Hollywood actor and model
(1922 – 1973)
The immortalised portrayal of Veronica Lake and her famed hairstyle
She was one of the first American actors to appear on the old Hollywood circuit. She was beautiful and talented but by all accounts she was a handful to deal with.
Veronica Lake with her mother and step-father
Constance Frances Marie Ockelman was born 14 November 1922 in Brooklyn, USA. Her father died when she was 10 years old and her mother re-married to Anthony Keane a year later. The surname Ockelman sounded a bit German and there was war in Europe in the 1940s, so Constance took her mother’s surname and became Constance Keane.
Her father did have a German background on his father’s side and his grandmother was Irish on his mother’s side.. Both sides of Constance’s mother’s family were also first-generation Irish-Americans. Constance therefore was three quarters Irish and one quarter German.
RELATIONSHIP WITH HER MOTHER
The negative relationship Constance had with her mother was probably the single cause for her renowned bad behaviour on and off set. Constance turned out to be extremely argumentative, unreliable and quite the liar. According to her mother, she struggled a lot when she was a child and actually stated that her daughter was diagnosed with schizophrenia when she was a teenager, but who knows how much truth there was in that claim.
She was sent to Montreal to attend classes at Villa Maria, an all-girls Catholic school. However, for an unstated reason she was expelled, one presumes it was down to her obvious displeasing attitude and behaviour. Even after becoming a successful actor the relationship with her mother did not improve. In fact her mother once sued her once for a lack of financial support, claiming that it had cost her a lot to get her daughter started in the movies. They had agreed for Constance to pay her mother a monthly amount but the money stopped and the mother sued.
The Keane family moved from New York to Beverly Hills when Constance was in her early teens. It was there, in Hollywood, that she enrolled in acting classes at the Bliss-Hayden School of Acting. One of the main film makers was MGM, who ran Bliss-Hayden, an establishment that was known as an acting farm at a time when the Hollywood movie industry had not been around for long. The film industry was just starting out and today is referred to as the Old Hollywood days.
No one can say how Constance climbed the Hollywood ladder in the days of extreme chauvinism, she was stunningly beautiful after all, and no doubt she fended of many advances, but it’s probably fair to say that she would have had the confidence to handle any situation well. She secured a contract with MGM for small roles and became one of the early stars of Old Hollywood, appearing in dramas, comedies, and musicals. It moulded her in to a versatile actor able to perform a variety of roles and her achievement speaks for her versatility,
Talent coupled with good looks, in Hollywood, equated to success. From 1939 she made many films (about 29 in all – 16 of them were during the war years). It was during the war that her name was seen across the American big screen – but not as Constance Keane, it was her stage name Veronica Lake.
Sullivan’s Travels (1941)
For two years Constance Keane (aka Connie Keane) had progressed her career. In her first movie, Sorority House (1939), she had such a small role that her name wasn’t mentioned in the credits. But this experience propelled her to seek better acting work and she found a descent speaking part in her next film ‘I Wanted Wings’ (1941). But Arthur Hornblow Jr., the producer that had cast her for the role as a nightclub singer, asked her to change her screen name to Veronica Lake. He would say later that he suggested ‘Lake’ because of her calm and clear blue eyes and ‘Veronica’ is said to have been the name of his secretary.
But she did get on the wrong side of everyone and maybe her mother was not entirely wrong about schizophrenia. She would arrive late on set and the production team became so annoyed once that she was forbidden to leave the set so that she could be located as and when needed. She was loose tongued which was not beneficial to planning a career in Hollywood, yet by 1941 she made not one but two films with reasonable parts that year.
Though she was a talented screen actor, she had a rather small stature which meant that any leading man would tower over her. Luckily and coincidentally enough, there was anther rising actor at the time that was also physically short; Alan Ladd. They were to eventually find each other and make seven movies together.
THE WAR YEARS
Another film that Veronica Lake starred in, also in 1941, was the comedy Sullivan’s Travels (1941). She worked with co-actor Joel McCrea and they didn’t get along. She played a failed actor, an almost parody of her later self as her attitude changed after the war and her career was to falter due to her attitude and behaviour. Veronica and Joel McCrae were on such bad terms that he turned down a leading role for the film I Married a Witch (1942) to avoid working with her again and suggested that the film should be retitled to ‘I Married A Bitch!’ His final words on the subject were, “Life’s too short for two films with Veronica Lake.” Despite it, they were to work together again for the western Ramrod (1947).
I Married A Witch (1942).
In her first uncredited film Sorority House (1939) the director John Farrow appreciated her distinctive beauty and how she wore her hair and her long blonde locks draped over her right eye which was to become an iconic hairstyle of the war and remain popular through the 50s and 60s. In I Wanted Wings (1941) the look suited her drunken character (another similarity that would transpire in her later life.). The look from her scenes became associated with her and her hairstyle was nicknamed ‘peek-a-boo’ after the childrens game.
Veronica said, “My hair kept falling over one eye and I kept brushing it back. I thought I had ruined my chances for the role.. But Hornblow was jubilant about the eye-hiding trick and as an experienced showman he knew that the hairstyle was something people would talk about.“
As she slipped into alcoholism she was becoming the character that had brought her fame in the movies. Her co-star from the film I Wanted Wings, Constance Moore, had this to say about Veronica:
“This was a girl who was handed stardom on a silver platter, and in a short time she had blown it all. Her lack of professionalism was evident even during I Wanted Wings, her big break. She held up production several times. She’d simply disappear, run off here and there. Veronica was her own worst enemy. She would goof up on personal appearance tours, make enemies. And worst of all, her drinking.“
American government advertisement
for female factory workers
1941/1942 THE GOLDEN YEARS
The film director of Sullivan’s Travels, Preston Sturges, didn’t find Veronica intimidating and had this to say about her in an interview with Gossip magazine:
“She’s one of the little people … who take hold of an audience immediately. She’s nothing much in real life, a quiet, rather timid little thing. But the screen transforms her and brings her to life.“
In the 24 November 1941 issue of LIFE magazine, page 58 contained a three-page article that described Veronica’s hair as cinema property of world influence. She was sometimes called the peekaboo blonde. She believed that it was her good looks and fortune that were behind her success and didn’t credit her own talent. Some might say it is suggestive of a victim of the casting couch who relied on her female magnetism to open doors She said this to Photoplay magazine about her performance for the film This Gun For Hire (1942):
“I don’t think I’m outstanding. In fact, I don’t believe it is necessary to being a star. The audience doesn’t want that, they don’t want the best acting on the screen. What they want is personality, something new, something different.“
This view is further strengthened after I Married A Witch (1942) when director René Clair made this statement:
“She was a very gifted girl, but she didn’t believe she was gifted.“
Following I Married A Witch (1942) America went crazy for the peek-a-boo hairstyle and Veronica was on every front cover, in Canada too. Another famous actress of Old Hollywood was Ginger Rogers. In one of her films, The Major & The Minor (1942), there’s a clip where she runs into a hall of women with Lake peek-a-boo hairstyles. It was so popular that the government asked her to change it during the early war years so that women on assembly lines would stop catching their hair in machinery, as was happening.
1942 really was the golden year for Veronica and possibly the best year of her life. By 1943, aged just 21, she was at her peak and earning $4,500 a week. Despite her success and many films her career started waning due to friction with Hollywood and because of her alcoholism. She became increasingly known as a trouble maker and was notoriously hot-tempered, frequently insulted her co-stars. Star Spangled Rhythm (1942) was a musical made by Paramount Pictures for morale during the war and her co-star said, “she was known as ‘The Bitch’ and she deserved the title.” Her antics off-screen turned the cinema public against her and her final films flopped at the box office.
Ginger Rogers and the Veronica Lake pandemic
1944 – THE BEGINNING OF THE END
To say that a career that started in 1939 started to fade by 1944 seems far fetched for someone that became so famous but in 1944 Veronica fell off a cliff when Paramount Pictures, to which she was contracted, made a bad mistake – they cast her as Dora Bruckmann, a Nazi spy, in the film The Hour Before Dawn (1944). The plot was simple but it was war time and Veronica was a quarter German, playing a Nazi spy; not a sympathetic move for her career. Nobody wanted to watch a film about a conscientious objector. The role alienated her not least because her English accent was said to be lousy and thereby it was also a criticism of her acting ability. It wasn’t her fault the the film flunked, it was bad judgement by Paramount Pictures.
Things didn’t much improve for her after that. She had married John Stewart Detlie in 1940, an American art director and set designer in Hollywood but that ended with divorce in 1943. She tried to win back popularity with a war bond drive in Boston. During the war the American government encouraged people to buy government bonds to help the war effort and the media was used to promote it therefore Veronica was seen to be helping the war effort. Bonds are how governments raise money, you are essentially lending the government money and they will repay you one day with very little interest. However, in Boston she upset a lot of cinema industry people by spreading nasties about them. She burned bridges and her career from 1944 tumbled and she began losing out on film roles.
Whe you think it couldn’t get any worse for her, she had a whirlwind romance and married a hard-drinking film director called Andre De Toth in 1944. He had directed Nazi propaganda films during the war, so not only did Veronica play the role of a Nazi, which lost her her following, but she then went and married one – truth is stranger than fiction.
The Hour Before The Dawn (1944)
A conscientious objector in England 1942 begins to suspect that his Austrian refugee wife is a Nazi spy.
1946 A SECOND CHANCE
One can deduce that her rough childhood moulded her terrible personality and she inevitably fell in to alcoholism and predictably attracted a mirror alcoholic problematic partner. It cannot have been easy to have fame at such a young age and her fortune and how she dealt with the cards that life dealt her will perhaps remain indecipherable. In spite of it all, there’s no doubt she was multi-talented and was able to pick herself up and move on to the next phase of her life and grab at a second chance.
In 1946 she received her pilot’s license. She started training a while back in 1941 and finalised it during the purchase of a plane she bought for her second husband Andre de Toth. This further demonstrates how remarkable she was. But as always is the case with alcoholics, their relationship is tenuous and in due course their marriage came to an end in 1952. It was then than she made a cross-country solo flight from Los Angeles to New York.
Having shown what an incredible person she was, she started taking on roles again and made one of her most famous films, The Blue Dahlia (1946), with Alan Ladd. But her charm had obviously not improved as the writer of that film, Raymond Chandler, dubbed her ‘Moronica Lake.’
The Blue Dahlia (1946) was the first screenplay by Raymond Chandler
THE END OF THE 40s/50s & MARRIAGES
If Veronica’s film career was given a second chance in 1946 then it was again in decline by 1948 when she starred in the comedy, Isn’t It Romantic. It was reviewed by film critic Leonard Maltin and subsequently entered the Guinness book of records for being the shortest film review in American history. He simply said, “No.”
In 1949 she fought back with one of her most successful films, a navy adventure film called Slattery’s Hurricane (1949), with Richard Widmark and directed by her husband Andre De Toth. The comeback was again short lived and in 1950 she pretty much turned her back on Hollywood as her career irretrievably had disintegrated and she headed for divorce in 1952.
Veronica had been married two times and had four children, two Detlie and two De Toth. A third marriage to Joseph Allan McCarthy lasted four years from 1955 to 959 and after her third divorce she was left near bankruptcy. She was struggling so much that her public drunkenness and disorderly conduct resulted in several arrests.
Slattery’s Hurricane (1949) Starring Veronica Lake and Richard Widmark
NEARING THE END
Veronica’s penultimate film Slattery’s Hurricane was her best performance, at probably the saddest time in her life and career. Looking at the image above, she has lost her peek-a-boo trademark but certainly does not appear to be a disturbed individual or a suffering alcoholic. Her final work in 1970 was a low-budget horror film called Flesh Feast (1970), which she part financed and which flopped. She wrote an autobiography, likely ghost written, and gave a rare television interview to publicise it.
Veronica Lake had dazzled the critics in So Proudly We Hail (1943) with her performance as an emotionally distraught nurse during World War II. She later claimed she had attended a medical course at Montreal’s McGill University which was published in several biographies only for her to be forced to admit that it was a lie and she had to contact McGill University to apologize for her false claim.
On 7 July 1973 her alcoholism finally caught up with her and she died due to a combined effect of acute kidney injury and acute hepatitis (i.e. alcohol poisoning). She was 51 years old and had lived the lives of two people, like the schizophrenia her mother had ascribed her; she was adorable on screen and a nightmare off camera.
LA Confidential (1979) – theatrical image
In 1997 actor Kim Basinger starred in the film L.A. Confidential for which she won an Oscar for her performance. It was set in the 1950s and at one point in the film, Russell Crowe’s character tells her “You look better than Veronica Lake”. The theatrical poster that was released, clearly shows the likeness.
The film Who Framed Roger Rabbit was released in December 1988 featuring ‘Jessica’ wearing the Veronica Lake trademark peek-a-boo hairstyle. On 30 November 2019, actor Nicole Kidman posed for Tatler magazine wearing the Veronica Lake hairstyle and recently the look was carried by R&B singer Aaliyah Haughton who modelled her own famous hairstyle on Veronica Lake.
Better Call Saul, Season 1 – Episode 5, 2015