The other day, I came across a tidbit in the news. It said it was the birthdate of former movie star Hedy Lamarr; she would have been 100 years old. To call Hedy Lamarr’s life fascinating would be to damn it with faint praise. The word to describe her journey has yet to be invented (Larmarresque?).
She was much more than a beautiful woman, but beautiful she was. Ms. Lamarr’s look was truly timeless. Her publicity shots from the thirties and forties could be released, unaltered, today and cause the same buzz they did then.
Fortunately for her, though, the term “buzz” was not yet in vogue and she flew somewhat under the radar through a series of scandals that – if seen today – might cause the Twittersphere to explode. She left Germany in 1933 after stirring up controversy for depicting the first female orgasm in non-pornographic film history. She was married at least six times. She essentially gave away her 12-year-old adopted son and never spoke to him again. She was arrested multiple times for shoplifting. She was incredibly litigious regularly suing both friend and foe. A national magazine article even suggested that she escaped from a violent and angry husband by hiding out – and working – in a brothel.
She was also brilliant.
Along with avant garde composer George Antheil, she held the patent for a technology known as frequency-hopping spread spectrum; an invention so important that it paved the way for key elements of modern communication and is still the basis for products like Bluetooth. In addition to earning a star on Hollywood Boulevard, she was inducted in to the Inventors Hall of Fame.
Believe it or not, she even figures in a brief and bizarre chapter of what has been my relatively bizarre life.
As I prepared to interview for a job at a public relations agency in 1983, I knew little of Hedy Lamarr. As a young man with a sophomoric sense of humor, any mention of her name would only have drawn an image of Mel Brooks in Blazing Saddles. Entering the small agency – a professional office attached to a home deep in a residential Long Island neighborhood – my mind rehearsed typical interview answers for typical interview questions. But the interviewer threw me a curve. He greeted me at the door, explained he had a crisis, and quickly ushered me through the office and in to his living quarters while asking me to wait.
I was alone in his den, which included a bar, and I stared straight ahead from one of the barstools. Soon I heard footsteps and swiveled for a better look. Descending a staircase in to the den was Hedy Lamarr. Almost 70 years old, she was dressed only in a white bikini (to which she still did justice). Of course, I did not recognize her, but she sat next to me and poured herself a drink. She introduced herself, told me she was a houseguest and chatted about big plans for her future; books, films, television.
I was speechless and even after that day rarely talked about my unusual encounter. The swimsuit-clad senior citizen had been pleasant company during a stressful wait that preceded an ultimately unproductive interview. It wasn’t until I went to the library to research Ms. Lamarr that I truly understood who had sidled up to me at the bar. And, by then, it was too late to have the conversation I would have liked.
A few days before the Hollywood legend’s centennial, my own beautiful daughter turned 26.
We are as bonded as a father and daughter can be. One evening when she was a little girl, we drove quietly together in the family car. Suddenly and without provocation, both of us, at the exact same moment, loudly sang the same stray line from the same song – “Five Golden Rings”. We laughed, and still do at the memory, while her exasperated mother seemed to accept she was outnumbered and outgunned.
That incident, and hundreds of others, provided testament throughout her childhood that we were undoubtedly joined by a double helix or two. Being her dad was my purpose, my pleasure and my joy.
But she is no longer a child. True, we have a more lax definition of adulthood today. Shifting social norms have college graduates fleeing back home. Professional advancement travels on a slower, more winding track. And though she is, and will always be, my child, I have to accept that, at 26, she can only be referred to as a “grown woman”.
Like we all do with our children’s milestones, I thought a lot about the reality of our ages and the circle of life in the week between those two birthdays. Many of my peers have begun to marry off their children and some have become grandparents. For them, life’s circle is very tangible.
As for me, I find mine and my daughter’s ages to be both meaningful and nuanced. She is 26. In a few months, I will be 56.
She lives on her own and pays her own way. She makes a decent living in a professional setting. Her social circle is filled with interesting, talented, nice people. But her dreams are not realized. She is finding her place in the world.
I, on the other hand, have realized many dreams and fell short of others. In business and certain social settings, I am still welcomed; sometimes valued. But I am at the age where I have begun to be marginalized. The pace of that marginalization is up for negotiation, but not its inevitability. It’s the circle of life.
She is 26. I will be 56. You don’t need to know us to understand where we are in that circle. I am very comfortable with that.
But as I look at my life and my daughter’s, I can’t help but think of Hedy Lamarr. Her life provides much for a young woman to emulate. An Austrian Jew, one step ahead of Hitler who turned Hollywood on its ear. A stunning beauty who rose to the top of a male dominated field of technology. A prewar female who made her own rules and never defined herself by a husband or a mate. When given life’s menu, she seemingly checked the box marked “all of the above.”
Approaching 56, I also remember the fading star who descended that suburban staircase and sat next to a nervous young jobseeker. Following that encounter, I kept tabs on Ms. Lamarr; naively expecting to see her big plans come to fruition. What I learned is that even someone Louis B. Mayer once called “the most beautiful woman in the world” could not defeat time. Rather than seeing her plans realized, Ms. Lamarr reportedly became obsessed with stopping the clock. She underwent one cosmetic procedure after another before evolving in to an industry punchline and dying a somewhat bitter death at 85. In a twist worthy of Wilde, this brilliant, accomplished, successful woman was unable to relinquish her beauty.
That is the circle of life and I am happy with that. I am content with my past. I am content with my present.
Thirty years apart, we are both finding our way. I know I will never again be what I was and I am anxious to find out what I can still be. I have high hopes for my daughter. I have high hopes for myself. It’s an exciting time to be alive.