Hedy Lamarr, the Austrian-born actress whose stunning beauty and exotic sex appeal sparked a string of film hits during the 1930s and ’40s and made her one of the great glamour queens of Hollywood’s golden age, was found dead, apparently of natural causes, Wednesday in her Orlando, Fla., home. She was 86.
Once billed as the world’s most beautiful woman, her pale skin, almond eyes and dark hair combined to create a beauty that few actresses of her time could match.
She was reputedly producer Hal Wallis’ first choice for the heroine Ilsa in the 1943 classic “Casablanca,” the role that eventually went to Ingrid Bergman.
But she claimed to scorn the glamorous image. In a 1942 Associated Press interview, she showed a reporter her home, complete with hen house and homemade curtains, and implored: “Now you will not write I am a glamour girl?”
She once said, “Any girl can be glamorous; all you have to do is stand still and look stupid.”
Some of her more memorable films included “Tortilla Flat,” “White Cargo” and “Lady of the Tropics.”
A sampling of her famous leading men included Clark Gable (“Comrade X,” “Boom Town”), William Powell (“Crossroads,” “The Heavenly Body”), Spencer Tracy (“Tortilla Flat,” also in “Boom Town,”), Robert Taylor (“Lady of the Tropics”) and Ray Milland (“Copper Canyon”).
At age 19, Lamarr achieved international fame and notoriety as a result of the 1933 Czech film “Ecstasy,” in which she acted in a steamy love scene and appeared nude in a 10-minute swimming sequence.
After a few years away from the camera as the wife of Fritz Mandl, an Austrian munitions magnate, Hollywood beckoned and Lamarr was signed by MGM and brought to the United States in 1937. Born Hedwig Kiesler in Vienna, her new screen name was said to be a homage to the 1920s screen beauty Barbara La Marr.
Her American film debut came in 1938 with “Algiers,” co-starring French romantic lead Charles Boyer. She played a wealthy adventuress and became a box office sensation despite the grousing by Boyer that she couldn’t act.
Variety’s review of June 29, 1938, however disagreed with Boyer’s assessment, noting, “She brings to the picture an abundance of good looks, acting talent and enticement,” went on to praise her mastery of English and added that, with a little encouragement, “nothing apparently stands between her and success in Hollywood films.”
One of her most successful films came near the end of her screen career, Paramount’s 1949 “Samson and Delilah,” helmed by Cecil B. DeMille with Victor Mature as Samson. She also got a rare chance to try her hand at comedy in the 1951 Bob Hope starrer “My Favorite Spy.”
Her career rapidly declined by the mid-1950s, when she appeared in a handful of Italian productions. One of her last films was “The Female Animal” with Jane Powell in 1958.
She once said her career suffered because she wouldn’t sleep with a VIP just to get ahead. “My problem is I’m a hell of a nice dame,” she said in a 1970 interview. “The most horrible whores are famous. I did what I did for love. The others did it for money.”
Her scandalous (at the time) 1966 autobiography “Ecstasy and Me,” filled with sexy anecdotes including a couple involving other women, became a bestseller. But she later sued, saying the manuscript prepared by the ghostwriter was full of distortions and outright errors.
A completely different side of Lamarr was described in the 1992 tome “Feminine Ingenuity.” Drawing upon knowledge about military products that she picked up while married to Mandl, Lamarr came up with the idea of a radio signaling device that would reduce the danger of detection or jamming. She and a friend, composer George Antheil, developed the idea further and received a patent in 1942.
The method, not used during War World II, has been used since the 1980s, in high-tech versions of the concept, called “spread spectrum,” in some cordless phones, military radios and wireless computer links.
The banker’s daughter, discovered as a teenager by Austrian director Max Reinhardt, began in films as a script secretary and bit player.
She was married and divorced six times — to Mandl, screenwriter Gene Markey, actor John Loder, nightclub owner Ernest Stauffer, oil millionaire W. Howard Lee and lawyer Lewis W. Boies Jr.
A pair of shoplifting arrests — neither of which resulted in convictions — caused headlines in her later years.
She was acquitted by a jury in Los Angeles on charges of stealing $86 worth of merchandise from a department store in 1966.
In August 1991, she was arrested and accused of stealing $21.48 worth of merchandise from a drugstore in Casselberry, Fla. She said she and a companion forgot to put the items in their shopping cart. Lamarr was never formally charged.
In recent years, the once-celebrated movie queen lived quietly in a suburb of Orlando. Friends had said she was legally blind and did not venture out on her own.
She is survived by an adopted son and two children she had with Loder.