Her movie success was short-lived and her later career was marked by personal tragedy, alcoholism and mental illness, but despite her early death in 1973, aged just 53, she has gone on to become an iconic figure in Hollywood history, and the irresistible charm and undeniable beauty displayed in her best work, justifies her lasting fame.
Veronica Lake was born Constance Frances Marie Ockelman in New York in November, 1919. Her father, an oil company worker, died in an accident when she was 10 and after her mother remarried the daughter took her stepfather's name and became Constance Keane. The family moved several times, ending up in Florida. Constance grew into a teenage beauty and began entering, and winning, beauty contests becoming well known as a local Miami beauty.
Career StartShe moved with her mother and stepfather to Beverly Hills, where she enrolled in the Bliss-Hayden School of Acting. She first appeared on screen in a small role in the 1939 film, 'Sorority House' followed by similar roles in 'All Women Have Secrets' and 'Dancing Co-Ed'. In 1940 Constance continued her movie education, both at Bliss-Hayden and with small roles in two more movies, 'Young as You Feel' and 'Forty Little Mothers'. In the same year she married art director John Detlie and gave birth to a daughter Elaine in 1941.
Up to this time, her movie billing had been under her natural name of Constance Keane but with her next movie, as William Holden's love interest in 'I Wanted Wings' in 1941, she became far better known and was advised to change her name. She had just signed a contract with Paramount and one of their top producers, Arthur Hornblow, suggested "Lake" for the blueness of her eyes, and "Veronica" because of her classic beauty.
Hollywood StardomWith her new name and a comedic lead in Preston Sturges's classic 'Sullivan's Travels' later in 1941 Veronica immediately rocketed to Hollywood and national stardom, becoming World War II's defining platinum blonde and for the next few years she was one of the biggest box-office draws in Hollywood, with starring roles in popular movies such as 'This Gun for Hire', 'I Married a Witch', and 'The Glass Key' in 1942 and 'So Proudly We Hail!', a box-office smash hit in 1943 with Claudette Colbert.
Her famous 'peek-a-boo bang' hairstyle became so imitated that the US government asked her to pin it back because they feared female factory workers would have their tresses entangled in equipment.
Just when it seemed she could do no wrong, things started to go seriously downhill for Veronica. In July 1943 her second child was born prematurely and died after one week and at the end of the year her first marriage had ended in divorce. Her 1944 film 'The Hour Before Dawn' in which she played a Nazi sympathiser, opened to poor reviews and savage criticism of her less than convincing German accent.
Career SlideSadly, she seemed to burn out just as fast as she had risen. Only 'I Married a Witch' in 1942 used her natural comedic talents as effectively as the earlier Sturges movie, and Paramount began to cast her in some very mediocre films which wasted her talent, such as 'Hold That Blonde', and 'Out of This World' in 1945, and 'Miss Susie Slagle's' in the following year. Her only other career highlights are some of the film noir thrillers she starred in alongside her equally diminutive co-star Alan Ladd, most notably 'The Blue Dahlia' in 1946, her last success.
Lake was developing a reputation for being difficult to work with and had started drinking heavily. Her second marriage in 1944 to film director Andre De Toth did nothing to help her. They had a son, Andre in 1945, and a daughter, Diana in 1948. Her new husband took over the management of her career but with a notable lack of success. Her drinking increased and De Toth, who was reportedly a violent man, did not encourage her to seek medical help.
Many of her co-stars such as Fredric March and Alan Ladd actively disliked her and, after a string of flops, in 1948 she was dropped by Paramount Pictures. She appeared intermittently in a few mediocre films for 20th Century Fox such as 'Slattery's Hurricane' in 1949 and 'Stronghold' in 1951, but by then her career had collapsed. In 1951 she filed for bankruptcy and her marriage ended in divorce. The remainder of her assets were seized by the IRS for unpaid taxes.
In 1955 she married for a third time, to a songwriter, Joseph A. McCarthy. After breaking her ankle in 1959 she was no longer able to find acting work and she and McCarthy divorced in 1960.
Lake retreated to TV and theater, including an off-Broadway revival in 1961 of the musical 'Best Foot Forward' where she briefly co-starred with Liza Minnelli, but found little success in those arenas. She drifted further into alcoholism, She was several times arrested for public drunkenness and then virtually disappeared from the public eye.
In the mid 1960's, she was found by a New York Post reporter, living in a crumbling hotel and working as a cocktail waitress in Manhattan. The publicity generated enabled her to briefly resurrect her performing career and she appeared several times on television finally returning to movies in 1966 in the very forgettable 'Footsteps in the Snow'.
In the late 1960's she published her autobiography 'Veronica' which was well received and in which she described her struggle with alcoholism and mental illness. The proceeds enabled her co-finance and star in one more film, the low budget horror movie 'Flesh Feast' in 1970, but the film was not successful.
Lake moved to England in the early 1970s, and married for the fourth time but again the marriage failed and she returned to America in 1973. Her physical condition was worsening considerably and by now she was afflicted by bouts of paranoia.
Veronica Lake died in hospital of hepatitis and acute renal failure on July 7, 1973, in Burlington, Vermont. She was 53. Her ashes were scattered off the coast of the Virgin Islands (or Florida, reports differ). A memorial service was held in Manhattan, attended only by her son and a few strangers.
Veronica Lake Academy AwardsNo Nominations:
Veronica Lake Filmography
Sorority House (uncredited)
The Wrong Room (as Connie Keane)
Dancing Co-Ed (uncredited)
All Women Have Secrets
Young As You Feel (as Constance Keane)
Forty Little Mothers
I Wanted Wings
Hold Back the Dawn
Star Spangled Rhythm
The Glass Key
I Married a Witch
So Proudly We Hail!
The Hour Before Dawn
Miss Susie Slagle's
Hold That Blonde
Out Of This World
Bring On The Girls
The Blue Dahlia
The Sainted Sisters
Isn't It Romantic?