The Inventor in Hollywood
Richard Rhodes explores Hedy Lamarr’s other career.
Photograph courtesy the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts.
Imagine that, on Sept. 12, 2001, an outraged Angelina Jolie had pulled out a pad of paper and some drafting tools and, all on her own, designed a sophisticated new missile system to attack al-Qaida. Now imagine that the design proved so innovative that it transcended weapons technology, and sparked a revolution in communications technology over the next half-century.
Believe it or not, this essentially happened to Hedy Lamarr. Often proclaimed “the most beautiful woman in the world,” the 26-year-old Lamarr was thriving in Hollywood when, in mid-September 1940, Nazi U-boats hunted down and sank a cruise ship trying to evacuate 90 British schoolchildren to Canada. Seventy-seven drowned in the bleak north Atlantic. Lamarr, a Jewish immigrant from Nazi-occupied Austria, was horrified. She decided to fight back, but instead of the usual celebrity posturing, she sat down at a drafting table at home and sketched out a revolutionary radio guidance system for anti-submarine torpedoes.
This unlikely tale is the subject of Richard Rhodes’ new book, Hedy’s Folly. Compared to his other works, like the magisterial (and quite hefty) The Making of the Atomic Bomb, this book breezes by in 272 chatty pages. Rhodes succeeds in the most vital thing—capturing the spirit of a willful woman who wanted recognition for more than her pretty face—but he skims over the deeper questions that Lamarr’s life story raises about the nature of creative genius.
Lamarr—born Hedwig Kiesler—came from an unremarkable, even boring bourgeois family in Vienna. As a girl, she accompanied her father, a banker, on long walks, absorbing his detailed explanations of how printing presses, streetcars, and other modern marvels worked. Rather than pursue a technical career, though, she became an actress. While still in her teens, she starred in the notorious 1933 film Ekstase, which reportedly included the first onscreen depiction of a female orgasm. A sudden star, she married the plutocrat Fritz Mandl, an arms manufacturer and Nazi lickspittle who spent much of his marriage buying copies of Ekstase and destroying them.
Lamarr soon felt trapped with Mandl because he barred her from acting. So she devised an escape plan. Like Lamarr’s father, Mandl could dilate for hours on inventions, especially munitions, and by batting her eyes at Mandl and his cronies, she gathered loads of classified intelligence. Rhodes writes that Lamarr essentially blackmailed her husband, and he, rather than face exposure for blabbing, let her flee. She landed a movie deal, changed her name, and settled in California.
Lamarr didn’t drink or socialize much, and read little, so she began inventing things to kill time between shoots. This quirk fascinates Rhodes, and leads him to a regrettably brief discussion of creative genius. He lists a few general types of creativity—artistic, inventive, scientific. At one point, he eagerly links all three, arguing that the “creative process” of coming up with new ideas is essentially the same in each arena. At another point, he emphasizes the differences, celebrating inventors as a unique breed whose gifts are elusive. Yet his own story lends support for understanding inventors as a felicitous blend of distinct artistic and scientific talents—two different perspectives contributing to a practical, yet highly imaginative, creation.
In fact, while Lamarr qualified as an inventive genius for her artistic flair, she fell somewhat short on her scientific acumen. She certainly fizzed with creative ideas throughout her life. My favorites include sugary “bouillon” cubes to plop into water for an instant Coke, and a “skin-tautening technique based on the principles of the accordion.” But she seemed to lack the skill to actually make things, and depended on others to hash out details. Indeed, only during WWII did her inventions move much beyond ideas, when she partnered with a misfit musician named George Antheil.