Lamarr asked her friend, the American avant-garde composer and pianist George Antheil, to help her implement her idea by developing a device that would make frequency hopping possible. He synchronized a pair of miniature player-piano mechanisms that activated the radio signals, one on the ship and one on the torpedo.
Together, Lamar and Antheil patented the invention. But when they brought it to the U.S. Navy, the military brass scoffed, “You want to put a player piano inside a torpedo? Get out of here.” She was urged to use her beautiful face to raise money for the war effort instead—which she did, eventually selling $25 million worth of war bonds, the equivalent of about $343 million today.
After leaving MGM in 1945, she took the daring, nearly unheard-of step of creating her own film-production company. In 1954 she produced the DeMille-style epic The Loves of Three Queens in Italy. Lamarr played all three lead roles in a story about beauty standing in the way of love for the great women of history. She spent millions of dollars of her own money to finance the film, but it never found a U.S. distributor, and she was left broke.
Although she had raised millions for the American war effort, she was not yet a U.S. citizen. A short time later her patent for her frequency-hopping invention was seized by the U.S. government as the property of an “enemy alien.” Her innovation would later be widely adopted by the U.S. military and eventually form the basis for the Wi-Fi, GPS and Bluetooth technologies that we use today. Lamarr never received a penny nor any official recognition for her invention.
In her later years, she reportedly was addicted to pills—the legacy of the amphetamines that studios gave stars to keep them working six days a week and churning out movies. She was arrested twice for shoplifting and underwent a series of plastic surgeries that disfigured her face. She became a recluse, refusing to see anyone, not even her family. Hedy Lamarr died in Florida on Jan. 19, 2000, at the age of 85, without her story being told.
From director Alexandra Dean, and part of the American Masters series on PBS, the engaging and poignant film Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story, is now streaming on Amazon Prime.
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