Unconventional Mentor no. 2 - Hedy Lamarr
"The brains of people are more interesting than the looks, I think" - Hedy Lamarr
Growing up I always thought that you could be pretty, or you could be clever but you couldn’t be both. And as I didn’t have looks on my side I opted to try to be clever, to throw myself at books and music and culture and studying rather than my appearance. I got rather a rude awakening when I discovered that you could be both, meeting some very pretty and very clever women at university, I was left feeling lacking all round. But I had never considered what it would be like to not be taken seriously for your brains because of your beauty. This was a challenge that faced Hedy Lemarr.
Called the “the most beautiful woman in the world” in her day, she was a beautiful and successful film actress who had so much more to offer the world. Her brain whizzed at 100 miles per hour and she was continuously problem solving and inventing. She was signed to MGM in 1937 and made films throughout the 1940s and 50s. During the second world war she wanted to help out with the war effort. She was encouraged to utilise her looks to sell war bonds to thousands of adoring fans but her real passion was in the development of secure radio communication. Along with her friend, the composer and pianist George Antheil, she developed a frequency hopping radio system that they patented in 1942. Her idea was used by the US military during the second world war, but Hedy wasn’t credited for it or paid.
I was lucky enough to go to a screening of the film Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story early this year, which documents the struggle Hedy faced to be taken seriously for her intelligence and the struggle to get the recognition for her work too. There is an excellent interview with the director Alexandra Dean, where she talks about the challenges making the film and ensuring that Hedy’s voice comes through (see link below). It is an excellent documentary and you get to hear Hedy Lamarr’s own words about her life from an interview she did for Forbes magazine in 1990.
Hedy was a very sad figure later in life, estranged from her children and secluded from the world. She had undergone a lot of cosmetic surgery to maintain her looks that she was so highly praised for at the height of her career. I can’t help but think that if she had received the recognition for her intellect and her inventions that her looks wouldn’t have been so important and she could have had a much happier later life.
Mentor advice: Make sure you see the whole person
The advice I take from Hedy Lamar is to not let your judgments and preconceptions about the world get in the way of seeing the potential in others (and yourself). Hedy embraced curiosity, and this led her to discover a technology that exists today in the form of Wi-Fi and Bluetooth. So many people just saw her as a beautiful woman with nothing else to offer, but she was incredibly clever and has played a part in the technology you are using today to read this article. If she had listened to her critics and just utilised her looks to sell war bonds the world might be a very different place. As I meet new people at work and in life, it is very easy to make judgements about them based on the superficial things we know about them, but dig a little deeper and people usually have a lot more to offer that might surprise you.