A new memoir from the National Book Award-winning author of "Middle Passage." He writes about the art and craft of writing and what he calls "the truth-telling power of fiction."
Hedwig Kiesler was born in Vienna in 1913. The only child of well-to-do, assimilated Jewish parents, she dreamed of becoming a movie star. At 16, she dropped out of school to pursue an acting career. At 20, she married a wealthy Austrian arms dealer to the Nazis. Divorced three years later and on a ship to America, she met MGM head Louis B. Mayer and changed her name to Hedy Lamarr. She arrived in Hollywood with not only acting talent and beauty, but also a knowledge of military technology and a love for inventing. One of her patents for a new wireless technology became the basis for bluetooth, GPS, wireless telephones and most military communications. She was often called the most beautiful woman in the world. The author of a new biography reveals she was much more. Richard Rhodes sets the record straight and explains what it takes to be an inventor.
- Richard Rhodes author or editor of 23 books including "The Making of the Atomic Bomb, which won a Pulitzer Prize, a National Book Award and a National Book Critics Circle Award.
MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us, I'm Diane Rehm. Austrian-American movie star Hedy Lamarr was known as the most beautiful woman in the world. But too many people often underestimated her intelligence. She was an amateur inventor and one of her patents for a new wireless technology became the basis for blue tooth, GPS, wireless telephones and most military communications.
MS. DIANE REHMThe author of prize winning history's of the atomic and hydrogen bomb sets this story straight on Hedy Lamarr's life and explains what it takes to become an inventor. Richard Rhodes joins me in the studio. His new book is titled "Hedy's Folly." And throughout the hour, if you'd like to join us, 800-433-8850, send us your email to email@example.com, join us on Facebook or Twitter. Richard Rhodes, it's good to see you.
MR. RICHARD RHODESIt's good to see you, Diane.
REHMI must say, having read now, four volume history on the nuclear age, what took you then to Hedy Lamarr?
RHODESYou know, it's a funny indirect book. I was -- I've been for many years on the book committee of the Alfred P. Sloan foundation which supports the communication of science and technology. We have a series on 20th century American inventors and the one person who, for some reason, didn't -- we didn't find an author was Hedy. So I said "Well, I'd like to do that." And...
REHMSo it was fun for you to do that?
RHODESOh, it was a delight. What a curious and interesting story.
REHMIt's a story that focuses not only on her beauty, but on her strength and her intelligence at a time when it was tough...
REHM...to be more than just beautiful.
RHODESVery tough, particularly with the exodus from Europe in the 1930s and Hedy was one of those, of so many actors and writers who were either Jewish or, in her case, she was by inheritance Jewish, but was raised Catholic. Nevertheless, she didn't like the Nazi regime that was casting its pall over Europe and her country, Austria.
REHMAnd she also didn't like being called the most beautiful woman in the world.
RHODESYou know, she said later in life, that her beauty had been her curse. And in this sense, she was an extremely intelligent woman, as I think her inventions made clear. But very few ever saw past this striking face. I mean, she was one of those people, as I was told by people who knew her, who was more beautiful off screen than on, which is quite unusual.
RHODESSo that when she would walk into a room full of people, conversations would stop. And it was just not really easy for her to be the natural person she was.
REHMAnd, of course, we've got photographs of Hedy Lamarr on our website. You can go to drshow.org. What was it like for her and, pardon me, her and her family to grow up in Vienna between World War I and World War II? She was born in 1914.
RHODESHedy was the daughter of a bank director, a wealthy family. Not the richest in Vienna by any means, but very comfortable. They had an entire floor of an apartment building, which I visited when I went to Vienna to research the book. She was raised with a kind of education you would expect of a debutant, of a wealthy daughter of wealthy bankers, which did not include much in the way of technology, needless to say. It was not an engineering education. She went to the same girl school in Vienna that -- where Anna Freud later would teach.
RHODESSo obviously a good school. She was also sent, at one point, to a Swiss boarding school, which she didn't like at all and resolved by running away from the school and going home. Her father adored her. She was an only child. Her mother felt that she was being overindulged and I think that lead to some pretty stressful times as a child. She liked to pretend she was an actress. She would use the big space under her father's desk at the bank as a stage and everything around her would become part of the stories that she invented, her dolls.
RHODESShe said, I would imitate everybody. I would imitate my father, I would imitate my mother. I would imitate the maids. So as I've noticed in writing biographies of people of achievement, almost always they begin their development in their fields when they're children and only -- and are ready -- and therefore have 10, 15 years on the rest of us who may choose our professions after college.
REHMBut how did her mother counteract her beauty, her talent, her father's coddling?
RHODESHer mother told her, basically, you're not so great." And I think that contributed to, what seems to have been, a lifelong discomfort with herself, which manifested itself to some degree in not taking great care of her own children, problem Hollywood people often have.
REHMShe said she did, as you said, drop out of school at 16. She wanted an acting career. How did she begin?
RHODESThis extraordinary woman who was always, absolutely, self determined in what she did, decided she wanted to be a movie star. One of her actor friends, a little later in her life, said she thought that the United States was a place called Hollywood surrounded by a country. So even at 16 -- at 16, she walked out of school one day and went to the best film studio in Vienna and walked in the door and said do you have any work for me?
RHODESAnd I think probably because of her beauty, she was still a little bit of a plump teenager in those days, but still quite a knockout. They said, sure, you can be a script girl. And within a few weeks, she was getting bit parts and pretty soon she was one of the principals in a series of movies directed by the great Austrian director Max Reinhardt.
REHMAnd what happened to move her toward starring in that movie "Ecstasy"?
RHODES"Ecstasy," yes, well, here was a film to be done by a leading Hungarian art film director and she was offered the lead. And that was too much to pass up. Here was the lead role. She probably knew what she was getting into...
RHODES...although later, she implied that she really didn't. But...
RHODES...she had to...
REHM...what she was getting...
RHODES...she had to -- there was a nude scene where she walks across a field and jumps into a lake. And perhaps more significantly, there was a scene of sexual ecstasy, but only her face. She claimed that the director was sticking her with a pin in her backside to get her to have these expressions. I've seen the film. I think perhaps it was a little better than that. But in any case, it was shocking to her parents, of course, because she was not even out of her teens.
RHODESBut the film really had its biggest scandal and shock value in the United States, which was then, of course, a very puritanical country. The film was shown all over the United States after having made its way all over Europe. And from her point of view, although she had to kind of work her way around her parents' shock, it was a great breakthrough. And after that, she was filming lead roles in Europe and on stage.
REHMAnd at what point did she marry the man who was an arms dealer for the Nazis?
RHODESSo she's 20 years old, she's the lead in a musical about the young queen of Austria. She's playing the young queen, of course, the princess. And suddenly, flowers began appearing outside of her stage door, piles and piles of flowers. And messages are delivered to her house and she, clever young woman that she was, plays coy and won't see the man. Finally, he asks her mother and in walks Fritz Mandl, a man in his 30s who is the third wealthiest man in Austria because he owns ammunition factories all over Europe.
RHODESAnd after a sufficient courtship, which is about three or four months, she falls in love with his, as she said, his power, his intelligence, all of those qualities that would certainly turn the head of a 20-year-old actress. And they marry in 1933. Now, Fritz doesn't like the film "Ecstasy," needless to say. He turns out to be a rather...
REHMControlling, shall we say?
RHODES...controlling and paranoid...
RHODES...and jealous young man. So he tries to buy up all the prints and who knows where that stops. But of course, the people who own the negative just keep making more prints. It's a good steady market for them.
REHMHow long did that marriage last?
RHODESThey were together for, let's see, 33 -- 4 years. She had -- by 1937, she has so -- she feels so locked up, she describes her marriage as a golden prison. They can't even go out to dinner together without his sitting at the table in a restaurant saying, were you looking at that man? Were you looking at the people over at that other table?
RHODESWhat do you think you're doing? So it was terrible. And on top of that, by then, Mandl was basically working for the Nazis in Austria and in Germany, working on the submarines, the torpedo technologies, the things that they were developing at that time to use during the second World War.
REHMRichard Rhodes, Pulitzer Prize winning author of "The Making of the Atomic Bomb." His new book is titled "Hedy's Folly: The Life and Breakthrough Inventions of Hedy Lamarr." It's a gorgeous photograph of her on the cover. We'll talk more when we come back.
REHMWelcome back. And I guess at least one of our listeners certainly takes issue with the cover of the book. He says, I'm wondering if the author dislikes the book's titillating title and cover design as much as I do. What do you think of that, Richard?
RHODESWell, you know, if Hedy were looking in that photograph naïve, one might feel that it was exploited. But she's -- that's a pretty sly glance of hers there. She knew what she was doing.
REHMAnd she is...
RHODESAnd her beauty was part of her career.
REHM-- she's straddling a bomb.
RHODESWell, she's sitting on a bomb.
REHMSitting on the bomb.
RHODESYes, indeed, a torpedo. So as for the title, I chose the title and the subtitle. I don't know why it would be offensive. Folly is a very interesting and complicated word and it implies so many other things...
RHODES...very complicated and interesting events.
REHMHow did she get away from Mandl?
RHODESWell, the official story, which has been repeated in far too many biographies is that she studied one of her maids who was similar in size and appearance. And once she'd learned how she moved, she drugged her one day and exchanged the maid's costume for her own and jumped out the window. But that must've been written at the MGM studios.
RHODESIn fact, I found abundant newspaper stories from both Austria and New York saying that the Mandl's were getting a divorce. It was because Fritz Mandl would not let her act and she was determined to continue her professional acting career. And so in the summer of 1937, she left Austria, went to London and discovered that Metro Goldwyn Mayer's Louis B. Mayer was in town. And since that had been her dream to go to Hollywood, she went in to see Mr. Mayer.
RHODESMr. Mayer was a -- had been a junk dealer in his earlier life. He was not a very sophisticated man. He said, any girl that shows her ass on screen, we're not gonna let her in Hollywood. But she understood that he was basically trying to get her for the lowest possible price 'cause he was in Europe collecting actors and actresses at bargain rates because they wanted to escape the whole horror of Nazi Germany and Austria.
RHODESSo she took a passage on the same ship that Mayer was taking back to the United Stated.
REHMHow did she earn the money to do that?
RHODESShe left Mandl with her jewels, her clothes. And I can't believe she didn't have resources as well as that. There's no indication in the stories I found that they were -- that he threw her out. To the contrary, it was just a divorce.
REHMNow in Henry Petroski's review of "Hedy's Folly," he talks about chance and coincidence.
REHMTo what extent do you think chance and coincidence shaped her life, especially that meeting with Louis B. Mayer?
RHODESI didn't find anything that would indicate that she knew Louis B. Mayer was in town, as it were. It seems to have been fortuitous, something she discovered by talking to her theater friends, which, of course, it would have gone around the theater world that this man was around and was buying up actors and actresses. So that seems to have been chance. And of course, chance favors the prepared mind and she was looking for just this opportunity.
RHODESAnd when she found out what ship he was sailing on and took passage on it, she made a point of being seen on deck with the best looking man aboard. And by the end of the voyage, which I think took four or five days, he offered her a contract that was the equivalent of $3,000 a week with the proviso that she would learn English and stay out of trouble, which she did for a while.
RHODESSo she was on the way to Hollywood. The first film she made was "Algiers" with Charles Boyer. And it was a huge hit. It was her debut in American film. There's a scene -- a bit of a ways into the film, she doesn't appear and then in a kind of a shadowy doorway she steps out and the light catches her face. And a star was born. It's a cliché, but it's true.
REHMRichard Rhodes, I want to take you back a little bit to her life with Mandl...
REHM...because there was a lot of entertaining that she was doing. There were a lot of very, very involved men at Fritz Mandl's table and she, Hedy Lamarr, still -- I don't...
REHM...still to be...
RHODES...still Hedwig Kiesler, right.
REHM...picked up lots of information. Talk about that.
RHODESHer father, who adored her, used to take her on walks through Vienna when she was a little girl. And in his way, he would explain to her how things worked, how a streetcar works, how a power plant works. She, therefore, I assume, associated technology with the warmth and love that she felt for her adored father.
RHODESThat led her to be interested in the subject. And the man she married significantly was intensely involved in helping the Germans develop their military technologies. Not only making their bullets, but also helping them solve the problem of a torpedo, which our country -- every country in the '30s had trouble getting torpedoes to hit what they were aimed at. And the Germans particularly were interested in this problem. And they were also working on what one could call aerial torpedoes, which were basically glide bombs. They could be dropped from a plane, but had tails on them that could be controlled. And therefore, the bomb could be guided toward its target.
RHODESSo when Hedy sat around at dinner with these admirals and generals and engineers, even occasionally with Mussolini -- although Hitler never favored their table because Fritz Mandl was a Jew and he didn't feel it was safe to be seen with a Jew, even one as powerful as Mandl, she listened. She listened because she was an arm piece. She was the trophy wife. And nobody ever talked to her in any serious way. And rather than just be consumed with boredom, this bright alert person, she listened to what they were talking about and learned quite a lot.
RHODESIn fact, she listened the more intensely when she decided to leave Mandl because she hoped she might find out something she could use to blackmail him with if he wouldn't let her go. So she really did pay attention.
REHMAnd paying attention, as she did, took her to a dinner party once in New York where she met a musician.
RHODESThe other character in this extraordinary story is a remarkable American composer from New Jersey named George Antheil who was notorious in Paris in the '20s where he knew everybody, I mean, Hemmingway and James Joyce and Gertrude Stein and Picasso and the whole wonderful Paris gang of the '20s, which is part of the story I tell in the book. He had also been interested in solving technological problems, partly because he was a bit of a (sounds like) poly man. Partly because he was trying to figure out how to synchronize multiple player pianos for one of his more cacophonous compositions called Ballet Mecanique.
REHMAnd people screamed at that performance.
RHODESThey had a riot, as the French seemed to love to do, with new musical compositions. This composition was scored for airplane propellers, gongs, sirens, alarms and also 16 synchronized player pianos. Now, he never did get the pianos to synchronize. He substituted pianists whom he could synchronize. They had good computer brains and used that instead. But he certainly was fully aware of the problems of synchronizing different machines and that would turn out to be important to Hedy later.
RHODESSo George finally ran out of the money he was getting from a wealthy patron in Pennsylvania and had to come back to the United States and find a way to make a respectable living, and drifted out to Hollywood and started writing movie music. So that's where he met Hedy.
RHODESAnd over dinner, as you say, around 1939, she was concerned because Mr. Mayer had been after her about it for a long time with the size of her breasts. They were relatively small for -- by Hollywood standards. And she had read a number of articles. Antheil, in his way, had been writing pieces for Esquire Magazine in the late 1930s about hormones, how you could tell which girl would -- you could pick up, according to her physical appearance, based on her -- the dominance of one or another hormone in her body system. I mean, who knows? But he demonstrated it for the editor of Esquire sufficiently that he let him write these articles.
REHMAnd Hedy Lamarr...
RHODESHedy had read these -- now Hedy Lamarr, she was renamed by Mr. Mayer, had read these articles and wanted to meet this man. So that's how they got together.
REHMAnd the question I have is did he do anything to help her increase her breast size?
RHODESYes. I mean, if you look at photos of her throughout her life, they -- she seems to have stayed the same size.
REHMShe was slender.
RHODESShe was slender. She was 5'7" which was very tall for the day, and typically weighed around 110 to 108 pounds. So she was quite slender, yes indeed.
REHMI should say. But she and he both wanted to help the allied war effort.
RHODESThis is where, again, you said surprise and accident and so on -- Hedy was as a European in America, which was not yet in the war, was still a neutral country until December of '41 and we're talking about the summer of 1940 now. Hedy followed the war in Europe which had begun on 1st of September, 1939.
RHODESAnd she particularly was interested in the fact that the English were moving their children out of London because the blitz was coming, the German bombing of their city. They were moving the children to Canada on ships that had been cruise liners, passenger ships prior to the war. And the Germans started torpedoing passenger ships at that time. And in one case, 77 children were killed in the torpedoing of one ship, the City of Benares.
RHODESHedy was horrified. And in her way, with her supreme self confidence in a sense -- not always in her life, but in this part of her life -- decided she was going to do something about it. And that what she conceived to do about it, again, probably because of what she'd heard over the Mandl dinner table, was to see if she could help the allies improve the accuracy of their torpedoes, which could then be used to attack these submarines that were attacking in the ship.
RHODESAnd the question was, how do you do that? So her idea was radio control from probably a plane, but maybe from the ship. And you couldn't do it underwater. Radio signals don't travel very well through salt water for obvious reasons, it's conductive. So you had to have some kind of system that would be out of the water sending a signal to a torpedo traveling in the shallow water, perhaps trailing an antenna behind it.
RHODESBut the problem was, as she well knew, that radio signals can be jammed. So how do you get around that barrier? And this is where Hedy had her invention. And it was new as all patentable inventions are. No one had patented the idea before in any country. Not in Europe, not in the United States, not the Germans. They finally settled on wire guidance, torpedo would trail out a thin wire as long as a mile or two back to the ship or the submarine. And it would be controlled through the wire.
RHODESHer idea was if you could make a radio signal that would hop from frequency to frequency, maybe 15, 50, 100 times a minute, that the person trying to jam the signal wouldn't be able to jump around with it since he wouldn't know where it was going. And therefore, with frequency hopping, which is what she called it, the torpedo would be jammed. Therefore, you could guide it and not worry about it being taken control of.
RHODESThat was her basic idea. But she didn't know anything about how you make that happen. She had the idea, but it took -- a patent requires two things, a new idea and the embodiment of that idea in a practical mechanism. So she had part one, but she needed someone to help her with part two. Now one of the things she knew about Antheil, he probably told her, was that he at the age of 18, which still surprises me, had been a munitions inspector in a factory in New Jersey at the end of the First World War.
RHODESSo that was good enough. She figured he knew something about machines and military equipment and she drafted him to help her with her invention. So they worked over the fall and winter of 1940 and into 1941. And by about February, '41, they had their invention.
RHODESIn the meantime, they had contacted something called the National Inventor's Council, which was set up during both First and Second World War to let ordinary citizens, who aren't professional inventors or engineers, communicate ideas to the U.S. government that might be helpful in the war effort. During the First World War, I checked out, they didn't have one of the thousands of inventions that were suggested that actually panned out. And there weren't more than ten in the Second World War.
RHODESBut one that they adopted and approved of and passed on to the Navy was the Antheil-Lamarr idea for a torpedo that could be guided by radio.
REHMRichard Rhodes. His new book is titled "Hedy's Folly." And you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." We're going to open the phones now, 800-433--8850. Join us. To Falls Church, Va. Good morning, Randy, you're on the air.
RANDYWhat an interesting show.
REHMGood. Go right ahead, sir.
RANDYI've worked with inventors for about 30 years and I knew part of this story, but I didn't know all of it. One of the interesting things is that when the patent was applied for in the early '40s and then issued in 1942, it not only didn't get anywhere, but it was not kept secret. So the very enemy that we were trying to defeat with it had the same knowledge.
REHMHow do you feel about that, Richard Rhodes?
RHODESWell, it's true that the Navy made an announcement to the press. And there was this story that I found in the New York Times that Hedy had come up with a red hot invention, but they didn't say what the invention was so the invention itself did stay secret. And, in fact, that was one of the problems through the life of the patent. There was no way for anyone to know that they had this patent because it was a military secret until the 1950s.
REHMDoes that answer it, Randy?
RHODESWell, no. I believe that the patent was put into the patent office collection.
RHODESThat's true. And I don't quite understand. That's been something of a mystery.
REHMA mystery that you're going to have to write another book about. Richard Rhodes, "Hedy's Folly." And after a short break, we'll be right back.
REHMOne thing we haven't mentioned, Richard Rhodes, is that Hedy Lamarr adopted a child, a baby boy...
REHM...in 1939. Why did she disown him six years later?
RHODESThe record doesn’t say in great detail, perhaps because it was rather an embarrassment, but she was a bit of an Austrian about discipline. And she didn't feel that this little boy was following the rules and she just basically cast him off.
REHMCast him off to another family?
RHODESYou know, I don't know. I didn't find that in the record, what happened. He was around and I think that some of her inheritance was ultimately settled on him because he sued, many years later, of course. So she had two natural children.
RHODESBy John Loder, a British actor, tall, handsome British actor who -- she was married to him for five years, which is …
REHMHow many marriages?
RHODESYeah, not happy in love and she blamed it -- after a long course of psychoanalysis, she thought it was because she had always been in love with her father, which most of her husbands resembled him more than anyone else.
RHODESThe speculation about her having an affair with George Antheil -- well, George was 5'3" so I rather doubt that that happened.
REHMAll right. Let's go to Dallas, Texas. Good morning, Rita, you're on the air.
RITAGood morning. Good morning, Diane.
RITAMr. Rhodes is bringing back lots of memories. In 1956, I was a student at the University of Houston and I was being inducted into an arts fraternity. And at the time, Hedy Lamarr was married to Howard Lee and they had a beautiful mansion in River Oaks. And Hedy graciously offered her home for our initiation and she was, as you say, just gorgeous and very gracious. And while I was looking at her, my eyes turned because her husband, Howard Lee walked in and he was drop-dead gorgeous. Tall, silver-haired.
RITAAnd the two children, Denise and Tony were there. Denise was serving punch. She was about 11 at the time. This was 1956. And Tony was about nine. And he was kind of a little unofficial host. And she was so gracious. And then she didn't know any of us and she gave us each a one-ounce bottle of Arpege perfume …
RHODESOh, my, good heavens.
RITA… with a little note signed, fondly, Hedy.
RHODESShe always signed it fondly, yes.
RITAYes. But Howard Lee, of course, you know, was from the Lee millions. They're from the -- or gazillions. They're the ones that the story of the Giant was based on.
RHODESOh, really? Oh, yes.
RHODESOil, right. Right.
REHMOil. Oil. Well, did she always choose wealthy men to marry?
RHODESWell, her earlier marriages tended to be actors and writers.
RHODESBut I think later on to support her lifestyle -- I think she had some arguments with Mr. Lee about -- I think he accused her once of just using his wealth, but of course, they had a marriage and there's no need for that accusation to stand.
REHMAnd how long did that marriage last?
RHODESI don't know.
REHMAnd how about the two children?
RHODESWell, Anthony and Denise are alive and well. Anthony lives in L.A. and is a businessman, and Denise lives in Seattle. I've talked with both of them. They're delighted to have a book about their mother that tells the whole story 'cause so many of the biographies have left out most of the details of her inventive side.
REHMTalk about how the technology was applied for civilian use, Richard.
RHODESSo the Navy didn't pick up on the patent because they couldn't -- excuse me, they couldn't really understand. As one officer said, how do you get a player piano into a torpedo? They had used the player piano technology to make the frequencies hop. The holes in the paper tape...
REHMOh, I see.
RHODES...switched the signal from frequency to frequency. That was Antheil's contribution, but not, of course, a full-sized piano scroll. It was a thin strip of paper or it could have even been wire. So the patent wasn't used during the war and was put on the shelf, as it were. And was also -- although, yes, it's true that the patent was public in the patent office, it wasn't picked up by anyone until the 1950's when the military suddenly saw a need for a jam-proof communications, starting with ship-to-ship.
RHODESAnd there were ships that were in the blockade during the Cuban Missile Crisis that had Hedy's technology in their radios, but they were radio silent so it wasn't used there. But that's when it began to be applied throughout the military at every level because of the protection from jamming.
RHODESSince GPS was originally a secret military system -- GPS uses frequency-hopping to communicate between the satellites overhead and we people on the ground. When car radios began to come in in the 1980's, the first of the wireless communications that we all have come to use, the patent had been released by the Navy, had been declassified, given to the FCC and the FCC made it available for commercial development.
RHODESSo if you were using a radio system car-to-car, that was only on one frequency, then anybody else using that frequency would have interference. That would mean that you could only have as many car radios talking at the same time as there were available frequencies, not very many. But with frequency-hopping, which the car radio systems used, you could have thousands. And they would never bump into each other for long enough to cause more than the least little blip in the signal.
RHODESThen when cell phones came along, the technology should have been applied, but the cell phone manufacturers discovered a cheaper system that wasn't as good and they went with that. However, wireless phones of the kind we have in our homes are all frequency-hopped.
RHODESMost military communications and so forth. So it is widely, widely used. It was one of those fundamental patents that covered a whole industry. There aren't a lot of those. And unfortunately, Hedy never made a penny off of it during the course of her life. I think later on when her finances declined, she would have been glad to.
REHMYou know, we have a Tweet which says, "How can the smart people outside conventional science today invent? Things seem much more technical."
RHODESWell, they are. And a lot of the inventions today are worked through engineering rather than through any one at any time, but if you look around you in the world, you will see all sorts of inventions, from paper clips to grocery carts to on and on and on that were, in fact, the work of people who simply think that way, as Hedy learned to do, who look at the world and think, well, that doesn’t work very well.
RHODESFor example, some of Hedy's later inventions, a chair that could be swung in and out of a shower so that someone who couldn't stand in the shower could shower and then swing back out and dry off. That was an invention of hers. A little box that you could attach to a box of Kleenex to have a place to put your Kleenex after you blew your nose. That was a Hedy invention.
RHODESShe even early on, back before her patent for the torpedo technology, came up with the idea of a tablet that could be dropped into a glass of water that would fizz up and make a coke. And since I think she was probably dating Howard Hughes at that point, he loaned her a couple of chemists to help her work it out, although she said later with a laugh, no, it never worked.
REHMHow long was she with Howard Hughes, do you know?
RHODESI don't know.
REHMYou don't know.
RHODESNo. I don't think very long. He moved pretty rapidly through -- he was kind of like a reaper moving through the fields of Hollywood.
REHMAll right. And let's go to Seabrook, Texas. John, thanks for waiting. John?
REHMYes. Go right ahead.
JOHNYeah, I knew -- Tony Lee and I were friends in elementary school and we lived a couple houses down from Howard and Hedy. And one of the nicest things she would do or one of the most interesting things she would do, every year she would have a birthday party for Tony and I suppose her daughter, too, but I didn't know her.
JOHNAnd she would bring in Hollywood cameramen and set up, I think, lights outside the swimming pool. And it would be three or four cameramen there with big 35mm film cameras. And these birthday parties were Hollywood productions, big Hollywood productions. And it was a hoot, man. And they were good neighbors. I tell you they were a lot of fun 'cause they liked to party.
RHODESYes. Well, she, you know, people said of her that later in her life, she was kind of an Auntie Mame. She would wear big colorful muumuus and I mean, she never gained weight. She was always slim and very good looking, but she did have a bit too much plastic surgery later in her life.
REHMWhat does that mean?
RHODESWell, I mean, her -- I saw a photograph of her from her, let's say the last five years of her life, and her face was somewhat disfigured by plastic surgery. They didn't do it as well in the '60s and '70s as they do today. So that when the time came finally, after years of her being frustrated of never having had her invention recognized, when some of the early pioneers of wireless digital network communications realized that this patent had been hers and George Antheil's, they decided to give her an award.
RHODESAnd they found a foundation, The Pioneer Freedom Foundation, that awards early digital pioneers. And they called her up and said, we want to give you this award. This is in the mid 1990s. She's in her early 80s by then. And her response was classic Hedy, she said, well, it's about time.
REHMBut did she herself receive the award?
RHODESBut because she didn't really go out anymore, she made a recording of a thank you speech, a short speech. And...
REHMNot a visual, but..
RHODESRight. Just a recording. And Anthony, her son, took it to the event and played it. And I've heard it kind of a third removed because one of these early pioneers recorded the recording at the event...
RHODES...and then played it for me when I interviewed him. There is her characteristic very young voice for a woman in her 80s. It sounded very much like Hedy when she was 30 or 40.
REHMWas she alone toward the end?
RHODESShe was. And I think by choice, at that point. She'd been through all these marriages, other relationships, as well. She perhaps partly because of the change in her appearance, she lived alone. And her finances pretty well fell apart toward the end of her life for awhile. I mean, she had made 30 million in her Hollywood years, which translates today to about $300 million.
RHODESBut too many marriages and divorces and whatever, she was living on a Screen Actors Guild pension and Social Security. However, companies in the '90s, which began to pick up on digital versions of her technology, she would either sue them or they would come to her, but she finally put together an estate for her children of about $3 million.
RHODESShe also was very good at investing in the stock market when she had some money to invest.
RHODESSo she was all right. She retired in Florida, lived in an apartment. There was a local police officer who checked up on her every now and then. And she decided she was gonna live to the end of the -- the beginning of the next millennium and she did. She died in January 2000.
REHMAnd you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." How old was she when she died?
RHODESLet's see, 1914, 2000. So...
REHM2000, so she was 86.
RHODES...she was 86, yeah. What a life.
REHMWhat a life indeed. We have a call from Birmingham, Ala. Good morning, George, you're on the air.
GEORGEGood morning and thank you so much for your show, Ms. Diane.
REHMOh, I love doing it. Thank you, George.
GEORGEMy question is I was a young teenager in the early and mid '50s and we all admired her for her beauty. And this is the first that I have ever heard of her intelligence and creativity. And I don't understand the secrecy side that we never heard of her accomplishments. And it would have, to me, been more exciting to know that she was not only beautiful, but intelligent and creative.
RHODESYes. George, I think you -- you know, after the war, even though women had taken over working in factories and every other kind of so-called men's work during the Second World War, after the war, the women were all told, basically, to go home and be mothers and wives again. It was not necessarily something that Hollywood wanted the world to know.
RHODESThat their beauty was playing chess with Man Ray and inventing torpedo technology. So it just didn't get out. And then, of course, she retired from film and fell away from view. She was just as frustrated as you sound and was really pretty bitter. There's a piece -- an interview with her in 1990 where she says, people just take and use people and never thank them or give them any credit.
RHODESSo when the pioneers finally came to her, I know she felt really good about finally getting some recognition.
REHMAnd a last caller from Orlando, Fla. Greg, please be quick. Greg, are you there?
GREGYes. Can you hear me?
REHMYeah, sure can. Please move quickly.
GREGSure. I just -- it's interesting to note that Hedy Lamarr became quite litigious in her older age. She sued Corel for -- they used a picture of her image on their software package. And then she sued Gallo wine for using a two-second movie clip that had her in the background. And she made money from Corel, but the other lawsuit -- she died in the middle of it and she ended up not recovering anything.
GREGJust interesting how in her late 80s she was quite litigious, suing quite a few people and I think not so successfully sometimes.
RHODESWell, people were indeed using her image. And she was living off a small pension. I'm not surprised she decided to go after them. And it did help her and she had a better last part of her life.
REHMAnd one last caller in Houston, Texas. Andy reports that his father was Hedy Lamarr's psychiatrist...
REHM...for many years and a close friend of the family. He calls her a lovely, intelligent lady.
RHODESOh, that's wonderful. Good.
REHMAnd here's a last email, "In the spring of 1944, my father was a young G.I. headed for combat in the Pacific Theater. On a stopover in California, Dad had an opportunity to visit the famous Hollywood Canteen where he met Hedy Lamarr." Imagine a 20-year-old farm kid from a south Florida town dancing with one of the most dazzling celebrities of her time.
RHODESThat was another way she helped the war effort.
REHMWhat a story. Richard Rhodes, I'm so glad you wrote this.
RHODESOh, thank you. I enjoyed it immensely.
REHMThe book is titled, "Hedy's Folly: The Life and Breakthrough Inventions of Hedy Lamarr, the Most Beautiful Woman in the World." Thanks for listening all. I'm Diane Rehm.
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