When she died of natural causes on Jan. 19 at 86, Hedy Lamarr was largely unfamiliar to modern moviegoers. In her 1940s heyday, however, the Samson and Delilah actress was billed as “the world’s most beautiful woman.” But if she failed to achieve eternal fame, it finally mattered little to Lamarr, who once said, “When I die, I want on my gravestone: ‘Thank you very much for a colorful life.'” That would be a fitting epitaph, and here are five reasons:
1 Her breakthrough came in the widely banned Czech film Ecstasy (1933), which featured Lamarr in the first explicit sex scene in a commercially distributed film.
2 The first of her six husbands was Viennese munitions magnate Fritz Mandl, who would make a fortune selling arms to the Nazis. Lamarr, an Austrian Jew, later drugged her maid and fled both husband and homeland.
3 During World War II, Lamarr helped invent a radio signaling system for guiding torpedoes. (She reportedly gleaned the know-how from her arms-dealing ex-husband.) Though the U.S. military brushed it off, her “spread spectrum” system became a forerunner of modern cellular technology.
4 Worried about being typecast as just a pretty face, Lamarr turned down several movies that helped immortalize other pretty faces. Among them: Laura and Casablanca.
5 She guarded her image aggressively, frequently suing those she felt were trying to exploit her, including Mel Brooks — for naming Harvey Korman’s Blazing Saddles character “Hedley Lamarr” — and the ghostwriter of her own 1966 autobiography, Ecstasy and Me, for distorting her life story. As if that life story needed any more color.