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The brilliant mind of Hollywood legend Hedy Lamarr

The actress Hedy Lamarr captivated audiences during the 1930s and 1940s in films like "Algiers" and "Ziegfeld Girl" and became known as an iconic beauty. "Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story," a new documentary, showcases her overlooked achievements in technology, including her work on an invention that helped form the basis for Wi-Fi. NewsHour Weekend's Megan Thompson spoke to Alexandra Dean, director of the film, which airs May 18 on American Masters.

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  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    Hedy Lamarr was one of the most iconic actresses of her day, known for her great beauty, and said to be the inspiration for Catwoman and Snow White.

    But there was a part of her life that almost no one knew about. It turns out, Hedy Lamarr was also a brilliant inventor.

    A new documentary film about her life opened widely in theaters across the nation this week and will air May 18 on American Masters on PBS. NewsHour Weekend's Megan Thompson spoke recently to Alexandra Dean, the director of "Bombshell, the Hedy Lamarr story."

  • MEGAN THOMPSON:

    Tell us, who was Hedy Lamarr?

  • ALEXANDRA DEAN:

    Hedy Lamarr was a Jewish child who was born in Austria in the shadow of the First World War. And then she became extraordinarily beautiful when she was about, you know, I'd say ten, 11 years old. And that kind of swept her away. She became an actress. And she flees to the United States and convinces Louis B. Mayer to make her his next great star on the silver screen. So she becomes– you know, a huge– the Angelina Jolie of her day. And does all of these films with Spencer Tracy, Clark Gable, Jimmy Stewart.

  • MEGAN THOMPSON:

    That was the public Hedy Lamarr. But it was the private, unexpected Lamarr who director Alexandra Dean found far more compelling.

  • CLIP FROM FILM:

    Inventing was her hobby. She not only had a complete inventing table set up in her house but Howard Hughes gave her a small version of the set of equipment which she had in the trailer where she stayed in between takes and her motion pictures.

  • ALEXANDRA DEAN:

    We don't know everything that Hedy invented– but we know that during the Second World War she teamed up first with Howard Hughes, who was a great inventor himself. He was trying to create the fastest airplane in the world at that time.

  • FILM CLIP/HEDY LAMARR:

    I thought the aeroplanes were too slow. I decided that's not right. They shouldn't be square, the wings. So I bought a book of fish and I bought a book of birds. And then I used the fastest bird and connected it with the fasted fish and then drew it together and showed it to Howard Hughes and he said, you're a genius. (You did?) Yeah.

  • MEGAN THOMPSON:

    So she had no formal training in engineering or chemistry or anything like that? She was just naturally gifted?

  • ALEXANDRA DEAN:

    This is the amazing thing about Hedy Lamarr. She left school when she was 15 years old to become an actress. She loved chemistry. We know that.

  • FILM CLIP:

    She invented during that period a tablet that would fizz up and make a Cola.

  • FILM CLIP/HEDY LAMARR:

    I had two chemists that Howard gave me to do that. You know during the war nobody had Coca-Cola and I wanted to compress it. Into a cube. So that servicemen and factory people, all they had to have was water and put it in.

  • ALEXANDRA DEAN:

    During the Second World War, there was this chokehold around England of Nazi U-boats. And it felt like it was the end of the war. It felt like it was the turning point and the Nazis were gonna win, because we couldn't get any supplies to England.

  • MEGAN THOMPSON:

    Nazi submarines kept eluding the Allies' attacks, because the Germans were very good at hacking – or jamming – the radio signals that guided the Allies' torpedoes.

  • ALEXANDRA DEAN:

    What Hedy Lamarr came up with was a radio signal between a ship and a torpedo that couldn't be hacked. That couldn't be jammed.

  • MEGAN THOMPSON:

    Rather than sending radio communications on just one frequency as was normally done, Lamarr came up with the idea of making the signal leap from frequency to frequency.

  • FILM CLIP:

    Frequency hopping. You couldn't jam it because you'd only jam a split second of it in a single frequency. So frequency change, frequency hop, frequency hop. That concept – secure radio communications – was brilliant.

  • ALEXANDRA DEAN:

    And that basic idea of frequency-hopping became part of what's known as spread spectrum. Spread spectrum is what's in all of our technology today. I mean Bluetooth is probably the most purely similar to what Hedy Lamarr invented. And WiFi too. But spread spectrum is in a huge amount of inventions that we use on a daily basis.

  • MEGAN THOMPSON:

    Lamarr had a patent on the technology. But it was confiscated because she was an Austrian immigrant and considered an "enemy alien." She was never compensated for her invention – which the film estimates to be worth around $30 billion today.

  • ALEXANDRA DEAN:

    When we began making this film, you know, some scientists said to me, "She was probably a spy. You know, she probably stole this invention from the Nazis and brought it to the allies as a spy. And we just don't realize it now. But doesn't that make a lot more sense to you, than this movie star coming up with this incredible invention?" I mean serious scientists said that to me at the beginning of my research. And I really had to confront that assumption in the film.

  • MEGAN THOMPSON:

    Part of what fueled those assumptions was that Lamarr had almost never spoken publicly about her invention. She'd never really taken credit for her own work.

  • ALEXANDRA DEAN:

    And so I realized I had nothing, really, of her own record. And started this hunt. And we really started shoe leather reporting and figuring out that there were about 75 people alive today that could possibly have something on Hedy Lamarr, and just systematically going down that list. And when we got to this guy, Fleming Meeks, who had written this article about her in 1990, he picked up the phone and he said to me, "I have been waiting 25 years for you to call me."

  • FILM CLIP/ FLEMING MEEKS:

    It's embarrassing. Behind that blue trash can. I've had stuff stowed there and I moved it out of the way.

  • ALEXANDRA DEAN:

    It turned out he had tapes that basically told the whole of Hedy Lamarr's story, and they had never seen the light of day.

  • FILM CLIP/ FLEMING MEEKS:

    This is Fleming Meeks. From Forbes.

  • FILM CLIP/ HEDY LAMARR:

    Oh thank you so much for the roses! I love them! The brains of the people are more interesting than the looks, I think. Then people have the idea that I'm sort of a stupid thing.

  • MEGAN THOMPSON:

    What was that moment like for you as a filmmaker?

  • ALEXANDRA DEAN:

    I think I cried when I first heard Hedy's voice.

  • FILM CLIP/HEDY LAMARR:

    I was different I guess. Maybe I came from a different planet. Who knows. But whatever it is, inventions are easy for me to do.

  • MEGAN THOMPSON:

    How did Hedy Lamarr's life end?

  • ALEXANDRA DEAN:

    Hedy withdrew from the world at the end of her life. She really felt misunderstood. She really felt misunderstood. Part of it was a shoplifting arrest, which she may or may not have been guilty of. And part of it was the she had this really unfortunate plastic surgery at the end of her life to try and shore up that beauty. She was so withdrawn by the time she started to get recognized for invention that she never came out publicly and accepted any claim for it.

  • ALEXANDRA DEAN:

    People ask me all the time if Hedy Lamarr's life was a tragic life to me. And I don't think it was, funnily enough. Even though she did have this really dark period, at the end of her life she really examined what she'd been through and she came out with some wisdom. And the reason we know that is she would call her children and leave them these long messages on their answer phones, which they would record. And on one of her answer phone messages we found her really trying to tell her son the message of her life through this poem.

  • HEDY LAMARR:

    Give the world the best you have, and you'll be kicked in the teeth. Give the world the best you have, anyway.

  • ALEXANDRA DEAN:

    And in the poem she's saying to him, you know, "You might feel kicked in the teeth. You might feel that the world never understands you or applauds you for your greatest achievements. But you know what? Do it anyway. Do it anyway. 'Cause it's in the doing this great thing that will change the world that you will find the meaning of your life."

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