The Girl in the White Dress

by John Alan Irvin

Austrian-American actress Hedy Lamarr, born Hedwig Eva Marie Kiesler in 1913 in Habsburg-era Vienna, was among the most beautiful stars of Hollywood’s so-called “Golden Era.” In fact, during her movie career she was granted that title both in Europe and America. A recent biography of Lamarr by author Richard Rhodes, Hedy’s Folly: The Life and Breakthrough Inventions of Hedy Lamarr, the Most Beautiful Woman in the World, also gives her long-overdue recognition for her achievements as an inventor.

In short, working with avant-garde composer George Antheil in the early 1940s to support the Allied war effort by developing a torpedo guidance system that wasn’t vulnerable to electronic jamming, the two discovered the basic principle for the “spread spectrum” or “frequency-hopping” technology that we enjoy today in the form of cellphones, wireless computers, and GPS. So the most superficial biography would read, “Hedy Lamarr – Actress/ Inventor.”

A more in-depth look at her life would certainly include other notorious or news-worthy events and achievements. Before she ever came to Hollywood, she had already received considerable attention as the first woman to portray a sexual orgasm on screen (at least in a non-pornographic movie) in the 1933 film Ecstasy by Czech director Gustav Machatý (some also claimed that she was the first woman to appear fully nude in a motion picture, but that had actually occurred almost a decade earlier in silent film). The movie was publically denounced by Pope Pius XII and banned in the United States until 1940, after which it was only shown in art houses, though it continued to be banned in some states.

Nevertheless, it provided Hedwig Kiesler with the name recognition (as the “Ecstasy Girl”) that would propel her to a career in Hollywood. While it is well-known that Hedy fled Austria in order to break out of the grip of her overly-controlling first-husband, the very wealthy arms manufacturer (not to mention fascist sympathizer) Fritz Mandl, the circumstances of her escape are apocryphal, though colorful to the point of scandalous. The 19-year-old married Mandl, 13 years her senior, in August, 1933.

It was the same year Ecstasy appeared on movie screens throughout Europe and she may have married at her parent’s request, perhaps an effort to calm the uproar from the film with a dose of marital domesticity. As for her daring escape from the castle to which Mandl had more or less confined her, Schloss Schwarzenau in the scenic but remote Waldviertel near the Czech border, rumor had it that she hired a maid who looked like herself, drugged the maid one night, and sped away disguised as her in a car she had also “borrowed” from her unwitting and unconscious servant.

Hedy later claimed a more salacious rumor that appeared in her 1967 autobiography regarding her effort to avoid Mandl by hiding out in a bordello, to include servicing a client in order to escape discovery, was simply a product of her ghost-writer’s fervent imagination. The most likely story, however, is that she simply persuaded Mandl to allow her to wear her most expensive jewelry to a party and escaped from there, catching a late train from Vienna to Paris. Regardless of the details, after moving on from Paris to London and living off the jewelry Mandl had perhaps imprudently given to his much younger and discontent wife, Hedy was introduced to Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer film producer and Hollywood mogul Louis B. Mayer.

By the time Hedwig Eva Marie Mandl (née Kiesler) arrived in New York City with a seven-year MGM contract, she had been rechristened Hedy Lamarr, in recognition of silent-film star Barbara La Marr, a favourite of Mayer’s. She became a naturalized citizen of the United States on April 10, 1953. Her Hollywood career is well-known to fans of classic cinema, her personal life, somewhat less. She was arguably not an especially gifted actress, but her unparalleled beauty, even in an industry overflowing with beautiful actresses, brought her considerable fame.

She was a star in an era of great stars. Still, her movie career was relatively short, and by the late 1950s she was no longer appearing in major films. She also failed to gain recognition for her talents as an inventor, at least until the last few years of her life. After six failed marriages, fortunes gained and lost, film stardom and obscurity, as well as a couple of minor run-ins with the law, she ended her days living a modest existence in central Florida, unrecognizable to even her greatest fans as the one-time Most Beautiful Woman in the World.

She died January 19, 2000. While it might be a problem most of us wish we had, celebrities are usually defined not by how they view themselves or their achievements, but by a public that has rarely (if ever) met them in person and knows them only in the most superficial way. Who they are slips out of their hands and becomes more a matter of who people think they are.

The brief bio, “Hedy Lamarr – Actress/Inventor”, is more a label than a description of the woman born in Vienna as Hedwig Eva Marie Kiesler while Franz Joseph I was still Emperor of Austria-Hungary and who would achieve her greatest fame in a distant country. But there did come a time when, of the many roles she had played in her very public life, Hedy could decide for herself which one she held dearest, how she wanted to be remembered, if only to herself.

Of the many websites providing information on “Hedy Lamarr – Actress/ Inventor,” there is one (her “official tribute” site, that includes a picture of a little girl in what appears to be a white dress, white sox and hiking shoes, holding a walking stick and carrying a small pack on her back. She looks at the camera with a confidence and seriousness uncommon in such a young girl (who was, by the way, raised at a time when even the brightest and most beautiful children were considered best “seen but not heard”).

She stands on a dirt path with the woods in the background. The black and white picture is of little Hedwig Kiesler, beloved and only child of Jewish parents Emil and Gertrud (née Lichtwitz) Kiesler. Her father, from a family of humble origin in Lemberg (a town in a distant part of the Empire, now the city of Lviv in Ukraine), was a successful bank director in Vienna, prosperous enough to provide his family with a secure and comfortable life even during the post- World War I global depression.

Her mother was a successful concert pianist, originally from Budapest and part of the “Jewish haute bourgeoisie,” who gave up her career to raise her daughter. By most accounts, young Hedwig led a fantasy-like childhood, wanting for nothing, taking ballet and piano lessons from private tutors, attending private girls’ schools, standing out as especially precocious and increasingly physically attractive.

By the time she was ten, she was a proficient pianist and dancer and could speak four languages. Her parents, tutors, and household servants called her “Princess Hedy.” During her first year of life the family lived at Osterleitengasse 2B in Döbling (19th District), an upscale residential section to the north of the city between the Vienna Woods (Wienerwald) and the Danube canal (Donaukanal).

A year later the family moved to 12 Peter-Jordan-Strasse in Währing (18th District), an equally upscale neighbourhood where Hedy would live from 1914 until her marriage in 1933. This move brought them even closer to the nearby Wienerwald, and one can imagine the family of three spending hours enjoying the Viennese pastime of walking the forest’s many paths. Another location that would prove to be of great influence in setting young Hedy on the path toward her later movie career was the Tobis- Sascha film studio in the nearby Sievering section of Döbling, where a 17-year-old Hedy got a small role in the movie Geld auf der Strasse directed by Georg Jacoby.

Finally, the Karlskirche in Vienna’s 4th District, where Hedy married Mandl in 1933, is as good a location as any to mark the transition between “Princess Hedy,” beloved child of the Emil and Gertrud Kiesler, and the woman who would later become the celebrated movie actress and under-appreciated inventor Hedy Lamarr.

In that transition, Hedy left behind a life in which she was fortunate enough to have been raised in a family that could buy her virtually anything she desired. But like many people who find themselves able to afford anything they want, she may have ended up valuing most the one thing she could not so easily get. In young Hedwig’s case it was likely her parent’s time. Her father, although completely devoted to his only child, was also a successful banker with limited time available for his intelligent and inquisitive daughter. The Kieslers were also active in the Vienna social scene, so young Hedy may have spent many late nights waiting for her parents to arrive home from the balls and concerts that typified Viennese life.

Hedy adored her father, who died in 1935, and later commenting as a grown woman, “I am not ashamed to say that no man I ever met was my father’s equal, and I never loved any other man as much.” (Her six divorces would tend to support that judgement, and she is also quoted as saying, “I must quit marrying men who feel inferior to me. Somewhere there must be a man who could be my husband and not feel inferior. I need a superior inferior man.”)

She spoke of her father spending hours by the fireside telling her fairytales. Even as a small child, she already showed an interest in technology and recalled taking long walks with her father while he explained how different machines worked. This probably laid the foundation for her future interest in technology and invention. Given the location of the Kiesler family house, no doubt many of those long walks were through the woods near her home. So it should come as no surprise that in the final years of her life Hedy expressed the wish to have her ashes spread in the Vienna Woods near her childhood home in Währing.

Historians, biographers, movie fans, and admirers of celebrity may define Hedy Lamarr in whatever manner they wish, but it would seem that in the end she chose to define herself as the confident, precocious young girl in the white dress. She could have chosen to have her remains placed alongside other stars of Hollywood’s Golden Era.

She could have tried to focus attention on her scientific achievements and much-delayed recognition. Instead, her last wish was to have her remains scattered in the place where she had spent what may have been the happiest days of her life, confident and secure, a free-spirit with a future of infinite possibilities, walking through the Vienna Woods with the father she adored and who adored her in return. After a lifetime that included the sort of celebrity and notoriety few achieve, in the end it would seem what she wanted most was simply to come home.