The ecstasy

What a woman. She upset the Pope, achieved the first on-screen orgasm and, if legend is to be believed, patented radio-controlled missiles in her spare time. David Thomson pays tribute to the extraordinary Hedy Lamarr, a Hollywood star like no other

In 1941 or so, Charlie Chaplin dated Hedy Lamarr. And after just a few encounters he observed that, in repose, Lamarr had a face and a body that might transfix any man, or drive him crazy. The problems arose whenever she smiled. At that point, something unnatural and implausible sounded in the air like an alarm bell. It was a good thing, noted Chaplin (and others), that she had those perfect breasts.

In 1941 or so, Charlie Chaplin dated Hedy Lamarr. And after just a few encounters he observed that, in repose, Lamarr had a face and a body that might transfix any man, or drive him crazy. The problems arose whenever she smiled. At that point, something unnatural and implausible sounded in the air like an alarm bell. It was a good thing, noted Chaplin (and others), that she had those perfect breasts.

To begin in this way with the lady in question may seem too easy a settling for legend over hard fact. But there are some people who shine in the memory not for the irreproachable facts that may be ascertained about them, but for the wild and pretty stories that continue to be told. There is the one of Miss Lamarr, close to 80, suddenly appearing somewhere in the Nevada desert in a cerise silk pajama suit and high heels, and saying, "Hello, I'm Hedy Lamarr, still. Remember me?" People believe it - yet I thought I made it up. After a while, you can't be sure. And let's face it right from the start, in coming to grips with Hedy Lamarr we are attempting to pin down a woman who published an autobiography, Ecstasy and Me: My Life as a Woman, in 1967, and then sued its ghost-writers (Leo Guild and Sy Rice - is anyone making these names up?) because the book was "fictional, false, vulgar, scandalous, libellous, and obscene".

The reason for dusting off the "Lamarr" file is quite simply that the excellent Arena programme is about to turn its scrutiny on her. Not too solemnly, I hope: this is not the occasion for merciless soul-searching and rueful revelation such as unpeeled Dirk Bogarde, Alec Guinness and Luchino Visconti in recent years. This is, rather, the moment for the tongue-in-cheek matter-of-factness that once celebrated three spectacular if far-fetched blondes: Diana Dors, Jayne Mansfield and Anita Ekberg.

Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler was born on 9 November, 1913 in Vienna. She was Jewish. Her father was a banker and her mother a concert pianist. The girl's education never took her to university, but she was raised in intellectual circles. She had very dark hair (it was always called "raven-coloured" in the fan magazines), her eyes were pools where weak men drowned, and her breasts were apparently in order when she was just 18, auditioning for Max Reinhardt. He admitted that she was extraordinarily beautiful, yet he failed to detect enough evidence of an actor's energy or need. And so, like many a pretty girl, she drifted into pictures (in Vienna and Berlin). And thus she was seen by the Czech director Gustav Machaty and cast, as Hedi Kiesler, in his 1933 picture Extase - one of the most notorious movies ever made, yet one of the least seen.

Hedi plays a young woman who is newly married but crushed to discover that her older husband is impotent. Happily, she finds a younger man who can meet her natural but pressing needs. Along the way there is a lengthy scene in which the entirely naked Kiesler frolics in the sunny countryside and takes a dip in some available water. The nudity is lyrical, quite flagrant, yet very tastefully done. The film is supposed to be "bannable" still for that material. I doubt it. What is far more graphic, and truly erotic still, is a scene in which, in love-making, Hedi Kiesler achieves an orgasm. I'm not sure the female orgasm had been shown before in a movie - or at least not in one offered as a work of general entertainment.

The key image was a sustained close-up shot of the ecstatic Kiesler, during which - she reported later - Machaty was applying the sharp end of a safety pin to her bottom to get the right tremors of released desire. Or maybe the director had other tricks. Extase caused an outcry. The Pope denounced it (one hopes he didn't have to see it). Mussolini rather enjoyed it. And when the film was imported to America, the customs authorities were confounded. There were court proceedings and much lurid publicity, before a tamer version was released years later. In the meantime, Hedwig Kiesler had become an erotic emblem, an obscure object of desire (so long as she didn't smile too much).

She was involved in Vienna with the young Sam Spiegel at this time. The producer-to-be was a nobody as yet, but handsome, saturnine and ambitious enough to live by Alexander Korda's motto - "stay at the best hotels, be seen with the most beautiful women, charge everything, tip heavily and wait for offers". Apparently, Spiegel regarded Hedi as "exquisite but seriously dumb". Nevertheless, he kept her around, beautiful, enigmatic, her feet up on a sofa and reading fashion magazines, as he and his cronies played poker.

But then Fritz Mandl came on the scene. He was a Viennese millionaire, in the munitions business, and eager to have a trophy wife. However, he was a little less than sporting: for if he was to enjoy the real Kiesler all to himself, he felt bound to hunt down every print of Extase and destroy it. This fury became his obsession. He also ordered Hedwig Kiesler to convert from Judaism to Catholicism. He had made that same sidestep himself in the process of becoming an honorary Aryan. As Hedi discovered, this was because he was already caught up in trading armaments to the Nazi party, and he didn't want too many social impediments for his schedule. Hedi even claimed that one day she heard Fritz talking to Adolf Hitler in the next room - it's a great scene, with the two men dreaming over guided torpedoes! Unsmiling, she walked out on the man and his millions with just one small suitcase to carry her jewellery.

She had been allowed to make no film since Extase, yet her looks and her legend had not suffered. She made it her business to get to London and to lodge at Claridge's hotel ("Only one suitcase, madam?") where Louis B Mayer, the head of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, was staying. He was on one of his talent hunts, the kind of holiday instilled in him by the discovery of Greta Garbo years earlier. This time, he was especially on the look-out for talented Jews who might be eager to get out of Europe at a cut price. They met. He was impressed by Hedi but uncertain about her acting. He said if she got herself to America there might be a contract. But she would have to pay for her own ticket on the boat.

At first, she refused, but by the time Mayer boarded the Normandie, he found a certain Hedwig Mandl as a fellow-passenger (she was travelling as companion to a child prodigy on the violin!). She danced with LB after dinner and made sure they were noticed. Somewhere at sea a contract was settled on (the violinist was hired, too), and a key scene in the Hedi story has to be the closed-cabin conferences during which the name Hedi Kiesler was amended to Hedy Lamarr.

It's easy to be suspicious or cynical about such encounters, but in the annals of show business, "Hedy Lamarr" is not just among the great names, it is one of the most audacious transformations. With those breasts and Mr Mayer's fondness, a solid five-year career was made. But with that name, the entire notion of legend was confirmed. For it was a name that profited from its own errors; just to think of Heady L'Amour, the girl who had come on film, was enough to drive men mad with expectation - and as fascism spread in Europe,there was a need for transporting madness. In fact, Mayer had thought of "Lamarr" after Barbara La Marr, a silent screen goddess who had died in 1926 from drugs (and her real name had been Rheatha Watson). You had only to look at Hedy's raven hair, her dark eyes and their baleful stare to think "femme fatale".

In truth, Mayer had been smitten. Lamarr had a $500-a-week contract (modest), yet she walked off the Normandie with several new suitcases full of dresses bought for her at the on-ship shops. Still, M-G-M couldn't actually think of how to use her. Hedy could be naked in the American mind, but there was no way she could manage that simplicity on the American screen. So, eventually, at $1,000-a-week, in 1938 she was loaned out to Walter Wanger to play the love interest opposite Charles Boyer in Algiers (the re-make of the very successful French film, Pépé le Moko).

Without great demands, she handled herself pretty well in Algiers, and at last Metro found a few films for her. She was a "half-breed" opposite Robert Taylor in Lady of the Tropics in 1939. (The New York Times reported that she was like the Mona Lisa, "more beautiful in repose".) She was the woman Spencer Tracy was ready to sacrifice everything for in I Take This Woman (1940). That film had been personally produced by Mr Mayer in an effort to prove Hedy's appeal. He went through several directors as the laboured project earned the nickname I Re-Take This Woman.

Neither film did much for anyone. But things looked up in the crackling adventure picture Boom Town, where she and Claudette Colbert were the girls and Tracy and Clark Gable were the boys. In King Vidor's Comrade X, she was a Russian girl being wooed by Gable again. They had the beginnings of chemistry: he grinned, she frowned; he looked at her and saw the breasts; she sighed in frustration and let the breasts move a little. Box office needs little more sometimes.

In 1941, she made three big pictures: in Come Live With Me, Jimmy Stewart marries her to save her from being deported. In Ziegfeld Girl, she was one of three women (with Lana Turner and Judy Garland) who join the Follies (though Hedy doesn't sing; she just wears the clothes). And in Vidor's H M Pulham, Esq, she did her best acting job as the career woman in Robert Young's life.

By this time, she was having nearly as many husbands as movies a year. In 1939-40, she was married for 14 months to producer Gene Markey; there were affairs with Burgess Meredith and Reginald Gardiner, and a brief engagement to actor George Montgomery before she married another actor, Englishman John Loder - it lasted only four years. And she also got involved with the composer, George Antheil - more of which anon.

She was a Mexican girl, with John Garfield, in Tortilla Flat (adapted from John Steinbeck); she was married to William Powell in Crossroads; and she reached a peak as the native girl, Tondelayo, in White Cargo, in which she seduces most of the men at a British trading post in Africa. This was the picture that got closest to her sexy promise - but it was so close to self-parody that Jack Benny in his weekly radio show began sighing for a little touch of Tondelayo.

In 1943, The Heavenly Body was a title that referred to astronomy, not just Hedy. And The Conspirators was a bare-faced re-make of Casablanca, with many of that film's cast. Around that time, the rumour built that Lamarr had actually declined the Ingrid Bergman role in the original movie.

This was not true. Producer Hal Wallis had once thought of Lamarr for the part of Ilsa, but Metro turned him down. It was only later, in the radio version of the film, that Lamarr played Ilsa, opposite Alan Ladd. Her cool delivery in the part makes one realise how lucky the world was in getting Bergman.

Lamarr's M-G-M contract ran out and was not renewed. She went to RKO for Experiment Perilous (a rip-off of Gaslight) where she is the fearful wife to Paul Lukas's cruel tyrant husband. Directed by Jacques Tourneur, it is one of her best films. Her Highness and the Bellboy - she is a princess, Robert Walker is the bellboy - was her last Metro picture. Then she was forced to do a B picture - The Strange Woman, with director Edgar G Ulmer - the best evidence that maybe she could have acted, too, in the right hands. (Ulmer believed she was close to an Academy nomination for her work as the unpleasant, manipulative lead.)

She was her own producer now, and she asked Orson Welles to let her play Lady Macbeth opposite him. He doubted she had quite the talent, so she said what about Thomas Hardy's The Return of the Native, with Hedy as Eustacia Vye? Orson hesitated again. Her acting power seemed so much less than her literary ambition. So in 1947, she was with John Loder in Dishonored Lady, and she looked older and sadder. The title said it all: Lamarr was a spent force.

Or might have been, had it not been for the casting genius of Cecil B De Mille, who was determined to put the story of Samson and Delilah onscreen. He had Victor Mature for Samson, a great body in the right loincloth, arguably very strong, plainly even more stupid, and - despite his deserved reputation as a wicked joker - earnest enough to do the big God scenes. De Mille was thinking of a mixture of epic and comic-book. For Delilah, he needed a classic harlot, a woman of legendary beauty, someone who would look good in and out of the latest chic Philistine gowns, and someone who seemed wounded and lived in. Hedy Lamarr! The film was ridiculous, and far more camp than it ever guessed, yet it proved an early masterpiece in the new cult genre - Awful Films We Love. Mature may have known what nonsense it all was, but Hedy is playing to the hilt and there are many moments where her foreign voice, her basilisk gaze and her sinful body combine to magnificent effect. If she had not played that part, she could be as close to oblivion now as, say, Sonja Henie, Deanna Durbin and Wanda Hendrix.

There were three more American films - A Lady Without Passport, set in Havana and a fairly good noir directed by Joseph H Lewis; Copper Canyon, a poor Western; and My Favorite Spy, with Bob Hope - where she was still unsmiling. She wandered a little. In 1954, in Italy, she was Helen of Troy (at 40!) in The Loves of Three Queens, and in 1957, in The Story of Mankind, she was Joan of Arc! The Female Animal (1958) was her last real picture, and it gave her Jane Powell as her adopted daughter.

Did life end at 40? Not quite. There were three more husbands (though it's not easy to establish their dates): Teddy Stauffer, a band leader who had worked in Acapulco; Howard Lee, a Texas oil man (he married Gene Tierney after Hedy); and a lawyer named Lewis Boles. All of her six unions ended in divorce, but she had two children by John Loder, and one of them, Anthony Loder, is the questing figure in the Arena programme.

For the rest is not quite silence. As well as Ecstasy and Me, and the subsequent legal action, Ms Lamarr was in and out of the courts over the years. She called up Sam Spiegel once, and after the call he mused, "What a pity that they all turn crazy". When her book came out she complained to columnist Sheila Graham that, having earned $7m in her time, she was on relief at $48 a week. The figures all seem exaggerated - and that was something that nobody would once have accused her of. She was arrested a couple of times on minor shop-lifting charges (cosmetics and clothes), particularly in Florida where she had retired. The charges were settled, but she was eventually found dead in a small home in Orlando where she lived alone. She was 86, and she had experimented disastrously with plastic surgery. Unrecognisable, she lived largely on the phone, but she still dreamed up odd inventions. Occasionally, international film festivals sent her invitations with the prospect of tributes. She nearly made it to Telluride (in Colorado) one year, but then at the last moment she made exorbitant demands for a costume allowance and make-up artists to accompany her.

It is a sad story, all the sadder when you recall those lovely nude scenes, the moment when the student body of Columbia voted her the woman they'd most hope to be marooned with on a desert island; and the time in 1942, at the Hollywood Canteen when Lamarr had offered to kiss any man who'd buy $25,000 of War Bonds. In a couple of days, she raised $17m. That is legend, and if the maths is tough for you it works out to be 680 kisses. I bet everyone was handled personally and with feeling. And maybe just a hint of a smile.

And then there is George Antheil, born 1900 in Trenton, New Jersey, a noted modernist composer (he did the music for Ballet Mécanique) who would move on to doing conventional movie scores. It seems that Antheil and Hedy Lamarr met at a Hollywood dinner party in the early Forties. They started talking. They were both concerned about the war. She had some knowledge of armaments from being married to Fritz Mandl. He was a genius for sound effects, et cetera. She was a very lovely woman. She told George some story she recalled about sound waves being used to guide weapons and torpedoes.

Now I concede that this is not going to be nearly as easy a scene to write as the one where she and Mr Mayer change her name. And I don't know if it will play without diagrams and a quick course in physics. And truth to tell, I don't know what on earth happened or how far George was spinning a line to get better acquainted.

But apparently on 11 August, 1942 - you can look it up - they both received a patent for radio-controlled missiles. It seems that beneath the cover of "movie star", Hedy was actually spending time at the San Diego naval base, working on frequency hopping and a kind of technology that would become vital to the mobile phone. But there is no moment after the war when a grateful president pinned a medal on Ms Lamarr's breast. And apparently the patent ran out before the two inventors could make much money on it. Still, this rare Delilah actually had a secret yen (and a head) for radio-controlled missiles. I am prepared to have the wise and diligent Arena people say, "No, no, all hokum". But I hope not. There are times when the legend is too lovely to be sacrificed for mere fact.

'Arena: Calling Hedy Lamarr': BBC2, 12 Feb

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