3rd Elul: invention and reinvention

Elul 3  11th August

On 11th August 1942, Hollywood actress Hedy Lamarr (called “the most beautiful woman in Hollywood”) received a patent with composer George Antheil for a “frequency hopping, spread-spectrum communication system” designed to make radio-guided torpedoes harder to detect or jam. Lamarr and Antheil made an interesting pair of collaborators. She was an Austrian-born beauty and American film star who practiced electrical engineering when off the movie lot; he was an avant-garde composer, notably of Ballet Mécanique, a score that included synchronized player pianos. The two devised a method whereby a controlling radio and its receiver would jump from one frequency to another, like simultaneous player pianos, so that the radio waves could not be blocked.

The two submitted their patent to the US Navy, which officially opined that Lamarr could do more for the war effort by selling kisses to support war bonds. On one occasion, she raised $7 million. She and Antheil donated their patent to the US Navy and never realized any money from their invention, which would eventually become the basis for wireless phones, Global Positioning Systems, and WiFi, among other cutting-edge technologies.  (from JWA.org)

Hedy Lamarr was born to a comfortable Viennese Jewish family, and in later life she often spoke of her childhood as a kind of paradise, with forest walks and piano lessons, attending the theatre and later herself becoming an actress in theatre and film. She had an extraordinary life, with six husbands and other lovers, a Hollywood career where she was called the most beautiful woman in film and was generally cast as a kind of mysterious temptress, sexually alluring and always somewhat on the outside of normal life. Life followed art, she lived in America and was a film star, but was not of America, and the role-playing of her professional life seems to have been mirrored in her private life.

Hedy Lamarr never told her family that she was born a Jew, that she grew up with Jewish parents. Her own children did not know of that part of her identity even though Hedy’s mother came to live in the United States and they grew up knowing her. Both Lamarr and her mother had converted to Catholicism – Lamarr for marriage in 1933 her mother some five years later. The children found out their maternal background only as adults, when a documentary maker told them of it.

In the month of Elul we  think about our own lives and how we invent and reinvent ourselves, how we try to hide what is inconvenient to our preferred narratives and what we prioritise and why.  While we may not be living a life as complicated and as cryptic as that of Lamarr, each of us have questions to ask ourselves about our choices, and about whether we are living our lives as our best selves.

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