Veronica Lake: A Biography in Pictures
by Martin Grams, Jr.
“I will have one of the cleanest obits of any actress. I never did cheesecake like Ann Sheridan or Betty Grable. I just used my hair.” –Veronica Lake
Veronica Lake never received her due of sex appeal like her Hollywood competition. Her legs were not insured for $1 million dollars like Betty Grable and her two biggest assets were not being promoted like Jane Russell. When she stood to attention in So Proudly We Hail! (1943), uniformed Veronica Lake stood 4 feet, 11 inches tall. She weighed 90 pounds. She was teamed with Joel McCrea in Sullivan’s Travels (1942), who stood 6 feet, 3 inches. While filming I Married A Witch in 1942, Veronica Lake and co-star Fredric March did not like one another, due in part to some disparaging remarks March made about her. During filming, Lake delighted in playing pranks on March, such as hiding a 40-pound weight under her costume when March had to carry her in his arms. In another scene in which the two were photographed only from the waist up, Lake stuck her foot in March’s groin.
But in front of the camera, Veronica Lake deftly filled the lens with more sex appeal in her one eye than most beauties wearing half as much, and trying twice as hard. An icy blonde whose trademark hairstyle – a cascade of golden tresses that obscured one heavy-lidded eye – remained among the enduring images of Hollywood glamour… and Veronica Lake was for a time, one of the most popular and sought-after actresses in motion pictures. Her hair style motivated a generation of women to imitate her cool persona with the peak-a-boo hair style. (This wasn’t the first time a Hollywood actress influenced the way Americans lived. Actresses Marlene Dietrich and Katharine Hepburn were often photographed in trousers during the 1930s, which helped make trousers acceptable for women to wear in public.) Gale Storm, Phyllis Coates
Composers feted her in song, with famed composers Rogers and Hart citing her look in 1943’s The Girl I Love to Leave Behind and Lake even singing a tune about herself in the 1942 wartime morale booster film, Star-Spangled Rhythm. When the G.I.s overseas displayed pin-ups to remind themselves what they were fighting for, Betty Grable and Rita Hayworth had competition. Her impact on society was so dramatic, that during the war, she was forced by the United States government to temporarily change her peek-a-boo hair-do after numerous women in munitions factories were becoming injured when their long locks of hair were catching in assembly-line machinery. Veronica Lake’s hair style, popularized on the silver screen, became a safety hazard and in 1943, she began appearing on the screen without the trademark hair. Rita Hayworth
Movie historians debate whether or not this dramatic change in her appearance had a negative effect on Lake’s screen career, but in reality, there were a number of factors that contributed to the decline of her star status. Lake had a reputation for being difficult on the set, and many of her co-stars were open in their dislike of her; Fredric March refused to speak about her in interviews, and even the genial Eddie Bracken (her co-star in Star-Spangled Rhythm) had nothing but caustic words about her. In 1942, she divorced John Detlie, and the following year she stumbled over a cable during the making of The Hour Before Dawn (1944), which led to the premature birth of her son, William. The movie studio has to quickly reschedule filming (and additional cost to do so). To make matters worse, critics savaged her performance as a Nazi sympathizer in Dawn. Some claimed she could not act – only look pretty. Some historians today make the same claim. Lake also reportedly began drinking during this period, with rumors of mental instability – which had plagued her since childhood.
Born Constance Ockelman in Brooklyn, New York, on Nov. 14, 1919, Veronica Lake was only 12 years old when she lost her father, oil company employee Harry Ockelman, due to a work-related accident. Her mother, also named Constance, married Anthony Keane a year later, causing the family to move several times over the next few years. After gaining some fame in beauty pageants in Florida, she and her parents re-located to Beverly Hills, CA, enrolling Lake in the Bliss Hayden School of Acting in Hollywood. Her big break happened almost immediately. After signing with RKO, she made her film debut in John Farrow’s romantic drama, Sorority House (1939), in which she was initially billed as Constance Keane. Bit roles in other features followed, including a Leon Errol comedy film short (which we’re screening this year in the movie room). Lake’s parts were so small that her characters rarely had a name and you’ll notice that in the Leon Errol comedy.
“Hollywood gives a young girl the aura of one giant, self-contained orgy farm, its inhabitants dedicated to crawling into every pair of pants they can find.” –Veronica Lake
Lake worked her way up in Hollywood, proudly and publicly admitting that she was capable of getting roles in movies without the need of a casting couch tryout. She signed with Paramount in 1941, and while there, famed producer Arthur Hornblow redubbed her Veronica Lake – “Lake” being inspired by the blueness of her eyes, and according to Hornblow, the name Veronica suggesting beauty. (Years later, Jay Ward and his staff would poke fun of her name in a comical story arc on The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle, a caper that took place at Lake Veronica.)
For the next three years she appeared in a string of box office hits, all financially successful for the studio. She made a major impact as William Holden’s smoldering love interest in the military drama, I Wanted Wings (1941), a 17th-century sorceress who falls for the ancestor of the man who condemned her to death in Rene Clair’s I Married A Witch (1941), and showed considerable comic talent as a struggling actress who accompanies Joel McCrea on his cross-country trip in Preston Sturges’ cutting social commentary, Sullivan’s Travels (1942). Why this latter film has not been hailed as one of the 100 best movies ever made is subject to debate, but we’ll be screening it this year and if you never saw Sullivan’s Travels, we recommend you take the time and do. It’s one of those films you will admit, after the closing credits, “they don’t make movies like that anymore.” TCM.com
In late 1942, she was cast opposite screen newcomer Alan Ladd in the brutish noir thriller, This Gun for Hire (1942), with Ladd as a killer and Lake who sympathizes for the gunman. The movie studio had found a solution to Alan Ladd’s 5 foot, 5 inch height. They paired him up with Veronica Lake. They would appear together in a total of seven films, including The Glass Key (1942), Duffy’s Tavern (1945) and The Blue Dahlia (1946).
In 1944, she married film director Andre De Toth, reportedly violent behind the camera. De Toth would later be responsible for directing House of Wax (1953), considered one of the greatest 3-D movies ever made. Ironic when you consider the fact that De Toth had a glass eye – you need two eyes to see the 3-D process. Perhaps she needed a man who was dominant in her life. Perhaps she felt sorry for the director. Whatever the reason, her marriage never lasted a decade and her drinking continued behind the camera. Business-minded Alan Ladd, soft-spoken, meek and insecure, publicly criticized her for showing up late on the set of The Blue Dahlia.
20th Century Fox picked up her contract in 1948 and she initially assumed this was a change for the better since she did not feel welcome at Paramount anymore. Fox wasn’t known for putting out quality movies, with more misses than hits. Lake was among the statistics. Not that Fox tried their best. Whenever possible, movie producers gave her top billing. In February of 1952, she played the role of Mary Stevens, a young American girl, who goes to Mexico with her mother, to escape the strife of the American Civil War. Once there, she gets caught up in love and politics as Don Migeul Navarro (Zachary Scott), a follower of Maximillian, battles Dom Pedro Alvarez, a follower of the exiled Juarez, vie for her hand. The romance paralleled the success of the Juarez movement. Stronghold was released in theaters and the film was such a flop that she went to New York to try the stage and a number of television appearances (mostly to pay off a debt to the IRS). She never returned to Hollywood for more than a decade.
Even though Lake took advantage of her down time and earned her pilot’s license; in 1946, eventually flying solo from Los Angeles to New York, her personal life after Hollywood involved alcoholism. She only made the news when she was picked up by the police for disorderly conduct. Lake moved to Hollywood, Florida, avoiding the West Coast, where she penned a well-received autobiography, Veronica, which detailed her many struggles with temperament, mental illness and alcoholism. With one last ditch effort for her long-past-its-prime career, Lake managed to co-finance her final film, a dreary, Florida-lensed horror movie called Flesh Feast (1970), in which she played a doctor experimenting with a youth formula involving maggots. The film was not a box office success.
In 1973, she was hospitalized with declining health brought on by hepatitis and renal failure — both complications of her alcohol addiction. Her mental facilities were also in sharp decline. Lake had suffered from steadily increasing paranoia since the mid-‘60s. Estranged from her children, Lake died alone on July 7, 1973. Rumor had it that it took days for someone to identify her body. Some of her ashes were scattered in the Virgin Islands three years later, but in 2004, it was discovered that another portion had reportedly remained in possession of a friend and that it had made its way to an antique store in the Catskills.
References to Lake’s peek-a-boo style and ice queen demeanor were seen in everything from the neo-noir flick, L.A. Confidential (1997) with Kim Basinger as Lynn Bracken, to the animated femme fatale, Jessica Rabbit in Who Framed Roger Rabbit? (1988). Even the comics’ Archie Andrews of The Archies had a longtime love, brunette vixen Veronica Rogers, mirrored closely with the actress.
After her Hollywood career came to a close, her one-time lover Marlon Brando heard she was working as a barmaid and promptly had his people deliver her a check for $1,000. Too proud to cash it, Lake instead chose to have it framed as a memory of days gone by, and a not-so-subtle notice to others that she was once Hollywood’s reigning sex symbol.
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Martin Grams Jr. is the author of numerous books about retro television and old-time radio. He has written more than 100 magazine articles for Filmfax, Radiogram, Scarlet Street, The Old Time Radio Digest and Nostalgia Digest, among others. He contributed appendixes and chapters for more than a dozen books. He is the author of liner notes for Radio Spirits and VCI Entertainment DVD releases. he recently provided audio commentary for The Twilight Zone BluRay television series release.