November 13, 1922 – Veronica Lake:
“I never did cheesecake; I just used my hair.”
With her peek-a-boo hairstyle and sultry looks, Lake had a string of broken marriages and, after her career declined, she had long struggles with money problems, mental illness and alcoholism. She died alone and in poverty and her unclaimed ashes sat in a funeral home for years before they were scattered in the ocean off the coast of Florida. Maybe; no one knows what ultimately became of Lake.
In the 1940s, Lake was one of Hollywood’s brightest stars, popular for her work with Alan Ladd. Cool, compact, blonde and gorgeous, that was Ladd and Lake. They made seven films together. At 4 foot 11 inches, Lake was a perfect match for diminutive (5 feet 5 inches) Ladd. He played opposite many different leading ladies, but Ladd often had to stand on boxes to reach a visually desirable height, unless his co-star agreed to stand in a trench. Lake and Ladd were so great together in the film noirs This Gun For Hire (1942), The Glass Key (1942), The Blue Dahlia (1947), and she soared opposite yummy Joel McCrea in Preston Sturges‘ Sullivan’s Travels, (1941), one of my favorite films.
Her peekaboo hairstyle with long blond tresses cascading over her right eye, was so popular that government officials asked her to change it during World War II, fearing the style might cause workplace accidents among women on assembly lines.
Born Constance Frances Marie Ockelman in Brooklyn, Lake claimed that she was the “toughest broad on the block”. When she was 16-years-old, she moved to Hollywood with her mother and stepfather. At the urging from her ambitious mother, she enrolled in acting classes. She got her first break at 17 years old, when she accompanied a school friend to RKO studios, where her friend hoped to land a part in Sorority House (1939). They both landed work as extras, and Lake was soon cast in small roles in other films, including Forty Little Mothers (1940), an MGM musical starring Eddie Cantor. Lake:
”I was so lousy that you could put all the talent I had into your left eye and still not suffer from impaired vision. I was that bad.”
While at MGM, Lake met art director John Detlie, who was 16 years older, and they soon married.
She screen-tested for the role of a slutty nightclub singer in I Wanted Wings (1941) for producer Arthur Hornblow at Paramount Pictures. Lake:
”My hair kept falling over one eye and I kept brushing it back. I thought I had ruined my chances for the role. But, Hornblow was jubilant about that eye-hiding trick. An experienced showman, he knew that the hairstyle was something people would talk about.”
She got the part, a look, a reputation, and a new name. Hornblow took the name ”Veronica” from his secretary and added the surname because ”her eyes are blue like a lake”. After the film’s release, the whole world knew about the small blonde with the sultry voice and the peekaboo hairstyle. Her bad girl off-screen antics made the tabloids, an image that plagued her throughout her career. She clashed with her I Wanted Wings costar Constance Moore, who said of Lake:
”This was a girl who was handed stardom on a silver platter, and in a short time she had blown it all. Her lack of professionalism was evident even during I Wanted Wings, her big break. She held up production several times. She’d simply disappear, run off here and there. Veronica was her own worst enemy. She would goof up on personal appearance tours, make enemies. And worst of all, her drinking.”
Regarding her performance in This Gun For Hire, Lake told Photoplay magazine that her appeal was more about her presence than any sort of talent. Lake:
”I don’t think I’m outstanding. In fact, I don’t believe it is necessary to being a star. The audience doesn’t want that, they don’t want the best acting on the screen. What they want is personality, something new, something different.”
Her second teaming with Ladd, The Glass Key (1942) brought rapturous reviews and it was a solid hit at the box-office. This was followed by another big success, I Married A Witch (1942), a sexy comedy directed by René Clair, with Lake as a witch whose plan for revenge goes comically wrong, with Fredric March as her foil. Clair said of Lake:
”She was a very gifted girl, but she didn’t believe she was gifted.”
Next, she made another film with Ladd, Star Spangled Rhythm (1942), where she parodies her famous trademark with a song, A Sweater, A Sarong And A Peekaboo Bang, performed with Paulette Goddard and Dorothy Lamour.
She dazzled critics in So Proudly We Hail (1943) with her performance as an emotionally distraught nurse during World War II.
At the height of her popularity, her marriage to Detlie was falling apart. Lake became pregnant and it seemed that their relationship might be salvaged, but during the shooting of The Hour Before The Dawn (1944), Lake tripped over a cable on the set and her baby was born prematurely. Seven days later, Lake’s son died along with the marriage.
Lake was becoming known around Hollywood as a trouble maker. She was notoriously hot-tempered, frequently insulted her costars, and drank heavily. After a whirlwind romance, she married hard-drinking, violent Andre De Toth.
Lake’s private life caused her popularity to wane, and she appeared in a series of films that failed to charm audiences, including Duffy’s Tavern (1945), a musical with Ladd. She seemed back on track in 1946, when she was again teamed with Ladd for their third noir, The Blue Dahlia. It was her best work, but she appeared in only seven movies in the next six years, including her final appearances with Ladd in Variety Girl (1947) and Saigon (1948).
Her marriage to de Toth was fraught with problems, and in 1948, Lake’s mother sued her for failing to provide weekly payments based on an agreement in which Lake promised to repay her parents for backing her career. At the same time, Lake found out that her Paramount contract would not be renewed. A year later, she began selling off her jewelry. She declared bankruptcy a few years later, and in 1952 her second marriage was over.
In 1955, she remarried, this time to songwriter Joe McCarthy. Sadly, the couple were bound mainly by their boozing, and in 1959, this marriage also ended.
Then, Lake was evicted from her New York City apartment when she fell behind in the rent. In 1961, she found a job in a small Lower-Manhattan factory. The next year, the press discovered she was living at a residential hotel, paying seven dollars a day in rent and working as a waitress in the hotel’s bar. When the story broke, her fans around the world took pity on Lake, and sent her letters and money, but she returned the cash, claiming: ”I still have some pride”.
Lake returned to acting in 1966, working in a low-budget horror film Footsteps In The Snow, followed two years later by Flesh Feast (1968), released three years after it was filmed, it was Lake’s final film. Ah, yes, Flesh Feast: a movie about a mad scientist, flesh-eating maggots, and Adolf Hitler. It’s nowhere near as good as it sounds.
In 1972, Lake married for the fourth time, to a captain with the Royal Navy, Robert Carlton-Munro. But this marriage, with plenty of drinking and fighting, ended in divorce a year later. By now, the heavy boozing had taken its toll, and in summer 1973, Lake was hospitalized with hepatitis. She died a few days later, broke, alone, and reduced to a showbiz footnote. She was gone at 50-years-old.
In one of her last interviews, Lake said:
”I fully intend to see the year 2000. I shall continue to work at my career. The world owes me nothing, but I owe it a great deal and before I get much older, I intend to deliver the goods.”
Her sparsely attended Manhattan memorial service was paid for by Donald Bain, the ghostwriter of Lake’s bestselling autobiography Veronica (1969). Not even her ashes made it to the funeral; they were stored at a funeral home with a squabble over money.
Joel McCrea, her costar in Sullivan’s Travels supposedly turned down the lead role in I Married A Witch, saying:
”Life’s too short for two films with Veronica Lake.”
Tid-bits: Jessica Rabbit in Who Framed Roger Rabbit? (1988) is based on Lake and so is Kim Basinger‘s Academy Award-winning call girl character in L.A. Confidential (1988). At one key point in that film, Russell Crowe’s detective drops his tough-guy act for a second and tells her ”You look better than Veronica Lake”.
Cool tid-bit: Lake had a pilot’s license. Starting in 1946, she would fly solo between Los Angeles and New York.