For most of my adult life my mornings were spent rushing around in the dark attempting to hit the roadways before the traffic built up so badly that I would be late for work. I never had the luxury of sitting at my kitchen table eating a nice warm breakfast while reading my newspaper as is depicted in so many images of American life. I regularly subscribed to the Houston Post and eventually the Houston Chronicle but rarely had time to even move either of them from the driveway much less peruse their pages. I ate my morning meal inside my car and got my news from the radio.
My evenings weren’t much better. There were always dinners to be cooked, chores to be done, children to love, papers to be graded, events to attend, time to spend with Mike. I only paused long enough to to read the headlines and toss the pulpy newsprint into the trash after Mike had managed to squeeze in a glance through his favorite sections. Once the big news began to appear instantly on my computer and my phone it seemed to make little sense to keep paying for the local paper to arrive on my driveway each morning only so that I might flatten it with my tires as I frantically left home. I cancelled our membership as faithful supporters of Houston journalism and began to rely solely on the Internet.
Now that I am retired I allow myself more time in the mornings to become familiar with whatever may be happening in the world at large. I sit in a quiet room and read of current events while munching leisurely on my breakfast. It is a delightful treat to be able to so enjoy a bit of “me” time, something that I’m still trying to convince myself is okay to do. I’m often inspired to use a bit of information that I have seen in my morning excercise as the basis of my daily blog. Perhaps more than any other activity, I so love seeing a new Google doodle in the corner of my search engine. It always signals an interesting bit of information that broadens my knowledge and tickles my fancy.
This morning when I clicked on that little icon I learned that today would have been Hedy Lamarr’s birthday. I doubt that I would have been particularly curious about why Ms. Lamarr was the subject of Google’s honor had it not been for a story that my mother often told with more than just a little bit of pride. It seems that when Mama was a teenager Hedy Lamarr, who was an actress, was thought to be perhaps the most beautiful woman in the world. My mother was a bit of a looker herself and it seems that many of the people that she knew began to remark that she very closely resembled Hedy Lamarr. She was a doppleganger if you wish. Even perfect strangers would stop to remark on how much she and Ms. Lamarr looked alike.
When I was growing up I had little idea who Hedy Lamarr was but I still heard those stories, not just from Mama but from her siblings as well. I laughed when I first saw the movie, Blazing Saddles,because one of the characters was named Hedley Lamarr in an obvious play on the once quite famous star. I never bothered to learn much about the real Hedy Lamarr nor even to inquire about her life. Mama’s story was just one of those tidbits so often repeated that I found it to be quaint but little else. Today when I saw the Google icon I became more than a little curious about who Hedy Lamarr might have been and so I took the bait and googled her name. I was quite surprised by the stories that I read.
It seems that Hedy Lamarr was born into a Jewish family in Austria on November 9, 1914, as Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler. As a young woman she developed a career in German and Czech films, gaining notoriety for one particular role that was quite risqué for the times given that it included nudity and a rather vivid sex scene. With the winds of war threatening in Germany Hedy stole away from both that country and an abusive husband to Paris. Eventually she fled once again as the Nazis closed in on France. She found passage on a steamship heading for the United States. There she met Louis B. Mayer and landed a movie contract with the proviso that she learn English as quickly as possible.
Hedy Lamarr not only quickly became fluent in the language but became a top box office draw during the nineteen forties, starring with legendary actors like Spencer Tracy, Jimmy Stewart, Clark Gable, and Victor Mature. Known for her dark exotic beauty, she became one of the favorite pinup girls during World War II and was often called the most beautiful woman in the movies. What few people knew was that Hedy was also a brilliant woman who in another era might have been more celebrated for her mind than for her appearance.
When she was not working in front of a camera Ms. Lamar spent time dabbling in scientific and engineering projects. She hated parties and the Hollywood night life which she avoided at all costs. She had a room in her home dedicated to inventive pursuits that included a drafting table and a wall of bookshelves filled with technical books. There she spent her evenings attempting to find solutions to the world’s problems. When she learned that Allied missiles were being continuously intercepted and destroyed by the Nazis she teamed with a neighbor to devise a method for guiding weapons that could not be tracked by the enemy. They called their design frequency hopping and it was based on the idea of constantly changing the sounds of the signals in irregular intervals so that it would be impossible to guess their location. When she and her co-inventor showed their discovery to the Navy they were ridiculed and the project was set aside, left to languish until more thoughtful individuals understood it’s brilliance. Her co-discovery later became the basis for much of the spread spectrum technology used in the modern world, including wifi, cell phones and GPS systems.
Eventually Hedy Lamarr’s acting career stalled and she moved to Florida where she lived in relative obscurity until her death. It was not until 1997, that she was finally recognized for her scientific contributions and inventions with two prestigious awards. Like so many female inventors she had been much too far ahead of her time to be seen as anything other than a beautiful face. She often expressed the frustration and unhappiness that she had felt in not being taken seriously. “Any girl can be glamorous. All you have to do is stand still and look stupid.”
I don’t know if my mother ever knew about Hedy Lamarr’s other life as a scientist and inventor. I suspect that Mama would have been doubly proud of being compared to her had she known that Ms. Lamarr was far more than a superficial representation of womanhood. She was a courageous woman who walked away from an abusive situation, used her wits to find work, and enjoyed the challenges of solving problems. While few of her other ideas ever found fruition they speak of a fertile mind, ever taken with the way things work and the possibilities of creating a better world. Happy Birthday, Hedy Lamar! Who knew that you had such a beautiful mind!