The Arty Semite

Hedy Lamarr, Queen of Hollywood Chutzpah

By Benjamin Ivry

  • Print
  • Share Share

During her lifetime, even personal friends were unaware that film star Hedy Lamarr was Jewish. Now two new biographies — “Beautiful: The Life of Hedy Lamarr” by Stephen Michael Shearer, due out in September from St Martin’s Press and “Hedy Lamarr: The Most Beautiful Woman in Film” by Ruth Barton, just out from The University Press of Kentucky — both detail how Lamarr was born Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler in Vienna to a Jewish family, her mother originally from Budapest, and her father from Lvov.

Of the two new books, by far the better written one is by Barton, a Lecturer in Film Studies at Trinity College, Dublin. Shearer, a Las Vegas-based former actor, journalist, and friend/biographer of Patricia Neal, absent-mindedly describes the first marriage of one of Lamarr’s husbands in this amusingly redundant way: “They were married by a Jewish rabbi.”

Lamarr’s earliest work was in Berlin with the Russian Jewish director Alexis Granowsky, whose 1925 silent hit “Jewish Luck,” an adaptation of Sholom Aleichem with titles by Isaak Babel, starred the great Yiddish actor Solomon Mikhoels.

While still in her teens, Lamarr married a Jewish armaments dealer who sold weapons to the fascists and discussed military inventions at dinner parties. Lamarr remembered what she had heard, and once safely in wartime America, collaborated on inventing a secret communication system which helped guide torpedoes by radio.

Always a canny person, Lamarr cashed in as an early investor in Microsoft, but she is mostly remembered from the 1949 Cecil B. DeMille epic “Samson and Delilah.” Barton recounts that years later, upon seeing Sidney Lumet’s 1964 Holocaust film “The Pawnbroker” with its stark discussions of anti-Semitism. Lamarr was so upset that she went to a department store and was arrested for shoplifting. By implication, the intense drama of “The Pawnbroker” awoke anxieties which had long been buried during Lamarr’s years of Hollywood fame and fortune.

Vain and humorless (she sued Mel Brooks for $10 million for daring to name his sheriff Hedley Lamarr in 1974’s “Blazing Saddles”), Lamarr would spend long hours on the phone in later years rather than meeting people face-to-face after botched plastic surgery. Among her phone friends, Barton recounts, was American Jewish conductor Michael Tilson Thomas who, like all Lamarr’s latter-day pals, was unaware of her Judaism. Nonetheless, something about Lamarr reminded Tilson Thomas about chats with his grandmother Bessie Thomashefsky, a star of the Yiddish theater.

Watch part of the 2004 documentary “Calling Hedy Lamarr,” in which her son Anthony Loder tries to figure out his enigmatic mother, here.


Permalink | | Share | Email | Print | Filed under: Hedy Lamarr, Hollywood, Cecil B. DeMille, Alexis Granowsky. Solomon Mikhoels

The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.




Find us on Facebook!
  • A Ukrainian rabbi says he thinks the leaflets ordering Jews in restive Donetsk to 'register' were a hoax. But the disturbing story still won't die.
  • Some snacks to help you get through the second half of Passover.
  • You wouldn't think that a Soviet-Jewish immigrant would find much in common with Gabriel Garcia Marquez. But the famed novelist once helped one man find his first love. http://jd.fo/f3JiS
  • Can you relate?
  • The Forverts' "Bintel Brief" advice column ran for more than 65 years. Now it's getting a second life — as a cartoon.
  • Half of this Hillel's members believe Jesus was the Messiah.
  • Vinyl isn't just for hipsters and hippies. Israeli photographer Eilan Paz documents the most astonishing record collections from around the world:http://jd.fo/g3IyM
  • Could Spider-Man be Jewish? Andrew Garfield thinks so.
  • Most tasteless video ever? A new video shows Jesus Christ dying at Auschwitz.
  • "It’s the smell that hits me first — musty, almost sweet, emanating from the green felt that cradles each piece of silver cutlery in its own place." Only one week left to submit! Tell us the story of your family's Jewish heirloom.
  • Mazel tov to Chelsea Clinton and Marc Mezvinsky!
  • If it's true, it's pretty terrifying news.
  • “My mom went to cook at the White House and all I got was this tiny piece of leftover raspberry ganache."
  • Planning on catching "Fading Gigolo" this weekend? Read our review.
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.