She was born into a Jewish family in Vienna, Austria-Hungary, and acted in a number of Austrian, German, and Czech films in her brief early film career, including the controversial Ecstasy in 1933. (One of her first starring roles, it featured a long scene of Lamarr fully nude.) While the introduction of The Hays Code the following year made a repeat performance in America impossible, a reputation as a dark and glamorous Ms. Fanservice did follow her.
In 1937, Lamarr fled from her then-husband Friedrich Mandl, a wealthy Austrian ammunition manufacturer, secretly moving to Paris and then on to London. There, she met Louis B. Mayer, the head of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, who offered her a Hollywood movie contract, where he began promoting her as "the world's most beautiful woman". Subsequent films included an adaptation of John Steinbeck's Tortilla Flat and the Cecil B. DeMille film Samson and Delilah, which was said to be her personal favorite of all her films and arguably the film for which she is best remembered. Sadly, her career went into decline after that particular high point (it was the highest grossing film of the year for Paramount), and a decade later she retired from Hollywood.
Lamarr wasn't just an actress, however. She was also very mathematically talented; her most notable non-screen achievement was inventing (with composer George Antheil) a form of radio frequency-hopping that is the basis for components of wi-fi and cordless phones today. Her idea was that it could be used by the Allies during World War II to track German torpedoes, but the Navy Department wasn't interested at the time; as Lamarr's biographer noted, the Navy Department during the war didn't even listen to suggestions from its own officers, let alone a Hollywood star.note Nevertheless, as Cracked.com put it, she was basically the world's sexiest Mad Scientist.
In terms of personality, she was remembered for having a strong-willed character and a sarcastic wit. According to her 2010 bio Hedy Lamarr: The Most Beautiful Woman In Film, she also had a peculiar habit of speaking about herself in the third person.
Lamarr was married six times and had three children. She became a naturalized U.S. citizen in 1953, and after ending her film career in 1958 spent the later decades of her life in virtual seclusion. She died of heart disease at the age of 85, after which her ashes were returned to her native Austria and scattered in the Vienna Woods.
Fun fact: DC Comics' most famous anti-heroine, Selina Kyle a.k.a Catwoman, is said to have originally been based on Lamarr. Anne Hathaway took this into account and loosely based her portrayal of Catwoman in The Dark Knight Rises on Lamarr.
Films in which Hedy Lamarr appeared include:
- Geld auf der Straße, as the Girl at the Night Club (1930)
- Ecstasy, aka Ekstase, as Eva Hermann (1933)
- Algiers, as Gaby (1938) — She was the girl whom Pepe le Moko would have asked to come with him to the Casbah, if he had ever actually said the line.
- Lady of the Tropics, as Manon deVargnes Carey, aka Kira Kim (1939)
- Boom Town as Karen (1940)
- Comrade X, as Golubka, aka Theodore Yahupitz and Lizvanetchka (1940)
- Come Live with Me, as Johnny Jones (1941)
- Ziegfeld Girl, as Sandra Kolter (1941)
- H.M. Pulham, Esq., as Marvin Myles Ransome (1941)
- Tortilla Flat, as Dolores Ramirez (1942)
- White Cargo, as Tondelayo (1942)
- The Heavenly Body, as Vicky Whitley (1944)
- The Conspirators, as Irene Von [sic] Mohr (1944)
- Her Highness and the Bellboy, as Princess Veronica (1945)
- The Strange Woman, as Jenny Hager (1946)
- Dishonored Lady, as Madeleine Damien (1947)
- Let's Live a Little, as Dr. J.O. Loring (1948)
- Cecil B. DeMille's Samson and Delilah, as Delilah (1949) — Opposite Victor Mature. This was the film that prompted Groucho Marx's famous quip: "I never go to see a picture where the guy's tits are bigger than the goil's."
- Copper Canyon, as Lisa Roselle (1950)
- My Favorite Spy, as Lily Dalbray (1951) — Opposite Bob Hope
- The Story of Mankind, as Joan of Arc (1957)
- The Female Animal, as Vanessa Windsor (1958)
Tropes associated with her roles:
- Fake Nationality: Everything from Russian to Mexican to South Sea Islander.
- Femme Fatale: Most notably in Algiers, in which she lures Charles Boyer to his doom. And of course Delilah in Samson and Delilah.
- So Beautiful, It's a Curse: In her autobiography she wrote "my face has been my misfortune" - as her beauty was valued more than her intelligence.
Portrayals in fiction:
- She's played by Alyssa Sutherland in Timeless in the episode "Hollywoodland", where she helps out the protagonists deal with Citizen Kane being stolen.
- The Legends of Tomorrow episode "Helen Hunt" has the evil plot of the week be to bring Helen of Troy to 1937 Hollywood, where her legendary beauty causes her to be cast in Lamarr's place, derailing the rest of her life so that her frequency hopping technique and all the other technology built on it will cease to exist. Professor Stein (who is in Jefferson's body thanks to an accident) gets very hot under-the-collar for her, as he'd been his designated "free pass", never expecting to actually meet her.
- Gal Gadot is set to portray her in a miniseries for Apple TV. The series will take place during her World War II service.
References in fiction:
- Blazing Saddles: Villain Hedley Lamarr (Harvey Korman) regularly gets his name confused with Hedy's, much to his chagrin. ("THAT'S HEDLEY!") One of Governor William J. Lepetomane's lines to the character — "This is 1874! You'll be able sue her!" — proved ironically prescient: Hedy was not amused and did end up suing Mel Brooks' production company for $10 million for invasion of privacy. They ended up settling out of court for an undisclosed amount.
- Dr. Kleiner from Half-Life 2 has a de-beaked headcrab named Lamarr as a pet. Later in game, you can hear him say "There's only one Hedy".
- Whitney Frost, the Big Bad of Agent Carter Season 2 is heavily inspired by her. Her backstory is that she was a scientific genius who eventually became a movie star. Lamarr herself is also mentioned in the series.
- In Little Shop of Horrors Audrey II offers Seymour "a date with Heddy Lamarr" in exchange for some food. Seymour declines.
- On Hey Arnold!, a few episodes have Phil reference a longstanding crush he has had on her since his service in World War II. He openly states his regret that he didn't marry her, claiming he did have the chance to do so (once in front of his own wife, no less).
- In first episode of What If...? (2021), while trying to deactivate a portal Red Skull opened, Howard Stark laments the control panel's labels are in German and regrets not also learning German on his weekend with Lamarr.