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Although only 4’ 11’ tall, Veronika Lake had an intense, erotically charged screen presence that made her a larger-than-life pin-up of the Forties and one of the silver screen’s most enduring vintage style icons.

“I wasn`t a sex symbol, I was a sex zombie.”  –Veronica Lake

Born Constance Ockelman in Brooklyn, NY, on Nov. 14, 1919, Lake lost her father when she was only 12. Her mother remarried a year later, causing the family to move around over the next few years.

A beauty pageant winner, Lake’s rise to fame happened almost instantly once she enrolled in the Bliss Hayden School of Acting in Hollywood.  After signing with RKO, she made her film debut in John Farrow’s romantic drama Sorority House (1939), in which she was initially billed as Constance Keane. Bit roles in other features followed – for now she was still acting as Constance.

In 1940 she married her first husband, art director John Detlie, giving birth to a daughter the following year. Ironically, the arrival of her first child also heralded an upswing in her career as she was signed to Paramount in 1941. It was Paramount producer Arthur Hornblow who renamed her Veronica Lake – Lake in reference to her deep blue eyes and Veronica to suggest a classic beauty.

For the next two years at Paramount, Lake appeared in a string of box-office hits, but it was her pairing with an equally diminutive co-star that, along with the cascading hair, created and solidified the Lake legend. Cast opposite screen newcomer Alan Ladd in the brutish noir thriller This Gun for Hire (1942), the couple’s unexpected partnership proved very popular with film audiences – so popular, that they would appear together in seven more films, allowing 5’5″ Ladd to do away with the humiliating  box he had to stand on when filming with other, taller actresses.

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By the onset of WWII, Lake’s appeal with audiences transcended the box office. Women adored her signature hairstyle – dubbed the peek-a-boo – but more importantly, G.I.’s made her their top pin-up along Betty Grable and Rita Hayworth.

Her impact on society was so dramatic that during the war she was forced by the US government to temporarily change her peek-a-boo hair-do after women in factories were becoming injured when their long locks were catching in assembly-line machinery.

Ironically, the same period also marked the onset of her decline. Notoriously unpopular on set and berated for playing a Nazi sympathiser in The Hour Before Dawn (1944) her career began to slow. Her marriage ended in divorce, and an accident while filming Dawn – she tripped over a cable – led to the premature birth of her son. She began drinking and increasingly suffered from mental health issues. This was only made worse when she married allegedly violent director Andre De Toth in 1944.

20th Century Fox picked up her contract in 1948, but by the time she made Stronghold  in 1952, yet another flop, both her career and marriage were over.

The final turn of bad luck came in 1959, when she broke her ankle and found herself unable to show up for work. Alcoholism set in with a vengeance, she went through yet another short-lived marriage, and Lake disappeared from the public eye.

In the early Sixties, a reporter discovered her working as a waitress at a hotel bar in Manhattan. The publicity generated by the story gave her acting career a jolt, and by 1966 she had made a return to feature films, albeit without any success.

Lake relocated to England in the early Seventies where she married again, this time a commercial fisherman. By 1973 she was once again divorced and back in the US, where she was hospitalized with declining health brought on by hepatitis and renal failure – both complications of her alcohol addiction. Mentally confused and estranged from her children, Lake died alone on July 7, 1973. Rumor had it that it took days for someone to identify her body.

 

 

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