An intimate and unexpected journey, through a collection of family photos, inside the story of the actress who invented the Wi-Fi
Last August, the 76th edition of the Venice Film Festival was inaugurated by the screening, digitally restored for this occasion, of the famous film Exstase; and the mini-series by director Sarah Treem starring Gal Gadot is awaited on Showtime. Soon, the end of November will provide a new exciting opportunity to dive in the life of Hedy Lamarr: the exhibition Lady Bluetooth – a journey through unreleased family photos – will be opening on November 27 at the Jewish Museum of Vienna, the birthplace of the actress-scientist.
The exhibition embraces every aspect of Hedy Lamarr’s incredible life, from her childhood and youth in Europe to the second part of her life in the United States. The photographs leading the visitor on this journey were kindly made available by Anthony Loder, Hedy Lamarr’s son”, explains Andrea Winklbauer, art historian, art and film critic, and curator of the exhibition. “The exhibition features family episodes (for instance the reunion with her mother, Gertrude Kiesler, who managed to flee Europe and to reach America), her love stories and their epilogue (she was married six times), her career, her genius, but also the bitter side of her life, which most showed her vulnerability”.
Born in Vienna in 1914 as Hedwig Kiesler, her first marriage was with Fritz Mandl, an Austrian businessman in the field of weapons and munitions. “Fritz Mandl turned out to be an abusive man”, says Winklbauer, “who literally locked her up as he was jealous and obsessed with the need for control. Hedy Lamarr managed to escape from him by traveling to London via Paris. From there, she emigrated to the United States, where she started over again and soon became famous as a Hollywood diva. But in those same years – the United States had entered Second World War – she also revealed her curious and inventive mind, by developing a technology that was patented as Secret Communication System: it’s the same technology on which today’s Wifi, Bluetooth and GPS are based. She demonstrated an extraordinary talent, if you consider that she didn’t get any academic education (she dropped out of school in Vienna at the age of 15 to start her career in the movie industry). But she was very talented and especially learned a lot about military technology from her first husband and his friends and business partners. Of course, they would not talk to her about this subject, but she would listen during dinners and parties, and memorize all she could be able to.”
Hedy Lamarr, a Jewish woman who escaped from the persecutions in Europe (and from sharing her life with a pro-Nazi husband), wished her invention could contribute to the military efforts of the United States against Nazi Germany. “But the US Navy, to which she turned to offer her technology, ignored her. Society wasn’t ready to take an inventor-actress seriously”.
There is a particularly powerful sentence in the presentation of the exhibition: “The true tragedy of her glamorous life was that this brilliant, self-confident woman had not thought it possible to invent a modern role for herself beyond the usual gender stereotypes”. And the first stereotype, especially in her case, revolved around physical appearance. “Since she built her career and her life relying on her beauty, as she did not have much other choice, during her final years she became obsessed with it. She could not accept decay and aging. There are many episodes related to that. Not being capable to accept that her body would change, she underwent plastic surgery, but the outcome was delusional. Little by little she refused to let herself be seen by other people, even her close ones, and ended up living as a recluse. At some point she even refused to meet her daughter in law, Anthony Loder’s wife. Other occurrences also made her final years difficult. On one occasion, for example, she was accused of shoplifting at a department store and had to go to court; she was not convicted in the end, but that was a bitter and destabilizing event”.
By looking at Hedy Lamarr’s biography thoroughly, is it possible to understand to what extent her obsession with physical beauty was due to her own personality, or it was a product of the society she was living in instead? “I think her attitude was largely due to her personality”, says Winklbauer. “She knew she was beautiful and she wanted to be, forever. She could not think of herself in a different way. So, there was a personal element, undoubtedly. But society expectations also played a role. Had she lived in a different time, had her love and talent for science been taken seriously, perhaps today we would tell a very different story”. So, the key question remains: if Hedy Lamarr were living now, in 2019, who would she be? A scientist, an actress, or maybe both? “I think she would be a scientist, rather than an actress”, affirms Winklbauer. “Because despite all the difficulties, she would find a society keener to accept her, which would enable to build her self-confidence not exclusively on her beauty, but also, and above all, on her talent and intelligence”.
Laureata a Milano in Lingue e Culture per la Comunicazione e la Cooperazione Internazionale, ha studiato Peace & Conflict Studies presso l’International School dell’Università di Haifa, dove ha vissuto per un paio d’anni ed è stata attiva in diverse realtà locali di volontariato sui temi della mediazione, dell’educazione e dello sviluppo. Appassionata di natura, libri, musica, cucina.