Actress Hedy Lamarr is best remembered as the glamorous Viennese film star who parlayed her notorious nude screen debut in “Ecstasy” into a Hollywood career. But as the PBS “American Masters” documentary “Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story” reveals, Lamarr’s life off screen was far more interesting. Not only was she secretly Jewish, which not even her children knew, she was a brilliant inventor whose ideas were ahead of their time.
During World War II, Lamarr invented a radio guidance system using frequency-hopping technology meant to jam enemy torpedoes. The U.S. Navy dismissed the idea, saying that her selling war bonds would better serve the war effort. Today, that technology is the basis for secure Wi-Fi, GPS and Bluetooth. Lamarr never received the credit for her invention.
Journalist and first-time filmmaker Alexandra Dean became aware of Lamarr’s story while researching a project on female inventors and the obstacles they faced. “I met all these incredible women who told me how hard it was to get funding in Silicon Valley,” Dean told the Journal. “I started to think about the history of invention and wondered if there had been women who had been overlooked and erased.”
When a colleague gave her a copy of 2011’s “Hedy’s Folly” by Richard Rhodes, she knew she had found her subject. “There were a lot of unanswered questions,” Dean said. Some people doubted that Lamarr was the real inventor, suggesting she stole the idea from her first husband, munitions manufacturer Fritz Mandl. Lamarr “hadn’t left any clear explanation of how she had done the inventions or why,” Dean said. “It was a mystery to uncover. I wanted to answer these questions and tell it in her own words.”
Dean thought she would be able to use Lamarr’s 1966 autobiography, “Ecstasy and Me,” as a source. “But as it turns out, Hedy hated the autobiography,” Dean said. “It was written by a ghostwriter that she sued for $21 million. It was full of scandal and made no mention of her incredible mind.”
Calls to scores of contacts yielded nothing. But when she tracked down journalist Fleming Meeks, Dean hit the jackpot. He had four interview audiotapes of Lamarr he had been holding onto for 25 years. “It was an incredible discovery,” Dean said. “Once we had the tapes, we threw away the film we had and let Hedy lead the way.”
“You get a sense of the power struggle that someone like Hedy was engaged in and how hard it was for her to be seen for more than her beauty.” — Alexandra Dean
Original notes from a 1980s interview contained proof that Lamarr’s invention was legitimate. The author, Robert Price, “intentionally redacted it to advance the theory that she was a spy,” Dean said.
“Bombshell” also delves into the erratic behavior Lamarr exhibited later in her life that suggested mental problems or drug use. It turned out that Lamarr was using crystal meth.
“That revelation made me understand that I was making a biography about two dramatically different people, before the drugs and after,” Dean said.
Tracing Lamarr’s hidden Jewish history from Austria to Hollywood, the film reveals that Lamarr converted to Catholicism to marry Fritz Mandl, who was actually half-Jewish. The couple married in 1933. With persecution of Jews on the rise, “Hedy thought he was a powerful man who could protect her from these encroaching dangers,” Dean said. “Her father had lost his job for being Jewish, and this was a man who seemed impervious to the encroaching dangers and could protect her.”
Five years later, Lamarr asked her mother to convert to Catholicism, as well. “We don’t know whether that was to protect her mother or to protect the story she was telling in Hollywood about being a Catholic from birth,” Dean said. MGM Studios chief Louis B. Mayer was known to invent biographies for his stars. “A young Catholic girl from Vienna was an easier sell. Anti-Semitism was so prevalent,” she added.
All this was news to Lamarr’s three children when Dean interviewed them. “They were so surprised, because they’d grown up Catholic,” she said. “They’d had the baptismal certificates and Hedy’s letters to her mother, but they didn’t speak German and didn’t realize what they had.”
Dean, who is Jewish on her father’s side, said that Lamarr’s children have embraced “Bombshell” “for not only telling the true story of their mother, but helping them understand her in her full complexity. I think they felt kind of a reunion with her through watching the film, and that was immensely gratifying for me as a filmmaker.”
If Lamarr were living today, Dean supposes the actress might have an easier time getting taken seriously in Hollywood, “but I think she’d still encounter a lot of barriers getting funding in Silicon Valley.”
With stories of sexism, abuse and inequality involving women dominating Hollywood headlines this past year, Lamarr’s story seems particularly relevant.
“You get a sense of the power struggle that someone like Hedy was engaged in and how hard it was for her to be seen for more than her beauty,” Dean said. “It’s important for us to recognize that this is still going on today, particularly in Silicon Valley. A lot of young women have incredible ideas and concepts for shaping the future and they’re not being taken seriously, just like Hedy.”
“Bombshell” premieres at 9 p.m. May 18 on PBS.
Aging in Prime Time