Walker's Bookshelf

Hedy Lamarr: An Incredible Life

Hedwig Keisler performed in the film Ecstasy when she was only 18 or 19 years-old. There was a huge scandal because she was nude in a solo sex scene, and the film was banned in many venues. Soon after, she starred in Sissi about the Empress Sissi which redeemed her somewhat in the public eye.

Desperate to get out in the world and advance her acting career, she impulsively married Friedrich Mandl, a wealthy German industrialist and Nazi sympathizer who wanted to own her for her great beauty. He kept her confined to their home except when he wanted to show her off, and in a fit of jealousy he burned every copy he could find of Ecstasy. She eventually managed an escape with the help of a maid, and absconded with enough of the jewels her husband had given her, to start a new life.

She went first to London where she met the rude and crude film mogul Louis B. Mayer. When they finally got their differences ironed-out, Hedy’s career took off, and so did her love life. She accumulated five marriages and many lovers, many of them major film stars.

The other half of this story is Hedy’s rich intellect, which was demonstrated when she was only a small child. Her father always discussed the science behind things they saw on their many long walks in Vienna, and Hedy had lots of questions, showing an unusual precosity of understanding. In her early teens she was repairing household appliances and inventing things which she recorded in her notebook entitled “Our Inventions”.

In 1942, she enlisted the help of pianist George Antheil to help her deliver to the War Department, a plan for a device to allow torpedoes to reach their targets undetected by changing a signal’s radio frequency (later called a frequency hop). The player piano had played a role in her discovery. The War Department turned her down saying that what was missing was the precision of a real scientist, and that the system was too cumbersome. They suggested she use her Hollywood star status to sell War Bonds, which she did to the tune of 25 million dollars.

As Hedy aged, she stopped making films and became a recluse after botched plastic surgery left her once, stunningly beautiful face disfigured. In the 90’s, her discovery laid the foundations for the development of new WiFi communications systems. In 1997, the Electronic Frontier Foundation gave her an amateur inventor award for her pioneering invention which has had a huge impact on our telecommunication advances.

The fun of graphic novels is that so much information can be conveyed by using both words and pictures. When you look at the last three wordless pages, the pictures create a powerful lasting image. I have learned a tremendous amount about Hedy, Josephine Baker, Marie Curie, and Joseph Stalin in very short investments of reading time by choosing this very entertaining literary form. I highly recommend it!