Skip to Main Content
Have library access? Log in through your library
Hedy Lamarr

Hedy Lamarr: The Most Beautiful Woman in Film

Ruth Barton
Series: Screen Classics
Copyright Date: 2010
Pages: 312
  • Cite this Item
  • Book Info
    Hedy Lamarr
    Book Description:

    Hedy Lamarr's life was punctuated by salacious rumors and public scandal, but it was her stunning looks and classic Hollywood glamour that continuously captivated audiences. Born Hedwig Kiesler, she escaped an unhappy marriage with arms dealer Fritz Mandl in Austria to try her luck in Hollywood, where her striking appearance made her a screen legend. Her notorious nude role in the erotic Czech film Ecstasy (1933), as well as her work with Cecil B. DeMille (Samson and Delilah, 1949), Walter Wanger (Algiers, 1938), and studio executive Louis B. Mayer catapulted her alluring and provocative reputation as a high-profile sex symbol.

    In Hedy Lamarr: The Most Beautiful Woman in Film, Ruth Barton explores the many facets of the screen legend, including her life as an inventor. Working with avant-garde composer and film scorer George Antheil, Lamarr helped to develop and patent spread spectrum technology, which is still used in mobile phone communication. However, despite her screen persona and scientific success, Lamarr's personal life caused quite a scandal. A string of failed marriages, a lawsuit against her publisher regarding her sensational autobiography, and shoplifting charges made her infamous beyond her celebrity.

    Drawing on extensive research into both the recorded truths of Lamarr's life and the rumors that made her notorious, Barton recognizes Lamarr's contributions to both film and technology while revealing the controversial and conflicted woman underneath. Hedy Lamarr: The Most Beautiful Woman in Film illuminates the life of a classic Hollywood icon.

    eISBN: 978-0-8131-2610-4
    Subjects: History, Film Studies

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. Introduction: Waxworks
    (pp. 1-8)

    On a September day in 1973, Richard Dow, a caretaker at the Hollywood Wax Museum, started his workday as usual. “I walked down the dark corridors to the back of the museum, and I reached behind a black curtain to turn on a sequence of spotlights,” he told reporters afterward. It was then that he saw the demolished figure of Madame Tussaud. “The more lights I switched on, the more damage I saw. I walked down one corridor and I tripped over the head of a mad scientist.” Now feeling more than a little uneasy, Dow started to take stock...

  5. 1 A Childhood in Döbling
    (pp. 9-15)

    Hedy Lamarr was born Hedwig Kiesler on 9 November 1914, in Vienna. Later, she added two middle names, Eva Maria, to her given name. Her father, Emil, from Lemberg (Lwów) in the West Ukraine, was manager of the Creditanstalt Bankverien.¹ Her mother was born Gertrude (Trude) Lichtwitz, to a sophisticated family in Budapest. Both her parents were Jewish and Hedy too was registered at birth as Jewish. The Kieslers lived on Osterleitengasse in Döbling in Vienna’s fashionable 19th District. Later Hedy moved with her family to Peter-Jordan-Straße, also in Döbling. There she lived on the top two floors of a...

  6. 2 The Most Beautiful Girl in the World
    (pp. 16-28)

    Hedy now signed up for acting classes with Professor Arndt in Vienna.¹ According toEcstasy and Meand several interviews that she gave, Hedy forged a handwritten note to the school from her mother and slipped off one day to Austria’s largest film studio, Sascha Film Studios, where she talked herself into a job as a script clerk. While there she overheard the assistant director say he would be interviewing actresses the next day to play a secretary. Hedy seized the opportunity: “Between scenes I went to the make-up table of one of the actresses and put on lipstick, eyebrow...

  7. 3 Ecstasy
    (pp. 29-42)

    By the time he began filmingEcstasy, Gustav Machaty enjoyed a reputation as a director of art films. His most celebrated work was an erotic masterpiece,Seduction(Erotikon), made in 1929. The film concerned the sexual encounter between the daughter of a station master and a stranger and opens with scenes from their night of love, which marked the film as highly explicit without being pornographic. Immersed in Czech modernism, the Jewish Machaty had reputedly worked in Hollywood as an apprentice to D. W. Griffith and Eric von Stroheim, though this may be a self-penned myth. He was definitely back...

  8. 4 Fritz Mandl
    (pp. 43-58)

    The success and notoriety ofEcstasyopened doors for the young star; although for the moment those were to be stage doors. Interviewed during the shooting ofEcstasy, Hedy was firm: she did not want a Hollywood career. “I don’t want to become a slave to cinema,” Hedy said. “I want to film when I feel like it, and to take a break when I don’t. I’ll probably go back to Berlin.”¹ Any mention of a contract with Paramount and a trip to Hollywood with her mother vanished as unexpectedly as they had appeared. What she did not then know...

  9. 5 The Most Beautiful Woman in the World
    (pp. 59-69)

    Switzerland was regarded by many German and Austrian refugees as a station on their way to France until 1938, when it introduced measures prohibiting Jews from crossing its borders. The better-heeled refugees, whose numbers now included Hedwig Kiesler, chose to spend the winter of 1936–1937 in St. Moritz before heading to Paris. The Swiss resort was a flurry of cocktails, parties, and gossip. As Erich Maria Remarque wrote in his diaries, some refugees began to sink under the boredom, for them drinking began in the early morning; others withdrew into themselves; fights broke out. Certain prominent Jewish dissidents were...

  10. 6 To the Casbah!
    (pp. 70-78)

    In early 1938, Hedy began seeing Reginald Gardiner, the suave English star, who, like her, was on the rise in Hollywood. She credits him with introducing her to Walter Wanger, who was preparing to shootAlgierswith her old friend from Switzerland, the French matinee idol Charles Boyer.¹ It was Wanger who transformed Hedy’s career.

    A cultured Hollywood maverick and the scion of a wealthy second-generation German-Jewish family, Wanger was at the height of his success when he signed up Hedy. He had sealed a distribution deal with United Artists that would see him produce such films as Fritz Lang’s...

  11. 7 This Dame Is Exotic
    (pp. 79-99)

    “Your next picture at MGM,” Hedy remembers Mayer pronouncing, “must be better thanAlgiers. If it isn’t we won’t make it. Your next picture must be an artistic triumph, a picture that will makeAlgierslook small. We are now going to give you the biggest stars, the finest writers, and the most talented directors.”¹

    InThis Is Orson Welles, the great raconteur remembers a different version of MGM’s response to Hedy’s overnight success. “They called an enormous conference,” Welles told Peter Bogdanovich. “All the producers, associate producers, casting people, in-laws and relatives, even a few writers—a great council...

  12. 8 The Siren of the Picture Show
    (pp. 100-112)

    Between September 1940 and January 1941, Hedy was busy shootingZiegfeld Girl. She had pressed Mayer for a part in the film: “Mr. Mayer, I’ve done several dramatic roles. Now I’d like to do something Viennese style, a light, airy musical,” she recalled telling him.¹ Mayer had assembled a team of writers to work on the script and was not amused when its producer, Pandro S. Berman, suggested that the Lamarr story line was dull and should be dropped. If Hedy was hot at the box office, she would stay in the picture; not only that, a rewrite would cost...

  13. 9 The Rather Unfeminine Occupation of Inventor
    (pp. 113-125)

    Hedy was condemned to watch the battle in Europe from the distance of America. Like so many other émigrés, she threw herself into the war effort; in her case, serving in the Hollywood Canteen and selling war bonds. It also meant using the intellectual property she had taken with her from Mandl’s castle, but we’ll return to that.

    The Hollywood Canteen was set up in autumn of 1942 on Cahuenga Boulevard, just off Sunset, by Bette Davis and John Garfield, after the latter had been turned down for war service. Inspired by New York’s Stage Door canteen, it was decorated...

  14. 10 Enter: Loder
    (pp. 126-139)

    Hedy was becoming as well known for the roles she did not play as for those she did. If her most famous missed opportunity was the role of Ilsa inCasablanca, other films she reputedly rejected includedGaslight(1944) (ironically, she starred inExperiment Perilous, a film often compared toGaslight) andSaratoga Trunk(1945). She apparently turned downLaurawhen Preminger sent her the script: “I think it was a lousy script, and still do. If only he had sent me the music!”¹ How much leeway Hedy had over such decisions is debatable. Claiming to have turned down a...

  15. 11 Exit: Loder
    (pp. 140-151)

    In 1944, Hedy compensated for her missed opportunity to act inCasablanca. In January, she, Alan Ladd, and John Loder reprised the lead roles in the Lux Radio Theater adaptation of the film, produced by Cecil B. DeMille. Soon after, filming started onThe Conspirators.

    Suddenly aware of the value of the small film they had virtually thrown away, Warner Bros. proceeded to capitalize on the need for wartime propaganda by reassembling much of the cast for what they advertised as aCasablancareunion. Originally, Warner Bros. planned to feature Humphrey Bogart, Helmut Dantine, and Ann Sheridan in their adaptation...

  16. 12 Independence
    (pp. 152-168)

    While the rifts in Loder and Hedy’s marriage were becoming public, Hedy was busy developing her own production company, Mars Productions Inc. Her partners in the venture were Hunt Stromberg and Jack Chertok. Stromberg was one of Hollywood’s most successful producers and had recently split with MGM after a dispute with Louis B. Mayer. According to some sources, Mayer may not have been sorry to see his once-gifted producer leave, as Stromberg had taken to dosing himself with morphine to treat a slipped disc and was hallucinating at meetings.¹ Chertok too had come from MGM, where he had produced, among...

  17. 13 No Man Leaves Delilah!
    (pp. 169-175)

    Cecil B. DeMille had been contemplating another lavish biblical epic for a number of years. His reputation for large-scale biblical films had been cemented in the prewar era with the release ofThe Ten Commandments(1923),The King of Kings(1926), andThe Sign of the Cross(1932). The story of Samson and Delilah eluded him in 1932 and only in 1947 did he manage to persuade Paramount to finance it. They were tempted by a text that had been shorn of any complexities and amounted to little more than a narrative of marital revenge, set against an extravagant Technicolor...

  18. 14 Acapulco
    (pp. 176-188)

    By the spring of 1950, Hedy was enjoying the comforts of financial security. She had proven herself professionally and could indulge her interests. If she had never learned to love Hollywood, she had grown used to West Coast sunshine; most of all she enjoyed swimming and relaxing on the beach. She headed to the Naples Beach Club in Florida, but she was determined to appear in another role for DeMille, who was rumored to be working on another epic, a “circus picture” (The Greatest Show on Earth, 1952). Never much of a letter writer, she assaulted the director with a...

  19. 15 Houston, Texas
    (pp. 189-203)

    In early 1952, Hedy announced that her production company intended to produceQueen Esther and the King of Egypt(a series of films for television) to be filmed in Britain, with Edgar Ulmer slated to direct. She had purchased the rights to the story for $25,000. But as negotiations spilled over into 1953, the project fell through.

    Then a new source of funding arrived, in the shape of an extremely wealthy prospective husband, Texan oil magnate W. Howard Lee. The two met at Houston’s Pin Oak Horse Show in June 1952. Hedy then headed for Rome and the relationship cooled;...

  20. 16 A Filthy, Nauseating Story
    (pp. 204-219)

    The eventual publication of Hedy’s long-planned autobiography,Ecstasy and Me, devolved into the first in a series of court cases involving the star. Hedy’s encounters with American courts were many and legendary. It is hard to know just why she resorted to litigation so frequently: was she driven by a faith in the fairness of the courts or was she unable to negotiate conflict without third-party intervention?

    Undoubtedly, her high-handed approach to settling debts—not paying invoices—resulted in numerous court appearances. Several of these were for outstanding bills in the thousands of dollars. On the odd occasion—such as...

  21. 17 Final Years
    (pp. 220-234)

    In 1972, Hedy took a room at the Blackstone Hotel, where she spent the next three years. “To live in a hotel,” she said, “means that I don’t live here. It’s like a bridge. It means I’m finally away from California, where we made fine films. That was the Golden Years. They’ve gone; that doesn’t exist any more . . . But I would like to go back, to Europe, to Vienna, because my heart is there.”¹ She liked staying up watching old films, often her own, on television and sleeping late in the morning, fortifying herself with vitamin pills...

  22. Appendix: Lichtwitz Family Tree
    (pp. 235-236)
  23. Filmography
    (pp. 237-240)
  24. Notes
    (pp. 241-256)
  25. Bibliography
    (pp. 257-268)
  26. Index
    (pp. 269-286)
  27. Illustrations
    (pp. 287-302)
  28. Back Matter
    (pp. 303-303)