In the long history of Hollywood, there is no sadder story than the tragedy of a career that almost was. Such is the story of Veronica Lake, who for a brief time was a much imitated icon of fashion and a phenomenon of sultry beauty. Though the flame of her fame burned bright, it could not last. The heights of Veronica's rise to Hollywood glory were only shadowed by the startling rapidity of her fall, leaving her decades to spend on a slow, painful decline into obscurity that ultimately saw her life end far too soon.
Born Constance Frances Marie Ockelman in Brooklyn, New York in 1922, Veronica's life started out anything but glamorous. Her father, an oil worker, was killed in an industrial explosion when she was 10. Her mother soon remarried and with her new husband, moved the family upstate. After getting expelled from a Quebec catholic girls school, she and her family moved to Miami. Though often lauded for her beauty at an early age, young Veronica suffered through a rather difficult childhood, possibly due to schizophrenia. In 1938, 16-year old Veronica and her family moved to Beverly Hills, where her mother enrolled her in acting classes. She was soon cast in several RKO productions, often involving stories of young girls in sorority houses. One director noticed that at certain times, strands of her naturally wavy hair fell across one side of her face, giving her "an air of mystery." Unknown to her at the time, this look would become her trademark and one of the keys to her fame. Around this time she was also introduced to a producer at Paramount Pictures who changed her name to Veronica Lake, saying that it complemented her blue eyes. In 1940, only barely 18, Veronica married an art director on one of her movies who was 14 years her senior. Still just a teenager, she was already laying the foundations for the rest of her life.
As the 1940s dawned, young Veronica found herself at the peak of her career. 1941 saw her move over to Paramount after her contract at RKO ended. She bore her first child around this time. At Paramount she began to make a series of successful films, starting with her breakout hit, I WANTED WINGS in 1941. Other successful films followed in the next couple of years, among them titles like HOLD BACK THE DAWN, SULLIVAN'S TRAVELS, THE GLASS KEY and SO PROUDLY WE HAIL! She was known for stealing the show from higher billed actors, her skills impressing both filmmakers and fans alike. With a tiny, sub 5-foot frame, Veronica was often paired with shorter leading men, among them Alan Ladd, who at only 5'5, better matched her diminutive proportions. The two of them made 4 films together in the early 1940s, which helped to make Veronica a big name in Hollywood circles. Within just a few years of starting out in the business, Veronica was already a top money earner.
Her popularity as a film star in the 1940s was equaled by her quick rise as a fashion phenomenon. Veronica's "peekaboo" hair style became an instant sensation among American women, leading to an unlikely problem for the women participating in the American war effort. With more and more women taking over for the drafted male workforce in the areas of construction and fabrication, the danger of long, dangling hair styles became a serious problem. Working amidst powerful moving machinery, any dangling hair could easily get pulled into the machinery, subjecting women workers to painful injuries and even deaths. Responding to this dangerous situation, Veronica changed her hair style and encouraged her fans to do the same. While doing this did make working conditions safer for Rosie the Riveter, Veronica's decision to abandon one of her most eye-catching personal features, may have been one of the first nails in her career's coffin.
Perhaps the main reason for Veronica's quick decline was her difficult behavior on set. A complex, potentially schizophrenic personality often made working with her a nightmare for cast and crew. One of her costars on the film STAR SPANGLED RHYTHM said of her "She was known as 'The Bitch' and she deserved the title." Actor Joel McCrea, who starred with her in SULLIVAN'S TRAVELS, refused a second role with Veronica in I MARRIED A WITCH, stating "Life's too short for two films with Veronica Lake." A reputation for being difficult has proven to be the kiss of death for many an actor in Hollywood and was very much the case for Veronica as well. The premature birth and eventual death of her second child in 1943, resulting from an accident on set, didn't help the situation. Neither did the dissolution of her first marriage shortly there after. It was at this time that she also began drinking heavily, an affliction that would haunt Veronica the rest of her life.
Veronica's downturn began in 1944 with her first major box office bomb, THE HOUR BEFORE DAWN. Playing in an unsympathetic role as a Nazi spy, many scoffed at her unconvincing German accent and the generally poor quality of the film. This, coupled with her worsening reputation in Hollywood, cost her dearly. She also remarried that year and eventually had 3 children by her second husband. However, by war's end, her career was already taking a turn for the worse. She had been reduced to a series of forgettable roles in minor films, few of which earned her anything resembling the acclaim she received only a few years before. Paramount refused to renew her contract in 1948. She did one film for 20th Century Fox in 1949, SLATTERY'S HURRICANE, directed by her husband. Yet as the early years of the 1950s dawned, her once prolific career was already waning.
Veronica did one more movie in 1951, but was mostly finished with the movie business by this time. Declaring bankruptcy and filing for divorce from her second husband, she turned to television, which helped keep her afloat for a time. An audit and the confiscation of her assets by the IRS for unpaid taxes brought her to the breaking point, as did another onset injury that rendered her unable to work. Unemployed, broke and alone following a 3rd marriage and divorce, the once world class actress began to drift between various seedy hotels in the NYC and Brooklyn area, having several run-ins with the law for public drunkenness and disorderly conduct. By 1959, Veronica was reduced to working as a barmaid in a woman's hotel in Manhattan, where a gossip columnist uncovered her plight. His widely publicized story on her situation created a brief rejuvenation in her career during the 1960s, with roles in a few off Broadway and overseas plays.
Yet by the late 1960s, Veronica's mental and physical state were in decline. Living alone in Florida and suffering from worsening paranoid schizophrenia issues, she had one last flash of success following the publication of her autobiography in 1972. She channeled the proceeds from the book into the production of her last film, the low budget horror movie FLESH FEAST. It predictably did very little business and marked the sad finale to her film career. A brief sojourn to England in 1972 and one last marriage to an English sea captain ended fairly quickly. By 1973, Veronica was back in the States and close to the end. Hospitalized with acute hepatitis and renal failure following years of heavy drinking, estranged from her children and a 4-time divorcee, Veronica hung on for a couple weeks, but eventually succumbed to her illnesses on July 7th, 1973. She was only 50-years-old.
Veronica Lake's rise to fame was typical of many a young ingenue in Hollywood. However, her own inner demons and the cruelty of fate stole her away from the Hollywood scene far too soon. Her beauty made her a darling of wartime America, but once movie fans decided to put the wars years behind them, Veronica soon fell out of fashion, just like many other Hollywood beauties of the day. Still a child during her rise to fame and fortune, Veronica never really did figure out how to live as an adult, nor how to exist as a regular person. That left her unprepared and lost once her glamorous world disappeared around her. Though her life and career ended tragically, the images of her brief time as a beloved silver screen beauty endure for all time.