I have always been fascinated by those rare and extraordinary
individuals who excel in two entirely different professions,
one of which is often unknown to the public until after their
I have written about Morris “Moe” Berg, a Princeton graduate,
polymath, and a major league baseball player for more than a
dozen years in the 1920a and1930s, and who then became a key
spy for the OSS (forerunner of the CIA) during World War II.
At some point, I hope to write about Charles Ives, one of my
favorite (and one of the greatest) American composers. Ives
also was a top executive and a pioneer in the insurance
industry, and is given credit for the invention of estate planning.
Wallace Stevens was one of the nation’s most important poets,
but throughout his writing career was also a top insurance
company figure and actuary.
There are other examples. In this column, I will tell the story of
two more whose lives were perhaps even more improbable.
Hedy Lamarr was one of the most beautiful and famous movie
stars of the 1930s and 1940s. Born Hedwig Kreisler in Vienna in
1913, she was the daughter of two Jewish refugees (her father
from Russia; her mother from Hungary) who settled in the
vibrant Austro-Hungarian capital and met there. Before she
was 18, young Hedy was a theater and film star. She also soon
married a Viennese munitions tycoon who helped arm the
pre-war European nations, including the budding Nazi groups
in several of them. After the 1930s and the Nazi rise to power
in Europe, however, Ms. Kreisler (now Mandl) had to flee
Austria and her husband (who in spite of his usefulness to the
Nazis was partly Jewish and was now shunned by them) to
emigrate to Hollywood where several directors and movie
moguls knew about her from her acting work in Europe.
In her American films she now became Hedy Lamarr, a huge
box office movie star, and remarried several times. She knew
and hung out with most of the most famous literary, music
and film personalities of her era. But the glamorous actress
had a secret double life.
During her years married to the munitions tycoon Mandl,
she had overheard in dinner conversations about top secret
weapons development in submarine warfare technology,
Although not a typical “intellectual,” Ms. Lamarr had some
remarkable scientific skills, and had for years pursued the
hobby of creating inventions. Now in Hollywood, and
understandably upset by reports of terrible casualties
resulting from German U-boat sinkings, she decided to try
to invent a device to counter the Nazi submarines.
At this point, she met one of America’s most avant-garde and
famous composers, George Antheil.
Like Charles Ives, Antheil had a double life. He also liked to
invent things. He had become a prophet of new music with
his notorious Ballet Mechanique in 1926 which, like Igor
Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring” premiere in Paris in 1913,
caused a riot. By 1947, he was rated as one of the most
performed U.S. composers (along with Samuel Barber,
George Gershwin and Aaron Copland). Like so many classical
composers of his era, he was drawn to Hollywood to write
music for films and lot of money. There he met Hedy
Lamarr, and was astonished that she, too, spent her spare
time inventing. Lamarr had sought out Antheil, not because
he was a famous composer, but because he was an expert in
a scientific process she needed to complement a discovery
she had made in submarine warfare technology. Antheil was
also upset by Nazi submarine activities, and the two film
figures secretly began collaborating on a device that would
thwart Nazi U-boat activity. By the early 1940a, they had
succeeded, and applied for a patent which they eventually
received. They also offered their invention to the U.S.
military which initially rejected it. Eventually, the military
bought the patent, but it was largely unused during the war.
After the war, it was rediscovered by technicians and became
known as spread spectrum technology. It is now one of the
most important communictions technologies in use today,
critical to the use of cell phones, wi-fi, and so much more.
It all began with Hedy Lamarr’s idea and her collaboration
with George Antheil.
George Antheil died in 1959, but Hedy Lamarr lived until 2000.
While both of them deserve credit for their invention, Antheil
was always up front about Hedy Lamarr’s creating the first
insight which led to it. Ms. Lamarr retired from films, and
her contribution to science was for many years ignored. In her
80s, however, some scientists and engineers, aware of what
she had done, made efforts to give her the recognition she was
due. In 1997, she was given the Pioneer Award from the
Electronics Frontier Foundation, a Nobel Prize equivalent of
honoring inventors, and other major honors soon followed.
For almost half a century, Hedy Lamarr had been mostly
silent abut her remarkable scientific contribution. She was
obviously a complicated and extraordinary personality. She
kept many secrets. Only after her death, did her children,
and her many film friends and fans, discover that she was
[For those who would like to read more about the lives and
collaboration of Hedy Lamarr and George Antheil, I strongly
recommend Hedy’s Folly by Richard Rhodes, a superb book
which was a major reference work for my article.]
Copyright (c) 2017 by Barry Casselman. All rights reserved.