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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

Mar 19, 2019

Hedy Lamarr as Actress, Inventor, Artisan--and Artifact

As a result of writing Beautiful Invention: A Novel of Hedy Lamarr, and as a collector of antique and vintage items, I've acquired several original artifacts associated with my protagonist.

One of the most intriguing is this metal boot- or shoe-jack. The letters of Hedy’s name are soldered to the frame, and each support bears half the year of its creation, 1940—the 19 on one side and the 40 on the other.

Although the provenance isn’t specific, it reportedly was made for the actress, who by 1940 had attained the peak of fame. But by whom?

One candidate for its creation is Hedy herself, because she was a maker. She designed her own jewellery and clothing, and mixed her own perfume by combining scenes she liked. Knitting and needlepoint were ways to keep occupied between scenes in her dressing room or trailer. She was a painter. She modeled in clay, making miniature animals to display in her dressing room. As described in the novel, she gave them to her Come Live with Me castmates as Christmas gift—Jimmy Stewart received a pig—and she accepted commissions. And she was a woodcarver, who specialised in making decorative doorstops covered in needlepoint or fabric. Her woodworking projects sometimes took place in the carpentry shop at her studio, MGM, where she could use a lathe.

Another even more likely candidate, and the one I chose for fictional purposes, is British actor Reginald “Reggie” Gardiner. He was her first Hollywood boyfriend and lover. 

Hedy with Reggie Gardiner
Hedy & Reggie at a film premiere

A skilled artist, he painted her portrait more than once, in oils and in watercolours. 

Reggie working on one of his Hedy portraits

After their initial romance ended, they remained very close before and after her various marriages, and they continued dating until he fell in love with the woman who became his wife. He built her coops for her flock of chickens and ducks, hutches for her rabbits, and constructed a swimming pool at one of her houses. Anyone who sees him portraying the quintessential, sophisticated, upper-crust Englishman in such films as Christmas in Connecticut or Everybody Sing! will be surprised by his non-theatrical pursuits. It would certainly not be out of character for him to have engaged in metal-work.

What was the significance of 1940?

It was a very busy year for Hedy, and not a happy one. She separated from her second husband, producer Gene Markey, and initiated a divorce—which had the potential to jeopardise the final adoption of their toddler son. In the midst of domestic turmoil, she was working on four major movies: Boom Town (with Spencer Tracy and Clark Gable), Comrade X (with Clark Gable), Ziegfield Girl (with Judy Garland, Lana Turner, and Jimmy Stewart) and Come Live with Me (with Jimmy Stewart).

During the final months of that year, appalled by the tragic German U-Boat attack on the children’s transport ship City of Benares, evacuating British children to Canada, she decided to put her knowledge of munitions to use against Hitler and the Nazis. She embarked upon her now-famous collaboration with George Antheil on the wireless torpedo, and the development of “frequency hopping” and spread-spectrum technology for the National Inventors Council.

It's impossible to know the origin of the bootjack, or why it bears the particular date. But it is an attractive—and potentially useful—household item.