The Fredericksburg Savings Charitable Foundation Lecture
Beautiful Austrian-born film actress Hedy Lamarr (nee Kiesler) was born to wealthy Jewish parents in Vienna in 1914. The only child in a privileged household, she was blessed with with remarkable beauty, famously acclaimed at early age by a noted film director as “the most beautiful girl in the world.” The movie Ectaze, with its then-scandalous sex scenes, made her a star in Europe.
But, with Hitler rising to power and anti-Semitism spreading on the continent, Hedy secretly left her husband and in 1937 sailed to America, where she quickly signed a contract with the MGM Studio—and acquired a new name: Hedy Lamarr.
She was soon starring in major films opposite the biggest Hollywood stars of the day: Clark Gable, Spencer Tracy, Robert Taylor, William Powell, John Garfield, Judy Garland, and James Stewart. Her popularity reached its peak with her performance in Cecil B. DeMille’s biblical classic Samson and Delilah (1949).
But when her beauty began to fade, and the motion picture studio system died out, Hedy was in crisis, including a troubled personal life that would eventually include six husbands. Adding to her declining image, the 1974 Mel Brooks film Blazing Saddles included a humorous character named “Hedley” Lamarr, whereupon her name was ridiculed for years thereafter.
But there was more—much more—to the life of Hedy Lamarr. Largely unknown at the time, she had been in 1941 the co-developer of a patent of what she called “frequency hopping”—a method of wireless communication that eventually became the basis of every cell phone, WiFi, Bluetooth, and defense communication device now in existence. As a result, in 1997, three years before her death, the International Scientific Community recognized her as having “one of the most brilliant minds of the 20th century.”
This from a woman whose beauty was also her curse. No one of her generation could see the intelligence behind that remarkable face. Yet Hedy Lamarr, of all actors and actresses in history, left behind the dual gift of an extensive film history canon, as well as that of scientific discovery.
Speaker: Stephen Michael Shearer
Steven Michael Shearer was born in Illinois, and was raised there and in Michigan and Arkansas. From childhood he developed an interest in performance, which he honed in college with a major in vocal and instrumental music (with a minor in psychology), becoming proficient on a wide range of instruments.
After college he pursued a career in both live and print modeling in major cities across the country, and acted in various film and television series, including episodes of Dallas and Central Park West.
From 1998 to 2007 he was employed in corporate America as head of diversity for a major corporation in Manhattan. Then, shifting gears, he devoted himself to writing film history and biography. His first major work, the definitive biography of his close friend and muse Patricia Neal, titled Patricia Neal: An Unquiet Life, was published to widespread popular acclaim in 2006. He also co-starred with Neal in her final film, Flying By in 2009. The book has been optioned for a feature film for a currently untitled British production about the marriage of Patricia Neal and her husband, children’s author Roald Dahl.
In addition, he has written another well-received biography titled Gloria Swanson: The Ultimate Star, published in 2013.
As a film historian, he has appeared in numerous television and feature film documentaries, including the recently acclaimed PBS/American Masters feature film documentary, Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story, produced by actress Susan Sarandon.