The name came up in something I was reading and though I never saw any of her movies I recognized it as that of an old movie star. Who was she? It turned out she was a hard luck actress.
One night in 1961 a reporter for the New York Post was having a drink in the bar of New York’s Martha Washington Hotel and recognizing something familiar about the barmaid asked, “Have you always been a waitress?” The barmaid replied, “No, I was a movie star.” The barmaid was Veronica Lake, one of Hollywood’s biggest and most glamorous stars in the 1940s.
Constance Frances Marie Ockelman was born in Brooklyn in 1919. Her father died in a work accident when she was thirteen and her mother remarried and moved the family to Montreal. Constance attended a girls’ school for two years but her strange behavior led to expulsion and diagnosis as a paranoid schizophrenic. They moved to Miami but a year later relocated once more, this time to Hollywood.
With some small success as a beauty queen back in Florida, Constance began to daydream about acting and enrolled in an acting school at the Beverly Hills Playhouse. She tagged along with a friend to an audition for a bit part in the film Sorority House (1939) and got a part in a crowd scene. As Constance Keane she followed that with other bit parts, leading to a small part in Forty Little Mothers (1940), directed by Busby Berkeley. That same year she married her first husband, art director John Detlie.
During a screen test for a supporting role in 1941 her long blonde hair kept falling in her face obscuring one eye. The problem turned into a bonus when the producer liked the look and gave the young actress the leading role and a new name, Veronica Lake. The movie was I Wanted Wings, starring William Holden and Ray Milland and was a big hit. It made the newly christened Veronica Lake a movie star.
A petite four feet eleven inches tall, Lake was a perfect co-star for the famously short Alan Ladd and the two made six films together in the 1940s, becoming one of the most popular film couples of the decade. After making So Proudly We Hail in 1943, Life Magazine named her the top female box office star of the year.
From the beginning of her stardom, Lake’s peekaboo hair style covering one eye had been copied by thousands of female fans. So many fans were copying the “Veronica Lake Look” that eventually, because long hair sometimes got caught in machinery, the government asked the actress to cut her long hair to inspire safety among the female workers in defense plants. Lake ultimately agreed, but her patriotic sacrifice spelled doom. The new look of shorter hair was unbecoming to the actress and her career declined steadily.
Lake’s marriage to John Detlie produced two children and a divorce. In 1944, she married director Andre de Toth. Lake was earning $4,500 per week with Paramount but was drinking heavily and people began refusing to work with her. The studio cast her in a string of forgettable films, a notable exception The Blue Dahlia in 1946, once again with Alan Ladd. Disgusted by her condition and poor performance, screenwriter Raymond Chandler often referred to her as “Moronica Lake.” About her own talents, Lake once said, “You could put all the talent I had into your left eye and still not suffer from impaired vision.” Paramount declined to renew her contract in 1948. This brought on an increase in Lake’s drinking and by 1951 she had made only one more film with a different studio. The government seized the remainder of her assets for unpaid taxes and she divorced Andre de Toth. In 1955 she married a songwriter and fellow drinker.
Abandoning Hollywood, she and her third husband lived in a Greenwich Village apartment mostly fighting and drinking until their divorce. Alimony was not enough to cover the bills and Lake was evicted. She went on tour in a musical earning very little money but suffered another setback when a dancing partner fell on her leg and broke it. Unable to work, she ran out of funds and relied upon friends for food and other necessities. In time, the one-time movie star was drifting from one cheap hotel to another in Brooklyn and New York, arrested more than once for public drunkenness and disorderly conduct.
Living at the Martha Washington Hotel for Women in New York City, she took a job in the hotel lounge as a barmaid in order to pay the rent. It was here that the newspaper reporter recognized her and wrote a widely distributed article for his paper. This led to a television job and later the part of an aging movie queen in the 1963 off-Broadway revival of Best Foot Forward starring Liza Minnelli. Hoping to revive her film career, Lake made two low-budget movies but both received poor notices, doing more harm than good. With her physical and mental health in decline she hid out in Hollywood, Florida claiming the FBI was stalking her. She later spent a short time in England where she appeared in two plays and married her fourth husband, Robert Carleton-Munro. But soon enough Lake filed for divorce and returned to New York, where she was immediately hospitalized. After her release from the hospital, the alcoholic former star was often drunk and broke.
Veronica Lake passed her final days in the Burlington Vermont Medical Center signing autographs and enjoying her notoriety. None of the Hollywood friends who had once showered her with love and attention attended her funeral. She did however get a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and today her autograph and memorabilia continue to command high prices.