Hedy Lamarr: WWII Hero—My Journeys Playing the Most Beautiful Genius in the World

Actress Heather Massie discusses the story of Hedy Lamarr, her contribution to science during World War II, and how Heather took these stories to the stage in her one-woman play.

Top Image: Hedy Lamarr in 1938. Photo by Clarence Sinclair Bull, courtesy MGM.

In terms of fascinating rabbit holes, the story of Hollywood actress and inventor Hedy Lamarr provides a perfect escape of glamour, invention, genius, and intrigue. I came to her story when I was seeking a woman in science to feature in a theatrical production to tour around the world. Having started off in the sciences, I wanted to find a way to bring this passion back into my life.

When I was eight years old, I decided that I wanted to be an Astronaut! … Or an Inventor. … Or to work with animals. When you are eight you can dream, and the world is your oyster. The inspiration of the Space Shuttle program led me straight into college studies in Astrophysics. Yet, in one of those twists of life, I ended up earning my degree in Theatre Arts. Becoming a professional actor regionally and in New York City, I felt I had to leave science behind. It was some time later when I realized I had left a very important part of myself to languish. I recalled a lesson I had learned from astronauts. Ask any of them what you should do to become an astronaut and, fairly unanimously, they will say to study whatever field of science you are most passionate about. In this way you excel in your work, are more likely to be at the top of your field to compete, and if you do not get to be an astronaut, you will have a happy life doing good work that you love.

I was compelled to connect the two most important passions within me—science and art. In this way I could bring my life into focus to do my best work and inspire those around me. Enter the magic: Hedy Lamarr—just the woman to take me, and audiences, on a fantastic journey. 

Heather Massie as Hedy Lamarr in “HEDY! The Life & Inventions of Hedy Lamarr” at the Bord Gáis Energy Theatre in Dublin, Ireland for the Inspirefest Technology Conference in 2018. Courtesy Inspirefest.

Hedy was a brilliant and deeply misunderstood woman. Her stunningly beautiful face and figure would leave those around her without words. In their awe, they simply could not fathom the great genius before them. This was the box Hedy lived in. She felt her face was a curse, a mask she could not remove. She desperately longed to be understood for her thoughts and ideas. And yet, the distinction of being ‘the most beautiful woman in the world’ followed her every movement.

Far more than Hollywood parties, she enjoyed being among a small group of friends discussing ideas. She spent many evenings at home studying research texts and working at her drafting table to create inventions to improve current designs. She developed a capacity at an early age to think of ways to make things better. She loved to study how systems worked. Her father, Emil Kiesler, had encouraged her inquisitive nature by taking her on walks to explain how various machines functioned.

While Hedy was married six times, it was her first marriage in her native Austria to Friedrich ‘Fritz’ Mandl that led to the knowledge she absorbed regarding munitions. He was one of the world’s leading arms dealers, one of the richest men in Austria, and he sold weapons to various leaders including those with Nazi affiliations. At dinner parties, Hedy was meant to be a trophy wife, so no one expected that she understood everything that was discussed. Due to the oppression of being kept in a gilded cage, and no longer being allowed to perform on stage or in film, she executed a fantastic escape, making her way to Hollywood and into films with MGM. And America fell in love.

Hedy Lamarr in a publicity photo for “Algiers” in 1938. This was her first American film, in which she co-starred with Charles Boyer. Photo by Robert Coburn, courtesy United Artists.

At the point when the United States was on the brink of being pulled into World War II, Hedy was compelled to do something. She was affected by the fact that children had perished in torpedo attacks while onboard ships intended to take them to safety. And being that she was of Jewish heritage (an identity she hid throughout her life), the events of the war intensely affected her.Aware that militaries with the most powerful weapons win, she drew on her knowledge of torpedoes to invent a method to improve the United States’ notoriously plagued guidance systems. She knew that radio frequencies were the key to the solution—but not the single radio frequencies that were being employed for torpedo guidance at the time. Her revolutionary idea was to ‘hop’ frequencies in a predetermined pattern to make radio controlled torpedo communication unjammable. 

She brought on a very unlikely co-inventor, avant-garde composer, and jack-of-all-trades, George Antheil. Antheil was famous for musical compositions utilizing synchronized player pianos. The secret to implementing Hedy’s idea dawned on them while playing piano together. The torpedo and the guiding vessel would change radio frequencies very rapidly in an identical pattern, controlled by a device similar to a paper roll in a player piano. In this way, the vessels could communicate with each other in a secure manner that could not be intercepted by the enemy. And Frequency Hopping Spread Spectrum Technology was born.

We have much to be grateful to Hedy for regarding her revolutionary invention. Her concept is now used in our cell phones, WiFi, GPS, Bluetooth, and more, keeping our wireless communications secure. But it was a long road in getting there. She and Antheil gave their 1942 patent to the US Navy to support the war effort. Despite a small mention of Hedy’s involvement in the development of a ‘red hot apparatus’ in The New York Times on October 1, 1941, the Navy proceeded to mark the patent as top secret and shelved it for years. It was finally implemented in 1959 for a sonobuoy system. And in 1962, its use was instrumental in preventing the Cuban Missile Crisis from escalating.

The Navy instead insisted that Hedy sell War Bonds, and boy, did she! She sold $25 million in bonds to support the war effort. And her friend Bette Davis invited her to work at the Hollywood Canteen to support the GIs heading off to war. This is exactly where she met her third husband, actor John Loder, while on dish washing duty. This work was extremely important to Hedy in supporting her new country and working to defeat the Axis forces. 

Throughout her life, Hedy worked on many other inventions, as she said that the ideas came easily to her. This is where a special point of inspiration comes in, as she was able to do all of this with self-study. She was not educated in these areas, having left formal education at around the age of 16 to pursue her acting career. She is an example to all of us that we can work beyond the ideas others may have of us, to achieve the unexpected.

I have dedicated my work to telling her story in the play I wrote titled, HEDY! The Life & Inventions of Hedy Lamarr. It is a particular journey for me to embody Hedy. As a child, I considered myself to be exceedingly plain in appearance, and now I step onstage portraying the ‘most beautiful woman in the world.’ Then again, Hedy did not think much of her looks when she was young, having been deemed an ‘ugly weed’ by her mother, and endearingly called an ‘ugly duckling’ by her beloved father. She was destined to grow from there into the glorious swan we admire. All this, and she had an incredible sense of humor.

Heather Massie as Hedy Lamarr. Photographed at the New Jersey Naval Museum in 2016. Photo by Charles Marlowe.

My mission is to inspire audiences to make the world a better place by pursuing their passions, to encourage young women in science and technology, and to establish Hedy Lamarr as a role model for intelligence, ingenuity, and invention. Fascination with her story transcends both age and geography, playing equally well for scientists at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory and at Mlamula Primary School in South Africa.

I take great joy in spreading her message of inspiration—that all of us can use our very specific talents to contribute to the world around us, and that we can combine our unique interests to create exciting new ideas. In performing her story, I receive the gift of sharing with each distinctly special audience. I, as a solo performer, also portray each of the 35 other characters in her story including: Louis B Mayer, Charles Boyer, Jimmy Stewart, Clark Gable, and Bette Davis. And yet, the most important relationship in the show is Hedy’s relationship with the audience—making each performance singularly unique.

To date, I have shared Hedy’s story with audiences throughout the United States, Ireland, Northern Ireland, Italy, Sweden, Ukraine, Zimbabwe, and South Africa in theatres, arts festivals, science festivals, science centers, universities, schools, museums, Jewish organizations, and technology conferences. The work has received the honor of 17 awards internationally; my most profound honor having been to serve as a Fulbright Specialist with the show to South Africa in 2019 through the US State Department, World Learning, and the US Embassy South Africa. That her story speaks to everyone is incredible, and that it especially speaks to young women around the world is empowering. Whether I am aboard the USS Intrepid Sea, Air, and Space Museum performing for the GOALS for Girls Program, at the Intwasa Arts Festival in Bulawayo Zimbabwe, or at universities across the United States, her story inspires and intrigues.

Heather Massie performing “HEDY! The Life & Inventions of Hedy Lamarr” for the young women of St. Catherine’s Girls’ High School in Empangeni, South Africa. Presented during the 2018 ZulFest Science Festival for Unizulu Science Center of the University of Zululand. Photo by Derek Fish.

There are many unique moments I have experienced as Hedy while looking into the eyes of audience members—having immediate exchanges of thought and humor. This is the magic I long to experience once more. March 12, 2020 was my last public performance with the show at Doudna Fine Arts Center at Eastern Illinois University, just as the inevitability of coming events was unfolding. My very next engagement, two weeks of performances at the esteemed The National WWII Museum scheduled for late March 2020 were the first of my events to be postponed.

I am thrilled that now, if all the fates align, I will be with you at the Museum in BB’s Stage Door Canteen from May 21-30, 2021 to share the intensely fascinating events that Hedy lived. We shall gather in the same space, and experience a shared journey—the kind that we have all been longing for through this past year of shared, but separate, isolation. It will be my profound honor to bring Hedy Lamarr’s genius, wit, and wisdom to life for you at BB’s Stage Door Canteen—a venue she would assuredly have adored!

For tickets and information visit here. For more on the show visit here

Meet the Author 

Heather Massie is a NYC playwright, performer, and producer. Originally from Virginia, she has always been fascinated by the sciences, especially Astronomy. She studied Astrophysics at the University of Virginia with dreams of becoming an astronaut, and Theatre Arts at The Virginia Tech School of the Arts graduating Summa Cum Laude. After performing extensively in NYC and throughout the United States, she determined to marry her loves of art and science by creating and performing her 17x Award-Winning, Internationally Acclaimed solo show HEDY! The Life & Inventions of Hedy Lamarr about Hollywood film star, and inventor, Hedy Lamarr.

She has toured the work since 2016 thorough the United States, Ireland, Northern Ireland, Sweden, Italy, Ukraine, Zimbabwe, and South Africa. In 2019, she served as a Fulbright Specialist with the show to South Africa through the US State Department, World Learning, and the US Embassy South Africa. This is the first in her trilogy of solo shows celebrating women in science. The next will be Flying with Sally Ride: America’s First Woman in Space