Veronica Lake was, for a time, one of Hollywood’s brightest stars. A tiny wisp of a young woman with a hairstyle that inspired one of the decade’s most imitated trends, she enjoyed a meteoric rise to fame. Yet, 100 years after her birth, her blonde locks and impish face are better remembered than almost all of her films.
She disappeared from cinema screens almost as quickly as she had materialised on them – only to hit the headlines again in the early 1960s when she was “discovered” working as a cocktail waitress in New York.
Newspapers the world over published stories about how the “Peek-a-Boo” bombshell of the war years was reduced to working as in a rundown hotel bar, and fans – those who remembered her affectionately from the 1940s alongside those who had watched her on late-night television in such movies as Sullivan’s Travels (1941), I Married a Witch (1942) and This Gun For Hire (1942) – responded by sending letters of support and cheques to help her out.
But – according to the gloriously frank and eloquent memoir she penned with the help of the celebrated ghostwriter (and author of the Murder, She Wrote books) Donald Bain – she didn’t want to be rescued. She was where she wanted to be; she liked working in a bar. It was something she wanted to experience – and it was how she met her last love. Alcohol, on the other hand, had been a close friend for a long time. Hollywood hadn’t abandoned her; she had walked out on it, having realised that she no longer wanted to be part of it. This was a rebellious woman who, like her screen persona, liked to forge her own path rather than have her fate decided by men.
Reading her book, which was recently reprinted for the first time in decades, it is impossible not to wonder if Lake, who died aged 50 as a result of alcohol abuse, protested too much.
But her best friend’s daughter, actress Gloria Mann, emphatically confirms what Lake wrote. “She was not sad at all about her career – she chose to leave Hollywood. What made her sad was losing the love of her life, Andy.”
Gloria Mann was a child when her “Aunt Connie” – Lake was born Constance Ockleman in Brooklyn in November 1922 – came into her life, not long after her “rediscovery”. Lake had worked in live television and theatre on and off since her Hollywood days and when she and Mann’s mother, Yanka, were both cast in a play in Miami, they “became instant friends”.
Mann remembers the star with enormous affection. “One day she came to our home wearing a beautiful powdered blue suit, white hat, white gloves and white sunglasses. My mother – who called her ‘Ronnie’ – called me out of my room, and introduced us. She took my hand and, taking off her sunglasses with the other, said: ‘Call me Aunt Connie.’ She lived with us on and off for about a decade.”
Lake, who had survived three marriages and bankruptcy, was estranged from her mother and had two daughters with whom “she had virtually no contact”. She also had a son, Michael, whose precarious mental health was not helped by being batted back and forth between his parents for many years. (On one occasion, his mother sent him by plane from New York to Los Angeles to stay with his father because she couldn’t cope. His father put him on the next plane back east.) Her first son, William, had only lived a week. She struggled with her own mental health, and – after her death - her mother told the press that she had been diagnosed with schizophrenia as an adolescent.
Extremely intelligent and self-aware, she wrote in her memoir that she found it easier to shower affection on other people’s offspring, and in Yanka’s daughter, she seemed to find a kindred spirit. While “Ronnie” and Yanka hit it off as two fortysomething women in the acting business with a shared love of cats (together “they built a cat house for what wound up to be 175 cats!”), Aunt Connie and adolescent Gloria forged their bond via old movie watching sessions.
“My mother would do singing engagements in clubs on weekends. So Aunt Connie would be home often with me. She would make us a big bowl of popcorn, fix herself a scotch, me a Coke and we would sit on the sofa and watch movies.” Occasionally one of Lake’s films would come on – and she didn’t hold back with her commentary on them.
“She told me she loved I Married a Witch because she had so much fun making it – more than any other, even though she did not care for Fredric March. She would point out the bits where she played practical jokes such as hiding a 40lb weight under her dress for a scene when he had to carry her, or pushing her foot into his ‘gonads’ – as she called them – when they were filming a from-the-waist-up shot. During pre-production, he had called her a brainless blonde sexpot with no acting ability. She said he was a pompous twit.”
Lake had landed that role – of a mischievous sorceress, the eventual inspiration for Samantha in the TV sitcom Bewitched – after “falling in love” with the character and begging director René Clair to cast her. It was another Paramount director, Preston Sturges, who persuaded him to give her a chance. He had already worked with her on Sullivan’s Travels, his life-affirming masterpiece about a WASP-ish Hollywood director who wants to experience first-hand the hardship of the homeless so hits the road dressed as a hobo.
Lake, dressed for most of the movie like a boy, played the unnamed girl who joins him on his odyssey. The part did not require her to spend the whole movie sporting “that silly peek-a-boo” hairstyle she hated and which had already given Hollywood’s wisecrackers (one of whom christened her “Cinderella Cyclops”) a field day. It also turned out to be the last film – she said – in which she got to show that she could really act. Unfortunately, however, she didn’t get on with her co-star, Joel McCrea.
Indeed, aside from Alan Ladd – whose 1964 death she described as “like losing a piece of jewellery you never wore but enjoyed every time you open the jewel case”, and with whom she starred in a trio of cult film noirs – she seems to have been much happier in her working relationships with women. She observed the competitiveness and bickering between her So Proudly We Hail (1943) co-stars Paulette Goddard and Claudette Colbert from the sidelines.
Gloria Mann says: “She loved and admired most of the women she worked with – which is never talked about. When we watched So Proudly We Hail, she commented that she wished she had gotten to work with her [co-stars] more. She also adored and admired Susan Hayward [who played her love rival in I Married a Witch].”
It seems that it was not only her innate ability to get along with other women and to avoid the bitchiness that the studios encouraged or invented which made her ahead of her time; in her 1969 book, Lake also called out the transactional relationship between movie producers and young actresses – the Hollywood casting couch – which she described in gruesome yet hilarious detail while naming no names.
The most enduring image from the book comes from the section in which she describes being lured to a meeting in the office of a producer who quickly locked the doors once she was sitting down. She recounts grabbing a heavy dictionary and dropping it on a certain part of his anatomy as he stood in front of his desk, proudly displaying it “like a sausage on display in the local supermarket.”
A short-haired Lake came over to the UK in 1969 to publicise the autobiography and appear onstage – in productions of A Streetcar Named Desire and Madam Chairman, both of which toured round England. She and Yanka also attended Judy Garland’s London wedding that year.
She returned to the US and poured the profits from her book into a low-budget horror movie, which Yanka’s writer boyfriend had penned, about Florida-based Nazis plotting to bring back to life the body of Adolf Hitler.
“Ugh, Flesh Feast,” Mann shudders at the mention of Aunt Connie’s 1970 foray into the genre which exploited stars who were past their prime. “That’s one film I wish she had not done.” In terms of Lake’s legacy, she prefers to focus on her integrity and her fearless personality – this was a woman who, while pregnant, once flew herself to New York in her own plane, who stood up to bullies at home and at work, and who turned down Errol Flynn’s advances not long after he had stood trial for rape.
“I know she had a reputation for being difficult sometimes – but I never saw anything like that. What I did see and learn was to be unapologetically myself, always – to not be bothered with what others think, to have integrity and very high standards in my work and in my life. I appreciate her contribution more now than ever. She had an almost impossible role in Hollywood. I mean I think she was probably the most beautiful of them all. She was more talented than she gave herself credit for. She was very humble. I’m proud of her for surviving, staying as long as she did in that very male dominated world. Her contribution on screen says it all.”
Veronica – The Autobiography of Veronica Lake is published by Dean Street Press