Reviewed by Harriet, 13 February 2020
I wonder how many people today have even heard of Veronica Lake. There was a time, though a relatively brief one, in which she was widely celebrated, almost as much for her trademark hairstyle as for the successful films she appeared in throughout the 1940s. This recent publication, by Dean Street Press, of her long out of print autobiography, provides a fascinating inside view of an independent, strong-minded woman who sadly succumbed to alcohol and drugs far too early in her initially successful career.
Born in Brooklyn, as Constance Ockerman, in 1922, Veronica was brought up mostly in Miami by her mother and stepfather. But when she was fifteen her family relocated to Los Angeles, where her mother hoped she would catch someone’s eye and break into the movies. Just over five foot tall, with blue eyes and long blonde hair, she certainly had the looks, and the feisty personality, to succeed, but she was not interested, even when her mother enrolled her in the Bliss Hayden School of Acting aged just sixteen.
So many girls enter acting classes convinced they will become stars. They must become stars and seldom do. I began lessons convinced I would not become a movie star. Or, to soften my vehemence quite sure it could not happen until I was at least fifty years old.
However, a fellow student dragged her to a casting call for extras, and the two girls got walk on parts in the film. Further bit-parts followed, and in one film, quite by chance, her long hair accidentally fell over one eye, and so began ‘the incredible saga of that world-famous peek-a-boo, striptease, sheepdog, bad-girl hair style known the world over as Veronica Lake’s stock-in-trade’. But she wasn’t noticed at once, and went on working as an extra until one day, walking on the studio lot, a director spotted her and told her she looked like an interesting type. Her previous experience had told her that most men in the movie business were ‘on the make’, so she snarled at him. Undaunted, he offered to set her up with a screen test. It didn’t go well. Further distressing adventures followed, including an offer, vehemently refused, to appear in a pornographic movie, and a casting director who unzipped his trousers and ‘the next thing I knew he’d stood up and laid his penis on the desk’. It need hardly be said that this part of her account seems painfully resonant of much of what we read in today’s newspapers.
Finally the many failed attempts paid off and, having been persuaded by the director to change her name to Veronica Lake, she was chosen for a leading part in a feature film. She was seventeen years old and immediately ‘Veronica Lake was a star. Paramount knew it. My mother knew it. And I knew it’. I Wanted Wings came out in 1941, and for several years afterwards the public could not get enough of her, and her signature hairstyle was copied by beauty shops all over the country. But a few years later, her popularity gradually decreased. This was partly owing to the less than brilliant films she appeared in, but also connected with her increasingly troubled personal life. She had started drinking heavily, suffered a miscarriage and a divorce, and had acquired a reputation for being difficult:
I had a reputation for saying what I thought. I hadn’t played the Hollywood game very much and a certain resentment built about that….I don’t believe I was ever difficult when situations were fair and logical. But when I felt something was wrong or when someone pushed me around, I pushed back. And that goes just so far in movie land.
Whatever the reason, her contract with Paramount was terminated in 1948. After a brief move to 20th Century Fox and a couple of less than successful movies, she moved to New York, leaving a second unhappy marriage and a bankruptcy behind her. She would never return to Hollywood again.
Over the coming years, Lake continued to act, but only in live theatre productions. She had a brief and unsuccessful third marriage to a fellow alcoholic, was increasingly alienated from her three children, and had periods of severe financial distress, working once in a factory and once, famously, as a cocktail waitress in a downmarket New York hotel. She makes no secret of the fact that her heavy drinking was at the root of her problems. This autobiography was published in 1969, and she used the proceeds to pay for her last film, Flesh Feast (1970), described in Wikipedia as ‘a low budget horror movie with a Nazi-myth storyline’. Three years later she would be dead, having succumbed to acute hepatitis, kidney failure, and cirrhosis of the liver.
Lake’s fascinating, and ultimately tragic, story is told with great honesty and immense verve. Although it was co-written with Donald Bain, the book resonates with Lake’s distinctive voice. It’s impossible to read it without liking and admiring her courage and intelligence, and the fact that she makes no bones about her weaknesses and failings. Altogether a great read, and thanks are due to Dean Street Press for making it available again.
Harriet is one of the Shiny New Books editors.
Veronica Lake, The Autobiography of Veronica Lake (Dean Street Press, 2020). 978-1913054731, 225pp., paperback original.BUY at Blackwell’s via our affiliate link (free UK P&P)