Beauty as the Beast
by RHAGEN RUSSELL
When I first met Hedy Lamarr, about twenty years ago, she was so beautiful that everybody would stop talking when she came into a room. I don't think anyone concerned himself very much about whether or not there was anything behind her beauty; he was too busy gaping at her. Of her conversation I can remember nothing: when she spoke one did not listen, one just watched her mouth moving and marveled at the exquisite shapes made by her lips.
— George Sanders
The 2004 documentary Calling Hedy Lamarr finds its most compelling moment during an episode at the Hollywood Wax Museum. The camera follows Hedy Lamarr’s adult son, Anthony Loder, as he fails to locate his mother’s wax representation and approaches an employee for assistance. Loder’s demeanor wilts at the explanation offered – Lamarr’s figure was dismantled to make room for a Tomb Raider (Tomb Raider!) display.
Loder is a son haunted by his mother’s legacy, and by the need to reconcile that legacy with his recollection of her imperfect personhood. The scene’s implications are wider, though, and speak to our primal dread of impermanence. As awareness of past distinction expires with the memories of those who observed it, and the atrophy of culture-specific meaning threatens even former luminaries with obscurity, we scramble to rescue these icons as compact, portable myths. We are all lucky – luckier than Anthony Loder – to be satisfied with the condensed versions.
The condensed version of Hedy Lamarr appears more relevant and more contested than it has been in many decades. A wealth of post-mortem publicity over the past several years has centered primarily on the scientific innovations she co-conceived, recognition for which during her lifetime was little and much too late. She is now touted, quite suddenly, as the embodiment of beauty plus brains – and the true story of her role as inventor has shown to be no letdown. Interestingly, this occurs as the bulk of her work as an actress gradually proves no opponent to the test of time. Biographies, newspaper write-ups, and memoirs by her contemporaries are littered with lamentations that MGM was never able to put her to proper use.
Criterion Collection buffs skim past the array of vamp roles that seldom did Lamarr justice, and few folks these days could name three of her films; what lingers is the charisma and “real-life” image of the woman. Calling Hedy Lamarr colors that image a tragic one, in effect if not intent. But was Lamarr’s life (which was dotted with major successes, but which culminated with seclusion and litigiousness) a tragedy? Difficult to say. If so, it was as much the tragedy of an entire society as a single woman.
Lamarr was born Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler in 1913, to wealthy and vaguely Jewish parents in Vienna. She was by all accounts nurtured, well-adjusted, and (up to the point of her departure from school at 16) academically capable. As early as that, she possessed both the reckless confidence necessary to pry her way into film roles and sufficient body image issues to drive her to a stimulant-induced seizure during a weight-loss scheme. By the age of eighteen, she had graduated from bit parts in light Austrian films to stage roles under Max Reinhardt to the lead role in the controversial Czech modernist picture Ecstasy.
The movie was a terrific source of international career hype for Lamarr, as it’s impossible to put a price on public outrage. Blocked by U.S. Customs and condemned not only by the preposterously named Legion of Decency but also by Hitler himself, Ecstasy was the first theatrically-released film to depict sexual intercourse. It also afforded Lamarr the lasting distinction of having performed cinema’s first female orgasm. The sequence in question — replete with insinuated male-on-female oral gratification and the heavy-handed imagery of a snapped pearl necklace — feels transgressive even now. The film in full is a languid expressionist ramble, presented in sun-doused nature shots, juxtaposed symbols, and sensuous, soft-focus close-ups.
Billed under her given surname and exhibiting an adolescent fullness of face, Lamarr was already no stranger to the embrace of the lens. She had posed for the renowned Austrian photographer Trude Fleischmann when she was merely sixteen, and the results — housed at the New York Public Library’s Photography Collection — remain affecting, even startling. Her sloping shoulders and clavicle pull Fleischmann’s lighting into a syrup-wet luster, making a harsh mockery of Photoshop’s every capability. Her face is immaculate, positioned to signal either vulnerability or accident. The rigidity of her torso suggests more effort; her courting of the camera feels unwieldy, for perhaps the last time.
At 19, Hedy married the third-wealthiest man in Austria, politically powerful arms baron Fritz Mandl. The relationship went sour quickly, as Mandl’s controlling nature led him not only to track her phone conversations and forbid her to work in film, but also to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars in an effort to suppress prints of Ecstasy. At the point that she left Mandl, it had reportedly become necessary that she do so without his knowledge and then immediately flee the country.
When Louis B. Mayer introduced Hedy to America that year, having de-Germanized her and christened her Lamarr in the memory of a recently deceased actress, she was newly divorced and hungry for stardom. She had also become more adept at managing her beauty as an asset. This was intelligent on her part, of course, but very likely launched the preclusion of any happiness in her life. The next two decades saw the high peak and rapid decline of Lamarr’s film career, which comprised some very good roles (in 1938's Algiers, for example), some awful ones (in The Story of Mankind), and a great deal somewhere in the middle. Lamarr’s appeal was clearly not contingent on the quality of her roles, and its nature is still difficult to define.
The idea of Hedy Lamarr, when it happens to enter the mind of the younger public, stands distinctly apart from that of other paragons of cinematic appeal. Her head is not the head of Audrey or Marilyn, screen-printed and spackled across commodities ranging from lampshades to cigarette cases; similarly, her persona has resisted incorporation as a generic stamp of taste status in the vein of Katharine, Marlene, or even Rita Hayworth. Her roles were arbitrary, her acting skills largely belittled and to little consequence.
The characters she embodied most effortlessly were exotic femme fatales or remote beauties, underdeveloped or ethereal to the point of near-two-dimensionality. That she was able to breathe life into these restrictive roles — with an intrinsic warmth that remains kinetic via black-and-white prints — is the measure of her gift. Take, for example, her turn in 1940's Boom Town, as the exquisite and unscrupulous married woman who lures Clark Gable’s wildcatter-come-oil-millionaire from his wife. The role hearkens eerily back to Lamarr’s stint as Mrs. Fritz Mandl, which she described as time spent silently eavesdropping on the conversations of important men at dinner parties. In Boom Town, Lamarr’s character capitalizes by leaking information on her husband’s deals; in her own life, Lamarr made mental notes of control systems advances and arms secrets that would aid her in her later scientific efforts.
Outside of this context, though, the part is thin and typical vixen fare, offered as a wordly contrast to Claudette Colbert’s prim and childish Aryan comeliness. Lamarr’s beauty is grounded to accessibility only by her character’s simple moral repugnance; she is striking on screen but not substantial. The actresses’ real-life character was equally difficult to pin down. Hence Jeanine Basinger’s designation of Lamarr as an example of her “dream image” archetype of Hollywood woman, which Ruth Barton cites in Hedy Lamarr: The Most Beautiful Woman in Film. Her very “unreality,” Basinger posits, was the key to her effect. She “created her own legend…[and] was the last of a movie star type in which we never really knew what her story is.”
While she was alive, Lamarr managed and protected her image as only an egomaniac could. She self-policed with the trademark fastidiousness of a woman with a warped sense of her own value. She offered revisionist accounts of her past, bits and pieces of self-revelation, and rescinded even these more often than not. Her autobiography, published when she was in her fifties and purportedly gleaned from hours of recorded dictation, was a depressing and scandal-centric narrative sprinkled with moments of seeming vulnerability. True to form, it found her projecting an alternating abundance and lack of confidence, and summarily dismissing entire stages of her life (“The trouble is I love him for the same reason everybody loved him. There was no special love.” An entire marriage waved off in two sentences.) Hedy later proclaimed Ecstasy and Me the work of a ghostwriter run amok and set about suing her publisher. It seems the book, like her six marriages themselves, was an offer of intimacy followed by a healthy punch of never-mind.
With Lamarr dead, we’re left very little from which to sculpt a notion of her person. The few larger themes of her life which feel certain also feel uncomfortable, because they feel discordant, and the discord rings true and familiar. She was intelligent enough to utilize her searing beauty as the asset it was, but she couldn't manage to outsmart a world that reduced her to a mere body. To any female striving to self-actualize as a whole individual, that is just plain scary. Hedy Lamarr was the ordeal of The Beauty Myth, manifested in a single life.
Can an intelligent *and beautiful* woman ever truly step away from the mirror? Lamarr’s tale was one of extremes — extreme beauty, extreme gifts – and doesn’t bode well when taken as a case study. Everyone’s favorite merry, potato-headed anecdote bank, Robert Osborne (I mean this sincerely – he is my absolute favorite), objected to the characterization of Lamarr as a “sad figure,” but conceded that the allure which brought her stardom wrought only heartbreak in her personal life. “Lamarr’s beauty was also her burden,” he remarked, “and from it she would never escape.”
It wasn’t for lack of trying. What’s clear about Lamarr’s persona circa 1940 is that she found the typical Hollywood nightlife distastefully rambunctious. She preferred to socialize in small gatherings of friends, avoided alcohol completely, and spent her spare time building an impressive art collection and, well, inventing. While she spoke four languages and had an apparent understanding of technology, she wouldn’t have been mistaken for an intellectual. She considered invention as a hobby, by all accounts, and approached it lightheartedly. But the idea she conceived with inventing partner George Antheil, an avant-garde American composer just returned from Paris, was astoundingly ahead of its time.
Drawing from her conversational exposure to the intricacies of arms technology during her first marriage, Lamarr proposed that they explore radio control of torpedoes. The next step, according to Richard Rhodes’ Hedy’s Folly (an unflowery but immensely readable 2011 examination of the pair’s work), was Lamarr’s consideration of enemy interference. The key innovative aspect of Lamarr’s concept was her solution to the interference issue — that is, the issue of enemy forces deliberately “jamming” signals they detected at set frequencies. The idea was to synchronize both transmitter and receiver to switch together between frequencies in an unpredictable pattern, or to “frequency hop.”
Antheil’s particular expertise was put to use as the pair determined a method for synchronizing the frequency switches of the transmitter and receiver. As it happened, the best-known of his musical works was (and still is) Ballet Mécanique, a piece which happened to call for the synchronized play of sixteen pianos. The “ballet” Antheil had in mind was a performance by machines as opposed to human dancers, and he had labored to regulate the exact tempos of multiple pianolas playing paper rolls. He applied this hard-won skill to the new radio control device, deciding that the transmitter and receiver would be programmed by means of similar rolls of paper, slotted and attached to a vacuum and pushrod system. After the pair worked out the remaining electronic and logistic details of their “Secret Communications System,” they submitted an application and received U.S. Patent 2,292,387 in 1942.
While the idea of a Hollywood glamour queen patenting a military invention is novel in itself, more extraordinary is the fact that it was an invention of consequence. According to Rhodes, the military worked to establish systems of communication based on frequency hopping (or “spread spectrum, as it came to be called) from 1945 to 1978. While the technology was not implemented until the Cuban Missile Crisis twenty years post-patent, it eventually formed the basis for a secure radioteletype method, missile guidance systems, the Air Force Phantom radio system, a navigation system, and systems for secure voice communication. Equally important were its implications within the civilian communications industry. The early-1980s FCC authorization of spread spectrum communication within ISM bands led to the development of cordless phones, Bluetooth, GPS, wireless cash registers, RFID systems, and WiFi.
So, why did Lamarr and Antheil’s act of innovation go unrecognized until they were eighty-two years old and deceased, respectively? Many have suggested that her contributions were dismissed out of hand on account of her gender and appearance, and that is probably true to an extent. In the current age of Danica McKellar’s math books and Geena Davis’ Mensa membership, it’s slightly more difficult to buy into the mutual exclusion of beauty and intelligence. In Lamarr’s era, it was much more feasible that a woman’s contributions would be automatically regarded less-than-seriously. Probably more to blame for the oversight, however, were the pair’s unfortunate timing (directly prior to the military upheaval caused by the Pearl Harbor attack) and a short-term patent that resulted in government ownership of the invention. It’s necessary here, however, to discern the exact basis of Lamarr’s unhappy ending. Her most important struggle was obviously one of self-worth and wholeness, not one for public awareness. It was a personal struggle, and it doesn’t require a leap to conclude that she failed.
In a culture that compels women to view themselves as they imagine others view them, and to act always in anticipation of or response to that assessment, the camera is a perfect catalyst for self-objectification. The vast public eye becomes a special Panopticon for women already given to excessive body discipline and commodification of self. Selecting to consciously utilize one’s feminine sexual assets (and thereby present oneself as an object to others) in a bid for empowerment is a far trickier game than most anticipate. To put it simply, we more often than not fall for our own tricks — we become the objects we imitate, and buy into the gender roles we contrive to exploit.
This was Lamarr’s story, on a grander scale than most. She expressed her dissatisfaction with superficial vapidity, famously quipping, “Any girl can be glamorous. All you have to do is stand still and look stupid.” She endeavored, at least for a time, to make her mark outside of the realm of entertainment and looks. But for all her intelligence and ostensible self-possession, she shouldn’t be accused of role-model status, feminist or otherwise. Her string of dissolved attachments to men evinced a repeated failure of execution, not a disavowal of necessity. She was ever-aware of her aesthetic allure, and deftly wielded it to get ahead in her career and manage her love life. The same maneuvering may well have engendered the inescapable emptiness of her film roles and real-life romances, and deeply distorted her personal standards of success.
If Lamarr was indeed youthfully playful and high-spirited into her old age, as Osborne asserts, then her capacity for dissociation may have been tantamount to her beauty and talent. She was, after all, the same woman who denied Forbes Magazine’s 1990 request for an in-person interview before quickly adding this comment: “I still look good, though.” At 75, she was consumed with and debilitated by her failure to remain gorgeous forever. She lived alone and carefully avoided photos and publicity, going so far as to sue national magazines when they speculated at her condition. When she was finally acknowledged with a Pioneer Award from the Electronic Frontier Foundation in 1997, Lamarr refused to be seen at the ceremony, accepting through an audio message instead.
Rhagen Russell is a contributor to This Recording. She is a writer living in Shreveport. This is her first appearance in these pages.
Worship your own body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly, and when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally plant you. On one level, we all know this stuff already — it’s been codified as myths, proverbs, clichés, bromides, epigrams, parables: the skeleton of every great story.
- David Foster Wallace