Long before TMZ, tabloid television and the National Enquirer, Hollywood celebrities endured self-destruction and scandal. One such celebrity was the diminutive actress Veronica Lake. At the height of her career, Lake’s “peek-a-boo” hairstyle created a national phenomenon. In her later years, personal and professional demons had reduced her to working as a waitress. Nevertheless, Lake remains a Hollywood icon four decades after her death.
Veronica Lake was born Constance Ockelman on Nov. 14, 1919, in Brooklyn, N.Y. Her father, Harry, an oil company employee, died when she was 12, and her mother, Constance, married Anthony Keane a year later. Following her family’s move to Beverly Hills, Calif., she enrolled in Bliss Hayden School of Acting in Hollywood and soon signed with RKO Pictures. Her film debut in John Farrow's 1939 romantic drama “Sorority House” was followed by other small and often nameless parts. In 1940, she married art director John Detlie. Her daughter, Elaine, was born the following year.
The actress also signed a contract with Paramount in 1941. It was there that she met prominent producer Arthur Hornblow, who renamed her Veronica Lake. After getting her big break as William Holden’s love interest in the 1941 military drama “I Wanted Wings,” Lake appeared in a number of box office hits over the next 2 years. In 1942, she appeared opposite Alan Ladd for the first time in “This Gun for Hire.” The 5-5 Ladd was required to stand on a box when filmed next to most actresses, but he endured no such embarrassment alongside the 4-11 Lake. The two appeared in seven films together over 6 years, playing themselves in three of them.
Lake’s trademark was her “peek-a-boo” haircut. Women working in factories during World War II who attempted to copy the look were injured after catching their hair in assembly-line machinery. The government responded by forcing her to temporarily change her look. To teach the public about the threat her hairstyle posed, one publicity picture showed Lake with her hair stuck in a drill press. The iconic Rosie the Riveter could have adopted the “peek-a-boo” look if not for a 1943 Paramount newsreel in which Lake agreed to the War Womanpower Commission’s request and changed her hairdo.
Whether or not changing her signature look damaged Lake’s career is debatable, but her reputation for on-set difficulty and being openly disliked by many of her co-stars didn’t help. Her reputation grew even worse when rumors of being mentally unstable began traveling through Hollywood. In 1942, Lake divorced John Detlie. She tripped over a cable while filming “The Hour before Dawn” the following year, resulting in her son, William, being born prematurely. Critics hated Lake’s performance as a Nazi sympathizer when “Dawn” was released in 1944. Lake also reportedly began abusing alcohol during this time.
In 1944, Lake married director Andre De Toth, and the following year she gave birth to their son, Andre. Despite having a new husband and child, Lake continued drinking, and the allegedly violent De Toth was of little use in encouraging her to seek help. 1946’s Oscar-nominated “The Blue Dahlia” was the only memorable film Lake appeared in during this time, and she was soon done with Paramount. 20th Century Fox picked up her contract in 1948 – the same year her fourth child, Diana, was born – but a new studio did nothing to revive her career, and after the 1952 flop “Stronghold” she wouldn’t be seen again on the big screen for almost 15 years. On the personal front, her marriage to De Toth ended in an ugly divorce and she owed the IRS unpaid taxes. She did manage to occasionally find work on television and in touring stage productions, but her glory days had clearly passed her by.
A broken ankle in 1959 left Lake unable to work, and with her alcoholism progressively worsening she disappeared from the public eye. Her latest marriage, to songwriter Joseph A. McCarthy, ended in another divorce, and she made headlines for personal exploits such as an arrest for disorderly conduct rather than acting. By the early 1960s she was working as a waitress at a Manhattan hotel bar. When former lover Marlon Brando read about this in a newspaper article, he ordered his accountant to send Lake a $1,000 check. Rather than cash it, Lake kept it framed in her living room.
The story managed to renew interest in Lake’s career, and she took a job as hostess of a weekly movie showcase in Baltimore. She also acted in several small theater shows. Lake returned to feature films with the 1966 Canadian production “Footsteps in the Snow,” which was unsuccessful. 1970’s box office failure, “Flesh Feast,” which she co-financed, proved to be Lake's last film.
Lake moved to England in the early 1970s and married a commercial fisherman. The marriage was brief, and by 1973 she had returned to America. She was suffering from paranoia as well as hepatitis and renal failure by this time. On July 7, 1973, she died in Burlington, Vt. It reportedly took days for her body to be identified, and her ashes, supposedly spread on the Florida coastline in 1976, were found in a New York antique store in October 2004.
Despite the inglorious end to her life, Lake’s legacy lives on, and not just with her star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. It’s been seen in places as different as Britney Spears music videos, the Archie comics and the 1988 animated movie “Who Framed Roger Rabbit?” Kim Basinger won the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for playing a prostitute made to resemble Lake in 1997’s “L.A. Confidential.”