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Beautiful: The Life of Hedy Lamarr - Stephen Michael Shearer

”Hedy Lamarr is photographed at a distance at the start of the scene, approaching the camera in shadow and profile. Suddenly, when she is about to walk off the screen, Lamarr turns her face to the camera in a stunning close-up.
‘One could feel audience’s anticipation of seeing her face for the first time,’ Billie Melby Fuller, the author’s mother said recently. ‘It was palpable. Sitting there in the dark, when the shadowed image of Hedy Lamarr suddenly turns her face full to the camera the impact is audible. Everyone gasped.’”

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Hedy Lamarr Algiers

I first saw Hedy Lamarr in her American debut Algiers the very film that Billie remembers seeing. The only difference was I wasn’t born yet in 1938; in fact, my Dad was born the following year as part of wartime baby boom, so I was many decades away from seeing THAT FACE for the first time. I didn’t gasp when Hedy turned her face to the camera, but I did feel everything inside for a moment turn to jelly. I thought to myself how in the world could anyone be that beautiful.

Redheads, blondes, and brunettes stormed the drug stores to buy black hair dye so they could look as much as possible like Hedy Lamarr. Turbans began to sell briskly as woman attempted to look as chic as Lamarr did in Algiers.

Hedy Lamarr was born Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler in Vienna, Austria. Louis B. Mayer, MGM studio chief, suggested the name change when he hired her to come to America. At the time she was still in Austria married to a munitions/arms expert named Fritz Mandl. He was understandably jealous of all the male attention that Hedwig inspired and made sure that she was escorted everywhere. When Fritz discovered that in her first film Ecstasy she had a few seconds of nudity and had the now famous orgasm scene he tried to buy up all copies of the film. He offered as high as $300,000 a print.
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Hedwig/Hedy in Ecstasy

When she tired of the marriage and the controlling hand of Mandl she attempted several escapes only to be caught and brought back to her husband. She does eventually escape with the help of her maid, dressed as a peasant, and flees to America. Mandl as you might have guessed was extremely wealthy. When Hitler invaded Austria-Hungary and found Mandl not the goose stepper he wanted him to be Mandl’s assets were seized. Those assets were valued at close to $60 million dollars. For the rest of his life despite their rocky marriage Fritz Mandl called Hedy on her birthday and always referred to her as his Bunny.

This association with Mandl was an interesting one because after war breaks out Lamarr decides she needs to do more for her adopted country to win and her annexed country to be liberated. She begins working with a friend named George Antheil, a composer by trade, and with the information she gleaned from listening to her husband and his friends talking about weapons they design a frequency-hopping spread spectrum that allowed a signal from a ship to a torpedo to change among 88 (the number of keys on a piano) different frequencies to keep the enemy from jamming the signal. They were awarded a patent, but the design was not utilized until 1962. In 1997 she was granted a BULBIE Gnass Spirit of Achievement Bronze Award. The equivalent of an Oscar of invention. Her idea was used in radios, wireless devices, satellites, and she never received a dime or acknowledgement until 1997.

She was so much more than just a pretty face.

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She built an amazing art collection. Carl Reiner and his wife had a chance to see it before it was sold and turned into much needed cash later in her life.

”I was very taken with her high intelligence. When we got to her home, she asked if we wanted to come in for a cup of coffee. And then there was the shocking surprise of the knowledge and the collection of good art that she had in her house….My wife was an artist, and she was stunned by the quality and the depth of her understanding of fine art. Her collection was probably one of the best private collections she had ever seen.”

Her relationship with Louis B. Mayer and later with Cecil B. DeMille was difficult. She was always demanding better roles and both studio heads seemed hard pressed to decide exactly what they wanted to do with her career. This indecision cost her roles that certainly would have made her as big a star as Ingrid Bergman. Hedy was slotted to play llsa in Casablanca. How different her career might have been if just that role had been hers. She was cast in a similar film called The Conspirators, but the film is wooden especially when compared to the snap and crackle of the Casablanca script. She didn’t know English very well and early on she had to recite her lines by rote with mixed results. It wasn’t long though before the Viennese lilt of her voice mixed with the studio language school changes made a voice that audience wanted to hear.

She eventually liberates herself from studio contracts and becomes a free agent, but because of her reputation as difficult to work with the best roles continued to elude her. That face, that beautiful face that made audiences gasp, at times became an albatross. It was difficult for producers and directors to think of her as anything more than a gorgeous profile shot. When it came to the best roles Ingrid Bergman always seemed to be the first choice.

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Hedy was married six times. It was amazing to me to read about this beautiful, smart woman continuing to make the same mistakes when it comes to men. All of her marriages were whirlwind romances with short dating periods that lead to divisive, chaotic marriages that crashed and burned shortly after flight. Her last marriage ended in 1965. In 1966 she accepted a deal to have her autobiography ghost written. The resulting book was called Ecstasy and Me. The ghost writer sat with her recording hours of her reminiscing about her life. It seems the ghost writer deviated from her intentions and added much more spice to her life story of the sex and debauchery type. Lamarr took the publisher to court, but because she signed the paperwork releasing the material the courts could do nothing to help her. Today when a scandal hits print it enhances an actors bankability, but in 1966 it was the kiss of death and though it didn’t end her career it certainly made it even more difficult for her to be considered for the roles she wanted.

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If you want a well rounded view of Hedy Lamarr this book delivers. I didn’t feel that Stephen Michael Shearer pulled any punches. Hedy the seductress, the princess, the schemer, the inventor, the shoplifter, and in my opinion the loveliest woman to ever grace the big screen is brought into the spotlight so we can gaze upon the woman behind the goddess. Shearer laces the book with wonderful Hollywood stories of her co-stars and their reactions to her. One in particular that stuck with me was Claudette Colbert breaking Clark Gable’s teeth in a rather fervent kiss on the set of Boom Town. It cost the studio $50,000 in time while Gable went to the dentist and had to heal.

Hedy died at the age of 85 January 19th in 2000 in Casselberry, Florida. She was found with her last will and testament under her body so it does make me wonder if she felt the end was near. She died a famous woman, but like many grand actresses as a recluse because she couldn’t stand to meet people and see that sparkle of anticipation die in their eyes when they discover she has aged and is not the most beautiful woman in the world anymore.