Her story was fascinating. An Austrian by birth, Lamarr was discovered by MGM’s Louis B. Mayer, and emigrated to the U.S. shortly before World War II, where she was “lucky” enough to become part of the Hollywood star machine. I place “lucky” in quotes because the actress always felt that no one took her seriously, due to her stunning beauty.
Lamarr was a “pinup” girl and her face was said to have been the model for Disney’s Snow White. Yet, it was not just her acting skills that were underestimated. She was also an inventor who, along with partner George Antheil, received a patent for a secret communications system they devised, which Lamarr hoped would assist the war effort during World War II.
Though their invention of spread-spectrum broadcast communications technologies was rejected by the Navy during the war, it was finally used by the military during the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962. Their invention eventually helped in the development of wireless communications, including Bluetooth and GPS. Unfortunately, the patent that Lamarr and Antheil had received for their work expired in 1959, shortly after Antheil died, and Lamarr received no credit or payment once the system began to be used.
It is a gripping tale, told with the help of rare audiotaped interviews with Lamarr when she was in her eighties. Though she received no compensation for her invention, she did finally receive at least one accolade before her death in 2000, the Electronic Frontier Foundation Pioneer Award in 1997, given to individuals whose creative lifetime achievements in the arts, sciences, business, or invention fields have significantly contributed to society. In 2014, Lamarr and Antheil were also inducted posthumously into the National Inventors Hall of Fame.
Not every Hollywood star can achieve the kind of scientific innovations that burnish the legacy of the beautiful Hedy Lamarr. But we can look today at actresses like Reese Witherspoon, who has formed a joint venture called Hello Sunshine to focus on telling female-driven stories on film, TV and digital platforms.
The stories Witherspoon is producing, such as the recent “Big Little Lies,” are highly successful and award winning. As a vocal supporter of increasing equality for women and people of color in Hollywood, the producer is focusing on complex female characters, many over 40, and hiring the female screenwriters and women of color to make it happen. I think Hedy would be smiling at the new reality.