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In 'Bombshell,' The Double Identity Of Hollywood Star Hedy Lamarr

Film actress Hedy Lamarr, pictured here around 1955, was both a major star on screen and an inventor by night.
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Film actress Hedy Lamarr, pictured here around 1955, was both a major star on screen and an inventor by night.

If you're reading this through some kind of Bluetooth or Wi-Fi gadget, here's an interesting fact: Some ideas behind that technology can be traced back to a famous actress from the 1930s. Her name was Hedy Lamarr.

The story of this stunning beauty of the silver screen is told in the new documentary Bombshell. From a scandalous debut in the pre-war European film Ecstasy to Hollywood films including Algiers and Samson And Delilah, the documentary tells little-known details of how she was worked grueling days by Hollywood producers and spent her nights in her own laboratory where she loved to invent.

"She had this double identity that is so fascinating to all of us," says Alexandra Dean, the director of Bombshell."She was on sound stages all day with Clark Gable, Spencer Tracy, Jimmy Stewart – I mean, the biggest stars. And at night, she was going home and inventing. And she was inventing with her sometime-boyfriend, Howard Hughes.

"He gave her the laboratory; he gave her access to his chemists. So she had people helping her with her ideas. And I think that's what gave her the bold vision for the invention that she would become famous for."

With musical composer George Antheil, Lamarr developed frequency-hopping signals, a form of encrypted transmission. She received a patent for the technology, which she intended for guiding Allied torpedoes in World War II, but the U.S. Navy shelved it until much later.

"So what she presented them with was leaps and bounds beyond, in fact, their comprehension at the time," Dean says. "But they just dismissed it out of hand, thinking this was something that a musician and a gorgeous movie star came up with. And they said, you know, what do you want to do, put a player piano inside a torpedo?"

It's only one part of the complicated life led by a major actress of her day.

Interview Highlights

On how Lamarr, an Austrian-born Jewish woman on the run from Nazis, convinced studio executive Louis B. Mayer to sign her

So she's on the back foot already, right? She's fleeing the Nazis. Mayer thinks he can scoop her up at a discount price, like he's doing with all the other Jewish actors and actresses fleeing the Nazis. And he offers her this lowball offer. She storms out and immediately her agent says to her, "You're in big trouble. He's off to New York in the morning on this big ship, the Normandie and the tickets are sold out." And she goes, you know what? I'm gonna find a way on that ship.

And this is how she is – she's got this incredible mind. And the first thing she thinks is: Who can I impersonate? And she impersonates the governess for a young prodigy, a musical prodigy that the agent also represented (who did not need a governess in any way — I believe he was 17 or something). But she impersonated his governess, got on board, and as soon as she was on board, dressed herself as the megastar she wanted Louis B. Mayer to see her as. [She] paraded herself in front of him until he was so dazzled at the reaction she was getting from the men on the ship that he offered her a factor of five times more for the same contract at his studio, and also the guarantee that she would be treated as a star.

On what attracted Dean to this story

You know, I was doing a series on inventors for two years for Bloomberg Television called Innovators.It really gave me this moment to meditate on: Who are the inventors who create our world? How do we celebrate them? What are the obstacles that they face? And one of the obstacles that a lot of the inventors that were not, you know, the typical classical inventor that you'd have in your mind when you close your eyes — by that I mean women, or diverse candidates — they would say to me, look, it's a little harder for us to taken seriously to get funding. That's why there's less of us.

And that really, you know, bothered me, stayed with me. I saw Richard Rhodes' book Hedy's Folly — which was given to me by Katherine Drew, a great producer in our office — and I realized this was the answer to my question, you know: That some people are intentionally, they were erased, or not intentionally erased from the cultural dialogue because they just don't seem like inventors.

On Lamarr's victimization by her Hollywood work environment, which led to a crippling meth addiction

Because what we learn about the system, when we study Hedy's story, is that the system really worked these actresses like they were, you know, in a stable – they were racehorses in a stable. They were worked from morning to night, and the way that they got them to do that was to feed them drugs. Downers and uppers, it was not uncommon at the time; a lot of speed. And Hedy got hooked on these drugs, and in the end, that's what destroyed her.

On what Dean takes away from Lamarr's life story

You know, the takeaway for me is really the poem she reads at the end of the movie. You'll see she reads this poem which is very moving because she's had so much disappointment and felt so overlooked in her life. But what she's saying in the poem is [paraphrasing]: Even if you feel that you've been kicked in the teeth, and the world never gave you the applause you deserved because you did something amazing and it was not recognized, do it anyway. Do it anyway because it's in changing the world that you'll find meaning at the end of your life. It's in trying to make your mark. And I love that, and I think everybody should listen to that – you know, that it's in the work, the doing, that you'll find meaning, not in the applause.

Ned Wharton and Ed McNulty produced and edited this interview for broadcast, and Patrick Jarenwattananon adapted it for web.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Lulu Garcia-Navarro is the host of Weekend Edition Sunday and one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. She is infamous in the IT department of NPR for losing laptops to bullets, hurricanes, and bomb blasts.