Birth: November 14, 1922
New York, United States
Death: July 7, 1973
Vermont, United States
Veronica Lake was born on November 14,1922 as Constance ‘Connie’ Ockelman in Brooklyn, New York. Growing up, she rarely saw her father since he worked at sea. As an only child, she was usually alone with her mother. She was a self-professed tomboy, who preferred boxing gloves over dolls. When she was ten, her father died in a ship explosion. Her mother, who was only 27, wasted no time and a year later Veronica had a stepfather. Anthony Keane, a newspaper staff artist, was a gentle but frail man. He was diagnosed with tuberculosis a few years later and the family moved to Montreal for his treatment.
Veronica became a student at Villa Maria, an all-girls Catholic boarding school. It was a strict environment bound by rules. The rebellious Veronica got in trouble frequently and was reportedly expelled over eating a meatball sandwich in class.
She fared better when the family moved to Miami, where the warm climate would benefit her stepfather’s health. Veronica was popular at Miami High School and was known as a ‘real firecracker’. The other girls in school participated in beauty pageants and she joined in. To her own surprise, Veronica was quite successful and was told that she would do well in Hollywood. Her mother wasted no time and moved the family to Hollywood when Veronica was 16. She was swiftly enrolled in the Bliss Hayden School of Acting. Veronica would go on to say that her mother was more excited about her acting career than she was and her second husband would later claim that Veronica was the victim of a stage mom. Subsequently, she had a contentious relationship with her mother and would not be on speaking terms with her later in life. When Veronica’s mother wrote a book about her by then famous daughter, she claimed that Veronica was diagnosed with schizophrenia in high school. There are no other sources to corroborate this and this claim is seen as untrustworthy. While in Hollywood, Veronica was closer to her stepfather and she helped take care of him during his bouts of illness.
Peek-A-Boo Movie Star
One day, Veronica tagged along with a classmate for an audition and she was offered the part of an extra. She went on to play an extra in multiple films. Often bored on set, the independent Veronica would take walks around the large studio. This caught the eye of two men: an assistant director who got her an agent and art director John Detlie who instantly fell for her. Her newfound agent got Veronica her first big role: as Sally Vaughn in I Wanted Wings. But first she needed a new name. The producer of the film came up with Veronica Lake. ‘Veronica’ for her classic facial features and ‘Lake’ for the calm coolness of her blue eyes. Veronica was only 17 when filming her big break, while also dating the 14-year older John.
Her life was changing by the minute. She was terrified while filming her first big movie, so she adapted a tough and unapproachable exterior. It helped her feel more confident, but it did not endear her to her co-workers. This started the infamous rumors that she was ‘difficult’. During filming, Veronica and John eloped and became husband and wife. Veronica was over the moon and very much in love. I Wanted Wings was released soon after the wedding and Veronica was the break-out star. Her hair, with one side naturally falling in front of her eyes, was used to its full advantage by the Hollywood PR-machine. They gave her a wavy, shiny hairstyle to match and accentuated the ‘peek-a-boo’ nature of her hair in the movie and in publicity photos. Her hairstyle became a huge trend and the thing she was most known for. The down-to-earth Veronica never understood the fuss over it, but rightly assumed that every actor in Hollywood needed a gimmick.
But Veronica wanted to be more than just a glamour girl with great hair. So she jumped at the chance to star in the comedy Sullivan’s Travels. She wanted the part so badly that she did not disclose that she was pregnant. Filming Sullivan’s Travels required a lot of physical comedy and Veronica went all-in. Though the director was very angry when he found out that she was pregnant, filming had gone on for too long to replace her. Just as she had anticipated. There were no hard feelings after filming, as she gave it her all and the film became a huge success.
After Sullivan’s Travels, Veronica gave birth to her daughter Elaine. Though she enjoyed spending time with her baby girl, Veronica became restless easily. She quickly went on to film This Gun For Hire, the first in a string of successful collaborations with Alan Ladd. As her career went from strength to strength, her marriage deteriorated. Her husband was struggling with her newfound fame. His innocent ‘Ronnie’ was now a Hollywood siren and he was referred to as ‘Mr. Lake’. She was a Hollywood star and there was no way around it. Veronica’s career was at a high, with films like I Married a Witch and The Glass Key. It was around this time that Veronica ended her troubled relationship with her mother and the two never spoke again. She did continue to deposit a monthly amount on her mother’s bank account, as she had once promised she would always do.
With World War II in full swing, John joined the army and was stationed in Seattle. Veronica and Elaine commuted, as Veronica did war bond tours and starred in patriotic pictures like So Proudly We Hail. Then, Veronica became pregnant again. Though unplanned, she saw it as an opportunity to salvage her marriage. While shooting some final scenes for The Hour Before Dawn, Veronica tripped on a lighting cable. She was rushed to the hospital and gave birth two months prematurely. According to Veronica, she begged John to come to the hospital, but he refused. Her son William Anthony passed away one week later, on July 15, 1943, while Veronica was still recovering in her hospital bed. They attended their son’s funeral together and Veronica filed for divorce.
Veronica spent the following year trying to party her cares away. Her last few films had not been received well and she was having trouble getting new roles. She was frustrated that people only saw her as a ‘sexy siren’, even though she had done two successful comedies. She was offered a part in her first and only picture in color: Bring On the Girls. It wasn’t a big success, but Veronica’s mind was elsewhere. She had fallen in love with director André de Toth. The pair married as soon as her divorce was final, in December 1944. They bought a farm and a ranch and André adopted Elaine, as there was no contact with John.
André firmly believed in Veronica’s career, despite the declining qualities of the roles she was receiving. Soon, Veronica was pregnant and André was overjoyed when she gave birth to their son Michael. Veronica herself was already struggling with being a mother, something that would get worse over time. Her marriage was a rocky one: André was impulsive in both his anger and spending and Veronica drank a lot. Her drinking would become a bigger and bigger problem in her life. André would later say that he watched her self-destruct. But for a little while the pair enjoyed the high-life. Living on their farm, jet-setting with Howard Hughes and even buying their own plane. Veronica even became a licensed pilot. As a true free spirit, she enjoyed the freedom of the open sky. Films like The Blue Dahlia and Saigon paid for some of this, but even these hit films were not enough to pay for all of the couple’s extravagances. They soon found themselves in debt. Because of this, the monthly ‘allowance’ to Veronica’s mother stopped. Veronica was in the final stages of her third pregnancy and in the hospital on bed rest, when her mother sued her. Veronica was incredibly upset, but had to settle the case for legal reasons. In October 1948, her third child Diana was born.
Things were not looking up in her career. Veronica’s contract at Paramount had not been renewed and she did not get any offers from other studios. She played a small role in her husband’s film Slattery’s Hurricane and went on to star in a small independent film in Mexico. Neither relieved the pair’s financial problems. They filed for bankruptcy in 1951 and were divorced soon after.
Veronica now found herself at a crossroads. Her second marriage had ended and her career was almost non-existent. She decided that she was done with Hollywood, a cold place, where she had never truly felt at home. She moved to New York City and was hailed as the new celebrity in town. At first, she supported herself by appearing in TV-shows, but those gigs dried up after awhile. She turned to the stage, which led to a nomadic existence. This may have contributed to André getting custody of the children, though her growing dependence on alcohol reportedly did not help matters either. Working on stage fulfilled her and she enjoyed the experience. Unfortunately, Veronica couldn’t help but get into trouble. She fell off stage and sprained her ankle, collapsed in the hotel lobby before a show and was arrested for public drunkenness when back in New York.
In 1955, Veronica married songwriter Joe McCarthy.
They were very much in love in the beginning, but things changed when they moved in together. According to Veronica, the pair fought a lot and Joe did not get along with her children. Things came to a head when her son Michael witnessed Joe kicking her to the ground. The boy took a knife out of the kitchen and chased his stepfather out of the apartment. Veronica and Joe separated after the incident. Work became sparse and she moved into the Martha Washington Hotel, where she worked behind the bar to pay the rent. A journalist was dumbfounded when he saw the famous Veronica Lake working at the bar in 1962. After the subsequent headlines, Veronica received cash and checks from concerned fans all over the world. Veronica sent all of it back, too proud to take the money. Rumor has it that she did keep the check Marlon Brando sent her, but just as a keepsake. She lost the job due to drinking during work hours. But Veronica was now completely engulfed in her new love interest: a sea captain named Andy Elickson. Over the next few years, she saw him as regularly as she could. He stayed in New York when he wasn’t sailing and she would scrap up the money she earned from working the odd job to visit him when his boat was docked somewhere in America. When Andy came back from a year in Vietnam in 1965, he was a sick man. Veronica cared for him in the following months and she was devastated when he eventually passed away.
Thankfully, she found a healthy distraction by starring in a staging of Goodbye Charlie. She moved to Miami for the play and enjoyed being back in the city where she had spent her teenage years. She decided to settle down there, sometimes travelling to star in the occasional play. She seldom saw her children and was still addicted to alcohol. Her autobiography was released in 1969, which did well. While promoting the book in England, Veronica was asked to star as Blanche DuBois in A Streetcar Named Desire on stage. She performed to great reviews.
Back in America, Veronica used the money she had made with her book to make a low-budget horror film called Flesh Feast. The film did not do well and she never made the money back. She returned to the stage for a summer stock in 1973. While in Vermont, Veronica went to the doctor for stomach pains and was diagnosed with cirrhoses of the liver. She checked into the hospital and was in good spirits. She enjoyed being recognized by some of the nurses, but her health quickly declined. Veronica passed away on July 7, 1973 from acute hepatitis and acute kidney injury. Of her children, Michael was the only one to show up at her funeral service. Her ashes were scattered off the coast of the Virgin Island, as per her request.