Veronica Lake is a cult figure. Just take a look on eBay: vintage photos of her are scarce, sought after and fetch a premium over those of most of her contemporaries.
In the early 1940s she was a superstar, adored by audiences and advertisers. She was one of four forties divas on whom the persona of Jessica Rabbit in the 1988 movie Who Framed Roger Rabbit was based (the others were Rita Hayworth, Lauren Bacall and Gene Tierney; Jayne Mansfield, who lent her cleavage, was a product of the fifties). Veronica also inspired Kim Basinger’s character, call-girl Lynn Bracken, in the 1997 noir, L.A. Confidential.
So, what’s all the fuss about?
Well, Veronica Lake was one of the most distinctive and alluring seductresses of 1940s Hollywood with her peekaboo tresses, curvaceous figure and smoky delivery. She had that elusive and undefinable onscreen charisma that distinguishes a star from the supporting cast. And she was a versatile actress, equally compelling in thrillers and comedies.
Incredible as it seems knowing Veronica Lake only through her movies, according to director Preston Sturges, interviewed by gossip columnist Sheilah Graham:
She’s one of the little people. Like Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks and Freddie Bartholomew when he started, who take hold of an audience immediately. She’s nothing much in real life, a quiet, rather timid little thing. But the screen transforms her and brings her to life.
Her rags-to-riches-to-rags story casts a revealing light on the movie studios of the era. The eye for the main chance, the creativity and the marketing savvy on which Hollywood was built. And the negligence, the exploitation and the immorality that ran alongside them. What became of Veronica Lake was and remains a cautionary tale for aspiring starlets.
Veronica Lake – Hollywood giveth
In her own words:
Veronica Lake is a Hollywood creation. Hollywood is good at doing that sort of thing. Its proficiency at transforming little Connie Ockleman of Brooklyn into sultry, sensuous Veronica Lake was proved by the success of the venture. And the subject, me, was willing and in some small ways able.
The transformation (these days we’d call it rebranding) happens after a screen test at Paramount. Take a bow, Oscar-nominated producer, Arthur Hornblow, Jr:
Connie, here’s how I came to choose your new name. I believe that when people look into those navy blue eyes of yours, they’ll see a calm coolness – the calm coolness of a lake. And your features, Connie, are classic features. And when I think of classic features, I think of Veronica.
This after Mr Hornblow has identified her trademark feature. During her screen test, one of Veronica’s elbows slips off the table on which it’s resting. Her long, blonde hair falls over her right eye and she spends the next few minutes tossing her head to get it out of the way. It’s not the first time her hair has given her this problem. It behaved in the same way in Busby Berkeley’s 1940 movie, Forty Little Mothers (fast forward to 27:50). But Hornblow is the first to recognize its potential as a marketing device. The peekaboo is born.
It debuts in I Wanted Wings (1940), Veronica Lake’s breakthrough movie, in which she plays the part of a sultry nightclub singer. It quickly becomes all the rage and across the nation women flock to beauty salons to get “The Lake Look.” Groucho Marx quips, “I opened up my mop closet the other day and I thought Veronica Lake fell out.” And the November 24, 1941 issue of LIFE magazine contains a three-page article that describes Veronica Lake’s hair as “a cinema property of world influence.”
Unfortunately, its ongoing popularity soon becomes a problem in wartime America because a number of women in munitions factories are injured when their long hair gets caught in assembly-line machinery. At the behest of the War Womanpower Commission, Veronica Lake changes her hairstyle and makes a newsreel to promote her new look.
But back to I Wanted Wings and its 18-year-old wannabee… The peekaboo would not have caught on had the movie not pulled in the punters. That it succeeds in doing so is to a large extent down to the marketing. This in turn involves a publicity shoot that creates quite a stir. As with the peekaboo, the defining image is the result of a lucky accident. Here’s how Veronica Lake remembers it:
One day, I was standing close to a B-17 as the photographer was doing coy set-ups with me. The pilot of the plane either didn’t see us or held all motion-picture people in scorn. He started engines just as I was leaning over in one of those ridiculous poses that were such favorites with publicity photographers those days. My rear end was towards the plane, and I was peeking around to my right at the camera when the prop wash hit. It caught my dress and blew it up around my thighs. The photographer captured the moment, chuckled at what would probably be a funny but unusable photo, and went on to take others. It ended up as the photograph the studio used in their advance mailing for I Wanted Wings. It was released to newspapers and magazines all over the nation. And it hit big.
The fact is, Veronica is a real looker. By age 16 she’s already bosomy – by no means the norm in post-Depression America – and not averse to flaunting her charms. This is not lost on the guys at Paramount, who gleefully take full advantage. As critic Cecelia Ager observes in PM, a New York daily tabloid:
Miss Lake is supposed to be a femme fatale and to that end it was arranged her truly splendid bosom be unconfined and draped ever so slightly in a manner to make the current crop of sweater girls prigs by comparison. Such to do has been made over doing justice to those attributes of Miss Lake that everything else about her has been thrown out of focus. The effect is too uncanny.
Veronica may be perfectly formed, but she’s also small – 4 foot 11 inches (just under 1.5 metres) tall to be precise – one inch shorter and she’d be classified as a dwarf. With a star on their hands, Paramount aren’t going to let that get in the way and their solution is inspired.
They pair her with one of their leading men, Alan Ladd, whose nickname at school was “Tiny.” With him being just over 5 foot 6 inches (a little under 1.7 metres) tall, it’s a match made in heaven. They co-star in seven movies including three classics: This Gun for Hire (1942), The Glass Key (1942) and The Blue Dahlia (1946). It’s like Bogey and Bacall but without the offscreen romance.
Looks to die for, luck and studio opportunism aside, Veronica Lake has two other ingredients vital to her transformation into a star. The first is star quality. It’s impossible to define but either you have it or you don’t. Hollywood is overflowing with gorgeous dames but most of them fail to register onscreen. Veronica is different. Onscreen she’s simply mesmerizing. No two ways about it.
Then there’s her flair for acting.
In addition to the films already mentioned, three others showcase her talent. In Mark Sandrich’s So Proudly We Hail (1943), starring alongside Claudette Colbert and Paulette Goddard, Veronica has the movie’s most dramatic scene, in which she breaks down and voices hysterical hatred for the Japanese. Paulette is Oscar-nominated but it’s Veronica who delivers the emotional core of the film, and that scene of hers really underscores the brutal struggle of the war in the Pacific.
In the two others, she’s an accomplished comédienne. In Preston Sturges’s Sullivan’s Travels (1941), Veronica dresses as a hobo and takes to the road in the company of Joel McCrea. To the suggestion of which the studio’s incredulous response is: “She’s not an actress, she’s a great-looking dame with a great chest and nutty hair. But she’s no actress.” For most of the film, neither her peekaboo nor her curves are on display – in the case of the latter, just as well because she’s six months pregnant when filming begins!
In I Married a Witch (1942), she is Jennifer, a witch whose plan for revenge doesn’t go quite as she intended. Her victim and protagonist is played by Frederic March. Pre-production, he describes Veronica as “a brainless little blonde sexpot, void of any acting ability.” She retaliates by calling him a “pompous poseur.” And they keep on winding each other up on set to the point where March nicknames the movie I Married a Bitch. Nevertheless, the result is charming, witty and an inspiration for 1960s TV series Bewitched.
By 1943, age 21 Veronica Lake is at the peak of her career and earning $4,500 a week.
Veronica Lake – Hollywood taketh away
And then she falls off a cliff. In 1944, the powers-that-be at Paramount, to whom she’s contracted, make a fatal mistake. They cast her as Dora Bruckmann, a Nazi spy, in The Hour Before Dawn. It’s a lousy role and pretty much guaranteed to alienate her from her audience. What’s more she struggles with the Austrian accent she has to adopt. Her acting becomes stilted as a result. The film is a box-office flop and she takes a lot of the flack.
Suddenly Veronica Lake’s career is on the skids and Paramount fail to come up with any kind of strategy to deal with the situation. They cannot see beyond her sex appeal and they undermine all the good work of Hornblow and Sturges with a series of second-rate roles in second-rate movies such as Hold That Blonde! and Out of This World. As Veronica herself observes in her autobiography, “the formula dictated that I was to be cast in roles where low-cut gowns and loose hair would be featured.”
And that brings us to the whole thorny subject of Hollywood and the issues raised over half a century later by the #metoo movement. Veronica Lake is withering on the topic:
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.
She goes on to highlight the starlet’s dilemma:
Many producers know the girls who come through their office doors desperately want a part. In many cases, it’s a matter of pride; what to write their parents or boy friends back in Waterloo or Louisville or Amarillo about Hollywood and how it’s being so good to them. They have to succeed because they were told they wouldn’t when they pulled up their roots and headed west. The town was crawling with out-of-town girls who were there trying to prove something to someone back home. And the longer they went without even a crowd scene in a Grade B thriller, the more desperate they became. And producers sense this.
Let’s backtrack for a moment… Age 10, Constance Ockelman as she then was, lost her father. She was brought to Beverley Hills by her ambitious and domineering mother (Jean Harlow and Judy Garland say Hi.) She’s 16 years old when MGM award her her first contract, 17 when she appears in her first movies (walk-on parts for RKO) and 18 when she joins Paramount. She’s immature, out of her depth and vulnerable. Surely the studios, who are planning on cashing in on her potential, owe her some kind of duty of care? Do they hell. They leave her to fend for herself:
My age worked against me in those early days of my career. I was so in-between, so not this or not that – seventeen. I was too old to receive the understanding accorded the child stars when they fouled up or threw tantrums. And I was too young to function smoothly in the adult world of Hollywood. I couldn’t accept so many eventualities and simple facts of movie-making life. Or life itself, for that matter. I was trying to act thirty and usually ended up acting fifteen.
According to René Clair, director of I Married a Witch, “She was a very gifted girl, but she didn’t believe she was gifted.” The studio does little to build her self-confidence. And you can bet she also has to find a way of dealing with plenty of bitching too from actresses jealous of her overnight success. Little surprise, then, that she develops a hard carapace to fend off unwanted advances and cover her insecurities.
Little surprise, too, if she’s uptight on set and difficult to work with. Frederic March is not the only star with whom she falls out. Joel McCrea declines the role of male lead in I Married a Witch, because he doesn’t want to work with her again after his experience as her co-star in Sullivan’s Travels. Eddie Bracken, her co-star in Star-Spangled Rhythm, quips “She was known as ‘The Bitch’ and she deserved the title.” Raymond Chandler, who writes the screenplay for The Blue Dahlia, scathingly dubs her “Moronica Lake.”
So Veronica Lake’s career goes into terminal decline. To all intents and purposes, she’s finished at Hollywood before the forties are out.
What becomes of Veronica Lake
And what about Veronica Lake’s personal life? The story is depressingly familiar: a series of failed marriages, financial problems and alcoholism. It’s all very reminiscent of Hedy Lamarr.
She has three husbands. She marries John Detlie, a movie art director and 14 years her senior, in 1940 when she’s 18 years old.
John never really expressed displeasure at my stardom. But it was there, deeply embedded in him and growing deeper as each day passed. … Men wrote me letters, most simple puff but some lewd and shocking. And my earning power, although not realized as yet, was now far greater than John’s. … [It] chipped away at John’s ego as husband and provider. There he was, college educated with honors and immensely talented, married to a runny-nosed tom-boy from Brooklyn who just barely finished high school and was a screen favorite just because Freddie Wilcox liked her chest or the way she walked or something called “having it.”
The marriage lasts just three years – time enough for her to have two children in the midst of a hectic filming schedule. Their daughter, Elaine, is born in 1941. Their son, Anthony, is born prematurely in 1943 after Veronica trips over a lighting cable on the set of The Hour Before Dawn – such a cursed film. He dies a week later. It’s around this time that Veronica Lake’s alcohol problem really takes off.
Husband number 2 is André De Toth – in his own words a “Hungarian-born, one-eyed American cowboy from Texas.” He lost the sight of one eye during his youth but that won’t get in the way of him marrying seven times. He’s making a career for himself as a film director and will be known for his gritty, psychologically acute and unflinchingly violent B-movies. Rumour has it that he’s a proud and violent man himself. Early signs are not promising:
It started at the earliest possible moment – our wedding night. We went for a wedding dinner at a favorite restaurant of André’s in Hollywood. We entered and were greeted by his favorite waitress. She obviously became flustered at seeing us. “Oh, good evening, Miss Lake … and Mr. Lake … I mean …” … He got mad, mad enough to walk out of the restaurant and leave me on our wedding night.
The couple have two children but André’s financial fecklessness puts Veronica under huge pressure:
Maybe if the money wasn’t such a necessity I could have held out, made demands, threatened to stop working unless they came up with better parts for me. But again in my life, money was getting tight despite our combined incomes.
Studios without strategies for their stars, stars who accept crummy roles because they need the money, and husbands who can’t cope with wives who are more famous and higher earners than themselves. These are three recurring themes in forties Hollywood.
To compound the situation, in 1948 Veronica’s mother sues her for lack of filial love and responsibility – she wants more money. The marriage ends in tears. In 1951 the couple file for bankruptcy, the IRS seize their home for unpaid taxes and Veronica seeks refuge in New York. The divorce comes through the following year.
To support herself, she makes some TV appearances and does some work in the theatre, including in England.
In September 1955, Veronica marries songwriter Joseph McCarthy: “Joe and I lived the madcap, Manhattan pub-crawling life in the early months of our marriage.” In October that year, she collapses in Detroit, where she’s appearing on stage in The Little Hut (the movie stars Ava Gardner). The couple are divorced before the decade is out.
So Veronica Lake hits rock bottom, moving from one cheap hotel to another and being arrested several times for public drunkenness and disorderly conduct. In 1962, a New York Post reporter discovers her working as “Connie de Toth” in a cocktail lounge. The story leads to some TV and stage appearances, she moves to the Bahamas for a few years, she publishes her ghost-written autobiography and co-produces a horror flick. She dies in 1973 of acute hepatitis and acute kidney injury, estranged from her children.
And so the story goes… Hollywood transforms the actress into a silver-screen goddess, and abandons the individual to their own personal hell.
Want to know more about Veronica Lake?
There’s a well researched biography of Veronica Lake at Wikipedia. Others are at TCM, IMDb and Lisa’s History Room. If you’d like to get to know her better, there’s Veronica: The Autobiography of Veronica Lake.