The stunningly beautiful ‘bombshell’ actress Hedy Lamarr starred in the first nude scene in 1933 and was branded a screen vixen, but her brilliant scientific innovations paved the way for Wi-Fi, drones, GPS and cordless phones
Who was the first actress in a non-pornographic film to fake an orgasm onscreen?
The second actress, Meg Ryan, had us writhing with laughter in the 1989 film When Harry Met Sally. She performed a faked orgasm in a crowded delicatessen and when a woman seated nearby says to the waitress, “I’ll have what she’s having,” the scene becomes one of the funniest, most memorable scenes in a film history.
But unbeknownst to most film buffs, cinema’s orgasm originator, Hedy Lamarr, feigned hers in the 1933 Czech film Ekstase (Ecstasy). The film, directed by Gustav Machaty, featured a long scene of the ravishing, raven-haired Lamarr swimming nude in a lake. And when her horse takes off with her clothes draped across its back, a naked 18-year old Hedy chases through a sunlit forest unable to catch the horse. In the next scene, a strapping young man brings the horse back to Hedy and, it is with this young man that she feigns an orgasm. She even smokes a cigarette afterward!
“Any girl can be glamorous. All you have to do is stand still and look stupid.” — Hedy Lamarr
Throughout Europe, Ekstase was considered an artistic work, while in America, it was considered oversexed. Critics called the film “indecent” and “morally indecent” and it was denounced in the Vatican newspaper by Pope Pius XI. From that film forward, Lamarr was branded, “The Ecstasy Girl,” a label that would haunt her for the rest of her life.
Watch 18-year-old Hedy in this film clip: Hedy Lamarr in Ekstase:
So who was this gutsy aspiring actress and inventor?
Born Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler in Austria, she attended schools in Vienna and was sent to a finishing school in Switzerland as a teenager. By that time, she was already a natural beauty, attracting the attention of both prospective lovers and film producers. Before meeting the director, Gustav Mahaty, the man who directed her in Ekstase, Lamarr took acting lessons in Berlin with famed director, Max Reinhardt. Her screen career began in 1930 with two Austrian films, Money on the Street and Waterglass. And then there was her scandalous performance in Ekstase which, although it temporarily slowed Lamarr’s career, it also attracted the attention of millionaire Fritz Mandl whom she married in 1933.
“I am not ashamed to say that no man I ever met was my father’s equal, and I never loved any other man as much” — Hedy Lamarr
While the marriage seemed fine at first, Hedy quickly learned that Mandl, 30 years her senior, was an obsessive control freak. He ordered her to stop acting and turned his wife into a bird inside a gilded cage. He controlled every aspect of her life—listening in on her telephone calls, forbidding her to leave the house without a servant, giving her a small allowance and treating her like a child. Hedy began planning her escape. But during her marriage to Mandl, she presided over her husband’s lavish parties, some attended by Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini, and was often present at his business meetings.
As a result, despite her lack of formal education, Lamarr acquired a great deal of knowledge about military technology, most notably guided torpedoes and the vulnerability of radio-controlled weapons to jamming and interference. And when Hitler rose to power, Mandl sold weapons to the Third Reich as well as to Mussolini. During these soirees, Hedy listened to the conversations, discussions that concerned missiles, radio frequencies and how to invent the perfect weapon. Whether out of revulsion toward her husband’s politics or from feeling like a canary in a gilded cage, Lamarr sold her jewelry, packed a suitcase and in 1937 fled to Paris (where she obtained a divorce from Mandl) and then London. And that fall, she set sail for New York. Her flight to America had also been a flight from the horrors of fascism as well as her marriage.
The ladder of success in Hollywood is usually a press agent, actor, director, leading man; and you are a star if you sleep with them in that order. Crude, but true” — Hedy Lamarr
Hedy Kiesler met Louis B. Mayer, 53, the head of Metro Goldwyn Mayer while he was in London inspecting new studios and looking for original writers and acting talent for an American market. In her 1966 autobiography, Ecstasy and Me, Lamarr recalled, “I knew Mr. Mayer was the one who could help me take the step on my long journey to Hollywood.” An American talent agent, Bob Ritchie, introduced them. Mayer offered her a six-month contract of $125.00 a week and Hedy knew she was well worth more than that. She wanted more time to impress Mayer and, knowing that he was sailing to America on an elegant French ocean liner, she bought a ticket. At first, she befriended Mayer’s wife, and by the time she reached New York, Mayer had offered her $500.00 week and the new name, Hedy Lamarr.Lamarr did not speak English when she arrived in Hollywood at the age of 22, but she had learned enough to co-star with Charles Boyer in Algiers (1938), and a string of films that followed: Boom Town (1940); Comrade X (1940) Ziegfeld Girl (1941), Tortilla Flat (1942) and White Cargo (1942), the film in which she plays the native femme fatale, Tondelayo. Lamarr’s aloof, exotic beauty was exploited by MGM during the pre-WWII years and became type-cast as the typical bad-girl or “dame” in many of her later films. But the money she made from these films allowed her to use her mind doing what she loved most and that was inventing.
In her Hollywood debut, Algiers, Hedy plays Gaby, a smoldering, romantic figure. The film starred French actor Charles Boyer, who uttered the line: “Gay-bee darling, come wiz me to the Casbah,” a line that became popular among comedians. Algiers made Hedy an overnight star, and many actresses began imitating her look. Unfortunately, her next two movies were flops. In one of the flops, Lady in the Tropics, Hedy played a half-caste woman opposite Robert Taylor. Although the critics panned the film, they were united in the notion that Hedy’s acting was pretty good because men found her to be irresistible. In Boom Town, co-starring Clark Gable, Hedy played a smaller role. The movie did well and Hedy’s performance got good reviews.
Watch Hedy Lamarr in her first movie: Algiers
And then there’s Hedy with Jimmy Stewart and Lana Turner in Ziegfield Girl:
In the Hollywood of 1940 Lamarr was known to her closest friends as being more than just a pretty face. She had a natural mathematical ability and a lifelong love of tinkering with ideas for inventions. One of those ideas came to fruition when she met her neighbor, composer George Antheil. Born in 1900 in Trenton, New Jersey, Antheil studied music in Philadelphia and toured Europe as a concert pianist. His most recognized work was called, “Ballet Mechanique.”
Antheil and Howard Hughes both knew the serious scientist side of Lamarr and encouraged her to pursue her work. Hughes gave her a drafting table and Lamarr helped him in his desire to make planes fly faster. Hughes called Lamarr a “genius” when she showed him books on birds and fish and how to make the wing of an airplane more streamlined.
Between Lamarr and Antheil, they had an idea. Allied subs were wasting torpedoes. Lamarr and Antheil wanted to stop that. And Antheil had done ingenious work with player pianos, changing the technology of modern music. The solution, they reasoned, was a radio-controlled torpedo but they had to find a way to keep the enemy from jamming the radio signal. The trick was to set up a sequencer that would rapidly jump both the control signal and its receiver through 88 random frequencies. The device was designed to guide radio-controlled torpedoes while making them more difficult, if not impossible, for the enemy to detect in the water.
They patented the system and gave it to the U.S. Navy, but they were treated dismissively by military officials who told Lamarr she could more effectively serve her country by promoting and selling war bonds at the Hollywood Canteen. And she did that too.
“Films have a certain place and a certain time period. Technology is forever” — Hedy Lamarr
The Navy eventually put the frequency-hopping device system to use, but only after the profound wasting of torpedoes during WWII. Sylvania engineers reinvented it in 1957 and it was used by the Navy during the Cuban Missile Crisis during the 1962 blockade of Cuba, three years after the Lamarr/Antheil patent expired. In his 1945 autobiography, Antheil gave full credit to Lamarr, but neither of them pushed their case and, of course, neither made a dime on their patent, though, according to Lamarr’s son, it is “now worth billions of dollars.”
This secret communications system was adapted for use in today’s ultrafast microprocessors coming into its own as an effective way to communicate over long distances. The wireless technology that Lamarr first envisioned is used today in cell phones, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, GPS and guided missile technology.
Antheil died in 1959 and Lamarr went on to make twenty more Hollywood films, most famously Cecil B. De Mille’s 1949, Samson and Delilah [see below]. She was later given a star on Hollywood’s Walk of Fame, but derived far greater satisfaction when in 1998—half a century after she and Antheil received their patent—she was awarded the Electronic Frontier Foundation Award. When asked how she felt about the award, she said, “It’s about time.”
SAMSON AND DELILAH 1949
Lamarr’s best-known Hollywood role was that of the Old Testament vixen in Cecil B. DeMille’s Samson and Delilah (1949). The film depicts the biblical story of Samson, a strongman whose secret lies in his uncut hair, and his love for Delilah, the woman who seduces him, discovers his secret and then betrays him. Lamarr—then 35—plays the Bible’s most infamous hellcat with a certain ironic conviction. It is considered to be one of her greatest 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. It’s known to be her best performance perhaps because her exotic beauty fit the role perfectly.
During this period, she married her second husband, Gene Markey, a marriage that lasted only a year. After Markey, she married actor John Loder (1943-47), Ernest Stauffer, restaurateur; W. Howard Lee, oilman (1953-1960); and Lewis J. Boies, lawyer (1963-1965). Following her final divorce, Lamarr remained unmarried for the last 35 years of her life. She had three children.
In his book, Hedy’s Folly: The Life and Breakthrough Inventions of Hedy Lamarr,” Pulitzer-Prize winner Richard Rhodes tells the story of how Lamarr’s film career began to decline in the 1950’s; and how she began working in television, “more frequently as a guest than as an actor.”
Her last movie was The Female Animal with Jane Powell. In 1966, she published her autobiography, Ecstasy and Me, which became a best seller and received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. In the early 1980’s, Lamarr moved to Florida where she died on January 20, 2000, at age 86. She was cremated and her ashes were scattered in the Vienna Woods.
Here’s the trailer to the award-winning 2017 documentary about Lamarr, Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story