Woog’s World / The day Hedy Lamarr visited Westport
I have to confess: I don’t know much about Hedy Lamarr.
I’m hazy on the lives of even current celebrities. The 1940s actress was waaaay before my time. But a new documentary — “Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story” — has apparently shined a new spotlight on this Jewish girl, raised in Vienna, who starred (naked) in a German movie “Ecstasy.” It was denounced by the pope AND banned by Adolf Hitler.
What makes Hedy Lamarr truly “Woog’s World”-worthy, though, was a letter I got from a Westport resident named Dorvan Manus. He’s got a wonderfully Hollywood-ish name — and an intriguing story to tell.
It begins one summer day in 1965. Someone Dorvan had not heard from in years called from New York. He wanted to bring “a very special friend” to meet Dorvan, and take a swim.
The friend was Hedy Lamarr. In her heyday she’d worked with Clark Gable, Spencer Tracy and Cecil B. DeMille. She’d been considered the most beautiful woman in film. Of course, Dorvan said “yes.”
He’d already met Greta Garbo and Marlene Dietrich. Why not Hedy too?
Then he started wondering where he could take her. Compo Beach was a bit too public. So — Cockenoe Island. It was private. She could swim in the cove. “Brilliant!” he thought.
Dorvan had a boat. It was, he recalls, “a funky little dory with a tiny motor,” tied to a dock owned by a guy named George. He “sat around drinking beer with his friends by the Saugatuck River,” near what is now the rowing club.
Hedy stared at it in disbelief. But she laughed and climbed in. Dorvan prayed the motor would start. It did. They headed out to Cockenoe.
There were a few “small yachts” at the island, having a party. Dorvan slid into the cove, and put down the anchor. Hedy turned to him and announced she had not brought a swimsuit. So, she said, she would swim “ne-kid.”
This was not the French Riviera. It was Long Island Sound. Dorvan scotched the idea. Thus the actress dove in wearing Capri pants and a white t-shirt (which became transparent as soon as she re-emerged).
Dorvan jumped in too. Shirley Maclaine’s memorable role in “Sweet Charity” was a couple of years away, but he definitely had that “if my friends could see me know” feeling.
They made their way back to Dorvan’s house, where they threw Hedy’s wet clothes in the dryer. They shrank, so he gave her a bathrobe. She kept it, and wore it all the way back to New York.
But first Dorvan fixed dinner. One of the dishes was a rice and peas blend, which Hedy said was an Austrian favorite called rizzi pizzi. She put on a chestnut-colored hairpiece that cascaded down to her shoulders. “It looked so lovely, we were at a loss for words,” Dorvan remembers.
He said, “You were wonderful in ‘Tangiers.’”
“It was ‘Algiers,’” she replied. But, he notes, “she was nice about it.”
Mostly they talked about Hedy’s private life and failed marriages. She said that one man gave her a priceless diamond. He told her it was a great investment. She threw it back at him — and regretted it ever since.
Like many movie stars, Dorvan says, she had spent a lot and saved little.
A new book about her was coming out soon. She said it was inaccurate.
Dorvan did not ask her if she planned to make another movie. Perhaps, he thought, no one had made an offer. Perhaps her type of glamour was passé. Perhaps she would not accept anything less than a leading role.
In any case, he says, Hollywood had turned its back on her. “It was clear to me she desperately needed a way to support herself,” he says. “Even if that meant cracking down unusually hard on anyone who used her name or image irresponsibly, or without proper compensation.”
He did not know at the time that she had another talent. She was scientifically minded, and had invented a torpedo avoidance system for the U.S. Navy. It later morphed into Bluetooth and Wi-Fi technology. (Writing about that episode, part of the new movie “Bombshell,” the website Nerdist calls her bitter, “fading, scraping by on a paltry union pension, and still dreaming that her legacy would be as an inventor, not an actress.” She was certainly an interesting woman.)
It was getting dark. Hedy — still wearing the bathrobe — gave Dorvan a hug. She thanked him. Then she and his friend left.
Today, Dorvan has “an indelible memory of an event I could never have imagined in my wildest dreams.” He has no photos to prove she was there. He did not want her to think he was taking advantage of — or could profit from — her visit.
But, he says, occasionally he looks at her signature in his guest book. And he smiles.
Dan Woog is a Westport writer, and his “Woog’s World” appears each Friday. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. His personal blog is danwoog06880.com.