The Life of a Sex Zombie

Veronica Lake

Veronica Lake was in my living room yesterday morning, poised and bored, with the lissome form of a young dancer and the dead eyes of.  . .well, the eyes of someone who’s seen Veronica Lake’s future.

Which wouldn’t be a cheery vision.

In the watchful coolness of this siren’s gaze, you’d be right to sense that although so gleamingly young, this was somebody who’d already encountered choppy waters. After a troubled childhood, Veronica Lake–nee Constance Ockelman–had lost her father to an industrial explosion, and later was kicked out of a Catholic Girl’s School for rebellious behavior (which seems to me indicative both of intelligence and possession of a spine). Lake was moved down south, where she was simultaneously lauded as the most beautiful girl in Miami High and diagnosed with mental illness. 

Lake’s mother took the interesting decision of not getting treatment for her daughter but instead helping the beautiful, unstable girl move to Hollywood.  Young, unbalanced, and uneducated, Ockelman enrolled in acting school, began doing rounds of auditions, and landed a few extra parts. The girl had nerve plus hope–and those eyes.

So things moved fast. Maybe too fast.  Paramount signed her in 1941, where producer Arthur Hornblow Jr. took one listen to the Germanic-sounding name of “Ockleman” and swiftly renamed her.  Veronica Lake was now all of 18.  Like most starlets put through the studio mill, she was taught how to talk, walk, smoke, simmer.  Lake never took to the screen style known as “schmacting” (soon to become increasingly popular with Davis and Crawford as they moved through the decade, also enjoyably showcased in any Warner Bros. madhouse scene) but she didn’t seem to bother much with the actual acting, either. Did anyone ask her to?  Did anyone want her to?  She seems almost to have been born to enact the life of a Hollywood casualty—which she did impeccably.  She had the requisite pushy mother, the dead father, the grave emotional issues.

However, in addition to her beauty, Lake had an innately cool magnetism.  In a supporting role in 1941’s I Wanted Wings, the 18-year-old stole the picture.  Then she landed her first leading role–and what a plum! This sweet morsel was a gift from the vagarious gods, for it was Sullivan’s Travels, Preston Sturges’ second film in his own annus mirablis of ’41.

Like most people nowadays, the first time I saw Lake was in this Sturges film. And back then I didn’t know Lake was supposed to be a minor star; I didn’t know people laughed at her acting.  What I saw was a cool, straight shooter with a low voice and those somber, wised-up eyes. I also saw someone who was indisputably, sui generis. Believe me: in her niche, Lake’s a cool drink of water.

And her star kept rising. Lake was matched with Alan Ladd, another petite blonde with disconcerting eyes. 1942’s This Gun For Hire was a smash, and they starred together in a series of 40’s noirs that matched her feline detachment with his angry isolation. Lake and Ladd were a magic, tragic pair; tiny blond beauties, box-office bonzos, and both secretly battling the bottle.

As World War II took off, Lake was told to change her famous “peek-a-boo” hairstyle for the war effort (supposedly, the star’s style was so imitated that American women had been working on tank-treads and airplane engines whilst dangling their Lake-esque locks in the gears; if true, a clear example of natural selection), and soon her box office wavered. Lake’s marriage ended, she began to loathe Hollywood, and then she was sued by her charming mother for financial support. Plus, the studio system sometimes seemed to be daring its stars to fail: Paramount cast Brooklyn-born Lake as a Nazi in The Hour Before Dawn, leaving her untutored to pull off a (crap) German accent.  The point of no return came after an on-set accident resulted in the death of her newborn son and the subsequent acceleration of her drinking problem.

Word got around. It probably didn’t help that, apparently, Veronica Lake was a bit of a bitch. Well!  Booze and bitchery. . .who’d have expected that from a half-educated Hollywood starlet with untreated mental illness?

Even easygoing gent Joel McCrea said “life’s too short to make 2 films with Veronica Lake”—though he ended up doing so. Raymond Chandler took to calling her “Moronica” on the set of The Blue Dahlia, and Fredric March wouldn’t even mention her name to the press. March’s disdain really hurt Lake; she’d admired him since she was a kid. She responded by threatening to kick him in the samosas during their bed scene in I Married a Witch (a title March might’ve changed).

Witch’s director René Clair later told Studs Terkel that the actress “was a very gifted girl, but she didn’t believe she was gifted.” Lake herself stated that “You could put all the talent I had into your eye, and still not suffer from impaired vision.” The odd thing about Veronica Lake, movie people noticed, was that she seemed to sort of enjoy her fall from grace. To feel she deserved it somehow. Her discomfort with fame, with Hollywood, was an extension of her discomfort with the world.

So you know how it went; Downhill, fast. Maybe Lake wasn’t RADA-trained, but she was flawlessly enacting a script written by her colleagues, sex symbols of former eras.  Frances Farmer, Louise Brooks, Clara Bow. (Monroe later did the color re-make.)

Veronica Lake was a star by the age of 19 and all washed up by 27.

But she had real cool, too. Lake taught herself to fly in 1946, and she began flying between L.A. and her hometown of New York. Back in Manhattan she had a hot and lubricious affair with young Marlon Brando that apparently left him reeling (to which I say: Respect). About her Hollywood career Veronica Lake said, “I wasn’t a sex symbol, I was a sex zombie,” which still is about as good a comment as any on the dehumanizing nature of star-making, and star-fucking.

By the early 50’s Lake was on T.V., and then not getting hired at all.  Late in the decade, after a few more divorces, she was back in NYC and moving from cheap hotel to cheap hotel, working as a barmaid.  Arrested for public drunkenness.  The gutter press of the time got a hold of that and ran the story, which must’ve been pretty shameful.  But Lake still had her pride:  When Brando heard how hard up she was, he sent her $1000.  She didn’t cash the check.  Instead, she framed it.

See?  Cool.

As her mental and physical health deteriorated, she stole another idea from Louise Brooks, and pulled together a rather candid biography in 1972, Veronica. Book release parties were held for her in HollywoodLake’s former colleagues didn’t recognize her at first: A tiny bloated drunk who shuffled in with puffy eyes and loose, blackened teeth.  She was paranoid that the FBI and IRS were out to get her.  And she was alone, so alone.  Veronica Lake was dead the next year at 50, of hepatitis and renal failure.  The booze she’d used to treat her mental illness had taken her down, ounce by ounce.

And yesterday morning I saw her, in a very early role.  The Glass Key.  Lissome, with that gleaming golden sheath of hair and the extraordinarily graceful, sparrow-like hands that only tiny women seem to possess–dressed in true 40s style in suit and hat and fascinator, with clips on her ears and a pin at her throat.  And those eyes.  Those shocking, wise eyes.

The eyes of a woman who’s being turned into a zombie and doesn’t really care.