Lamarr was born Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler in Vienna, Austria-Hungary, the only child of secular Jewish parents. Her mother, Gertrud (born Lichtwitz), was a pianist and Budapest native who came from the "Jewish haute bourgeoisie," and her father, Lemberg-born Emil Kiesler, was a successful bank director.
She learned ballet and piano at age 10.
In early 1933 Lamarr starred in Gustav Machatý's film, Ecstasy, (Extase in German and Czech), which was filmed in Prague, Czechoslovakia. Lamarr’s role was that of a neglected young wife married to an indifferent older man. The film became notorious for Lamarr’s face in the throes of orgasm filmed in close-up and her full nudity in scenes where she is seen swimming and running through the woods. Friedrich Mandl, her first husband, objected to what he felt was exploitation of his wife, and “the expression on her face” during the simulated orgasm. He purportedly bought up as many copies of Ecstasy as he could find in an attempt to restrict its public viewing. In an autobiography of Lamarr written in later years, she insists that all sexual activity in the film was simulated; the orgasm achieved using "method acting reality.” The authenticity of passion was attained by the film director’s off-screen manipulation of a safety pin strategically poking her bottom.
The 19-year old Lamarr had married Mandl, a man 13 years her senior on August 10, 1933. Friedrich Mandl, reputed to be the third richest man in Austria was a munitions manufacturer. In her autobiography Ecstasy and Me, Lamarr described Mandl as an extremely controlling man who prevented her from pursuing her acting career and kept her a virtual prisoner, confined to their castle home, “Schloss Schwarzenau.” Though half-Jewish, Mandl had close social and business ties to the fascist governments of Italy and Germany, selling munitions to Mussolini. In Ecstasy and Me, Lamarr wrote that both Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini attended the lavish parties they hosted in their home. Mandl had Lamarr accompany him to business meetings where he conferred with scientists and other professionals involved in military technology. These conferences became Lamarr’s introduction to the field of applied science and the ground that nurtured her latent talent in the scientific field.
Lamarr’s marriage to Mandl became insupportable for her and she devised a ruse to separate herself from both the marriage and the country. In Ecstasy and Me, she claimed to have disguised herself as her own maid and fled to Paris. Rumors stated that Lamarr persuaded Mandl to let her wear all of her jewelry for a dinner, then disappeared.
First she went to Paris, then met Louis B. Mayer in London. Mayer hired her and insisted that she change her name to Hedy Lamarr—she had been known as "the Ecstasy lady"—choosing the surname in homage to a beautiful film star of the silent era, Barbara La Marr, who had died in 1926 from tuberculosis. She received good reviews for her American film debut in Algiers (1938) with Charles Boyer, who asked that Lamarr be cast after meeting her at a party. In Hollywood, she was invariably cast as the archetypal glamorous seductress of exotic origins. Lamarr played opposite the era's most popular leading men. Her many films include Boom Town(1940) with Clark Gable and Spencer Tracy, Comrade X with Gable, White Cargo (1942), and Tortilla Flat (1942) with Tracy and John Garfield, based on the novel by John Steinbeck. In 1941, Lamarr was cast alongside two other Hollywood stars, Lana Turner and Judy Garland in the musical extravaganza Ziegfeld Girl.
White Cargo, one of Lamarr's biggest hits at MGM, contains, arguably, her most memorable film quote delivered with hints of a provocative invitation: "I am Tondelayo. I make tiffin for you?" Lamarr made 18 films from 1940 to 1949 even though she had two children during that time (in 1945 and 1947). After leaving MGM in 1945, she enjoyed her biggest success as Delilah in Cecil B. DeMille'sSamson and Delilah, the highest-grossing film of 1949, with Victor Mature as the Biblical strongman. However, following her comedic turn opposite Bob Hope in My Favorite Spy (1951), her career went into decline. She appeared only sporadically in films after 1950, one of her last roles being that of Joan of Arc in Irwin Allen's critically panned epic The Story of Mankind (1957).
Frequency-hopping spread-spectrum invention
Main article: Frequency-hopping spread spectrum
Avant garde composer George Antheil, a son of German immigrants and neighbor of Lamarr, had experimented with automated control of musical instruments, including his music for Ballet Mécanique, originally written for Fernand Léger's 1924 abstract film. This score involved multiple player pianos playing simultaneously.
Together, Antheil and Lamarr submitted the idea of a secret communication system in June 1941. On August 11, 1942, U.S. Patent 2,292,387 was granted to Antheil and "Hedy Kiesler Markey," Lamarr's married name at the time. This early version of frequency hopping used a piano roll to change between 88 frequencies and was intended to make radio-guided torpedoes harder for enemies to detect or jam. Although a presentation of the technique was soon made to the U.S. Navy, it met with opposition and was not adopted.
The idea was not implemented in the USA until 1962, when it was used by U.S. military ships during a blockade of Cuba after the patent had expired. Perhaps owing to this lag in development, the patent was little known until 1997, when the Electronic Frontier Foundationgave Lamarr an award for this contribution. In 1998, Ottawa wireless technology developer Wi-LAN Inc. acquired a 49 percent claim to the patent from Lamarr for an undisclosed amount of stock (Eliza Schmidkunz, Inside GNSS). Antheil had died in 1959.
Lamarr's and Antheil's frequency-hopping idea serves as a basis for modern spread-spectrum communication technology, such asBluetooth, COFDM used in Wi-Fi network connections, and CDMA used in some cordless and wireless telephones. Blackwell, Martin, and Vernam's 1920 patent Secrecy Communication System (1598673) seems to lay the communications groundwork for Kiesler and Antheil's patent, which employed the techniques in the autonomous control of torpedoes.
Lamarr wanted to join the National Inventors Council but was reportedly told by NIC member Charles F. Kettering and others that she could better help the war effort by using her celebrity status to sell War Bonds.
Lamarr died in Casselberry, Florida, on January 19, 2000, aged 86, from natural causes. Her son Anthony Loder took her ashes to Austria and spread them in the Vienna Woods, in accordance with her last wishes.