Hollywood’s Golden Age is fertile ground for both success stories and cautionary tales. The era is famed for its glitz and glamour, but there was also a darker side. Veronica Lake is a prime example of that.
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Among the most alluring and versatile actresses of the 1940s, Lake was a superstar loved by film audiences. However, that onscreen image masked a life that grew more troubled as she rose through the Hollywood studio system of the period.
How Constance Keane Became Veronica Lake
The future Veronica Lake was born in 1922, in Brooklyn, New York, as Constance Frances Marie Ockelman. Her father died tragically, in an industrial explosion, when she was only 10 years old.
Veronica’s mother, also named Constance, then married Anthony Keane, whose surname was adopted by young Constance. The family moved to Upstate New York, where Constance attended a Catholic elementary school. She was later transferred to a boarding school in Montreal, from which she was expelled due to behavioral issues. (The New York Times reported Veronica was diagnosed with schizophrenia at a young age.)
The Keane family later settled in Beverly Hills, California, where both mother and daughter expressed interest in young Constance becoming an actress.
Veronica Lake was born when Constance Keane was cast in her first featured role at Paramount Pictures, as a nightclub singer in the 1941 military drama I Wanted Wings. Producer Arthur Hornblow Jr. described her eyes as “calm and clear, like a blue lake.” That distinctive feature inspired her screen name, Veronica Lake.
The Accidental Creation of an Iconic Look
The newly anointed Veronica Lake created her signature look during the production of I Wanted Wings. Her long, blonde hair fell over her right eye during a take, resulting in a kind of “peek-a-boo” appearance.
“I had my arm on a table … it slipped … and my hair – it was always baby fine and had this natural break – fell over my face,” Lake recalled in later years. “It became my trademark purely by accident.”
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With the release of I Wanted Wings, the hairstyle became all the rage, and 19-year-old Veronica Lake became a superstar. The Chicago Tribune dubbed her “the find of 1941.”
Lake then co-starred with Joel McCrea in the 1941 comedy-adventure Sullivan’s Travels. In it, she played an aspiring actress who joins McCrea’s Hollywood filmmaker on his cross-country journey of self-discovery. That was followed by 1942 crime favorite This Gun for Hire, in which she was a nightclub singer (again!) who falls for a hit man with a conscience, played by Alan Ladd.
Lake appeared over the next several years in a handful of well-received films, three of them opposite Ladd. Paramount was well aware of Ladd’s height, which, at 5-foot-6, made him one of Hollywood’s shortest leading men. The curvy Veronica Lake, meanwhile, was a petite 4-foot-11, so the two were a perfect onscreen match. Their crime dramas The Glass Key (1942) and The Blue Dahlia (1946) are regarded as classics of the genre.
Veronica Lake’s Career Peaks Alongside Alan Ladd
Even as Veronica Lake’s film career soared, she developed a reputation behind the scenes for being difficult. She was supposed to reunite with Joel McCrea in the 1942 comedy-romance I Married a Witch. However, McCrea refused, and reportedly said, “Life’s too short for two films with Veronica Lake.” (His role instead went to Frederic March, and I Married a Witch became a hit.)
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Soon after, Veronica Lake began a professional fall that was nearly as meteoric as her rise. As the decade wore on, the hits didn’t come as regularly for “the Peek-a-Boo Blonde.” That’s when Lake began to drink heavily, at a time when Hollywood didn’t offer institutional supports systems for addiction.
In 1948, Paramount decided not to renew her contract, and Lake’s cinematic career came to a virtual halt. After only two more supporting film roles, Lake spent the early 1950s appearing in televised plays. Like a shooting star, Veronica Lake seemed to disappear.
Lake’s growing reliance on alcohol further complicated her personal life. She was married three times between 1940 and 1959. Her first two yielded four children, one of whom was born prematurely in 1943, and died days later. The children and their mother rarely saw each other in later years
Veronica Lake’s Later Years… and Death
Following bankruptcy, tax problems and her third divorce, in 1959, Veronica Lake left Hollywood for New York City. There, she drifted, living in an all-women’s hotel and working as a waitress in its cocktail lounge. She made occasional television, stage or (low-budget) film appearances, but nothing that could be considered a “comeback.”
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When Lake visited the United Kingdom to promote her 1969 memoir, she was hired to appear in a stage tour of Madam Chairman, and then in a revival of A Streetcar Named Desire. Her final role was as a mad scientist in the low-budget horror film Flesh Feast. Although shot in 1967, it wasn’t released until 1970. That was the unceremonious end to the career of an actress who had once been the toast of Hollywood.
Veronica Lake remained in England for the next few years before returning to the United States. During a trip to Vermont in 1973, he was diagnosed with cirrhosis of the liver, a result of her years of drinking. Veronica Lake died on July 7, 1973, at the University of Vermont Medical Center. She was 50 years old.
The view of celebrities suffering from substance-abuse and mental-health problems has changed dramatically in the decades since Lake’s death. The public has come to recognize film stars aren’t immune to addiction or mental illness. One need only look to the well-publicized struggles of figures like Drew Barrymore, Ben Affleck and Zac Efron, who were helped through by rehabilitation clinics programs.
Although checking into rehab, or attending a support group, frequently still serves as a punchline in a TV or film comedy, it’s nevertheless the kind of positive development that one wishes were in place decades earlier, to benefit troubled stars like Veronica Lake.