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Obituaries

Hedy Lamarr; Screen Star Called Her Beauty a Curse

January 20, 2000|MYRNA OLIVER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Hedy Lamarr, the raven-haired screen siren known for exceptional beauty that was described by Hollywood columnist Hedda Hopper as "orchidaceous," was found dead Wednesday at her home in suburban Orlando, Fla. She was 86.

A Sheriff's Department spokesman said Lamarr's unattended death was being investigated as a routine matter and was not considered suspicious.

In her heyday, from the late 1930s to the early 1950s, she starred in 25 films, including "Algiers" with Charles Boyer, "Comrade X" and "Boomtown" with Clark Gable, "Tortilla Flat" with Spencer Tracy and John Garfield, and her greatest commercial success and first Technicolor film, "Samson and Delilah" with Victor Mature.

Whatever critics said about her acting or the public about her notoriety, her beauty was universally praised.

"My face has been my misfortune," she wrote in her 1966 autobiography, "Ecstasy and Me." "It has attracted six unsuccessful marriage partners. It has attracted all the wrong people into my boudoir and brought me tragedy and heartache for five decades," she wrote. " My face is a mask I cannot remove. I must always live with it. I curse it."

Unimpressed with roles in which she was required only to look pretty, Lamarr was often quoted as saying: "Any girl can be glamorous; all you have to do is stand still and look stupid."

Far from stupid, she and composer George Antheil shared a patent issued in 1942 for inventing a technological system they called "frequency hopping." It is still used in military communications.

But the woman who was once one of filmdom's biggest attractions earned some unflattering headlines in her later years.

She was charged with shoplifting both in Los Angeles and near her retirement home in suburban Orlando. She also became quite litigious, suing the San Francisco Chronicle and the more flamboyant National Enquirer for libel when the Chronicle ran a picture of a two-headed goat named Hedy Lamarr and the Enquirer claimed that she had become "a pathetic recluse" and "old and ugly."

Born Hedwig Kiesler, the daughter of a Viennese banker, young Hedy sprang into international attention at 17 when she performed some nude scenes in the controversial 1932 Czechoslovak film "Ecstasy."

To Lamarr, the film was "a harmless little sex romp about a sweet young thing who marries an older man [who was] unable to consummate the marriage on the wedding night."

To U.S. arbiters of taste, the film was legally obscene, and it was banned in this country for several years.

"The primary objection was not the nude swimming scene, which you have no doubt heard so much about, or the sequence of my fanny twinkling through the woods," she wrote in her autobiography, "but the close-ups of my face in that cabin sequence where the camera records the reactions of a love-starved bride in the act of sexual intercourse."

She claimed that the director tricked her into doing the nude scenes by moving the camera to a distant hill--then using a telescopic lens. She said he obtained her facial reactions by sticking her with a pin.

Lamarr's first husband, Austrian munitions manufacturer Fritz Mandl, was unaware that she had done the nude scenes. He was horrified when the film appeared, and spent a fortune buying up every print he could find. His embarrassment, of course, helped make the film a classic.

Lamarr fled that marriage after three years, obtaining her first divorce in France.

"I couldn't be an object," she recalled in 1990 when she was 75, "so I walked out."

Louis B. Mayer, who met her in London and signed her to a seven-year contract with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer during their Atlantic Ocean crossing, gave her the name that was to become famous.

She arrived in Hollywood in late 1937, brushed up on her English and was soon known as an exquisitely beautiful "exotic," a mysterious foreigner who could play many ethnic roles.

Her first film, "Algiers," according to then-Times Hollywood columnist Donald Hough, "established her as the No. 1 desert-island choice of the average American male." But she continued to fight for more serious parts such as "Comrade X" in 1940.

"The word was passed," Hough wrote then, "that this was no mere Viennese doll; this was somebody with brains and a sense of humor, perhaps with acting ability--certainly with determination."

Although Lamarr didn't obtain U.S. citizenship until 1953, she was fiercely pro-American during World War II, selling war bonds, washing dishes and dancing with men in uniform at the Hollywood USO canteen, and offering her new homeland her frequency invention to be used to direct torpedoes at moving ships.

The invention had its beginnings when the public was encouraged by the National Inventors Council to submit ideas for defense devices. Lamarr discussed her concept with Antheil when she met him at a party given by actress Janet Gaynor. On leaving, she scrawled her phone number in lipstick on his car's windshield. The two met at her house the next evening to work out the technology.

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