Hollywood in Santa Barbara: Hedy Lamarr in SB News

It’s time to put the spotlight on one of Hollywood’s most famous women: Hedy Lamarr. Lamarr was born in Austria during the first World War. She abandoned the country, along with her birth name, Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler, in 1937 because  of the growing threat of the Nazi regime. After escaping her husband’s house, a man who was well known for his involvement in the Nazi party, she began pursuing a film career in the United States after having success in her home country. As she grew into a burgeoning global success, Lamarr was covered in news outlets in every major city. However, her fame never went far beyond the silver screen–– her intelligence gained her little renown, despite her inventions and contributions to science aiding both the war effort and technological innovation for years to come. Throughout Santa Barbara publications, Lamarr appears sparingly beyond mentions of her image and acting. In the oceanside city, it seems Lamarr was known for little more than as an icon of beauty and the idealized California.

First mentions of Lamarr’s blooming career appeared in The Carpinteria Chronicle in 1938, discussing her American debut film Algiers, a remake of a popular French film that had been released the year prior. Despite the film’s widespread popularity in the United States, Hedy lacked name recognition after the initial showings, but it was her beauty that made the audience remember her and want more.

Audiences instantly tagged Lamarr as a beauty, among both the stars and American women all over the nation.  A Jewish-born immigrant, Lamarr didn’t fit the typical mold of an all-American woman—an image that had been popularized before the country entered World War II.  Yet her name change and strict adherence to the beauty standard allowed many to forget her background, and reinvent her in their own image. Without regard to her talent or personal capabilities, viewers turned her into a symbol of the California dream. In an article from the Santa Barbara State College’s El Gauchito, a column on West Coast romanticization and manhood does just that, painting this dreamworld as a place where “Hedy Lamarr plants a kiss on the guy scoring a touchdown.”  

In further issues, few of her accomplishments in acting or beyond are discussed or even mentioned.  Rather than being named for her talents, Lamarr goes on to be diminished as a figurehead for ideal beauty.  In this short, abstract piece about the strange experience of being in a high-pressure academic setting while on the beach, a Santa Barbara student writer places this setting in comparison to “a nice padded cell with a view of Hedy LaMarr.”

In this small mention alone, it’s clear to see just how many viewers saw her: nice to look at and out of reach. But what makes this line particularly significant is not the column itself, but the story right above it. In the same issue, on the very same page, another writer discusses the courses being offered at the college that summer to support the war effort. Among them, “radio construction and installation,” something that should have evoked immediate conversation surrounding the star. 

Why? Because Hedy Lamarr was an expert in radio frequencies.  As this story was being written, Lamarr had come up with the idea for some of the earliest versions of frequency hopping, a technology that would not only be used for military communications but also for the development of WiFi decades later. Despite her public involvement in this development alongside numerous well-known figures in science and academia at the time, not a single mention of her name appears alongside any articles in these papers on the subject. Later that year, only a month before she gained a patent on her creation, the publication once again dismissed her from the discourse, this time placing her name side-by-side with an article on post-War life.  As the left column paints her as just another famous name, “Squabblers Discuss War” features a short discussion of “working girls” and their place in the war effort once it’s over. 

After this article, there is little mention of Lamarr for years to come across student and local papers alike.  As her fame began to fade after the early 1950s, Hedy’s name went along with it, remaining no more than a cultural reference for decades after.  Only in the 1990s did she begin gaining recognition for her accomplishments as both an actress and a scientist.  While we’ve made significant progress in the way we credit women in the 21st century, Hedy is far from the only forgotten name in women’s accomplishments. But as we dive deeper into history through more inclusive and intersectional lenses, one can hope to see just how many women have shaped our world. 

Anna Friedman. Anna is a third-year History major minoring in Religious Studies. Her historical interests are in Russian and Eastern European studies and Feminist studies. In her free time, she works as a peer advisor at the UC Santa Barbara College of Letters and Science, playing piano, planning and running events for student organizations, and participating in Goodreads’ yearly book challenge.