When the word "Elegance" comes to untrained mind, usually several things happen...
Dollar signs appear...
Visions of chandeliers, black tie events, and cranky old people with outdated opinions. Perhaps flashes of judgmental privileged people in extremely expensive dress and "ladies who lunch" appear in your head.
Overall, a sense of unhappiness and spectacle.
These are just some of the many myths and stereotypes that accompany what it means to be elegant.
Fortunately, these are age old stereotypes fueled by movies, bad experiences, and sadly, Hollywood.
Today I want to dive into just one stereotype of elegance that helped shape the negative connotations we have today with the topic, hoping to uncover true elegance that will help you be confident, influential, and thrive in your calling.
Hedy Lamarr may be an unknown name to you, but as Johnny Depp has recently re-cast a light on this classic beauty with his new, post-defamation-lawsuit-win musical single with Jeff Beck, "This Is a Song For Miss Hedy Lamarr" many women have Googled her name and learned more about her.
Anywhere she walked she turned heads. Some would argue she is one of, if not the very MOST beautiful actresses to ever grace the screens of cinemas, and to this day is often called, "The Most Beautiful Woman in Film".
An embodiment of classical beauty, Hedy Lamarr seemed to purely be that that- beauty. No one thought much more of her than a gorgeous face and intriguing actress. You may recognize her from classic movies like Algiers, Boom Town, Samson and Delilah, or Come Live with Me. However, there is much more to the story and the example it sets for understanding true elegance. Hedy went on to become the brains behind the invention of wifi and even bluetooth, although she gets little credit today beyond her beautiful roles in Hollywood.
From escaping as a stow-away Jew from Hitler's inner circle, to working as one of MGM's prized actresses, Hedy lived a fascinating life in which her influence was bigger than anyone at the time realized. Take, for example, the classic dark hair and middle part sported by so many prominent classical actresses in the 1930's and 1940's. This style was first sported by... you guessed it... Hedy Lamar.
Vivian Leigh, famous for Gone With the Wind and Streetcar Named Desire, is immortalized in Hedy's hairstyle.
Thelma Todd, popular for her comedy in The Marx Brother's Monkey Business and Speak Easily, follows Hedy's hair trend.
In the early to mid twentieth century, elegance culturally equated with money and beauty. Hollywood was in the prime of its golden age, and women were coming to Los Angeles in droves, hoping someone would notice them and they could make a name for themselves for their looks. Women were nothing more
then the hairspray, lipstick and a sweet demeanor displayed in black and white. It wouldn't be until about 1950 in a post World War II society when Lucille Ball (I love Lucy, anyone?) would challenge this expectation.
Thus, this was the world Hedy stumbled into. Or rather, rode her bicycle to in the dead of night with her most precious belongings under her peacoat to hide from Nazis...
But I get ahead of myself.
Here's how the story began...
Ever since she was a child in Austria, Hedwig Eva Maria Keiser was fascinated by design and engineering. Her greatest memories as a child are highlighted by the moments her father engaged with her in inventing.
Her mind was copious and creative, a trait that saved her life in the late nineteen thirties. At a very young age of 19, she married a man fourteen years her superior and lived life as a trophy wife. She accompanied her husband to many important events as he showed her off, but little did she know what she was witnessing. Often, she overheard Italian and German engineers discuss designs for rockets, torpedoes and radio communication. But these were no ordinary engineers.
They believed that because Hedy was a woman, and a beautiful one at that, that she wouldn't understand their discussions and thus didn't care if she was present. Hedy soaked up every last word from them, and after every event, went home to write down everything she could remember. Later, she discover her husband was in the Inner Circle with Hitler, and these engineers were creating weapons for a tragic reason.
She fled Austria after this realization and made her way to London after escaping on a bicycle in the middle of the night- with her precious belongings and this knowledge in tow.
In London, she fortuitously met Louis B Mayer, of MGM notoriety, who was immediately infatuated with her, her beauty and accent. She had her golden ticket to Hollywood, and went on to star in the Studio's most popular movies.
However, Hedy had a problem. She had a life many dreamed of-- leading parts, high paychecks, and international notoriety. But something was missing- her scientific mind was stunted.
Hedy kept a small set of equipment in her trailer to experiment between takes, and she was passionate about exploring more. At one point she came up with a tablet that dissolved in soda to make something similar to Coca-Cola.
“Improving things comes naturally to me.”
- Hedy Lamarr
Hedy petitioned MGM leadership to let her pursue inventing full time, but they didn't believe a woman should take on such a role. She was upset, but that didn't stop her.
When the rumblings she had encountered in Austria grew into World War II, Hedy was passionate about helping. She and her friend George Antheil took to the drawing boards to come up with ideas that would combat the weaponry Hedy had been privy to not long before.
What they discovered changed history.
Hedy and George discovered a groundbreaking new technology using "frequency hopping" amongst radio waves that allowed transmitter and receiver hopping to new frequencies together. This technology was created to be used for submarines as this model prevented intercepted radio waves, ensuring the torpedo could hit its target. They acquired a patent and presented the offer to the Navy, but the Navy wasn't interested. However, they did share the design with fellow contractors, and her ideas became the springboard which can be traced to world changing bigger ideas like Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, and GPS.
Her designs were even used in the 1962 Cuban Missile crisis, with torpedoes using her "frequency-hopping system".
Hedy never received any compensation for her designs, but went on to be the first woman to receive the Invention Convention’s Bulbie Gnass Spirit of Achievement Award and The Electronic Frontier Foundation's Pioneer Award (with George Antheil) in 1997.
Hedy's story shows us much about the power of elegance and what we should do to achieve true thriving in our calling. She was remarkably elegant, by the true definition of elegance. Not only in her dress, character, and drive. Hedy encompassed the definition of elegance- solving complex problems with simple solutions.
So what is the great myth?
Hedy was beauty, but she also was brains. The most beautiful movie star in all of history, but there was depth to her.
True elegance has something richer than what's on the exterior. The great myth of elegance is thinking it has everything to do with wealth, success, and vanity. Many people act elegant and at times have fooled the world. But elegance is so much more than a mirage, and it certainly isn't truly snooty old people with furs and valets. Elegance is Hedy carrying on in her confidence of what is true, pursuing a life for herself, and never believing what she was told that because she was a woman, she couldn't be an inventor.
Hedy took the complexity of her life-- escaping Nazis, signing with MGM, making box-office hits, dreaming of being an inventor, and becoming the mother of WiFi-- with great determination and brains. Hedy was determined that she wouldn't accept the Studio's definition of elegance, and thanks to her, she changed history for the better.
After inventing her "frequency-hopping" system, Hedy went back to acting. She continued on lighting up the screens with few knowing the depth of her talents. Here are the components of an elegant woman I have discovered in studying her life:
Elegant women have great determination, they aren't flies on the wall as some stereotypes my suggest.
Elegant women have many talents, across a vast array of fields
Elegance is much more than the exterior, and you can't truly fake it. Elegance is a mental state, a lifestyle, and a choice.
Hedy isn't the only woman trapped in the worldview of elegance as maintained by MGM executives and the Hollywood Golden Age. Hedy is unique as she worked to stand out from the stereotype, even though many people didn't approve. Elegance is beauty and brains, and one without the other is obviously lacking.
Now go listen to Johnny Depp's new song-"This Is a Song For Miss Hedy Lamarr"- it will make so much more sense!
Have you heard this story before? Comment below your thoughts and I'll respond as I can.