine dispenser Max Jacobson, a German-born doctor, aka Dr. Feelgood. She was also addicted to plastic surgery—and because of her inventor’s mind came up with creative ideas on how to do it.
The star’s descent into pop-culture hell was marked by a sensational ghost-written autobiography, Ecstasy and Me, published in 1966, the same year she was busted for shoplifting and consequently parodied in an underground movie by Andy Warhol, played by the Factory’s preeminent drag performer, Mario Montez. Thereafter, she lived in seclusion, communicating with the world mainly by telephone.
Bombshell does not stint on images of the young, beautiful Hedy. But her voice, recorded in 1990 by the journalist and poet Fleming Meeks, who’d gotten wind of her wartime inventions, is equally haunting. Protected from prying eyes by the telephone, as Meeks interviewed her for Forbes magazine (in an article titled “I Guess They Just Take and Forget About a Person,” the 76-year-old actress exudes charm, warmth, and even a certain merriment.
Lamarr’s flirtatious humor, her rueful silvery laugh, and lilting accent are as Viennese as a slice of sachertorte mit sahne—and her nostalgia for the vanished pre-war Vienna of her youth is palpable. Thanks in large measure to Meeks’ recordings, Bombshell is the best vehicle Lamarr ever had.
Read more of J. Hoberman’s criticism for Tablet magazine here.
J. Hoberman was the longtime Village Voice film critic. He is the author, co-author, or editor of 12 books, including Bridge of Light: Yiddish Film Between Two Worlds and, with Jeffrey Shandler, Entertaining America: Jews, Movies, and Broadcasting.