April 10, 1953 Not Just a Pretty Face

“All creative people want to do the unexpected” – Hedy Lamarr

According to Greek mythology, Helen was the most beautiful woman in the world. The wife of Menelaus, King of Sparta, Helen either eloped or was kidnapped, (the sources are elliptical on the point), with (or by) the Trojan prince, Paris. The Achaeans (Greeks) set sail for Troy to bring her back. The resulting war with Troy lasted ten years, culminating in the Trojan Horse episode and the eventual fall, of the city of Troy.

“Beware of Greeks bearing gifts”.

Abduction of Helen, Schönbrunn Palace, Vienna, Austria

In the 17th century, English playwright Christopher Marlowe referred to Helen of Troy as having “…the face that launched a thousand ships”.

“Was this the face that launched a thousand ships
And burnt the topless towers of Illium
Sweet Helen, make me immortal with a kiss…”

The Tragical History of Dr. Faustus, by Christopher Marlowe

The Austrian-born American actress and film producer Hedy Lamarr had such a face, and more. A movie star once described as “the world’s most beautiful woman”, she possessed an intellect in the very top percentile and the curiosity, of an inventor.

Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler was born on November 9, 1914 in Vienna, Austria, the daughter of Emil Keisler and Gertrud (Lichtwitz) Kiesler. Emil, a bank director with the gift of curiosity and the mind of an engineer, would take his daughter for long walks. He would point out various machines like printing presses and streetcars and explain, their inner workings. From the age of five little Hedy could be found, taking apart and reassembling her music box and other household gadgets.

Gertrud “Trude” was a concert pianist who introduced Hedy to the arts, enrolling her daughter in ballet and piano lessons, from an early age.

Blessed or perhaps cursed with exceptional beauty, the rest of the world ignored the brilliance of her mind. That face was what mattered. At 16, Hedy was “discovered” by theater and film producer, Max Reinhardt. She was soon studying acting and appeared in her first film role in 1930, a German film called Geld auf der Straβe (“Money on the Street”).

Hedy Keisler first gained public notice in the 1932 movie “ecstasy”, a controversial film censored in some nations and banned outright in others, for sexual content.

Austrian munitions dealer Fritz Mandl became one of Hedy’s biggest fans when he saw her in the play, Sissy. The two met and, in 1933, they married.

She was miserable.

“I knew very soon that I could never be an actress while I was his wife … He was the absolute monarch in his marriage … I was like a doll. I was like a thing, some object of art which had to be guarded—and imprisoned—having no mind, no life of its own.”

Hedy Mandl

The trophy wife expected to be seen and not heard, Hedy detested her husband’s associates, many of them, Nazi party members.

Always the gracious hostess, dinner guests never suspected how much she overheard – and understood – about the German arms industry.

In 1937 she fled, to London.

She would remain a “stateless person for sixteen years, becoming a naturalized US Citizen on this day in 1953.

In London, Hedy got her first big break in the motion picture industry when she met Louis B. Mayer. It was Mayer who persuaded her to change her last name. To distance herself, from “the ecstasy lady”. Hedy chose “Lamarr” in honor of the beautiful silent film actress, Barbara La Marr. There she met and dated for a time the American business magnate, Howard Hughes. Hughes, himself an engineer and born tinkerer, was as stricken as anyone else, by her physical beauty. Unlike the sewer that is Hollywood, Hughes understood the power of the mind, behind the pretty face.

Hughes encouraged her scientific curiosity. He brought her to his aircraft factories and showed her how his aircraft were built. He introduced her to scientists and engineers who explained to her, how things work. He bought her equipment, to work with. On movie sets, Hedy could be found in her trailer, tinkering between takes.

“Improving things comes naturally to me.”

Hedy Lamarr

As a pilot and a businessman, Howard Hughes was interested in faster airplanes, to sell to the military. With an intuitive grasp of fluid dynamics and dissatisfied with the blocky appearance of Hughes’ aircraft, Lamarr bought books about birds, and fish. She studied the fastest among fish and the speediest of birds, combining aspects of the two for a new and streamlined, wing design. Hughes took a look at Lamarr’s sketches and said “Hedy, you’re a genius”.

Americans couldn’t get enough of the Austrian-born actress. On screen she radiated all the “old world” exoticism of a Dietrich or a Garbo but managed a magnetism and personal warmth unique, among the three.

Offscreen she was always exploring. Learning. Experimenting. Lamarr went on to invent a stop light upgrade and a tablet capable of transforming into a soft drink, much like Alka-Seltzer, but it took WW2 to bring about her most significant contribution.

In 1940, Hedy met the pianist and avant-garde composer, George Antheil. Every bit the polymath as Lamarr herself, the two had long conversations about – of all things – guided torpedoes. The actress had unique and personal insights into the darkness, of the Nazi war machine. Wasn’t such a guidance system susceptible to jamming, sending the projectile off-course?

The pair set about designing a frequency-hopping system to defeat such measures. The obstacles were considerable. To create such a system, both sender and receiver needed to switch frequencies, not only at the same time, but to the same setting. Lamarr’s “Secret Communications System” was patented in 1942 under her then-married name, Hedy Keisler Markey.

While classified as “Red hot”, Hedy’s “thing” proved technically difficult to implement in the field. In 1957, the system was adapted for use in a secret naval sonobouy. An updated version was installed on Navy ships during the Cuban missile crisis but, by this time the patent had run out. Hedy Lamarr never was compensated for her invention.

Today, “spread spectrum” technologies you’re probably using at this very moment, modern wonders such as Wi-Fi, Bluetooth and GPS, are borne of the “Mother of Wi-Fi”. The Hollywood actress with a face that could launch a thousand ships and the mind, of an engineer.

April 9, 1940 A Dish Best Served Cold

On the surface of the ocean, the Battle of the Atlantic raged on with torpedo and depth charge.  Under the surface, there unfolded a different story.


The Encyclopedia Britannica describes Croton oil as a “poisonous viscous liquid obtained from the seeds of a small Asiatic tree…”  Highly toxic and a violent irritant, the substance was once used as a drastic purgative and counter-irritant in human and veterinary medicine, but is now considered too dangerous for medicinal use. Applied externally, Croton oil is capable of peeling your skin off.  Taken internally, the stuff may be described as the atomic bomb, of laxatives.

The Nazi conquest of Europe began with the annexation of the Sudetenland in 1938, the border districts of Bohemia, Moravia, and German speaking parts of Czechoslovakia. Within two years, every major power on the European mainland was either neutral, or subject to Nazi occupation.  France fell to the Nazi war machine in six weeks, in 1940.  The armed forces of the island nation of Great Britain were left shattered and defenseless, stranded on the beaches of Dunkirk.

On the Scandinavian Peninsula, longstanding policies of disarmament in the wake of WW1 left the Nordic states of Denmark and Norway severely under-strength, able to offer little resistance to the Nazi invaders.

On this day in 1940, German warships entered Norwegian harbors from Narvik to Oslo, as German troops occupied Copenhagen and other Danish cities.  King Christian X of Denmark surrendered almost immediately.  To the northwest, Norwegian commanders loyal to former foreign minister Vidkun Quisling ordered coastal defenders to stand down, permitting the German landing to take place, unopposed.  Norwegian forces refused surrender demands from the German Minister in Oslo, but the outcome was never in doubt.

Nazi Germany responded with an airborne invasion by parachute.  Within weeks, Adolf Hitler could add a second and third scalp to his belt, following the invasion of Poland, six months earlier.  The Kingdoms of Denmark and Norway, were out of the war.

Norway was out of the war, but not out of the fight.   One Nazi officer passed an elderly woman on the street, who complained at the officer’s rudeness and knocked his hat off, with her cane. The officer apologized, and scurried away.  The gray-haired old matron snickered, to herself:  “Well, we’ll each have to fight this war as best we can.  That’s the fourth hat I’ve knocked into the mud this morning.

Norwegian Resistance was quick to form, as patriotic locals united against the Nazi occupier and the collaborationist policies of the Quisling government.

“Anti-Nazi graffiti on the streets of Oslo, reading “Live” above the monogram for the Norwegian king, who had fled when the Germans invaded in 1940”. (Photo: Bettmann/Getty Images)

The Norwegian secret army known as Milorg and led by General Otto Ruge, was at first loath to engage in outright sabotage, for fear of German reprisals against innocent civilians.  Later in the war, Milorg commandos attacked the heavy water factory at Rjukan and sank a ferry carrying 1,300 lbs of heavy water, inflicting severe damage to the Nazi nuclear research program.

Sven Somme, tree
Norwegian Resistance member Sven Somme demonstrates one of the techniques by which he evaded capture in the mountains.

In the beginning, Resistance activities centered more around covert sabotage and the gathering of intelligence.  One of the great but little-known dramas of WW2 unfolded across the snow covered mountains of the Scandinavian peninsula, as the civilian-turned-spy Sven Somme fled 200 miles on foot to neutral Sweden, pursued by 900 Wehrmacht soldiers and a pack of bloodhounds.

Operations of all kinds were undertaken, to stymie the Nazi war effort. Some actions seem like frat-boy pranks, such as coating condoms destined for German units, with itching powder.  Hundreds of Wehrmacht soldiers (and presumably Norwegian women) showed up at Trondheim hospitals, believing they had contracted Lord-knows-what kind of plague.

Other operations demonstrate a kind of evil genius.  This is where Croton oil comes in.

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As dedicated as they were, Norwegian resistance fighters still had to feed themselves and their families.  Many of them were subsistence fishermen, and that meant sardines.  For centuries, the small fish had been a staple food item across the Norwegian countryside.  It was a near-catastrophic blow to civilian and Resistance fighters alike, when the Quisling government requisitioned the entire sardine crop.

The Battle of the Atlantic was in full-swing by this time, as wolf packs of German submarines roamed the north Atlantic, preying on Allied shipping.  Thousands of tons of sardines would be sent to the French port of Saint-Nazaire, to feed U-Boat crews on their long voyages at sea.

U-864
German Type X Submarine, U-864

Norwegian vengeance began with a request to the Special Operations Executive (SOE) in Great Britain, for the largest shipment of Croton oil, possible.  The “atomic laxative” was smuggled into canneries across Norway, and used to replace vegetable oil in sardine tins.  The plan worked nicely and no one suspected a thing, the pungent taste of the fish covering the strange flavor of the oil.

From midget submarines such as the BiberHaiMolch, and Seehund models to the behemoth 1,800-ton “Type X“, the Kriegsmarine employed no fewer than fifteen distinct submarine types in WW2, including the workhorse “Type VII”, of which some 700 saw service in the German war effort. 

On the surface of the ocean, the Battle of the Atlantic raged on with torpedo and depth charge.  Under the surface, there unfolded a different story.

Revenge, it is said, is a dish, best served cold. Excepting the participants in this tale, no one knows what it looks like when ten thousand submariners simultaneously lose control of their bowels. It could not have been a pretty sight.