Lamarr, `most beautiful,' dead at 86

Screen: The star of movies such as `Algiers' and `Lady of the Tropics' is found dead in her Florida home.

January 20, 2000|By Ann Hornaday | Ann Hornaday,SUN FILM CRITIC

Hedy Lamarr, who was introduced to American audiences as the most beautiful woman in the world and who proceeded to live up to that promise in more than 25 movies, has died. She was 86.

Miss Lamarr was found dead in her home in Altamonte Springs, Fla., yesterday. Her death was being investigated as an unattended death, said Steve Olson, a spokesman for the Seminole County Sheriff's Office.

Born Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler in Vienna on Nov. 9, 1913, Miss Lamarr was discovered as a teen-ager by the legendary impresario Max Reinhardt, who got her started as a script secretary and bit player. Miss Lamarr first came to international attention in the 1933 Czech film "Ecstasy," in which she had a notorious 10-minute nude scene.

When MGM chief Louis B. Mayer signed her to her first contract in 1937, he warned her that in the United States, such raciness would not be allowed. (Her screen name was said to be inspired by the 1920s actress Barbara La Marr.) But when her first American film was released in 1938 -- Walter Wanger's "Algiers," in which she played opposite Charles Boyer -- she was on her way to developing the sultry, sexy persona with which she would be forever linked.

Later films include "Lady of the Tropics," "I Take This Woman," "Comrade X" and "H.M. Pulham Esq." Reportedly she declined two roles that Ingrid Bergman would later make famous, in the movies "Casablanca" and "Gaslight."

Although she appeared in movies throughout the 1940s, including "Tortilla Flat," "White Cargo," "The Strange Woman" and "Dishonored Lady," her career was in something of a decline in 1949, when she starred with Victor Mature in Cecil B. DeMille's lurid Biblical epic "Samson and Delilah." "The result was nonsense redeemed by sheer conviction," wrote David Thomson in his "Biographical Dictionary of Film," "and the only evidence that Lamarr could convey the promise of sex on screen."

Thomson echoed most critics' estimation of Miss Lamarr's limited acting talents, writing that "it became her lot to be cast as exotic, sultry women -- and she did her best; but conscientiousness is not quite what we expect in our femmes fatales. Too often, she had a worried look."

After some forgettable films in the 1950s -- among them "A Lady Without Passport" and the Bob Hope comedy "My Favorite Spy" -- she appeared in some Italian productions and then faded into obscurity. Her last film was "The Female Animal" with Jane Powell in 1958.

Another side of her was described in the 1992 book "Feminine Ingenuity." Drawing upon knowledge about military products that she picked up while married to Austrian munitions magnate Fritz Mandl, Lamarr came up with the idea of a radio signaling device that would reduce the danger of detection or jamming. She and a friend, composer George Antheil, developed the idea further and received a patent in 1942. (Ironically, Mandl was a Hitler supporter and helped arm the German cause.)

The method was not used in the war, but since the '80s, high-tech versions of the concept, called "spread spectrum," have been used in some cordless phones, military radios and wireless computer links.

Miss Lamarr's lurid 1966 autobiography "Ecstasy and Me," filled with sexy anecdotes, including a couple involving other women, became a best seller.

But she later sued, saying the manuscript prepared by the ghostwriter was full of distortions and outright errors.

It was not the first or last lawsuit filed by Miss Lamarr, who never hesitated to litigate when she felt her honor, career or privacy were threatened. In 1979 she sued the San Francisco Chronicle and the National Enquirer for $10 million each, alleging that their publication of a two-headed goat named after the screen queen damaged her reputation "as the very personification, essence and epitome of beauty."

She was arrested for shoplifting in 1966 and again in 1991; neither case resulted in a conviction.

She was married and divorced six times -- to Mandl, screenwriter Gene Markey, actor John Loder, nightclub owner Ernest Stauffer, oil millionaire W. Howard Lee and lawyer Lewis W. Boies Jr.

She adopted a son, James, and had two children with Loder, Anthony and Denise.

In recent years, Miss Lamarr lived quietly in a modest lakeside condominium in Altamonte Springs, a suburb of Orlando. Friends said she was legally blind and did not venture out on her own.

Wire services contributed to this article.

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