The Beautiful Brilliance of Hedy Lamarr.. “I’ve never been satisfied. I’ve no sooner done one thing than I am seething inside me to do another thing,” Golden Age screen siren Hedy Lamarr once said.
And do things Lamarr did. The stunning star of classics including Algiers and Samson and Delilah was much more than the label she was given, “the most beautiful woman in the world.” Married six times, she was an actress, pioneering female producer, ski-resort impresario, painter, art collector, and groundbreaking inventor, whose important innovations are meticulously cataloged in Pulitzer Prize winner Richard Rhodes’s 2012 book, Hedy’s Folly: The Life and Breakthrough Inventions of Hedy Lamarr, the Most Beautiful Woman in the World.
However, it was another book that would alter the course of Lamarr’s life. Ecstasy and Me: My Life as a Woman, ghostwritten by Cy Rice and Leo Guild (who was also ghostwriter of the notorious Barbara Payton tell-all I Am Not Ashamed), was released in 1966 and immediately became a best seller.
Based on 50 hours of taped conversations with the eccentric, vulnerable Lamarr, Ecstasy and Me is a grotesquely fascinating chronicle of the way women have been sexualized, minimized, and trivialized throughout history. Though it’s classified as an autobiography, the book starts with a male psychologist proclaiming that the sex-positive Lamarr is “blissfully unaffected by moral standards that our contemporary culture declares acceptable,” and goes on nauseatingly from there.
Lurid, amorous encounters right out of a Roger Corman sexploitation film and sexual trauma disguised as titillation are the main foci of this supposed autobiography, though sometimes it breaks, bizarrely, for transcripts of conversations Lamarr recorded with a psychiatrist. Sprinkled in are standard Hollywood gossip—sometimes catty, occasionally kind portraits of everyone from Judy Garland and Clark Gable to Ingrid Bergman—and inane pronouncements such as “Why Americans suspect bidets, I’ll never know. They are the last word in cleanliness.”
In 2010’s definitive Beautiful: The Life of Hedy Lamarr, biographer Stephen Michael Shearer writes that those close to Lamarr believed some of the nonsexual stories in Ecstasy and Me were accurate, with Lamarr’s own voice occasionally breaking through the sensationalist muddle. But they also felt the outlandish sexual stories were complete lies. The reader gets the sense that while Lamarr may have said the things she’s quoted as saying, statements made while she might have been high shouldn’t have been taken at face value. It’s no wonder Lamarr would sue unsuccessfully in an attempt to stop the publication of Ecstasy and Me, which she labeled “fictional, false, vulgar, scandalous, libelous, and obscene.” As she told Merv Griffin in 1969, “That’s not my book.”
The Little Doll
Lamarr was born Hedwig Kiesler in Vienna, Austria, in 1914, to an assimilated Jewish family. In Hedy’s Folly, Rhodes paints a captivating picture of the artistic, intellectual Vienna of Lamarr’s youth, exploring the forces that would shape her (and making the reader wish they could step back in time). While Lamarr’s cultured mother worried that her extraordinarily beautiful, bright, and headstrong only child would grow spoiled, her father, Emil, a prominent banker, coddled and cultivated his precious daughter. “He made me understand that I must make my own decisions, mold my own character, think my own thoughts,” Lamarr later recalled, per Rhodes.
Ecstasy and Me describes Lamarr’s adolescence as a tumultuous time, filled with the trauma of attempted rape, lurid sexual exploits at boarding school, and an affair with her friend’s father that produced “uncountable” orgasms. It fails to mention, though, that when she was a teenager, she was already learning mechanics, and had become a fearless self-promoter and a protégé of theatrical impresario Max Reinhardt.
At the age of 17, Lamarr was cast in the film that catapulted her to international stardom and infamy: Ecstasy, the project that gave her purported autobiography its title. The movie includes a scene in which Lamarr (who was unaccompanied by her parents during shooting) swimming nude and simulating an orgasm—a first in film history. Some of the only affecting passages in Ecstasy and Me come when Lamarr describes the exploitation she suffered at the hands of powerful men while making films like these.
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