It’s an incredible story. A beautiful young Jewish woman from Austria moves to LA and becomes world-famous for her glamour and charisma. She is treated as a disposable mannequin by Hollywood – but to the surprise of all, invents pioneering communications technology designed to help defeat the Nazis in the Second World War.
Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler was born in Vienna in 1914 – but by 1938 she was Hedy Lamarr, one of the most famous actresses of her time. Her beauty inspired Disney’s Snow White and DC’s Catwoman, and she played a leading role in the second-biggest film of the 1940s, Samson and Delilah. But Alexandra Dean’s documentary, Bombshell: the Hedy Lamarr Story, promises to reveal the “much more interesting” side to Lamarr, an inventor who revolutionised modern communications.
Embarrassed during the war by her “trivial” career, Lamarr became interested in solving the problem of Germans jamming British radio-controlled torpedoes. Despite her lack of formal training, she devised “frequency-hopping” – using multiple radio frequencies to encrypt transmissions. The US military dismissed the idea at the time, but adopted it in the 1960s. Now, it is the basis for GPS, wifi, Bluetooth and military satellites (even the US president’s communications rely on this technology). The market value of Lamarr’s invention is now $30bn. She never received a penny.
Dean’s film explores Lamarr’s complex life in full: her work in aerodynamics; her time as a film producer; her rumoured problems with addiction. It is no hagiography: even Lamarr’s own children are open about her flaws. But Dean treats her subject with respect as a great mind; something rarely afforded to Lamarr by her male contemporaries in life.
This article appears in the 28 Feb 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The rise of the radical left