NPR Story
10:00 am
Fri December 2, 2011

The Beauty and Brains Behind 'Hedy's Folly'

Originally published on Fri December 2, 2011 10:46 am

Transcript

IRA FLATOW, HOST:

Up next, the hidden life of a Hollywood siren.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "THE HEAVENLY BODY")

WILLIAM POWELL: (as William Whitley) Scientist, mathematician, physicist, bacon-eater, yes, but not astrologer.

HEDY LAMARR: (as Vicky Whitley) Oh, I'm sorry.

POWELL: (as William Whitley) Darling, astronomy and astrology may sound alike, but that's all. Astronomy is a science, astrology, a superstition.

LAMARR: (as Vicky Whitley) But aren't you a little bit intolerant? For thousands of years, astrology has been highly respected.

POWELL: (as William Whitley) Astrology, my love, stinks.

FLATOW: That movie clip is from "The Heavenly Body," and the woman with that lovely Austrian accent is Hedy Lamarr. Her scientist husband is played by William Powell. And while Hedy is playing the stereotypical Hollywood dumb broad in that scene, in real life, she was anything but that. In her spare time, Hedy, the glamorous movie star, was an insatiable inventor. Her most famous invention is called frequency hopping, and is still used today in some wireless technology, including Bluetooth.

You can see her patent up there on our website at sciencefriday.com. Joining me now to talk more about Hedy Lamarr, her life and inventions is Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Richard Rhodes. His new book is called "Hedy's Folly: The Life and Breakthrough Inventions of Hedy Lamarr, the Most Beautiful Woman in the World." He joins us from KQED in San Francisco - from San Francisco. Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY.

RICHARD RHODES: Hi, Ira.

FLATOW: You know, I'm a huge fan of Hedy Lamarr. And for many - as my listeners know, I've been talking about her and her accomplishments for decades. There are movie scripts, right, waiting to be produced. A play called "Frequency Hopping" that was produced. We interviewed the writer and director Elyse Singer back in 2008. You're a Hedy Lamarr fan, too, now, I guess.

RHODES: Yes, absolutely - although, of course, strictly for her scientific bent. You'll find a photo in the frontispiece in the book that I think really shows how extraordinarily beautiful she was.

FLATOW: And she said that was a curse of hers, did she not?

RHODES: She did. She really felt blinded or blocked from people seeing the real person. She would walk into a room, and people would literally stop talking and look at her. But they never got past her face, which is what that little scene here just played indicates, too.

FLATOW: And how did she get - was she always interested in inventions, from a very young age?

RHODES: You know, I think I trace it back to the time she spent with her father, who was a tall, athletic bank director in Vienna, where she was born, and who would - she was his only child. He adored her. They would go on long walks together around the city, and he would explain things to her, technologies. This is how that crane works. This is how that bus works. So in her childhood, she obviously associated the warm feelings she had with her - for her father with this business of technology. And I think that's probably the real source of her interest.

FLATOW: Why do you call it "Hedy's Folly"? What was the folly in her work?

RHODES: Well, I think folly is a word that has several meanings. One of them, of course, is the one we all think of, and that's ironic because of the way the Navy treated her and George Antheil's invention, which was, of course, to throw it into the round(ph) file. But there's another sense of the word folly, which means basically an extravagance. And I think of her inventive side as a kind of rich, extravagant side of a very extravagant woman.

FLATOW: 1-800-989-8255 if you'd like to talk about Hedy Lamarr. And we'll get into her inventions, and the one that's most famous about having to do with frequency hopping, on SCIENCE FRIDAY, from NPR. I'm Ira Flatow, talking with Richard Rhodes, author of "Hedy's Folly: The Life and Breakthrough Inventions of Hedy Lamarr, the Most Beautiful Woman in the World." And she was christened that by what - a movie producer, was it?

RHODES: Yes, Max Reinhart, the great Austrian producer-director called her that when she first showed up in one of his movies as an - almost an extra. And by then - I think she was about 16 at the time. She got more beautiful when she moved to the United States and lost some weight, actually. She was a kind of typical plump Austrian teenager, but she was a knockout by the time she made her first movie here.

FLATOW: Yeah. Yeah. She - and the story goes that - you tell it very well in your book. And you debunk a lot of the mythology about her escape from Austria and her husband. And she - you basically say that she always wanted to be a movie star, and she made her way to America. And...

RHODES: Someone said of her, one of the first actors who played with her in a play, that she thought of the United States as some sort of large country surrounding Hollywood, which I think is a pretty good idea of where she was. She'd always dreamed of being a movie star. And the only place you could really do that was, of course, in Hollywood. But she had a disastrous marriage at the age of 20 with the third-richest man in Austria, Fritz Mandel, who was an arms merchant who have factories making bullets and cannon shells and so forth all over Europe. And they lived, of course, a very extravagant life.

But she described it as a golden castle, a golden prison. He was a paranoid man who was sure she was cheating on him with everyone who walked through the room, and she simply felt locked up. Plus, he didn't want her to act. She had acted in a movie that had really made her name as a 19 year-old, where she had had a couple of nude scenes. And that was a scandal in Austria and in the United States, as well. Famously, Fritz is said to have tried to buy up all the copies of this film, which, of course, the people who owned the negatives simply kept making more copies, making a nice living. So...

FLATOW: And - yeah.

RHODES: ...in 1937, she saw her chance and filed for divorce and made her way to London, where she had lots of friends, found out that Mayer of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer was in town buying up actresses and actors, as it were, on the cheap in the late period of the Depression, and went to see him. He offered her a really bad deal, and she turned him down and walked out - which, I think, is some indication of her self-confidence...

FLATOW: Oh.

RHODES: ...and then contrived to sail to the United States on the Normandie, the same ship that he was returning to the country in, and got herself a much better contract.

FLATOW: And we'll pick up the story, a very interesting story about Hedy Lamarr, with Richard Rhodes, author of the new book "Hedy's Folly." Stay with us. We'll be right back. Our number: 1-800-989-8255. We'll get into her inventiveness right after this break. Stay with us.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

FLATOW: I'm Ira Flatow. This is SCIENCE FRIDAY, from NPR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

FLATOW: You're listening to SCIENCE FRIDAY. I am Ira Flatow.

We're talking this hour about the life of movie star and inventor Hedy Lamarr with my guest Richard Rhodes. His new book is called "Hedy's Folly." Our number: 1-800-989-8255.

So let's continue the story. She gets to Hollywood and she becomes a big movie star, but she doesn't go out and partake in all these Hollywood lifestyle parties, does she?

RHODES: Exactly. She doesn't drink, and she doesn't like parties. She's - after all, she's a very bright woman, and she - her idea of a good evening is a quiet dinner party with some intelligent friends. So she has to find some way to occupy her time. And what she does is take up, as a hobby, inventing. She sets aside one of the rooms in her house and puts up a drawing table and all the tools, the right kind of lights. There's an entire wall of technical reference books on one side of the room. And she sets herself keeping busy in these off-hours, trying to come up with new ideas for inventions.

FLATOW: And she goes to - I'm sorry. So she's at a party, and she meets the man who's going to make history with her.

RHODES: She has begun to be very interested in the war, which began, of course, in Europe on the first of September, 1939. She's been following the story, of course, because her country was occupied by Germany, and therefore is part of the Axis empire at this point.

She's particularly interested in the submarine warfare that's going on between the German U-boats and British shipping, because when she went to all these fancy dinner parties with her Austrian husband, he, after all, was talking to German admirals, German officers, German technical specialists about the kind of problems they were having with, for example, torpedoes and submarines. So she knows a lot about this.

And it's particularly interesting to her and horrifying to her in the summer of 1940, when the German U-boats begin torpedoing the ocean liners that are carrying English children out of England to safety in Canada, to get away from the blitz which had begun, the bombing of London and the bombing of England. One ship in particular, in September of 1940, was torpedoed with the loss of the lives of 99 children, and she's horrified. And she thinks: There must be something I, Hedy Lamarr, can do to stop this terrible butchering of children.

And then at this dinner party, just a few weeks later, she meets a young avant-garde composer named George Antheil, who happens, at the age of 18 - this is his technical expertise, from her point of view - to have been an inspector in a bullet factory in the United States during the First World War. Well, as he said later, well, that was the only person she could find who had this particular set of skills. So she says, let's get together and talk about this.

She's also concerned about making her breasts larger, and he happens to have written a series of articles in Esquire - while he's scratching around for a living - about how certain hormones can enlarge the breasts. This is kind of the quality of this story. There all these strange corners to it as we go along.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

FLATOW: And it turns out that...

RHODES: So they get together.

FLATOW: I'm sorry. You tell it better than I do. Go ahead.

RHODES: So they get together over a series of evenings, and they start thinking about: How could you build a torpedo that could be made more accurate? And they think: all right, radio guidance. Yeah, but it's easy to jam a radio signal. And this is where Hedy's invention comes in.

With - for reasons that are not quite clear in the record - but I think there are some antecedents to it in her own past - she comes up with the idea that if you could make the radio signal jump around from frequency to frequency at a fairly fast rate, at least a few dozen times per second, that someone trying to jam the signal won't be able to find it.

And if they broadcast a big, noisy signal that covers the whole range of frequencies, it will just occasionally sound like a little blip on the one or two or three or 10 or a hundred frequencies that the signal is bouncing around them on. This is her crucial invention. And they do, together, get a patent on this idea and its manifestation in a torpedo design, and this brings in George Antheil's interests.

He's someone who, in the course of his avant-garde composition, was once faced with a problem of how do you coordinate the playing of up to 16-player pianos. He never succeeded, really, in doing that, but he did learn about the idea of using a scroll of paper or some other kind of tape that's punched with holes to convey the signal to this piano of which key to play. And by adapting that so that the whole signal and electronic signal to be produced, they devised one form of their invention which is the one they use in their patent to show that it's a practical idea.

FLATOW: But you couldn't cram all of that into a torpedo.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

RHODES: This turns out to be the disaster from the Navy point of view. The Navy officers who are involved in looking at this invention don't really get the idea that this player-piano system is just one idea, that there are many different ways to make this happen. As Antheil wrote later, you could have put it on a piece of wire and run it through a mechanism the size of a wristwatch, which is true. But the Navy didn't see it that way and said, how are you going to put a player piano in a torpedo? And they threw the invention away.

FLATOW: But many years later, it got picked up.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

RHODES: But after the war, and unfortunately, after the invention had - their patent had expired in the 1950s, a curious electrical engineer with a long Hungarian name, which I can't even pronounce - but he was the son of a series of counts and counts going back in history came - was handed this expired patent. And the Navy said, can you use this to make a jam-proof signal for a sonobuoy, a buoy that would float on the water, send down sonar signals if it registers that there's a submarine underneath, would then transmit the information to a plane flying overhead using frequency hopping to make the signal unjammable.

He says, sure. And he built - designed such a system. At that point, the military picks up on this technology because one of the fundamental problems with military communications is you don't want them to be jammed. And so you find ship-to-ship radios that were on ships during the Cuban missile crisis, control systems for missiles - from the ground to the missile. Ultimately, GPS, the signal that comes back to Earth that we use to read the GPS information is frequency hopping.

And you - and then in the 1980s when this technology was declassified, it was no longer secret, it began to be picked up first on car radios and then on cell phones, wireless telephones, Bluetooth - for a different reason. Now, the problem is you have a fairly low-powered signal going around from, let's say my cell phone to the central tower, and the problem is if everything's on one frequency, they're all going to be interfering with each other.

But if every phone can hop around from frequency to frequency, then you can have 800, 1,000, 40,000, 100,000 phones all communicating with that one tower, and they won't interfere with each other in any way that's meaningful.

FLATOW: Well, she lived long enough to see her work bear fruit. But was she very disappointed or upset that she didn't profit from any of this?

You know, she didn't want to profit because she gave the patent to the U.S. Navy. It was her contribution to the war effort. But she did want to be recognized and - particularly because she's always had this feeling that no one in Hollywood ever understood that she was an intelligent human being. She was never given particularly good roles. She wasn't asked to act. And she was well trained as actress. So her Hollywood career was a really bitter disappointment to her, even though she made a great deal of money.

RHODES: And then she had, as actors and actresses do, she had to deal with what do I do for the rest of my life? And she was pretty invisible for the rest of her life. So she wanted recognition that in an interview for a magazine in 1990 when she was then approaching her 80's, she said, people seem to just take and take and they never give back. She really was unhappy about it. Fortunately, some of the early pioneers of wireless computer systems picked up on the fact that this had been Hedy's patent all those years ago and started a quiet movement to get her some kind of recognition.

And in 1998 when she was, I think, about 80 years old, she finally was awarded a Communications Pioneer Freedom Foundation award and was delighted with it. But when they called her up to tell her about the award, Hedy being Hedy, she said, well, it's about time.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

FLATOW: And she didn't want to be seen in public at that point, right?

RHODES: She had had a lot of bad plastic surgery by then and really was not happy with going out at all. So she recorded a thank you, and then her son Anthony carried the recording to the conference, the convention where the award was presented and he received the award and played the tape. And I actually have a copy of a copy of a copy of that tape passed down by these various computer pioneers, which has Hedy's voice on it, saying thank you very much. I hope it's been of some use.

FLATOW: She - and in between - and there - and while she's in Hollywood she noodled around with lots of little inventions. Name a few of the little I inventions that she was...

RHODES: I think the most interesting, in a way, is one that she worked on with the help of a couple of chemist who were loaned to her by Howard Hughes. I mean, she dated around quite a bit, and I'm sure Howard Hughes was one of her boyfriends at some point. So he loaned her a couple of chemist. This was a tablet, kind of like an Alka-Seltzer tablet that if you dropped it into a glass of water, would fizz up and make a coke. And it never evidently really worked. She laughed about it many years later. But, I mean, it doesn't sound like a bad idea (unintelligible).

FLATOW: There was something called Fizzies when I was a kid. There's something called Fizzies that has sort of worked like that.

RHODES: Yes. I don't think that was her invention, but they did come along. She had some ideas at the end of her life to improve the French-British supersonic passenger liner, the Concorde. She came up with an improved stoplight signal. She had an idea for a little box that would attach to a Kleenex box so you could put your waste Kleenex somewhere - she was obviously someone who was just constantly looking at the world and thinking, well, I can make an improvement there. She had a chair that you could wheel in and out of a shower, so that people who couldn't stand can take a shower. She was an interesting woman.

FLATOW: She was - she was Hollywood's first star geek, it sounds.

RHODES: She was. She was.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

FLATOW: Movie star.

RHODES: And it turns out there were a few others. Harpo Marx, evidently, was an inventor as well. So there are these people tucked away in the history of Hollywood who were doing other things. It's nice to know.

FLATOW: Yeah. This is SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR. I'm Ira Flatow, talking with Richard Rhodes, author of the new book "Hedy's Folly: The Life and Breakthrough Inventions of Hedy Lamarr, the Most Beautiful Woman in the World." And it's - seeing him memorize - mesmerized by Richard telling the story, and he tells it as well in his book. It's really interesting book, and people trying to get - now that your book is out, maybe we'll get to see some more productions of the - of "Frequency Hopping," which was a play that was in production a few years ago, right?

RHODES: That's right.

FLATOW: There's a movie about it or scripts floating around about her looking to be cast.

RHODES: There is, and a German actress has recently optioned my book, actually. I think probably because she wants to play Hedy, so let's hope that this motion picture happens. It's a wonderful story.

FLATOW: Yeah. Are there any parts of her story you could not uncover that you - that remain a mystery to you that you would've liked to have touched into?

RHODES: Well, you know, most of the previous versions of the story, including that script you were talking about, conflate up a love affair between George Antheil, the composer, and Hedy, and I found that questionable. She always dated taller men than she, and she was five foot seven, quite tall for her day. George was an interesting, little guy who was about five-three. Time magazine once called him a cello-sized composer...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

RHODES: ...which I thought was a marvelous description. So it seems unlikely to me, but he was someone who had quite a few affairs in the course of his life, and when he died in 1959, left his wife whatever estate he had and a 6-month old illegitimate son, so...

FLATOW: No, there's another myth that you - that is well known, and you've debunked it, sort of, that the young Hedy tried to escape from her husband who was meeting all these munitions people, these Nazi munitions people, that she drugged her husband and dressed up in the maid's outfit to sneak out of the country. And you say that there's no real record of that happening.

RHODES: Well, even more, it's as if her escape was a secret, but I'd looked at the newspapers from the day, and there were big headlines both in this country and in Vienna that Hedwig Kiesler, as her name was then, was divorcing Fritz Mandl, so it was public knowledge that a divorce was underway. The fact that she got out of town is pretty obviously something he was aware of, may even have colluded in. I don't know.

You know, this - he escaped Nazi Germany just to hear later he was Jewish and took with him all of his money, which was considerable, moved to Argentina, and helped build the air force for the notorious dictator of Argentina. So I think they knew that they were both trying to get out of Nazi Germany and Nazi Austria as it was then.

FLATOW: You say in the book that you think that's story was - it sounds like a concoction of a movie agent or a studio agent making up a fantastic tale like that.

RHODES: Precisely.

FLATOW: And so you're very satisfied with how the book came out and the research and the things that you uncovered.

RHODES: I am. There's always more than you would like to know, you know, exactly what happened within the government in their decision, first, not to use this patent and then to pick it up and essentially make it one of the fundamental components of our military technology. That's kind of a mystery because it was all secret information, and curiously enough, a lot of the documentation has never been declassified because of some stubborn decision on the part of the agencies involved that there were commercial secrets involved in all of these. So the real inside stuff about that part of the story is waiting to be uncovered.

FLATOW: All right. Stuff for another book for you maybe, Richard.

RHODES: Another book.

FLATOW: There you go. Well, thank you for writing this one because, as I say, Hedy Lamarr is one of my favorite inventor characters in history, and I'm glad you filled in and debunked a lot of its stuff for us.

RHODES: It was fun to write...

FLATOW: Richard Rhodes...

RHODES: ...because it's a fun story.

FLATOW: It's a great story. Richard Rhodes' new book, "Hedy's Folly: The Life and Breakthrough Inventions of Hedy Lamarr, the Most Beautiful Woman in the World." That's about all the time we have for today. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.