Hedy Lamarr was often called “the most beautiful woman in the world". Really, she was so much more than just a pretty face. There was her illustrious Hollywood career and her second act as the mastermind behind the groundbreaking technology that led to the invention of Wi-Fi. With all that, you’d hardly think that she would have the time for such a scandalous personal life—but this brilliant beauty had a dark side, too.
Hedy Lamarr, the glamorous genius, began life as Hedwig Eva Marie Kiesler, born in Vienna in 1914, the only daughter to an upper-class family. Though both her parents were born Jewish, they raised her as a Christian. From a very young age, she knew exactly that she wanted to act—and she wouldn’t let anything or anyone stop her.
When her parents sent her to a Swiss boarding school, she escaped and ran home to Vienna. Luckily enough, this rebellious streak worked in her favor.
When other girls her age were studying, Hedy Lamarr was forging permission slips so that she could spend days off from school staking out film studios looking for a job. When others were getting ready for high school dances, a 15-year-old Lamarr was attending parties with some of the European film scene’s biggest names.
Before she even turned 18, she moved to Berlin to immerse herself in the film scene there—and she made quite a splash.
Hedy Lamarr got her first big film role at the age of 18. It was so scandalous that it caused an immediate outcry. The movie was called Ecstasy, and it was the very first non-pornographic film to depict not just an intimate scene, but a female climax. And that wasn’t even the most shocking part—the controversy intensified after the press reported that Lamarr had been 17 when the infamous scene was filmed.
But was Lamarr really that provocative—or was there more to the story?
When Lamarr accepted the role, her parents had insisted that one of them should accompany her to set. She didn’t want to appear unprofessional or immature, so she promised them that a stage actor she’d worked with would act as chaperone. However, she had a more scandalous reason for not wanting her family to come—she had a secret lover in Prague, where the film was being shot. Little did she know, she was getting in way over her head…
Lamarr appeared on the set of Ecstasy raring to go—but she was in for a shock. The director demanded that she strip down for a scene where her character skinny-dips. Lamarr said no, and that she’d quit—but the director shot back that she’d be financially responsible for the costs of the scenes they’d already filmed. He then claimed they’d only use long shots where her body would barely be visible.
Well, he was completely lying. They’d used a telephoto lens to capture close-ups of her. Later, when she saw the finished product, she was incredibly upset—but the worst was yet to come.
What’s worse than being manipulated by a predatory director or having your first film banned in multiple countries? Your mother and father attending a screening of the aforementioned film. Lamarr tried to tell them it was “artistic,” but when they saw the infamous intimate scenes, they stormed out of the theater.
Lamarr thought it was the end of her career—but she was in for another surprise.
When Lamarr went back to Vienna, she got the role of Empress Elisabeth in a play—which attracted some unwanted attention from a sinister suitor. His name was Fritz Mandl, and he came from a well-known wealthy family known for being arms manufacturers and merchants. He was older, he already had a divorce under his belt, and he was also a fascist. Lamarr was not interested—but that didn’t stop him.
Mandl did everything in his considerable power to get Lamarr’s attention, but she kept on rejecting him. However, over the course of these interactions, something strange happened. Lamarr found herself attracted to his power, intelligence, and charm and before long, had fallen in love. The pair got engaged, and, like any 18-year-old bride, Lamarr expected a fairytale ending.
Instead, she would only get a complete horror show.
Lamarr had fallen so hard for Mandl, she thought that it didn’t matter that he wanted her to give up her fledgling career. But soon enough, she discovered his disturbing dark side. He was jealous and controlling, and even tried to use his immense power to suppress all the copies of Ecstasy, her racy 1933 film. He also had her servants eavesdrop on her calls, and if she mentioned the words “pictures” or “acting,” he’d fly into a towering rage. Something had to give.
Hedy Lamarr tried twice to escape her life in what she called her “prison of gold,” but with her husband’s immense power and constant surveillance of her, both attempts failed. Then, one afternoon, tragedy struck. Lamarr’s father passed suddenly of a massive heart attack. Her prison of gold became a prison of grief—a place where she stayed locked in for a year of her young life.
Lamarr said that, after the loss of her father, she only wore black and couldn’t bear to look at any other color. On top of that, she couldn’t look in a mirror or was completely unable to face other people. She was basically a zombie. Then, after a year, it was like the haze suddenly lifted—and she knew she had to make a drastic change.
Lamarr had spent a year painfully grieving Life was too short to let her tyrannical husband reign over her for a moment more, so she fled with what she could. There was one ultimate destination: Hollywood. But first, she stopped in London—and it was there where she met a man who would change her life.
Lamarr ended up in London at the same time as another powerful man. Luckily, this one was happily married. Louis B. Mayer, the head of MGM Studios, had discovered mega-stars like Greta Garbo and Norma Shearer. And he’d seen Lamarr before, in a very scandalous place. That’s right—her ex really hadn’t managed to get rid of all those copies of Ecstasy. Mayer had seen one, and it definitely colored his opinion of her.
The racy nature of the film had overshadowed her talent and beauty for him, so he tossed off an offer of $125 a week if she came to Los Angeles, thinking she was no more than a desperate wannabe. Well, considering that her only assets were her cache of jewels and furs, that just wasn’t enough for Lamarr—so she came up with a plan.
Lamarr heard that Mayer and his wife were heading back to the States aboard the Normandie, a sleek French liner, so she bought a one-way ticket as well. With Mayer on board as her captive audience, she planned to prove to him that she was more than just a Hollywood hopeful with loose morals. And that’s exactly what she did. By the time they landed, he’d offered her $500 a week—four times the original offer. That wasn’t all he gave her, either.
While Hedy and the Mayers were aboard the Normandie, Margaret Mayer helped her come up with a stage name that would distance Hedwig Kiesler, the star of Ecstasy, from the future Hollywood icon. She borrowed from the tragic screen siren Barbara La Marr, who had passed on at 29 from complications of her dope addiction. It seems like an ominous choice, if you ask me…
Hedy Lamarr had made it in Hollywood before she even stepped onto the screen. With her MGM contract under her belt, she began learning English, exercising her newfound vocabulary at glitzy parties, where she was the arm candy for Hollywood playboys like Howard Hughes. Finally, six months after her arrival, she got her first part in a studio film—and it was just in time.
Just as all her dreams were coming true, Hedy Lamarr received devastating news from back home. Germany had annexed Austria, leaving her mother, who’d been born Jewish, in grave danger. Luckily, Lamarr had spent her first few months in the US squirreling away her paycheck. She got her mom to the US and away from the conflict in Europe—just in time to make her screen debut.
Lamarr’s beauty was legendary—and it knocked audiences off their feet. No, really. When she first appeared on screen in her Hollywood debut, Algiers, the audience let out a collective gasp. The film made her into an overnight star, but still, scripts that suited her were few and far between. It was during this era that she took up a peculiar hobby.
Despite her lack of formal education, she got really into inventing little gadgets and formulas in her spare time. Not quite cooking or painting—but as we’ll see, it would eventually make a huge impact.
Inventing wasn’t her only pastime. Lamarr continued to attract the attention of scores of handsome Hollywood personalities. But then, just when it seemed like she might never settle down, Lamarr made a move that shocked even herself. She and Markey (recently divorced from screen legend Joan Bennett) decided overnight to tie the knot—and that’s just what they did!
It looked like a whirlwind love affair—but there was another reason for their quickie wedding. The very same month that Lamarr met Markey, a baby boy was born was in a local hospital. Around that time, Lamarr began the work to adopt him, and joined the Lamarr-Markey household in October of that year. Lamarr had found a father for her baby boy—or so she thought.
Markey gave his last name to James, the baby boy his wife had adopted…but that’s about all he gave. They were both so busy with their careers—and Lamarr with little James—that they rarely spent time together. Lamarr thrived as a mother, but her attachment to her child also meant that the dire world events that were happening around her were having a brutal effect on her.
Lamarr had been able to save her mother, but thoughts of the innocent children affected by the outbreak of WWII plagued her night and day. When a passenger ship of evacuees, including 90 children, was hit and sunk in 1940, Lamarr’s profound sense of grief moved her to do something.
Lamarr began to think back to the weapons she’d learned about eavesdropping on her husband and his friends during her first marriage. She reached out to a composer friend, and they got to work. They eventually settled on a technique for frequency-hopping that would help radio-controlled torpedoes, which were typically vulnerable to jamming. Then, they patented the invention. One step closer to winning, right? Unfortunately…no.
Many geniuses are unappreciated in their own time, but knowing that was probably cold comfort to Hedy Lamarr and her co-inventor of the frequency-hopping spread spectrum, George Antheil. They sent the patent documents for their invention to the US Navy—only to get hit with a brutal blow. The Navy claimed that they had no interest in using it.
To add insult to injury, they then seized the patent as “alien property,” since Lamarr was Austrian. Well, she was down—but she certainly wasn’t out.
Lamarr turned her attention to the war effort, where she helped sell bonds to support the Allied forces. At the same time, she also filed for divorce from her second husband, Gene Markey. Despite their whirlwind romance, all had not been well under their roof. In the court documents, Lamarr claimed that they’d spent no more than four nights together in 18 months of marriage. Well, I did say they were both busy…
Lamarr’s appearances at the Hollywood Canteen for men and women waiting to be deployed were extremely popular. During that time, she ran into an old familiar face. It was actor John Loder. When they’d last met, in 1938, he’d been married. Now, he was freshly single—and he was just Lamarr’s type. Loder was tall, older, charming, and a great role model for her son James.
But that doesn’t mean she was going to make the same mistakes she had before.
From her second husband, Lamarr had learned the importance of quality time. From her first, she’d learned that she never wanted to give up her independence again. So, when it came to Loder, she had a bizarre way of showing her love. On the night before their wedding, Lamarr gave Loder a bill for $350 (about $5,550 today).
Why? Well, he’d spent the month prior having dinner at her house every night—now he had to pay for his share of the food.
This was a golden period for Hedy Lamarr. She had a career resurgence and she was a happy newlywed. Her new husband got along particularly well with her son and even adopted him. Two years into their marriage, she got pregnant and gave birth to a daughter, Denise. But very quickly afterward, her happily-ever-after spun out into a living nightmare.
After the birth of her daughter, Hedy Lamarr began to experience a peculiar phenomenon. She was in terrible pain, which a doctor eventually diagnosed as psychosomatic. Lamarr began to regularly travel to Boston to see a psychoanalyst, who brought up all kinds of past trauma. From childhood encounters to a teenaged assault, it all came back up.
For two years, Lamarr underwent intense analysis—and she came out of it ready for a massive change.
Once upon a time, Hedy Lamarr had packed up only what she could carry and started fresh. Now, she was ready to do it again. First, she got out of her nearly decade-long professional relationship with Louis B. Mayer and MGM. Then, confident that she could survive whatever trauma another pregnancy and birth brought up, she got pregnant again.
In 1947, she gave birth to a son, Anthony Loder, making them a family of four—at least, at first.
Another casualty of Lamarr’s big post-psychoanalysis life change? Her third husband and the father of her children, John Loder. It was an amicable divorce, at least. When Lamarr faced the judge in court, she wanted to give a reason that wouldn’t harm Loder or the kids, so she claimed that it was his propensity for spontaneously falling asleep.
Her lawyer argued that any man who would sit down with the “most beautiful woman in the world” and fall asleep didn’t need to be married to her. It worked—and Lamarr left, ready to begin again.
For many, making so many drastic life changes at once would serve as a huge red flag—but there was an even more sinister part of Lamarr’s supposed “clean slate". Remember her adopted son, James? Well, she’d sent him off to a boarding school and receded from his life. By the time that he was 11, they were barely in contact. James began to spend his time off with one of his teachers and her husband.
Lamarr’s reaction was devastating. She thought of this as a betrayal and cut off the boy—even though he was barely a teenager. As we’ll see, this would later come back to haunt her…
In 1949, Lamarr starred in Samson and Delilah. It was a huge hit and sparked another boom in her already illustrious career. The downside? Her work schedule became exhausting. She once again found herself dreaming of a fairytale ending—a husband who would love her, and help her take care of the kids and the bills. After two grueling years, she took a Mexican vacation and met a new man, although he didn’t quite fit the description…
Teddy Stauffer was a former bandleader and struggling restaurateur/hotelier in Mexico. In contrast to sleepy John Loder, he seemed glamorous and exciting—but he had a chilling dark side. Like her first husband, he was incredibly jealous. Stauffer wouldn’t hesitate to lash out at her over any perceived slight. At first, she found it thrilling…and then, it took its toll.
Lamarr made it nine months with Stauffer before filing for divorce. In the papers, she was discreet as ever. She claimed that the air in Acapulco, where he owned a hotel, was bad for her children. Sure, yeah, the air’s bad for them—not the quickie marriage and divorce in a foreign country. Lamarr’s taste in men was not great, and it wasn’t getting any better.
Lamarr’s next relationship was with an actor whose name she changed to “Sam” in her memoirs—and it was so twisted, it’s impossible to forget. He was obsessed with her and violent towards he, but all of that was nothing to the “surprise” that Sam spent months working on.
One night when Lamarr refused to go to bed with him, he pulled out a life-sized plastic doll he’d fashioned to look exactly like her. Somehow, it gets even more disturbing. He then made Lamarr watch as he “made love” to the doll, only letting her leave after they were done. One word: Yikes.
Considering those were the types of actors she was hanging out with on film sets, it’s no wonder that she wanted to get on the other side of the camera. When Lamarr decided that she wanted to produce a film, she attracted a number of potential financiers—but as you can imagine, they had ulterior motives. Well, one of them actually managed to make his way into her heart.
While their film never made it to screens, their romance was much more successful.
Hedy Lamarr and W. Howard Lee tied the knot in 1953—and once again, it signaled a new beginning for the beautiful star. She gave up acting and moved to his home in Houston. All was well, and as Lamarr said it, the couple would bicker, but they always kept the undertone of love and respect. Well, Lee had a different story.
Lamarr and Lee made it six years (a personal record for her) before filing for divorce. In the courtroom, Lee didn’t hold back from exposing the dark side of their marriage. He claimed that Lamarr was violent with him. She shot back, claiming the same about him and calling him a cheapskate. During their separation, she went back to Beverly Hills with her kids, alone again—but her nightmare was just beginning.
Lamarr was taking an afternoon nap one day when her doorbell began ringing. At first she ignored it, but it wouldn’t stop. Finally, she opened the door—only to be greeted by a horrifying sight. A neighbor was pointing to the street and screaming that Lamarr’s youngest son Tony had been hit by a car. An ambulance took them to the hospital, where doctors struggled for days to keep the boy alive.
Lamarr stayed by his side the whole time. He made an amazing recovery—but Lamarr still had the face the music with her divorce case in Texas.
An exhausted Lamarr made the ill-advised decision to send her stand-in to attend the trial in Houston. On top of that, she fired all three of her lawyers in one fell swoop. The Texan court was not impressed with these choices. That’s when she found another lawyer in Los Angeles—and history repeated itself. Like Howard Lee, Lamarr’s new lawyer had ulterior motives.
Lewis J. Boies, her divorce attorney, became Lamarr’s sixth and (phew) final husband. And they say Elizabeth Taylor was prolific…
Hedy Lamarr and Lewis J. Boies
Lamarr divorced Boies after two years, claiming that she’d spent half a million of her own fortune on him, and that he was abusive in public and private. Her son Tony, recovered from his accident, back her up in court. That was that for Lamarr. For the rest of her life, she had plenty of lovers, but she refused to walk down the aisle again.
Lamarr still kept plenty busy after getting out of acting—and some of her hobbies were more wholesome than others. There was the writing of her tell-all memoir Ecstasy and Me in 1966, which was filled with racy anecdotes and even an entire chapter with a transcript of a session with her psychoanalyst.
Shortly after the release of Ecstasy and Me, Lamarr sued her publisher. The suit alleged that many details were invented by ghostwriter Leo Guild and included without her permission. The case took an even more bizarre turn a year later. That’s when a magazine writer sued Lamarr, claiming that large sections of the book had been plagiarized from his articles.
After her retirement, Lamarr received a shoplifting charge, which she pled not guilty to. The case went to trial, with sensational media coverage. She greatly regretted the incident—but that didn’t stop her from finding herself in the same situation again years later in 1991. This was certainly a less wholesome hobby than inventing…
The frequency-hopping spread system was Lamarr’s most successful invention—but it wasn’t her only one. According to her daughter, she also invented a tissue box that also held used tissues. Her most notorious invention was a powder tablet meant to turn any glass of water into a delicious “soda pop". Also referred to as a “cola bouillon cube” (blech), this one was not as successful. Instead of tasting like Coca-Cola, it tasted like Alka-Seltzer. Well, you win some, you lose some.
In the 60s, the Navy finally adopted an updated version of the technology that Lamarr and Antheil had invented. Sadly, Antheil passed on years before their invention finally found some use. In the years that followed, Lamarr received scores of accolades and awards for the frequency-hopping spread spectrum, an invention that would later be used to develop all kinds of wireless communication technology, including Wi-Fi!
In the final decades of her life, Hedy Lamarr began to recede more and more from public view, The reason why is heartbreaking. Lamarr had spent years as “the most beautiful woman in the world,” and as she aged, she turned to plastic surgery to preserve her good looks. Lamarr was a plastic surgeon’s dream patient. Ever the inventor, she had all kinds of ideas for her doctors, and some used the techniques she came up with for years afterward.
Unfortunately, they weren’t all successes, and a series of botched procedures left the most beautiful woman in the world disfigured. This caused Lamarr to sink ever deeper into seclusion, and in the final years of her life, she refused to see most people—including her own children. Instead, she kept up contact exclusively on the telephone.
In her final years, Hedy Lamarr had one goal—to make it to the year 2000. She did just that, dying just nine days into a new millennium. She died peacefully at home at the age of 85 years old. Her son Tony brought her ashes back to her beloved home of Vienna after so many years away and spread them in the forest there.
It was a peaceful end for a woman with such a jaw-droppingly dramatic life—but some of her most well-kept secrets only emerged after her passing.
One of the most passed-around stories about Lamarr was her legendary escape from her first husband—but it took years for the real truth of that fateful night to come out. Back in the 30s, Lamarr tried and failed twice to leave her tyrannical first husband, Fritz Mandl. But after the loss of her father, she refused to accept failure again—so she came up with a devious plan.
One of the things that she began to do was listen a little more closely when Mendl, an arms dealer, held meetings and dinners with diplomats and world leaders. She knew that blackmailing him with her knowledge of state secrets would be one way to make sure he couldn’t drag her back—but she also had to physically escape from his grasp.
In Lamarr’s version of the story, she began to observe the mannerisms of one of their maids who was about the same height and then, one night, drugged the woman. Lamarr then dressed herself as the maid, imitating her as she fled Mandl’s home. She boarded a train for Paris, where she quickly filed for divorce, before fleeing again to London.
It’s a daring story—but it may not exactly be true.
Divorce was still a controversial topic in the US when Lamarr later retold the story. It’s possible that she carefully constructed a narrative that downplayed the more scandalous side of her final moments with Mandl. In another version of the tale, Lamarr convinced her husband to let her wear every piece of jewelry she owned out to dinner one night—only to slip out the back of the restaurant with a small fortunes’ worth of baubles on her person. That story was closer to the truth—which Lamarr did eventually reveal.
Lamarr later told the story completely differently, saying that she packed her bags after yet another fight with Mandl. She was careful to stuff all the furs and jewels that she could into her luggage, knowing authorities wouldn’t let her leave the country with too much cash. Lamarr also knew that this final stand meant a bridge burned—there’d be no turning back. She was right, and although Mandl occasionally sent her money, they didn’t really see each other again.
As mentioned earlier, Lamarr’s relationship with her “adopted” son, James Lamarr Loder, had been strangely fraught. He began acting out as a child, and by the time he was a teen, they were essentially estranged—but none of that could have prepared him for the shocker that came out shortly after Lamarr’s passing.
In 2001, after his mother’s passing, James Lamarr Loder unearthed a copy of his original birth certificate—and the contents shocked him. James had grown up thinking that he’d been adopted by Lamarr nine months after his birth. This couldn’t have been farther from the truth. James was, in fact, Lamarr’s biological child.
For 61 years, she hadn’t let on to him that they were related. But perhaps even more jaw-dropping than that was the matter of his father.
No one knew, but it seems like Lamarr’s third marriage to John Loder was really her attempt to fix a past mistake and turn it into a happily-ever-after. See, she and Loder had an affair in 1938 when he was still with his first wife. Lamarr had gotten pregnant, and, fearing for her career, had covered up the birth of her son—James Lamarr Loder.
Yup, the man who’d adopted him when he was four years old was actually his biological father. But the drama didn’t stop there.
When Hedy Lamarr passed on, she’d left most of her money to her kids Denise and Anthony, cutting out James entirely. Well, armed with his newfound knowledge, he made a claim on her estate, hoping to control the $3.3 million in question set aside for her kids. He claimed that he and Lamarr had reconciled in the last decade of her life, something that her other kids denied. Eventually, he settled for $50,000.
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