Double life of Hollywood femme fatale Hedy Lamarr

LOS ANGELES• Once proclaimed "the most beautiful woman in the world", Hedy Lamarr (photo) is remembered as the silver-screen siren whose 1930s nude scene scandalised show business.

In reality, as a new PBS documentary reveals, the Austrian-Jewish emigrant's beauty stood in the way of her getting the credit she deserved for inventing a concept that is now used as the basis for secure Wi-Fi, GPS and Bluetooth technologies.

In 1941, she and avant-garde composer George Antheil filed a patent on "frequency-hopping", in which a radio transmitter and its receiver jump from one frequency to another to prevent their signal from being intercepted.

Their gadget was aimed at developing radio-controlled torpedoes for the United States Navy that could not be jammed by German warships.

But the idea was so far ahead of its time that the Navy did not grasp its importance and it took years to reach fruition. Today, frequency-hopping is the basis for quick and secure communications in espionage, the military, mobile phones and the Internet.

Lamarr never publicly talked about her life outside the movies and her family thought her story had died with her in 2000, when she succumbed to heart failure at age 86. But in 2016, former Forbes journalist Fleming Meeks discovered several tapes of a 1990 phone interview in which Lamarr told her life story.

"People have the idea that I'm sort of a stupid thing. I never knew I looked good to begin with because my mother wanted a boy named Georg," she said on one of the tapes.

"Unfortunately, I didn't become that and she wasn't too thrilled about it. I was different, I guess. Maybe I came from a different planet, who knows? But whatever it is, inventions are easy for me to do."

Combining the recordings with intimate reflections from her children, closest friends, family and admirers, Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story explores the actress' true legacy as a technological trailblazer. The film, executive produced by Oscar winner Susan Sarandon, premieres in the US on May 18 on PBS.

Born in Vienna in 1913, Lamarr was an intuitive tinkerer as a child, always interested in mechanical things.

She won a few minor roles when, still going by her real name Edy Kiesler, she made a fleeting appearance without her clothes in the 1933 Czech film Extase. Pope Pius XI denounced the movie, Hitler banned it and the offending scene was excised from most European and American versions.

She married millionaire arms manufacturer Fritz Mandl, entertaining top businessmen and politicians including Mussolini and Hitler, but grew tired of life as a trophy wife and fled to Hollywood.

She said: "They think I'm a bad actress. I think sometimes in life I act more than on the screen."

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 26, 2018, with the headline 'Double life of Hollywood femme fatale Hedy Lamarr'. Print Edition | Subscribe