Known for her wavy blond locks and seductive left eye, Veronica Lake was a sex symbol and icon of the 1940’s silver screen. Her breakout role as Sally Vaughn in I Wanted Wings, in 1941, kicked off a straight seven-year run as Hollywood’s “It Girl,” starring in 20 films such as Sullivan’s Travels, This Gun for Hire, Glass Key and I Married a Witch—which, given her reputation of heavy drinking, erratic behavior and diva attitude, may have been an apropos title for any of her four ex-husbands.
A Classic Beauty
Veronica Lake, born on November 14, 1922 as Constance Frances Marie Ockelman, has been described as both stunningly beautiful and difficult to work with. This may have been due to the fact that by the age of 2o—after only two years in show business—she was an on-camera leading lady, or perhaps because, according to her mother, she was diagnosed schizophrenic. Most likely, a combination of the two—fueled by a demanding work load and a propensity to abuse alcohol—creating a whirlwind of failed marriages and an off-camera reputation that eventually ruined her career.
As one former co-star said, life was too short to do two films with Veronica Lake.
How Times Have Changed
I have to wonder what the entertainment industry would be like today if that kind of self-preservation and chutzpah was still present in show business. Alas, we live in a time when actors are often rewarded for being difficult to work with, no matter how they treat the cast and crew. Sadly, some of our most valued entertainers aren’t even actors at all, they are closer to intellectually vapid puppets who we eagerly stalk on celebrity gossip sites and in rag magazines. Hollywood of today doesn’t fire actors for drinking or talking smack; instead it rewards them with a Netflix series or two. If Veronica Lake were alive today (and not 93 years old), she might be a regular Chelsea Handler.
Life in the Fast Lane
Despite how her Hollywood peers may have felt, Lake was a prominent member of the social scene in both Los Angeles and New York. She enjoyed drinking and smoking and her physical appearance—arguably her most valuable asset—paid the price. In 1943, Lake posed for a publicity photo for Life Magazine, which portrayed the actress, famous for her sultry peek-a-boo coif, getting her hair caught in machinery. The ad was aimed to encourage women with factory jobs to cut their hair and avoid accidents in the workplace. Naturally, Lake—whose infamous mane had set a trend—cut hers off and she soon lost popularity.
Almost as quickly as she rose, Veronica Lake had dropped out of favor with Hollywood by 1948, when Paramount Pictures decided not to renew her contract. For an actress who averaged two major motion pictures a year, this must have come as a huge shock. While she managed to eek out a couple more films and TV roles by the mid-1950s, her severed ties Paramount truly marked the end of the Veronica Lake era.
Her Tragic Demise
Deciding she was done with Hollywood, Lake packed up her three children and moved back to New York to pursue a career in theatre. She picked up a few jobs between 1951 and 1955 but after collapsing during the production of The Little Hut in Detroit, Michigan that year, Lake didn’t work again until 1963. Her final stage appearance was in at the New Theatre in London at in 1969—fours years before her death—when she played, appropriately enough, Blanche DuBois in A Street Car Named Desire. After that, Lake disappeared from show business but was reportedly spotted tending bar at an all-women’s hotel in Manhattan.
In June of 1973, Lake checked herself into a hospital in Burlington, Vermont complaining of stomach pain. She was diagnosed with cirrhosis of the liver and died a few weeks later, on July 7, from acute hepatitis and acute kidney injury. In short, drinking took away Lake’s wavy blond locks, seductive left eye—and life.