Hedy Lamarr, the “world’s most beautiful woman” whose sexually provocative performances made her a glamour queen of Hollywood’s Golden Age, has died at her home outside Orlando, Fla., police said. She was 86.
Born Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler on Nov. 9, 1913, in Vienna, Austria, Lamarr was the only child of rich parents and grew up with a private tutor, high society parties and constant travel. The dark-haired actress first gained notoriety for her role in “Ecstasy,” a European film that featured a naked Lamarr swimming and running through the woods and suggestive close-ups of her face during lovemaking, both of which were sensational at the time.
Soon thereafter, Lamarr married Friedrich Mandl, a wealthy munitions dealer who tried unsuccessfully to buy up and burn all copies of the film.
She took her pseudonym (borrowing the surname of silent-screen star Barbara Lamarr) in 1937, when she went to Hollywood and signed with Louis B. Mayer‘s Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer studio. Mayer wanted to make her the greatest star of all time, but some of her early pictures such as “Lady of the Tropics’‘ (1939) and “I Take This Woman” (1940) flopped.
In 1949, she made her biggest hit, Cecil B. De Mille‘s “Samson and Delilah,” in which she displayed a bold sexuality that was uncommon for actresses of her era. In all, she played in more than a dozen films alongside Spencer Tracy, Clark Gable, Jimmy Stewart and Judy Garland. And, with her dark hair parted in the center and her marble-white complexion, Lamarr is often remembered as the actress who broke through the mold of platinum-blond stereotypes.
Unknown to many, Lamarr also made a key contribution to the U.S. war effort against Nazi Germany. Amazingly, Lamarr worked with her friend, the composer George Antheil (who had experimented with mechanical music), to patent a “Secret Communications System” to help Allied submarines elude radio-jamming techniques employed by the Nazis — techniques that Lamarr had become familiar with during her years with her ex-husband, the munitions man.
Lamarr‘s movie career has sometimes been overshadowed by her tumultuous love life (she was married six times) and various scandals, most notably a 1966 arrest in which it was alleged that she stole an $85 pair of slippers. She was cleared of the charges, but that same year, her autobiography “Ecstasy and Me,” which was actually penned by a ghostwriter, was published and further tarnished her image. The book gave unsavory details about her love life, even suggesting she was a nymphomaniac.
Lamarr successfully sued the publisher for misrepresentation, then withdrew from the public eye, saying the book “ruined my career and life.” She was arrested again in Florida for shoplifting, this time for stealing $21.48 worth of laxatives and eyedrops. The charges were again dropped, and her lawyer said that both cases were simply a question of “absentmindedness.”
Lamarr reportedly spent her last years playing the stock market, spending time with grandchildren and watching television, refusing repeated requests from journalists for interviews. In recent years, she also filed two lawsuits, one against a software company and the other against a winery, over unauthorized use of her image.
Lamarr‘s lawyer, Michael McDonnell, said she had suffered no illness or hospital stays recently. “She had the burdens of old age, but she was sharp as a tack and always able to care for herself,” McDonnell said.
“She was always, to me, the quintessential movie star. She walked with her head high, and she was very beautiful, even in her old age.”