The rise and fall of Hollywood's ultimate femme fatale
By Paul Whitington
Saturday November 15 2008
Eighty-nine years ago yesterday, a baby girl called Constance Frances Marie Ockelman was born in deepest Brooklyn. Hardly the name that launched a thousand ships, but a couple of surnames later Veronica Lake would become box office gold in the early 1940s, a sultry blonde who slyly enticed the world from behind her famous peek-a-boo hairstyle.
Though her birth name might not suggest it, Lake was actually an Irish-American (three of her four grandparents were Irish, two of them first generation), and her extraordinary life is a salutary tale of the perils that befall the fading Hollywood starlet.
Constance Ockelman's father Harry worked for an oil company, and the family moved around America as his job required. In 1932, when she was 11, he died in an industrial explosion in Philadelphia, after which her mother (also Constance) married a newspaper man called Keane, which became her daughter's new family name.
Young Connie was promptly packed off to an austere Catholic boarding school in Montreal, which she hated, but things looked up when the entire family moved south to sunny Florida in the mid-1930s. Her striking looks began to get noticed, but Connie was a troubled child by all accounts, and her mother would later claim she was diagnosed with a mental illness.
The defining event in her young life came when the family moved again, this time to Beverly Hills, in 1938. Connie, who had excelled in a high school play, was enrolled by her mother in the renowned Bliss-Hayden School of Acting at the Beverly Hills Playhouse, and took to acting like a duck to water.
Within a year, the 19-year-old had landed her first film part, a small role as a co-ed in an RKO picture called Sorority House. Lake would never be anyone's idea of a great actress, and she herself once remarked that "you could put all the talent I had into your left eye and still not suffer from impaired vision". But the camera absolutely loved her, and her screen charisma soon got her noticed.
She appeared in her first three or four films as either Connie or Constance Keane, but when Paramount producer Arthur Hornblow Jr was casting her in her first major role he suggested she change her name to Veronica Lake, as it suited her looks better.
The film in question was I Wanted Wings (1941), a routine drama about the lives and loves of three Air Corps recruits, but it proved to be her breakthrough. Her elfin looks and tiny physique were most unusual for the time, and the lick of platinum blonde hair that covered her right eye quickly became a trademark.
Among those who noticed Lake was maverick screenwriter Preston Sturges, who had just persuaded Paramount to allowed him to direct his first film. He cast her opposite Joel McCrea as the quirky love interest in his daring satire Sullivan's Travels (1941). The salutary tale of a self-important Hollywood director who decides to slum it with the depression poor in order to "know trouble", it was a wonderfully dark commentary on Hollywood's values or lack of them. And Lake was charming as the wise-ass starlet to whom McCrea takes a shine.
Her star was soaring, and in her next film she was cast opposite the man with whom she would form her most enduring screen partnership -- Alan Ladd. In fact, the pair were teamed for amusingly pragmatic reasons. At something under five foot six, Ladd's unimposing stature often required his leading ladies to stand in trenches while he resorted to lifts. The 4ft 11 1/2 inch Lake was the perfect miniature partner, and they would appear together in five films.
Their first was perhaps their best -- based on a story by Graham Greene, This Gun for Hire (1942) was a stylish tale of murder, blackmail and femmes fatales, and is now considered a noir classic.
Almost overnight Lake had become a huge star, and could seemingly do no wrong. Women across America slavishly tried to copy her peek-a-boo hairstyle, so much so that once the US entered the war Veronica appeared in an ad that graphically highlighted the dangers of sporting the do while working with heavy machinery.
But success apparently went to her head, and she acquired a reputation for being difficult. Eddie Bracken, who co-starred with her in the 1943 musical Star Spangled Rhythm, afterwards remarked that "she was known as 'The Bitch' and she deserved the title". And the novelist and screenwriter Raymond Chandler privately referred to her as 'Moronica Lake'.
Her career took a turn for the worse in more ways than one with the 1944 film, The Hour Before the Dawn. During filming she tripped on a cable while pregnant, and began haemorrhaging. The child, her second with husband John S Detlie, was born, but only survived a week. By the time the film came out her marriage was over, and though she'd marry a further three times, none of them were happy-ever-afters.
As for The Hour Before the Dawn, though it was far from a terrible film, Lake's portrayal of a treacherous Nazi spy went down badly with the public, and her dodgy German accent was lampooned by the critics.
As quickly as it had risen, Veronica's star began to fail. There was one further triumph, with Alan Ladd in the Chandler classic The Blue Dahlia (1946), but by the late 1940s Lake was considered news, and in 1948 Paramount cancelled her contract.
Thereafter, drinking heavily, she struggled to sustain her career, appearing on television and in the odd bad film. The IRS pursued her for unpaid taxes, and by the late 1950s she was drifting between cheap hotels in New York, and was arrested more than once for public drunkenness.
She hit the headlines in the early 1960s when she was discovered working as a barmaid in Manhattan. This led to some TV work, but nothing could stem her precipitous decline.
Estranged from her four children, she lived in squalor and imagined the FBI were pursuing her. She died, alone and practically destitute, on July 7, 1973, a few months shy of her 54th birthday.