Tech Invention, Shoplifting Trial Set Hedy Lamarr Apart

Times Staff Writer

Just as celebrity watchers have been titillated by the coverage of the felony shoplifting trial of actress Winona Ryder, movie fans and tourists alike were drawn nearly 40 years ago to another celebrity shoplifting trial: that of the glamorous actress Hedy Lamarr.

In 1966, the Viennese-born woman, who had often been called “the most beautiful girl in the world,” was arrested, charged and acquitted of swiping $86 worth of merchandise, including greeting cards and bikini underwear, from the May Co. Wilshire department store, an Art Deco icon that is now part of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art complex.

The sensational six-day trial drew standing-room-only crowds longing for a glimpse of the sultry queen of the screen who had once inspired center-parted hairdos and, unknown to the public at the time, had invented an anti-jamming device for radio-controlled torpedoes during World War II that would become part of the bedrock for the Internet, pagers, and cordless and wireless phones.


Although she never received an Oscar nomination for her acting, and her role in the invention of “frequency hopping” was ignored for decades, the results of her idea are now as hot with technology enthusiasts as pinups of Lamarr once were with World War II servicemen.

A sarong-wrapped siren even before Dorothy Lamour, Lamarr was the star of such films as “Algiers,” “White Cargo” and “Lady of the Tropics,” the racy stuff of dreams for hundreds of thousands of men who marched off to war. In addition to her pinup image, she had an inquiring mind that in a different era might have taken her to MIT instead of Hollywood.

Born Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler in Vienna in 1913, she sprang to international fame as a teenager when she romped naked across the screen in the controversial 1932 Czech movie “Ecstasy.” Two years later, she married millionaire Austrian munitions maker Fritz Mandl, who was horrified when he found out she had done nude scenes.

Obsessed with his young bride’s beauty and protecting her virtue and his name, he spent a fortune buying and destroying copies of the film and keeping her constantly by his side. He didn’t succeed; some copies of the movie survived, and she eventually left him.

Even though her husband considered her a trophy wife, Lamarr had a sharp mind. She sat through many dinner conversations about weapons systems with her husband’s engineers, and gradually absorbed a remarkably advanced education in radio technology.

But she drew the line when he began selling weapons to the Nazis. In 1937, she fled the loveless marriage by drugging the maid assigned to guard her, then crawling out a window disguised as a servant. After making her way to London, she met Louis B. Mayer, who gave her a $500-a-week MGM contract and a new name.


In Hollywood, she played roles opposite Spencer Tracy, Clark Gable, Victor Mature and Robert Taylor.

At a Hollywood dinner party during the war, Lamarr met composer George Antheil, whose compositions included such gimmicks as 14 player pianos playing simultaneously. Lamarr told him about her idea for a device to protect U.S. radio-guided torpedoes from enemy attempts to jam them.

He suggested using piano rolls to hop radio signals over various frequencies. Anyone trying to jam it would hear only random noise, like a radio dial being spun. Their patent for a “Secret Communication System” was granted in 1942. They gave their breakthrough to the government for the war effort but were largely ignored. They were told their mechanism was too cumbersome to be implemented.

It would take another 20 years for the usefulness of the concept to be realized. After the patent ran out, Sylvania developed a similar device and installed it on ships sent to blockade Cuba in 1962. The two Hollywood inventors never received a penny for the commercialization of their patent, though it is cited as the underlying patent for frequency-changing technology. Lamarr found other ways to contribute to the war effort, selling $7 million worth of war bonds in a single day, offering kisses at $50,000 a pop, slinging hash and dancing with soldiers at the Hollywood USO canteen.

The highlight of her film career came in 1949, when she played the femme fatale Delilah in Cecil B. DeMille’s biblical epic “Samson and Delilah.” But thereafter came years of tribulations, including three more marriages and divorces. Her movie career faded and she was just another over-the-hill ingenue when she was arrested on suspicion of shoplifting in January 1966.

Moments after Lamarr, 53, was apprehended with 25 items in the May Co. parking lot, she reportedly told the security guard: “Some of the other stores let me do it.” When that didn’t work, she said: “I’ll just pay for these things and that will settle everything.”

But the next day Lamarr told a crowd of reporters at a Beverly Hills restaurant press conference: “I’m still mystified and surprised. It’s hardly possible” that she was shoplifting, she said, displaying two checks made out to her totaling $14,000.

“How can I shoplift with these in my bag?”

A week later she was hospitalized with “nervous exhaustion” and fired from the set of “Picture Mommy Dead.” Zsa Zsa Gabor replaced her.

In April, at the opening of her trial, a young and bright prosecutor named Ira Reiner accused her of stealing “systematically and methodically.” Reiner, who was fresh out of law school, would rise to become city attorney, then district attorney.

Defense lawyer Jordan M. Wank described the actress as “forgetful” and “confused,” and said the security guards and the store were out to get her using “Gestapo tactics.”

May Co. security guard Helen McGarry told jurors that she watched Lamarr place a pair of baby blue stretch slippers on the edge of a counter and casually sweep them into a large handbag. She then tried on several plastic headbands and slipped the scarf she was wearing forward on her head to cover them.

On another floor, McGarry watched her place her large shopping bag on the floor beneath a rack of suits and watched as one beige suit tumbled into the open bag.

A salesclerk testified that she had seen Lamarr in the store several weeks earlier and watched her put a sweater in her bag. When the clerk confronted Lamarr about the item, Lamarr took it out and handed it to the clerk.

“Here, you put it back,” Lamarr said testily and walked away, the clerk said.

Unlike Ryder, Lamarr took the witness stand at the Municipal Courthouse and played to overflow crowds, people who might have forgotten Lamarr but who still wanted to see a star on trial. Hundreds of people hustled downtown during the morning rush hour on the chance that a prized seat might open up.

Lamarr testified that she was troubled over the failure of her sixth marriage. She was threatened with eviction from her Coldwater Canyon home because she was broke. She had an infected tooth and felt ill. She had watched the movie “The Pawnbroker” a few days before the incident, which only added to her depression. She said she went shopping “to take my mind off” scenes in the movie, about a refugee from Nazi Germany. She said the film reminded her of her life before World War II.

In closing arguments, Reiner charged that Lamarr had fashioned a “grade B” scenario in her courtroom defense. When she was detained at the police station, she insisted she had “forgotten” to pay for the merchandise. During the trial, however, she did not plead forgetfulness, but testified that she had walked out to the parking lot to find her business manager to write a check for her.

“The overwhelming inference to be drawn from the evidence is that she was doing just what she appeared to be doing: shoplifting,” Reiner said.

Lamarr’s son, 19-year-old Anthony Loder, testified that his mother was worried about her fading beauty.

Her attorney, Wank, told the jury: “Because she is who she is, she is used to privileges.... She was used to a different course of conduct than might be accorded other people when she went shopping in the store.

“Even though she has been in financial straits, a lousy $86 does not mean a thing to her.”

A jury of five women and seven men deliberated five hours before acquitting Lamarr of petty theft.

“I was just two years out of law school and I bent over backward, all but apologized to be fair to her,” Reiner said in a recent interview.

“During the trial, when the jurors were out to lunch, I walked into the jury assembly room and found her lying flat on the table, resting. Not wanting to disturb her, I quickly walked out.

“When the trial was over, about half the jurors approached me and said that they knew she was guilty, but it was so clear that I didn’t want them to convict her. That was the last time I was Mr. Nice Guy in the courtroom,” Reiner said.

In 1967, Lamarr was infuriated at the way her autobiography, “Ecstasy and Me,” was ghostwritten, detailing her sexual encounters. The furor sent her into seclusion.

“My face has been my misfortune,” she says in the book. “It has attracted six unsuccessful marriage partners. It has attracted all the wrong people into my boudoir and brought me tragedy and heartache for five decades. My face is a mask I cannot remove. I must always live with it. I curse it.”

In 1991, Lamarr, then 78, made headlines in Florida after she was arrested for walking out of an Orlando drugstore with $21.48 worth of laxatives and eyedrops. Supermarket tabloids described her as “destitute.”

Calls poured into the police as Lamarr’s fans offered to pay her drugstore bill or provide legal assistance. Prosecutors decided not to charge her because of her age and poor eyesight -- but only with her promise not to break any laws for a year.

Three years before she died in January 2000, she and Antheil were honored by the Electronic Frontier Foundation for “blazing new trails on the electronic frontier.”

The woman who once said, “Any girl can be glamorous -- all you have to do is stand still and look stupid,” was anything but.