The hardest part of making Bombshell was finding the truth about Hedy Lamarr. Did this gorgeous movie star really invent a building block of Wi-Fi, GPS, and bluetooth? Or was it a rumor that we really wanted to be true?
Hedy never did tell her story during her lifetime. She’d hired a ghost writer to write her autobiography and he’d written a titillating tell-all about her scandals and didn’t mention her inventions, so she sued him for libel. It was hardly a reliable source. There were great minds who had made the case she really was an inventor (Richard Rhodes, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author in his fabulous book Hedy’s Folly, and the talented biographer Stephen Michael Shearer in Beautiful). That was reassuring, but there were also highly respected scientists who said no, both on and off the record, she couldn’t have created a building block of Wi-Fi with no high school degree. They pointed out there were no notebooks written in her handwriting and no record of her talking about inventing, with the exception of some cursory articles in 1942.
Those scientists suggested she may have just stolen her extraordinary invention (a secret communication system for guiding torpedoes during WWII) from the engineers employed by her husband, Fritz Mandl, who manufactured torpedoes for Hitler and Mussolini. That was certainly a plausible story.
I have a background as an investigative journalist and I love the hunt for truth. The first step of the investigation was being honest with myself that I really wanted Hedy Lamarr to have had this brilliant mind. Before I could search I had to be willing to give up on that attachment if I found it wasn’t true. I consoled myself with the thought that she if she stole the technology from her husband’s fascist factory and ran off with it in her shoe, that wasn’t such a bad story either.
The man who really thought Hedy was a spy had actually interviewed her in person in the 1980s, which gave him enormous credibility. Bob Price was an expert in secret communications and had a conversation with the reclusive elderly Lamarr in the entryway to her apartment building for about 20 minutes. He was one of the very few people who saw her let alone interviewed her in the last decades of her life. I thought there must be a reason why he came away from that conversation believing she stole her most famous invention from the Germans, so I looked for sources that would confirm his theory. I found there was nothing in the record suggesting the Germans had come up with what she called “Frequency Hopping” before Hedy did. Richard Rhodes, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author had looked for it. Stephen Michael Shearer and Ruth Barton, two more biographers had looked. None of us found that evidence.
Then I thought about Robert Price as a source … was he truly reliable? I asked Hedy’s son Anthony. He shrugged and said he remembered Price sent his mother pearl earrings and his favorite movie was a comedy she did with Bob Hope called … wait for it … My Favorite Spy! That set off alarms in my head. Anthony had boxes of correspondence with Price in his office and it dated all the way back to his first contact with Hedy 30 years ago. I dove into those dusty boxes with a Christmas-like excitement.
First, I found a very early email that Price sent Hedy asking her to confirm his notes on their conversation. There was no mention of the spy theory in that email. In fact, he reported that Hedy said she invented Frequency Hopping herself. The notes were sparse with bullet points so it was hard to know how she’d made her argument, but her insistence that she came up with the invention herself was clear. So why did Price conclude she was a spy? I kept digging and I found another set of emails, dated a decade later than the first. Once again Price was forwarding people the notes from his conversation with Hedy. This time he was pitching a film about her incredible life, and this time he had simply deleted the line where she said she was the inventor, adding his own theory that she was a spy. He had removed her own testimony, arguing that she had become delusional and unreliable in her old age, and that she must have stolen the idea from Fritz.
Finding this butchered testimony from Hedy gave me a burning desire to find out exactly what Hedy actually said in her own words. I’d been searching for tape for months, but this gave me a new idea. I rounded up our team of interns and everyone on our staff and we built a list of about seventy people who said on the record that they had talked to Lamarr. We went down the list and got no response from some people, and dismal answers from others. I almost despaired. Then we discovered we had the wrong email for one man. Fleming Meeks. As soon as we sent him a message the phone rang. It was Fleming. He said, “I’ve been waiting twenty five years for you to call me! I have the tapes.” It was like I’d conjured this voice from the sheer intensity of my desire that he exist. Suddenly there was Hedy’s voice as vibrant as though he’d recorded it yesterday and she actually laughed at the idea that she might have stolen the idea. “My husband!” she scoffed. “He wouldn’t even let me into the factory… I know what I did, I don’t care what other people say about me.” She talked about her inventive mind and how she is always looking for a simple solution to a complicated problem. It wasn’t the conclusion to my hunt. I still needed to find more evidence to support her story (which I would find in the coming months), but hearing from Hedy I finally knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that I was on the right track. I had discovered that some people’s stories are so intentionally erased that we have to reconstruct them brick by brick to bring them back.
Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story opens in theaters November 24, photos courtesy of Kino Lorber.