David Rosenthal
David Rosenthal

Hedy Lamarr: Ecstasy Girl and femme fatale

“I don’t fear death because I don’t fear anything I don’t understand” -Hedy Lamarr

The spread spectrum transmission technique is the origin of wireless communication technologies and systems, such as “wifi”, that invisible protagonist of the contemporary world, capable of keeping every home uninterruptedly connected to the outside world via the internet and vital to the existence of the world in which we find ourselves. In fact, one of the actors, or perhaps the most important actor of the future we are already entering, is that of wireless interconnectivity. The wireless interconnection of electronic devices has become the whole of the current pandemic, as well as being the vital means of not missing out on this world of communications. In fact, the predecessor of wifi was originally created as a secret intercommunication system.

But, the story behind this story has a singular moment in its creation, and that is that the Viennese actress Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler, was born on 9 November 1914 and in honour of her birthday “inventor’s day” is celebrated on this date in her honour. Kiesler was the daughter of Emil Kiesler, a Jewish banker from Lemberg (also Leopoli or Lviv) and her mother, Gertrud “Trude” Kiesler Lichtwitz, a Hungarian pianist from Budapest’s Jewish elite. Despite this, Hedy was a Catholic, as her mother had converted to Catholicism as an adult.

Kiesler is considered to be “the most beautiful woman in the history of Hollywood”, as well as “the most beautiful woman in the world” in the 1930s and 1940s, as her immaculate face, sapphire blue eyes and the panache of true divas would go down in history. But not only because of her beauty and acting poise, but also because she was a child prodigy, for her other facet was that of inventor and engineer. Kiesler created the spread spectrum, which is a modulation technique used in telecommunications, such as Bluetooth, Wi-Fi and GPS.

Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler started skipping classes at the age of 15 to write screenplays and then began her studies at the age of 16 to become one of the few female engineers at that time. However, her attraction to film led her to become involved in this nascent and important medium, and it was in Berlin at the same age that she embarked on a successful career in European and then American cinema. It was Max Reinhardt – Maximilian Goldman – (like Hedy, an Austrian Jew), an important figure in German and later American cinema, who sponsored her in her film career. She also worked with her fellow countryman Otto Ludwig Preminger, who was to become a Hollywood legend.

Hedy Kiesler’s first major role was in 1933, when at the age of 18 she made her debut in Gustav Machaty’s Czech film Ecstasy, where she broke records as the first woman to show full nudity in a commercial film and play the climax in close-up, which led to her being banned by Pope Pius XI in Italy, censored in Germany and condemned by the Catholic Legion for Decency in the United States. From then on, Kiesler became known as “The Ecstasy Girl”.

The scandal over this film meant so much that he had to temporarily retire from the cinema and married the pro-Nazi arms entrepreneur (owner of Hirtenberg Patronenfabrik) Fritz Mandl, one of the richest men of his time. Mandl was the son of a Jew and a Catholic, which is why he later had to flee Nazi Germany, as did his ex-wife Hedy and Max Reinhardt, like many others. Mandl went into exile in Argentina, where he had an important relationship with the Perón government.

She was imprisoned in a castle (Schloss Schwarzenau in Lower Austria) and met some of the Nazi leadership – including Hitler – and Mussolini. Mandl forbade her to go out and was so jealous that he bought all the Ecstasy tapes he could get his hands on and burned them. The time she spent locked up by Mandl was used to study engineering and develop the sophisticated spread spectrum, a frequency-switching technique.

Constipated by living with Mandl, she decided to seduce and maintain a fleeting relationship with her maid – almost a jailer – so that he would let her escape. Although there is also the version that says that she disguised herself as a maid and thus escaped from her husband’s house. However, it is known that she was bisexual and had relations with both men and women, so the first theory is the most accepted. Similarly, it is said that she had support from British and American intelligence services for the escape; in exchange for revealing confidential information (about weapons and communications systems), to which she must have had access in the meetings she accompanied her husband to with Nazi and European leaders. So, there is even a spy side to this multi-faceted woman that left others speechles.

The patent was not used until the 1960s, meaning that its creators were 20 years ahead of science. In 1957 Silvania Electronics Systems Division began to develop the spectrum technique and then in 1962 the government finally adopted it for military communications. This was useful for developing a wireless communications system for guided missiles and also had the feature that they could not be intercepted. It was used by the United States in the Vietnam War and in the Cuban missile crisis. And to this day, this system is still in use today and has moved from the military plane into the contemporary world as the wireless communications system “Wireless”, which even the great Nikola Tesla had imagined. Lamarr and Antheil never earned any money for the patent because it had already expired.

The character of Snow White was inspired by Hedy Lamarr, as Walt Disney saw in her the ideal prototype of the famous creation of the Brothers Grimm, and she also inspired the prototype of DC comics’ “Catwoman”. It was Lamarr who recommended to her friend the aeronautical genius and tycoon Howard Hugues (of whom she was a lover) to create a faster plane with aerodynamic wings inspired by fish and birds; and thanks to her, Hugues transformed this part of aeronautical engineering. From an early age Lamarr had an upbringing in Austria and Switzerland where she proved to be a gifted child, a polyglot and was always researching and inventing things, such as buckets that turned water into Coca Cola.

Her most famous Hollywood film was Samson and Delilah, although she could have starred in White House and Gone with the Wind. She hated the Nazis with a fury, having known them so well that they were repugnant. Lamarr’s personal life was quite eventful with her various affairs, lovers and husbands, as well as being stalked countless times, sexually abused and undoubtedly a sex symbol.

Recognition for her scientific and technological creation would not come until 1997, for both Lamarr and Antheil, when they both received the Electronic Frontier Pioneer Foundation award and did not attend for it, only stating that “it was about time”. He also received the Bulbie Gnass Spirit of Achievement and in 1998 the Viktor Kaplan Medal of the Austrian Association of Inventors and Patent Holders.

In conclusion, without the legendary Hedy Lamarr, the world would not be as connected as it is today and she is the feminine representation of a true and discreet, multifaceted and prolific woman who left a legacy to all of humanity, specifically to much needed communication.


About the Author
Political scientist, analyst, researcher, journalist and columnist in various national and international media outlets. Host of “The Footprints of Sepharad in the New World,” a radio show on Radio Sepharad about Sephardic heritage in America. Also conferencist in multiple topics, like history, literature, judaism, women's history and mysticism.