Beautiful: The Life of Hedy Lamarr (2010) by Stephen Michael Shearer
The lives of famously beautiful woman always seem to be asking the eternal Helen of Troy question: "Was her beauty a curse?" In the case of Hedy Lamarr, while her face didn't exactly burn the topless towers of Ilium, it drew the attention of everyone she met. The moniker "most beautiful woman in the world" hung round her neck from the time she was an aspiring teenage actress in Austria. I can't help wondering if Stephen Micheal Shearer went through several different titles for this biography before finally throwing up his hands and saying, "I might as well go for the obvious."
Going for the obvious or easy is one of the few complaints one can make against Shearer's bio, which is otherwise an entertaining, well-researched, and obviously affectionate look at a woman who clearly had more to give than her face. He begins and ends the book with a rather halfhearted, vague statement that she was "a simple, shy, pretty Viennese schoolgirl" and at bottom, "a very normal human being." Shearer is sympathetic and interested in the events of Lamarr's life but doesn't always probe for answers.
For example, at one point he recounts rumors that she had an affair with film producer Sam Spiegel in Germany, but adds that they were "probably not true, since Spiegel was married," in blithe disregard for the numerous other Hollywood adulteries he mentions in the book. Hedy Lamarr's relationships, in particular hers with her children, feel a little thinly sketched for Shearer's lack of insight or unwillingness to speculate. Then again, I've read many other biographies that insist on psychoanalyzing every last curl on their subject's head (Donald Spoto, I'm glaring in your direction), so maybe discretion is the better part of valor in this case.
Hedy Lamarr, born Hedwig Kiesler on November 9, 1914 in Vienna, was the daughter of a Jewish bank manager and his wife, a former concert pianist. Young Hedwig couldn't pronounce her own name and christened herself "Hedy." Her striking Snow White beauty was apparent from the beginning and, in spite of her parents' attempts to protect her from too much flattery, she always had attention. Ambitious and uninterested in too much schooling, she started acting as a teenager.
After some roles in stage and film, she took the role that would haunt the rest of her life, the frustrated young wife in Gustav Machatý's Extaze (1932). Nobody ever forgot her naked romp through the forest, one of the most famous nude scenes in early cinema. Shearer slyly points out that Extaze's most daring scene was not Hedy's exhibition but a later scene where she and her young lover have sex for the first time, with "angled close-ups of her ecstatic face." Lamarr would later recount that outside the camera view, her director was repeatedly pricking her with a safety pin to the buttocks to achieve these close-up expressions.
In 1933, she caught the eye of the wealthy and controlling Fritz Mandl, a munitions baron, who "could break a prime minister faster than he could snap a toothpick in half." Mandl kept ties to multiple dictators and did his best to hide his own Jewish background. He showered the nineteen-year-old with flowers and gifts and promises of luxury until she agreed to marry him. This marriage would soon prove to be a mutual misery for both of them, as Mandl wanted a beautiful and compliant trophy wife and Lamarr quickly learned to hate being under his thumb.. Mandl's response to Extaze was a futile attempt to destroy every copy. Later, Lamarr would try to literally run away from her marriage many times and finally succeeded in 1937. Oddly enough, long after their marriage was over, Mandl and Lamarr kept in contact and seemed to semi-reconcile, although Errol Flynn would recall that on one occasion she referred to her ex-husband as "that son of a bitch," literally growling his name.
It was Louis B. Mayer that brought Hedy to Hollywood. They met in London while Mayer was making a tour of Europe and scouting for new talent. She made good use of her contacts and secured a date with Mayer. Shearer quotes Mayer as telling the young actress, "'You're lovely my dear, but I have the family point of view...At MGM we take clean pictures. We want our stars to lead clean lives, I don't like what people would think about a girl who flits bare-assed around the screen.'" Said girl was no pushover and got up to leave. Mayer offered a six-month standard studio contract at $125 a week. She snapped back, in broken English, that she wouldn't be intimidated into a cheap contract. After all, she was already established in Europe. But an hour later, Hedy changed her mind and agreed to the deal that made her Hedy Lamarr, Mayer's latest exotic find.
Studio-system Hollywood had the habit back then of hoarding up anyone that stood out as gorgeous, talented, or popular and, likely as not, leaving them on the shelf to collect dust. MGM was proud of getting "the most beautiful girl in the world" but was more interested in molding Greer Garson into the new queen of the weepies than they were in Lamarr. She spent most of her first few months in Hollywood cooped up inside studying English and fretting that she knew no one to take her out. It was Algiers (1938) that broke the ice and it did so with a vengeance. She went from a Hollywood nobody to cinematic dynamite.
And yet, and here's where it gets disheartening, even though Hedy Lamarr became one of the queens of MGM and is still a famous name to casual moviegoers-- her fame way, way outclassed the quality of her roles. True, the same can be said for many other screen sirens, like Lana Turner or Betty Grable. But Turner at least had The Postman Always Rings Twice, The Bad and the Beautiful, and Imitation of Life under her belt, as well as other more debatable classics. And Grable had her million dollar legs and the hearts of servicemen around the country.
Hedy Lamarr? Shearer argues that she never found her niche, other than just being beautiful and exotic. She played vamps and aristocrats and European travelers, but it wasn't enough to give her a definable screen persona, something the audience could recognize. It didn't help that Lamarr was an insecure actress at the best of times, needing the support and coaching of her directors, few of whom were interested in molding her. Her English gave her less trouble as time wore on, but she lacked the warmth of Ingrid Bergman that allowed audiences to ignore it entirely. Even as she was melting into the arms of her leading man, Lamarr too frequently came off like a block of ice on screen. The critics loved her beauty, but shrugged over her acting. Shearer however, makes a passionate case in her defense, arguing that she did indeed have a lot more talent than people gave her credit for.
It was here that I really began to appreciate the Shearer's commitment to his subject and his obvious affection for her. Unlike many Hollywood biographers, who spend more time on the stars' bed-hopping than their body of work, Shearer gives a welcome and detailed writeup of each Hedy Lamarr movie, pointing out the virtues of the good to average ones and waxing ruefully comic over the bad ones. Arguably her best role was also her most miscast one, as down-to-earth Midwestern working girl Marvin Myles in H.M. Pulham, Esq. (1941), an adaptation of John P. Marquand's novel. Unfortunately one of her most famous roles was also one of her worst, the half-caste--except psych! she's not--sarong-wearing, hip-swinging Tondelayo in White Cargo (1942). Shearer flatly gives up any attempt to take this one seriously, but seems to take pleasure in detailing MGM's ridiculous ads: "'90% allure, 10% sarong, adds up to LURONG...She rings the GONG in her LURONG!'"
It was that same year that Hedy Lamarr and the composer/inventor/self-declared glandular expert George Antheil patented their invention, called Secret Communication System but now known as "frequency-hopping." It had been an unlikely meeting of minds. She had come up with the idea for "a secured torpedo guidance system," consisting of a transmitter "programmed with a frequency that was fixed, continuously shifting, and random, and of a secured guidance receiver, which would shift its frequency to match that of the transmitter." Antheil contributed the use of his own previously developed piano playing system, using two player-piano rolls with eighty-eight keys so that transmitter and receiver could have "eighty-eight different shifting frequencies."
What makes this invention even more strange and remarkable is that neither Lamarr or Antheil come off as dedicated scientists in Shearer's narrative, just two brilliant and feverishly creative people tossing off ideas (one of Lamarr's other brainwaves was an idea for instant soda cubes, like bouillon cubes for cola). Lamarr would claim that during her marriage to Mandl, she had listened to the conversations of weapons manufacturers and retained the information years later.
A few years prior, Lamarr had met Antheil to discuss his work on glandular development. Her motives were less than scholarly; she wanted his advice on how to develop her breasts. Louis B. Mayer and the rest of his mammary-obsessed studio, were always telling her to have something done about them. For the record, Hedy Lamarr was 33-B. For a while, Antheil led her along, giving advice about glandular injections to inflate her chest, but finally came out and said, "'You can sue me for this, but from where I sit you look about perfect...why do you want to know all this?'"
Somehow the conversation turned to the war effort and a friendship was born. They stayed in touch up until Antheil's death in 1959.
The same quicksilver intelligence that Hedy Lamarr brought to inventing did not show up much in other aspects of her life. After Mandl, she would marry and divorce five more husbands; the average lifespan of each marriage was about three years. Shearer can't bring more than cursory interest to each alliance since they all seem to follow a basic pattern of Hedy is lonely, she meets a charming man, they marry after a quick courtship, and it falls apart. She apparently thought of herself as a hausfrau by nature, but her romantic decisions were often impulsive and confused. Upon marriage to her fourth husband, hotelier Ted Stauffer, she shocked everyone with a hasty move to Acapulco to be with him, auctioning off her priceless collection of paintings, sculpture and jewelry (some of which had been stuffed in a coffee can) at the last minute. She also plopped her two unhappy children into a Mexican school; they spoke no Spanish.
Hedy Lamarr and her children. This is for me the greatest mystery of the book. In 1939, Hedy and her then second husband Gene Markey adopted James Lamarr Markey. When she and Gene separated, the actress began a long, determined custody battle for "little Jamesie." By 1941, James was fully hers and when she married John Loder in 1943, James would take his new father's name. She and John Loder went on to have two children of their own, Denise (b. 1945) and Anthony (b. 1947), both of whom pop up here and there in Shearer's account with loving memories of their mother. But James Lamarr Loder? He was deemed a problem child by the age of nine. By fifth grade, Hedy severed contact.
His own memory of the separation follows: "'I went to Chadwick and I got into trouble...and they told me I couldn't go there anymore. But there was a teacher by the name of Ingrid Gray...She said I could live with her and her husband and go (to school during) the daytime...and since all my friends were there, everybody I knew, I agreed. And my mother was disenchanted with that, and she didn't want anything more to do with me." Essentially, Hedy Lamarr was finished with him. She returned all his letters. Even years later, she "reluctantly would talk about her son James but would always elaborate on Denise, Anthony, and her grandchildren."
Finally, in the late 1980s, they established phone contact and he recalled that "she sounded like she was 38...totally hip and chic." A few years before her death, she surprised her son by sending him an photograph of them together with the inscription "Dear Jim, I thought you would want a photo of us, Much love to you and your family, From Mom." But when she died in 2000, James was not mentioned in her will.
So what happened to make Hedy Lamarr split from her adopted son, the son she had once fought so hard to keep? Did he have some severe behavior problems as a child that Lamarr couldn't cope with? Did she just decide he no longer fitted in her life? Were either of them just not being truthful about what really happened? On the one hand, I really, really hate Mommie Dearest style exploitation stories and Lamarr's other children speak very fondly of their mother, so it's hard to believe she was some kind of maternal monster. On the other hand, it's hard to believe that James was some kind of Rhoda Penmark/Veda Pierce monster at the age of nine. This is where I got frustrated with Shearer's biography since he seems to recount the facts of their relationship without any any attempt to examine them. "Whatever demons haunted Hedy...were probably not even understood by her," he says and moves on.
Hedy Lamarr's legacy has been an odd one. Her idea for frequency-hopping is now used in wireless communication and her image nowadays has shifted from 1940s love goddess to gorgeous lady scientist. Her most famous movie, Samson and Delilah (1949), reportedly doesn't make much of a case for her thespian abilities and she never became the subject of cult adoration and pop art handbags like Marilyn Monroe or Audrey Hepburn. People remember her as charming, cultured, and even more stunning in person, but her true personality remains elusive to me, even after finishing Shearer's biography. Oddly enough, even as he claims that Hedy Lamarr was at heart a simple girl, his book reveals she was quite the reverse: complicated, searching, and not so easily defined.
HedyLamarrLegacy on Youtube has some nice clips from some of her movies here
A video of her on What's My Line (very relaxed and charming)
The official website
Final Six Words:
Detailed, affectionate, intriguing if imperfect bio