"Beautiful" by Stephen Michael Shearer: Book Review

"Beautiful: The Life of Hedy Lamarr"
by Stephen Michael Shearer
Thomas Dunne/St. Martin's, 464 pp., $29.99
Reviewed by David Marshall James

"She was the most beautiful woman ever in film, without question," observed Robert Osborne, host of Turner Classic Movies.

F. Scott Fitzgerald went even further, calling Hedy Lamarr "the most beautiful girl in the World."

It was only natural that she gravitated toward motion pictures, although her otherwordliness made her seem out of place in ordinary settings. Still, she played romantic leads with Clark Gable, Spencer Tracy, Charles Boyer, Robert Young, William Powell, and Robert Taylor, along with her two favorite leading men, James Stewart and John Garfield.

However profitable each and every one of her MGM movies was, she should have been playing femmes fatales and exotic figures of history, myths, and literary classics. She was requested for-- and wanted to play-- Ilsa in "Casablanca," but MGM refused to loan her to Warner Bros. It wasn't the first picture she lost to Ingrid Bergman; "Gaslight" was another.

Hedy turned down the title role in "Laura," and the classic went to Gene Tierney, who wound up marrying (contentedly, until death), one of Hedy's ex-husbands, Texas oil millionaire Howard W. Lee.

Finally, Cecil B. DeMille cast Hedy as the Biblical Delilah, the sort of role she should have been portraying all along. The Technicolor extravaganza became one of the Top Five moneymakers of the 1940s.

Hedy should have stayed atop her newfound wave of success; nevertheless, she was thirty-six and rapidly tiring of the movie-star grind.

She began in pictures in her native Vienna, and those include the scandalous "Ecstasy," which features a scene of Hedy au naturel. The film has been shown on Turner Classic Movies, and it would scarcely rate an "R" (if that), because of its total lack of objectionable language.

However, it upset her first husband, munitions manufacturer Fritz Mandl, who had presented his teenaged bride with an eleven-carat-diamond engagement ring. On a trip to Paris, he purchased all the jewels in Cartier's display window for Hedy.

The Mandls traveled between homes in Vienna and Salzburg, entertaining celebrities and royalty. Then Mandl was caught up in the explosive politics of the ever-approaching Anschluss, and Hedy (both of her parents were Jewish) wisely fled the oppressive marriage in 1937.

Although her film and TV career would degenerate into a litany of lawsuits and countersuits over failed projects and disastrous marriages, then over her ghostwritten autobiography "Ecstasy and Me" (1966), the last act of her life would unreel like an unbelievable MGM movie script.

For, at the outset of World War II, Hedy had co-patented a "frequency-hopping" device for guiding torpedoes, her years with Mandl having been a tutelage in military technology.

The patent expired during the mid 1950s, yet was soon adapted for U.S. arms development, and has since been the basis for ongoing inventions for both the U.S. government and private industry-- among them cellular telephones.

(One can only imagine how wealthy Hedy Lamarr would have been had she renewed her patent-- a fortune to rival Bill Gates's. In her last years, she managed to parlay her ravaged savings into a multimillion-dollar estate, owing to stock-market investments.)

Hedy, who left Hollywood forever during the late 1960s, lived in New York until the early 1980s, when she retired to Florida. Her daughter and son accepted the many prestigious awards bestowed upon her by the scientific community during the 1990s. After her death in 2000, her ashes were scattered in the Vienna Woods, where she played happily as a child.

The author notes: "On November 9, 2005, on what would have been Hedy's ninety-second birthday, Austria, Germany, and Switzerland inaugurated the very first Inventors' Day in honor of Hedy Lamarr. Today, November 9 is internationally celebrated as Hedy Lamarr Day or Inventors' Day, in her honor."

It would seem a U.S. postage stamp, at the very least, is long overdue from the adopted country that benefited quite freely from her inventing prowess and legendary screen presence, via which Hedy sold tens of millions of dollars in U.S. war bonds and was a regular fixture at the fabled Hollywood Canteen for servicemen and women.

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