Hedy Lamarr and George Antheil: Geeks that Pass in the Night

The story of Hedy Lamarr and George Antheil is a weird and curiously inspiring one. Lamarr has been rightly celebrated in recent years as being more than just a beautiful icon of Hollywood’s golden years. She was also a talented inventor, but by far her most influential invention was created in collaboration with someone much less celebrated. That’s why this post begins with the story of her collaborator, George Antheil.

If there were an awkward squad of composers, Hans Pfitzner would be the uptight, humourless medic with the short fuse (think Robert Duvall in the film of MASH); Hugo Wolf would be the pessimistic sidekick who keeps making sardonic jokes about how they’re all gonna die; Carlo Gesualdo would be the psycho sniper that everyone else is scared of, and George Antheil (1900–1959) — ebullient, handsome, untrustworthy — would be squad leader. He never formally finished either high school or college and yet he ended up hanging out with Stravinsky, Man Ray, Fernand Leger, Ezra Pound and Hedy freakin’ Lamarr. He could be charming one minute and a colossal horse’s ass the next.

His music isn’t quite as original as he hoped it would be, but it varies from percussive freak-out to enticing and intricate orchestral writing to dissonant cowboy modernism. The temptation is to call him the Bad Boy of Music, except that he had the cheek to get there first when he titled his own highly unreliable autobiography Bad Boy of Music — you’re not supposed to say so yourself, George. Even if you’ve never heard of him, he made one other singular and important but non-musical contribution, with an unbelievably unlikely collaborator, the effect of which is around us all the time — but we’ll get to that later.

Antheil was the son of German immigrants (it’s pronounced ‘AN-teil’, not ‘On-TAY’) and he started out as a pushy but gifted piano player and budding composer. All along, he wanted to write distinctively American music, but the spur to do so didn’t come from American music itself, but from the Russians. The so-called Five were a loose coalition of Russian composers with a strong nationalist streak, determined to write music that would have Russian-ness stamped all over it. On Antheil’s account, one day a critic invited a group of young American composers around for a drink and a chinwag and suggested that something like the Five was needed in America, if a distinctively American music was ever to get off the ground. Antheil was there already. His idol was Stravinsky and he found in Stravinsky’s music the kind of relentless rhythmic pulse that seemed right for a new American music.

Antheil made his way to Paris, where Stravinsky lived and where most of the ambitious young American modernists were going, and he wangled an introduction to the great man. Stravinsky was politely encouraging. Antheil soon got involved in an ambitious project to make an abstract art film called Ballet Mecanique. It’s fair to say that, as avant-garde art films go, it suffered from a lack of project management; the final film was three minutes long, but Antheil delivered an epic, thunderous score for massed pianos and aeroplane engines that lasted half an hour, and which required multiple mechanical pianos to be synchronised with each other.

Result? They weren’t. Embarrassment all round, but Antheil bounced back and managed to get a performance of the piece in Paris, which provoked a gratifying riot in the concert hall. By the time the riot had fizzled out, film cameras had been obtained, and the film-makers asked the rioters if they wouldn’t mind rioting all over again for the cameras, otherwise it would look boring. The Parisian concertgoers, knowing an Art Event when they were involved in one, were happy to oblige. Antheil subsequently revised Ballet Mecanique into a shorter and much more performable piece, scored for regular pianos and tuned & untuned percussion, and this is the version most often played today. It’s as much of a riot as the riot it inspired; a jerky, manic portrait in sound of the early American metropolis, complete with firebells and abstract honky-tonk piano and a blistering workout from the percussion section, who more than earn their paycheque in this number.

Ballet Mecanique was the high point of Antheil’s notoriety, if not of his achievement. He returned to America and put it on there, but staging problems plus the conservatism of the Carnegie Hall audience turned the event into a fiasco. Once again he refused to lie down; he moved to Hollywood and began a long and successful career composing for the movies, abandoning his earlier clattery manner for a more self-consciously measured and lyrical style that’s sometimes very successful. (Among other films, he scored The Plainsman, starring Gary Cooper.) Of his later style, the Serenade for String Orchestra is a very dissonant serenade, blending neo-classical structure with unexpected bits of hoedown and shivery noir-ish strings.

Antheil went on to compose operas (including a version of Ben Jonson’s Volpone), ballet music and pieces for orchestra. However, he never lived to see his most influential achievement being recognised and, since it had little do with his music, he probably wouldn’t have been too pleased about its success. It all started when some friends invited him to dinner, and he accepted because it meant he’d get to meet Hedy Lamarr.

Lamarr (1914-2000) was an Austrian actress, born Hedwig Kiesler. Her breakthrough role had been in the 1933 German movie Extase in which, as a 19-year-old, she’d done a then-notorious nude scene.

Since moving to Hollywood, she’d been celebrated for a succession of sultry roles in movies such as Algiers, Comrade X and H.M. Pulham Esq.. MGM billed her as ‘the most beautiful woman in the world’. Looking at pictures of her you can see their point: Lamarr’s stills are ravishingly beautiful, but it didn’t always translate into great performances. She found the Hollywood star system annoying, and watching her movies you can sometimes sense her lack of interest.

Lamarr wasn’t uninterested in movies because she was stupid or unimaginative. She was whip-smart, good at math, and her idea of fun was to sit at home and invent things. In 1957 she appeared as the mystery guest in an episode of What’s My Line? and the first question she was asked was ‘Are you a glamorous lady?’ She looked genuinely baffled, and only after much prompting from the host did she finally mumble ‘Mm-hm’.

Hedy Lamarr was, in short, a geek. And her moment was about to come.

An early marriage to a German industrialist had sparked her interest in military technology, and the wartime sinking of the liner City of Benares made her want to contribute something to the Allied war effort. Those dinner party conversations she’d sat in on with her industrialist ex-husband had sparked in her mind the idea of a radio-controlled torpedo, but the same conversations had brought up the problem: radio-control, in the 30s and 40s, was extremely vulnerable to jamming. All your adversary had to do was find out what frequency you were using to control your device, and broadcast a stronger signal on it, ‘jamming’ your signal and removing the device from your control. The problem was how to get around this.

What Lamarr realised was that it would be possible to avert enemy jamming if the transmitter and the receiver constantly hopped from one frequency to another. The time-consuming part of jamming was finding out what frequency the enemy was broadcasting on; once you’d found it, you’d won. If the frequency kept changing, there was no way that the jammer could keep up.

However, there was a problem. In order for the frequency-hopping to work, both the transmitter and the receiver had do it at exactly the same time, which meant that they had to be synchronised with each other. Lamarr didn’t know how to make that happen.

And so, on one particular night in 1940, the 26-year-old actress met the 40-year-old Antheil at a dinner party, and the conversation soon turned to inventions. She outlined her idea about torpedo control and synchronisation, and lamented that she didn’t know how to sync the devices up in the first place.

Bizarrely enough, Antheil knew a good deal about synchronisation, from his work with mechanical pianos. Punched tape, he told her, was the answer. The composer and the actress started working together, and they soon came up with a viable patent. But if Lamarr hoped that she could help the war effort, she was disappointed; as the historian Richard Rhodes pointed out in his wonderful book about Lamarr (from which most of the facts in this article are taken), the US Navy was hardly going to pay attention to the ideas of a Hollywood actress when they weren’t even paying attention to their own submarine commanders.

The Lamarr-Antheil patent was finally picked up by the Department of Defense in the 1960s, by which time Antheil was dead and Lamarr had retired. However, in the meantime it ended up making an important contribution to the spread spectrum technology that’s used today in Bluetooth technology all over the world. Your mobile phone works partly because one night in wartime Los Angeles, an avant-garde composer and a movie goddess had a conversation about torpedoes.

Lamarr’s stardom faded in the 60s and 70s, and she didn’t help her career by getting some seriously pointless and very badly-executed plastic surgery. Her reputation as an actress got a boost a few years ago, when Anne Hathaway learned that Catwoman was originally inspired by Lamarr: Hathaway watched the movies and based much of her performance in The Dark Knight Rises on Lamarr’s presence. Lamarr the inventor finally achieved recognition in 1997, when she was pleased to be given the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s Pioneer Award, putting her in the company of the inventors of the computer mouse and the Linux operating system.

Hedy Lamarr’s favourite fictional hero was Bart Simpson. She died in 2000.

George Antheil died in 1959, still married to the same woman he’d been married to all along although, at the time of his death, he had an illegitimate eight-month-old son — ever the bad boy. He was still composing, never knowing that the technology he’d worked on with Lamarr would bear fruit in the next century. His reputation dipped after his death, but that happens to every composer. Now that his contemporaries like Copland and Barber are becoming over-familiar, Antheil’s boldness and exuberance deserve to be rediscovered.

Hedy Lamarr and George Antheil: Geeks that Pass in the Night

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