The Life of Hedy Lamarr
By Stephen Michael Shearer
St. Martin's Press Copyright © 2010 Stephen Michael Shearer
All rights reserved.
To understand the life of Hedy Lamarr, it is important to understand the world in which she was born. Austria is the heartland of Europe. Vienna, Austria's capital, was and still is its largest city, located at the northeast end of the Alps and on the right bank of the Danube River. The city has for centuries been renowned for its museums; theatre and opera; the Romanesque architecture of the Ruprechtskirche and the baroque architecture of the Karlskirche; cuisine of schnitzel, pastries, and goulash; and a rich heritage of music, from Tyrolean bands and gypsy Schrammelmusik to the stirring strains of Mozart and the lilting waltzes of Strauss.
At the end of the gilded age, the belle époque, Vienna in 1913 was the grandest city in all of Austria, its population numbering over two million. In Europe at the turn of the last century, Vienna was the magnet to which those seeking better economic and cultural lives were drawn. On April 13, 1913, The New York Times dedicated a full page to the metropolis, entitled "The Gayest City in Europe — Not Paris, but Vienna." It is a colorful homage by the American music critic and correspondent James Huneker, who wrote lovingly of Vienna as "the gayest city I have ever lived in ...," one where city life "is not feverish as in the French Capital, but natural and continuous. ... The Viennese man is an optimist. He regards life not so steadily, or as a whole, but as a gay fragment. Clouds gather, the storm breaks, then the rain stops and the sun floats once more into the blue."
Vienna's thousands of European exiles before World War I, many of them disenfranchised Jews, adopted all things German, from its culture (the music of Richard Wagner and Gustav Mahler, for example) to its economic structure and its language. The integration of the country was important to its society. By 1900, the expression "Jewish intelligence" was well known in Vienna, causing the writer Hermann Bahr to joke that any aristocrat "who is a little bit smart or has some kind of talent, is immediately considered a Jew; they have no other explanation for it."
This world of gayety, peace, and tranquility was forever changed when, on June 28, 1914, in Sarajevo, the capital of the Austro-Hungarian province of Bosnia and Herzegovina, Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria was brutally assassinated. This singular event effectively ignited World War I. Fighting began on August 4, when German troops, allied with Austria-Hungary, invaded Belgium. The Russian leaders saw the war as advantageous, while the German emperor, Kaiser Wilhelm II, found the war inevitable.
But Vienna ... it still danced. As war clouds loomed on the horizon, the city was enchanted with its music, arts, and financial security. In 1914 Vienna, life was good. Into this world was born Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler on Sunday, November 9, 1914.
Her parents came from humble birth. Emil Kiesler was born into a Jewish family in L'viv (Lemberg), in the West Ukraine on December 27, 1876. As a young man, Emil was extremely handsome, tall (six feet four), had blue-gray eyes, and was athletically inclined. He loved sports, especially skiing and rowing. Kiesler was also an intelligent and ambitious man who, after completing his education in Russia, sought his future and fortune in banking in Vienna around 1900. Emil became the manager of the Kreditanstalt Bankverein, a leading bank in the city. Though a strict and sometimes stern boss, he was respected and admired by his fellow employees.
In October 1913, in honor of his forthcoming marriage, his colleagues gave Emil a silver cigarette case with his signature engraved on the outside. Inside, each bank employee had etched his own name. For his bride Emil chose an attractive and vivacious Jewish-born Hungarian girl. She was a practicing Christian, having converted to Catholicism. In Austria, this marriage was considered "mixed," religiously. But this was quite common in Vienna and presented no social taboo at the time.
Her name was Gertrud, called Trude, and she was born to Karl and Rosa Lichtwitz in Budapest, Hungary, on February 3, 1897. She was a bright and attractive girl with blue eyes, her hair fair and slightly russet. The lively young woman married Emil when still in her teens. Within months of their marriage, Trude was pregnant. Giving up her dreams of a promising career as a concert pianist, she would instill a love of music and the arts in her only child.
The Kieslers lived at 2b Osterleitengasse, in one of six apartments in a four-storey stucco building located on a narrow street in a fashionable area of Vienna. Hedy's father would affectionately nickname her Hedylendelein and Princess Hedy. Her mother called her Hedl. When she learned to talk, Hedy could not pronounce Hedwig, and so she would say "Hedy" (pronounced "hay-dee.") It became her first name.
The family soon moved to a modest yet luxurious home, a nineroom apartment in the hills on Peter Jordan Strasse in the residential area of Vienna (now part of Währing), the 19th District. From birth the young Hedy would want for little, except possibly the attention of her parents. She was surrounded by adults — a parlor maid, a cook, and a nurse. But her socially mobile parents were seldom home in the evenings, instead enjoying the opera, theatre, and Vienna nightlife.
Hedy would later relate that as a child she suffered from nightmares. "When I was four years old I remember them. The most horrible, horrible nightmares." In these nightmares, she would try to have "tea parties" for her dolls. But when she would pour the hot water into their mouths, their plastic doll faces would become soft and begin to melt. Ugliness terrified the little girl. "Nightmares of things so shapeless I could not say of what horror they were made but only that they were horrible," she continued. "I can so well remember nights when Mother and Father were out, and I was in bed, cozy and safe in my room. But it would be dark. And I would doze and at once I would see faces, enormous ugly faces and enormous black or purple hands coming for me. I would scream and the nurse would come running. She would pet me and pat me and tuck me in again and tell me that I had eaten too many pastries for dinner. But I knew that was not so."
Hedy always recalled her father lovingly. "I remember him as a kindly man who wouldn't deny me anything," she recounted years later. "The memory of him will always be beautiful." Emil also had a sense of humor. "He was very farsighted," she would tell a journalist, "and I remember he had to hold a letter or paper at a distance in order to read it. 'Oh, I can see all right,' he'd say, 'only my arms are too short!'"
Emil would encourage physical activity and take his daughter on long walks in the Vienna woods, a place she always held dear. Sometimes she went with her parents on their travels outside Austria. They would take her on sojourns to Lake Geneva, to the opera in Rome, and on walks in the "English countryside, the Irish lake district, the Swiss Alps, and the Paris Boulevards." Hedy's father liked to play make-believe with her. Hedy would remark years later, "My mother was not so imaginative, but she did not mind that I tore up the library to act out Hansel and Gretel."
About her daughter, Hedy's mother told Silver Screen magazine in 1942, "She has always had everything. She never had to long for anything. First there was her father who, of course, adored her, and was very proud of her. He gave her all the comforts, pretty clothes, a fine home, parties, schools, sports. He looked always for the sports for her, and music. ... We had a good life together."
Hedy recalled that as a child she would study her mother. "When I was tiny I loved to watch her dress her hair, use her scents and powders, try on this gown and that until she had found the one which suited her mood for the evening," Hedy told a writer many years later. "So early on I learned the value of pretty things ... to love the feel of soft fabrics against me; delicate laces, lush velvets, and fine linens. I loved always to have my rooms dainty around me, with flowers in them, smelling sweet. People called me 'a fastidious little thing.'"
"I watch her and I'm afraid," Emil Kiesler once told his wife, worried that Hedy's spoiled behavior might cause her harm. Realizing that her child possessed an uncanny beauty even at an early age, Trude stressed that the family not flatter Hedy. Instead, she insisted that Hedy be allowed to enjoy the simple things in life in an attempt to ground her. During the spring the family took their suppers outside under the shade trees. Hedy was allowed to have a dog and was assigned chores around the house, including caring for the family's birdcage.
As was customary in European society, Gertrud Kiesler started preparing her daughter for marriage before Hedy had started school. Trude would enroll her in ballet and piano lessons, which ingrained a love of music that Hedy sustained for the rest of her life. A governess by the name of Nicolette, or Nixy as Hedy called her, taught her German, French, and Italian. Nixy would become the one constantly present adult whom Hedy could rely on for advice and security during her childhood.
"My parents did not know any actors," Hedy would recall years later. "They did not (often) take me to theatres, but mostly to concerts and to operas. There were never any theatrical people in our home." The Kieslers were prominent in Vienna society and would often entertain the city's elite as well as businessmen, local politicians, and even occasionally royalty. But they were not impossibly wealthy. As Oleg Cassini, one of Hedy's suitors, would later recall, "Hedy, of course, was not born with a gold spoon in her mouth, although it must have been sterling silver."
Hedy's first memories were of her father telling her stories. "He'd unfold his hand, as if it were a book, look at his palm and begin his story," she told a columnist. "He would stop to explain something to me, then say: 'Where was I?' and hunt through his open hand to find his place. I was enchanted." She would recall her father reading to her by the fireplace in the library or while tucking her in bed at night, always licking his index finger and thumb before turning the pages of a book. These books likely included Grimm's Fairy Tales; Johanna Spyri's Heidi; Max und Moritz, a book in cartoons and verse; and the strange Struwwelpeter, which dealt with cruel and gruesome punishment bestowed on naughty young people. Like most children in Austria and Germany, Hedy was mesmerized by these stories of princesses and monsters, sentiment and horror, magic and superstition.
"The mind of every German child is crammed with music, and song, legends, folklore and fairy stories, a carnival of the tawdry and the epic, freaks and fairies, wolves and Easter bunnies, the savage and the saccharine," wrote Angela Lambert in her biography of Adolf Hitler's mistress and wife, Eva Braun, a contemporary of Hedy. "They are first met in the nursery, through haunting melodies and verses whose underlying theme is often violence. The forest, swirling with fog and darkness, populated by wolves, dwarves, witches and satanic figures all looking for small children to waylay — these provide a wonderful insight to the German soul and justify dwelling on them at some length."
Hedy remembered once when she was three that her father became cross with her. "[I] put on a pretty new hair ribbon which I thought would please him, but it seems he hated bows and he got very angry," she wrote in Look magazine. "I ran like mad and he chased me and hit me. I could never forget this." She would often run away from home, but only for a few hours. These were the first of many attempted escapes she would make during her lifetime.
Emil told his daughter that if she learned languages and was active in sports, then everything else in life would fall into place. And he would also spend hours patiently explaining to his daughter how things worked, "from printing presses to streetcars," fostering her inquisitive mind.
At age five she began to read. Hedy would devour movie magazines and pretend she was an actress, "like [her] favorites, Norma Talmadge, Gloria Swanson, and Alice White." And she would often practice her dramatics. "I had a little stage under my father's desk where I would act out fairy tales," she wrote. "When someone would come into the room they would think my mind was really wandering. I was always talking to myself."
Once Trude promised Hedy that if she was good, Hedy would be rewarded with a nice present, a visit to a theatre. "I saw a stage play for the first time," Hedy later recalled. "I was thrilled and speechless. I don't remember the play, its title or anything about it. But I never forgot the first general impression." After that experience, she eagerly took part in school plays and in musical festivals.
Hedy's favorite playmate was a doll with curly blond hair she named Beccacine. "My pet things were dolls ... I loved being with them," Hedy once told a magazine journalist. In Hedy's solitary youth, often spent playacting, Beccacine became her companion and a fellow thespian. "One day my uncle made fun of me and said, 'Hedy, it's only a doll. Don't be so serious,'" she recalled. "I hated him after that because [the doll] was my only child." Hedy cherished Beccacine and carried it "all over the world" with her well into adulthood.
When she was of age, Hedy was enrolled into private elementary school. "Those school days," she told the writer Gene Ringgold in 1965, "were happy ones. I was both foolish and fanciful and fascinated by the cinema ... I vowed to everyone that someday I would be a star." Hedy was always dreaming. And she longed to escape into the world of movies. "As a little child, she would dress up in my clothes and in her father's suits and hats," her mother said, and continued: "When she came home from the movies she would act everything she saw there."
Hedy's maternal grandfather, Karl Lichtwitz, supported her artistic merits. "Grandfather was perhaps the only one who ever encouraged me," Hedy said in 1938. "He could play the piano, and to his music I danced. It was awkward, my dancing. But he said he thought it was beautiful. The rest of the family gave me little encouragement."
At the end of school terms, Hedy could look forward to vacations at the family summer home in Salzburg. The Kieslers would also take weekend trips to the country lakes to ski, play tennis, and swim. During the winter they would enjoy such outdoor sports as snow skiing and ice-skating and indoor activities like dancing. "The winters we spent in Switzerland were the happiest in my life," Hedy later said.
As a privileged child living in an insulated world, young Hedy always dressed properly in her blue school uniform and was instructed in her mother's Catholic faith, most likely at Saint Stephan's Cathedral, home of the famed Vienna Boys' Choir.
At the end of the war in 1918, Vienna remained largely untouched and much the same as it had been before 1914. After 1919, however, when the Hapsburg monarchy was ended with the signing of the Treaty of Saint Germaine and when the Republic of Austria was established, there followed two decades that saw the steady rise of political strife and poverty. Anti-Semitism was on the increase. The Kieslers' anxieties for their daughter began to grow.
By 1925, Hedy had developed into a lovely young girl with seductive green eyes and lush dark hair. Since she was a baby, people had remarked on her beauty. "People would flatter me," Hedy would tell the columnist Gladys Hall in 1941. "In order to overcome that, my mother would tell me about everything I did that was just 'all right,' and no more than that. She meant well. She wanted me to be modest."
Hedy was soon becoming a chameleon, willing to change herself to please others. When a boy she was once pursuing eventually took notice of her, she quickly dropped him. "I knew he was in love with me; yes, even when I was ten," she once told a journalist. "I was at an age when I was dreaming of princes and warriors and heroes and such as I read about in books. And so I just took him for granted. And because I took him for granted, I think I lost something very precious and very real."
Sometimes, though, her allure would have consequences. Years later, while undergoing analysis, Hedy dredged up a particular incident that occurred when she was fourteen years old. The laundryman her family employed in Vienna had at one time tried to rape her. A second time he succeeded, and, according to Hedy's account, she broke a miniature ivory statue and struck him with it. She did not tell her parents what had happened. According to Hedy, her mother slapped her for not explaining to them why the expensive statue was broken. Hedy held this "pain-shame" memory within her. It would affect her whole life, though in her youth she told no one about the incident. She appeared outwardly a normal, ambitious teenage girl. (Continues...)
Excerpted from Beautiful by Stephen Michael Shearer. Copyright © 2010 Stephen Michael Shearer. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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