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"I don’t change the facts to enhance the drama. I think of it the other way round, the drama has got to fit the facts,
and it’s your job as a writer to find the shape in real life."
Hilary Mantel


Tuesday, January 22, 2019

Hedy Lamarr and her Velvet Ballgown


On 16 January, 1937, the woman who became Hedy Lamarr—then Mrs. Fritz Mandl—attended the Vienna Opera Ball. On that occasion she wore a velvet gown with crossover bodice. Her jewels consisted of a diamond tiara, diamond earrings, a diamond necklace, a large brooch, and several gemstone bracelets.


Hedwig Kiesler Mandl, 16 January 1937

Hedy at the Vienna Opera Ball, 16 January 1937

One of many myths about Hedy—which she created and perpetuated—was her autumn 1937 “escape” from her native Vienna and her controlling, duplicitous husband. Fritz Mandl, an Austrian-born Jew, was a millionaire munitions manufacturer who provided European dictators with armaments in the years just prior to World War II. Hedy's disgust at his connections with Hitler, combined with his mistreatment of her, prompted her to leave her homeland.

In her quite lurid and much discredited (by her) ghostwritten autobiography, Ecstasy and Me, there is an exciting but highly dubious description of how she got away from her husband after various failed attempts. She claims to have hired a maid who resembled her. After sending money and jewelry to a friend in Paris, says Hedy:

…I put three sleeping pills in Laura’s coffee, packed her suitcase, left her some money, dressed in my maid’s costume with the collar turned up and sneaked out of the servants’ entrance. I had the keys to Laura’s battered car, and I reached the railway station unchallenged…I knew that once I was discovered, and alarm would go to Mandl in Germany just as quickly as if he were in the next room!

This subterfuge would not have been necessary. By that time, the marriage was no more than a sham.

The year before this supposedly occurred, in October, 1936, U.S. papers printed a story about the scandalous couple, declaring that Fritz Mandl

...has not only lost his five-year fight to suppress the movie Ecstasy, in which his beautiful wife stars in the nude, but he now stands in danger of losing his wife as well. At least, so the Viennese gossips say. And they add that his wife, famous Austrian cinema star, Hedy Kiesler, has also lost—her heart to Count Ferdinand von Starhemberg.

Ferdinand was a hereditary Austrian prince, not a count, and he tried to help free Hedy from Fritz, with disastrous results. By the following year, the Mandls were taking separate vacations, and both were involved in affairs with other people. Moreover, that summer the European press reported that divorce was already on the cards. On the 18th of September, 1937 it was reported:

A cousin of Mandl revealed today that Hedi [sic] and her husband had filed a mutual divorce action. It was reported, however, that they would not wait for a trial of the suit but would go to Riga, Latvia, the Reno of Europe. Hedi’s aspirations to return to the stage were blamed for the final rift, but although Vienna society has been talking for weeks about the public appearances of the actress with Count Max Hardegg.

When that paragraph was printed, Hedy had already left Austria and was in London, staying at the elegant Regent Palace Hotel.

Decades before Hedy's memoir was published, shortly after her arrival in Hollywood, she told journalists that she deserted Fritz while he was away on a hunting trip in Hungary. Here’s an early version of the escape story, a year after it occurred, as described in a 1938 Photoplay interview, the year after her departure from Austria:

She packed her luxurious clothes and with her tiny nest egg made ready for flight…and then quietly one night during her husband’s absence, she with the aid of a faithful maid, crept to the depot and caught the train.

No mention of drugging the maid. Or a single suitcase. The servant is an active assistant, no doubt helping to carefully pack those "luxurious clothes." She was not an unwitting victim.

In July, 1938, ten months after Hedy fled from Vienna, gossip columnist Hedda Hopper visited Hedy's home, reporting that, "She brought with her the finest jewels, which she keeps in a vault, and scads of beautiful clothes."

So Hedy did carry jewelry and couture gowns with her when she climbed aboard that train to Paris. From France she crossed the Channel to England. In London an MGM employee secured her a meeting—not her first—with Louis B. Mayer. She's believed to have sold some of her jewelry to pay for her passage on the S.S. Normandie, but much of her collection was intact when she sailed. She surely had more than limited amount of clothing she could have fitted into “Laura’s suitcase”. On disembarking in New York on September 30th, she possessed stacks of luggage. She had purchased clothing in the designer shops on board the ship—Mayer gave her carte blanche to buy anything she wanted and send the bill to MGM. But judging from her comments to Hedda Hopper and to Photoplay, she'd brought plenty of fine clothes on board.

Apparently that same velvet ballgown she'd worn 9 months earlier at the Vienna Opera Ball was carefully packed with others as she departed the ten-room Ofenheim Palace apartment where she lived with Fritz. Accumulated photographic evidence proves that it made the long journey with her from Vienna to Hollywood.

In one of her early MGM publicity stills, shot by photographer Clarence Bull, she wears that very garment.

Hedy Lamarr, MGM starlet

And in the final hours of 1938—the year she achieved Hollywood stardom as Gaby in Algiers—she wears it again. Seated with her at the New Year’s Eve party is her co-star, Charles Boyer, who was responsible for her getting that crucial role.

Hedy & Charles Boyer, 31 January 1938

The velvet gown had at least one other outing, paired with her famous chinchilla cape. She wears both in this photograph at an event with actor George Raft and Norma Shearer, at that time the Queen of MGM, Hedy’s studio. Some sources indicate that this was at the Academy Awards ceremony in February 1939.



After the Mandls' marriage was eventually dissolved, Fritz went on to marry nearly as many times as Hedy did. They remained on friendly terms. He telephoned her every birthday, and from time to time provided her with gifts of money—once as much as $10,000. Whatever had drawn them together when she was a teenaged actress never completely disintegrated. They met only once again, after both were remarried, she to producer/writer Gene Markey and he to an Austrian baroness. The reunion, noted in Hedy’s FBI file, probably occurred during the Markeys’ visit to New York in early 1940, when Fritz and his new bride were also there.

I doubt she wore the well-travelled velvet dress on that occasion. If she had, I'm sure her ex-husband would have remembered it, and he would have known the cost—because  he'd paid for it.


There's no proof of which couturier created the sleeveless and oft-worn gown. Hedy often purchased clothing in Paris. Madeline Vionnet created this very similar one in 1934, now in the Victoria & Albert Museum. And purple was a favourite colour of Hedy's.

Vionnet gown, 1934, V&A

You can read about Hedy's married life with Fritz, her escape from him, and what happened afterwards in Hollywood and during World War II, in Beautiful Invention: A Novel of Hedy Lamarr