Her Good Heart
Thomas Calabrese — Hedy Lamarr was born Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler, November 9, 1914 – January 19, 2000) She was an Austrian-born American film actress and inventor. After a brief early film career in Czechoslovakia, she fled from her husband, a wealthy Austrian ammunition manufacturer, and secretly moved to Paris. Traveling to London, she met Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer studio head Louis B. Mayer, who offered her a movie contract in Hollywood, where she became a film star from the late 1930’s to the 1950’s.
Among Hedy Lamarr’s best known films are; Algiers (1938), Boom Town (1940), I Take This Woman (1940), Comrade X (1940), Come Live With Me (1941), H.M. Pulham, Esq. (1941), and Samson and Delilah (1949).
Hedy played a number of stage roles, including a starring one in Sissy, a play about Empress Elisabeth of Austria produced in Vienna. It won accolades from critics and admirers sent roses to her dressing room and tried to get backstage to meet her. She sent most of them away, except for a man who was more insistent, Friedrich Mandl, who became obsessed with getting to know her.
Mandl was an Austrian military weapons’ merchant and munitions manufacturer who was reputedly the third-richest man in Austria. She eventually fell for his charming and fascinating personality, partly due to his immense financial wealth. Her parents, both of Jewish descent, did not approve, due to Mandl’s ties to Italian fascist leader Benito Mussolini, and Adolf Hitler, but they could not stop the headstrong Hedy.
On August 10, 1933, Hedy married Mandl, she was 18 years old and he was 33. Mandl was an extremely controlling husband who strongly objected to her acting career and kept her a virtual prisoner in their castle home, Schloss Schwarzenau. Mandl had close social and business connections to the Italian government and sold munitions to them. He also had ties to the Nazi regime of Germany and politicians of both countries often attended lavish parties at the Mandl castle. Over the course of their marriage, Hedy often accompanied her husband to business meetings, where he met with scientists and other professionals involved in military technology. These conferences were her introduction to the field of applied science and nurtured her latent talent in engineering and technology.
Hedy’s marriage to Mandl eventually became so unbearable that she was forced to develop a plan to escape her husband and country. She disguised herself as her maid and fled with as much jewelry as she could carry in the middle of the night. When her drunken husband awakened the next morning, he was enraged that Hedy was gone so he called Adolph Hitler for help and the Austrian borders were closed. An extensive search proved fruitless because Hedy had already escaped to Paris, then to London and finally to the United States. It was almost a year before Mandl actually found out where Hedy was and he vowed revenge for her betrayal.
Hedy knew the risks that she was taking, but felt she had no other choice, “I knew that I could never be an actress while I was his wife. He was the absolute monarch in our marriage and I was like a doll, a thing, an object of art which had to be guarded and imprisoned. I had no mind, no life of my own and if I questioned his authority or defied it, he would beat me without hesitation. He had a hair trigger temper and a vindictive ego that demanded complete and unwavering allegiance. If I was going to die, I was going to perish on my terms, not his.”
After arriving in London in 1937, she met Louis B. Mayer, head of MGM, who was scouting for talent in Europe. Mayer persuaded her to change her name to Hedy Lamarr, choosing the surname in homage to the beautiful silent film star, Barbara La Marr. Mayer brought Hedy to Hollywood in 1938 and began promoting her as the ‘world’s most beautiful woman’. Her face became the inspiration for Disney’s Snow White and Catwoman.
Once Mandl found out about Hedy’s newfound success in Hollywood, he became insanely jealous and wanted to bring her back from America, but before that could happen, Adolf Hitler changed everything.
In September 1939, Germany invaded Poland and within weeks the Poles surrendered. During the next three years from September 1939 through November 1942, a series of decisive military victories gave German domination of the European continent. Mandl increased production ten-fold at his munitions factories to accommodate the growing needs of the ever expanding Nazi war machine. In the late summer of 1940, things were looking extremely bleak in Europe and Hedy did not feel comfortable, sitting in Hollywood and making lots of money. She knew a great deal about munitions and various secret weapons and seriously considered quitting MGM and going to Washington DC to offer her services to the newly established Inventors’ Council.
Howard Hughes discouraged her, “I deal with bureaucrats all the time and you do not want to go to Washington. Whatever you need for your research I can get for you. I also have the right connections in the military.”
“When you put that way, I don’t see how I can say no,” Hedy smiled.
Howard Hughes not only kept his word about allowing Hedy access to his scientists and facilities, he even had a portable laboratory built for her so that she could take it on the movie set. Hedy’s film career soared, however the guilt for leaving her family behind did not diminish so she approached Douglas Fairbanks Jr. a Hollywood actor and a close friend of President Franklin Roosevelt. “I need to get my family out of Nazi occupied Austria before my former husband takes his hatred for me out on them,” Hedy said.
“Why come to me?” Douglas Fairbanks Jr. asked.
“You spent a lot of time growing up in Europe prior to the war and have political connections,” Hedy said, “I don’t know if that’s enough, but I figure that it can’t hurt to ask.”
“Let me make some calls and I’ll get back to you.”
Douglas Fairbanks Jr. received special permission from the Chief of Naval Operations, Admiral Ernest J. King to put together a team to rescue Hedy’s mother and father. At first, Admiral King was adamant against the mission until Hedy offered him a deal that was very hard to refuse, “I’ve been working on an invention that I call ‘frequency hopping’. It is a way of jumping around on radio frequencies to avoid anyone jamming your signal. It would keep the enemy from interfering with a ship’s torpedoes.”
“How close are you to making it operational?” Admiral King asked.
“I’m working with George Antheil and Howard Hughes on it right now and once my parents are safe, I’ll be able to focus my entire attention on it.”
“Commander Fairbanks, put the mission together,” Admiral King ordered.
The mission was drawn up and it was extremely dangerous for all concerned, especially for Hedy, because if she was captured, Mandl would have her executed, but she was willing to take the risks. The American commandos unit led by Douglas Fairbanks met the Jewish Underground in Vienna, Austria and together they killed the Gestapo agents that were guarding the home of Hedy’s parents and brought them back to America.
Back in Hollywood, Hedy brought a unique personal sophistication to the screen along with her breathtaking physical beauty. She had warmth and magnetism, something that Marlene Dietrich or Greta Garbo failed to achieve. Of all the European emigrants who escaped Nazi Germany and Austria, she was one of the very few who succeeded in adapting to another culture and becoming a full- fledged star herself. She was resourceful on many levels; linguistically, culturally and intellectually.
Hedy collaborated with Hughes on a variety of projects, including changing the shape of airplane wings from rectangles to the more aerodynamic ones that we use today. “I thought the airplanes were too slow and decided that’s not right.” Hedy bought a book about fish and another of birds then took the fastest bird and connected it with the fastest fish and combined them together. When she showed it to Hughes, he marveled at the sketches and responded, “Hedy, you’re a genius!”
When Hedy finished her first prototype of the ‘frequency hopping’ device, she was granted a patent on August 11, 1942. She went with Hughes to meet Admiral King who saw the immense potential for it. There was one drawback however, it was technologically impossible to install the system into the entire naval fleet, but it still could be extremely useful on special missions. Douglas Fairbanks and his commando team were the first to use it under wartime conditions, but since it had not been completely perfected, Hedy went on the missions to operate it and make any adjustments if needed.
The system was also converted for use in allied aircraft and it played havoc with German radar. As the use of the ‘Frequency Hopper’ became more prevalent in the war effort, Hedy was incapable of going on every mission, so the Army and Navy began sending communication personnel to Hollywood, where Hedy gave them a crash course in the operation and maintenance of the device.
One of the men that Hedy met while she was married to Mandl was Oskar Schindler, a German industrialist. In 1939 Schindler acquired an enamelware factory in Krakow, Poland. German leadership forced Schindler to convert the facility to munitions manufacturing under the supervision of Friedrich Mandl and at the factory’s peak in 1944 it had about 1,750 workers, of whom 1000 were Jews from a local concentration camp.
By July 1944, Germany was losing the war and Mandl was becoming more delusional with each passing day. Schindler was concerned that his Jewish workers could be shipped off to the nearest gas chamber for execution so he took a big chance and bypassed Mandl in the chain of command and went directly to SS Amon Goth, commandant of the Krakow-Plaszow concentration camp and asked permission to move his factory to Brunnitz.
This would be only a temporary solution and Schindler knew that once Mandl found out what he had done, he would not take this breech of protocol lightly. It was only a matter of time before the Jews suffered the full brunt of his rage. Schindler was grasping at straws to save his workers and there was only one other thing that he could think of to do, it was a million to one shot, but it was all that he had. Schindler contacted the Jewish underground and they reached out to the Office of Strategic Services who contacted Hedy in California.
Three days later, she was in England to meet with the appropriate military authorities. The plan was to commandeer the train that was scheduled to pick up munitions at Schindler’s factory. Instead of picking up munitions, the Jewish prisoners would be loaded on to the train and taken to the border. Hedy would use her frequency hopping device to block enemy radio transmissions.
A combination of OSS commandos, 101st Airborne Rangers and the Jewish Underground infiltrated the perimeter of the Schindler’s factory and after a brief fight, the guards were killed.
Schindler approached Hedy with tears in his eyes, “It is good to see you again.”
Hedy embraced the brave man, “I always knew that you were a good person.”
The Jews were told to get into the boxcars and as they were climbing in, a soldier called out, “We’ve got cars approaching!”
“Take cover!” Captain Whitaker ordered.
Every one found a place to hide, but when Mandl arrived with his contingency of Gestapo guards, he sensed that something was wrong, it was too quiet. The guards got out of their vehicles and began looking around. Mandl eventually noticed that the door of a box car was slightly open and people were inside it, “It’s an escape!” then grabbed a rifle from one of the guard and prepared to shoot. Two bullets hit him in the forehead and he fell to the ground as the Americans opened fire on the Nazi guards and in less than a minute, they were all lying dead.
Captain Whitaker turned to Hedy, “That was pretty good shooting.”
Hedy smiled, “I’ve had plenty of time to think about my aim.”
After all the prisoners were loaded, Schindler turned to Hedy, “You need to get going.”
“You mean we need to get going,” Hedy said.
“I am staying until the end; there are more people I can save. You need to make it look like I resisted,” Schindler suggested.
Hedy hesitated then realized he was right and hit Schindler across the head with the rifle butt, opening up a deep gash and blood flowed down his face.
“Thanks,” Schindler spit blood that was flowing into his mouth.
“I’ll see you when this is done,” Hedy promised.
“I’ll look forward to it; maybe you can get me a ticket to one of your movies.”
The Americans and Jewish underground took up strategic locations on the train and it slowly pulled away. Hedy sent radio signals to German forces along the way, informing them that the train was on a special mission and it was not to be stopped. It made it all the way to the port city of Gdansk on the Baltic Sea where Navy Ships arrived to evacuate the prisoners. Another battle ensued with German forces, but with superior Allied air power, the German forces were destroyed.
Germany surrendered on May 8, 1945 and one year later on the same date, Hedy and Schindler met with some of the prisoners that they had rescued in the American sector of Berlin for a jubilant celebration.
Hedy continued to work on her inventions after the war and became a naturalized citizen of the United States at the age of 38 on April 10, 1953. In 1997, she received the Electronic Frontier Foundation Pioneer Award and the Bulbie Gnass Spirit of Achievement, given to individuals whose creative lifetime achievements in the arts, business, or invention fields have significantly contributed to society.
Steven Spielberg hired Hedy to work as a technical advisor during the filming of his movie, Schindler’s List that was released in 1993. In 2014, Hedy was posthumously inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame. Hedy’s wireless jamming proof technology was also applied to radios used during the Cuban Missile Crisis. It went on to shape modern technologies such as GPS, Bluetooth and Wi- Fi and is still used in headsets, phones and U.S. military guided missiles.
Hedy Lamarr was blessed with breathtaking beauty and superior intelligence, but there were other qualities that made this iconic and legendary woman special, such as courage, patriotism and a good heart.