What was Veronica Lake really like?

 

Veronica Lake became famous during World War Two, primarily because of her silly ‘Peekaboo’ hair style that was copied by thousands of young women employed in the war industry. I recently watched her in a quaint little 1942 film called Sullivan’s Travels and I was surprised to find her giving a really enjoyable performance alongside Joel McCrea. The picture was written and directed by her one-time lover Preston Sturges. Evidently, he was livid when he discovered she was six months pregnant when filming began. According to her autobiography, Veronica said he had to be physically restrained upon learning the news. She also had serious problems with her leading man Joel McCrea who flatly refused to ever work with her again. He was too much of a gentleman to say why.

Sullivan’s Travels (1942) – Lake 4’11”, McCrea 6’3″

Lake was a partying animal in Hollywood, yet she liked to brag that she was not one of those girls who ‘played the Hollywood game’. To hear her peers tell it, however, she played her own games at her Mandeville Canyon home where she happily brought home partners and supplied them with free booze and sex on a nightly basis. Paramount art supervisor John Engstead recalled hearing news of her affairs on a daily basis. ‘Veronica was a nice enough lady burdened with more bosoms than brains’, he said. She also used sex to get producers to meet her requirements during shooting of her movies. ‘They’re not giving me what I want’, a six-months pregnant Veronica told a friend. ‘But my producer gets in on the plane at 7 o’clock. So, by 8 o’clock I’ll have him in bed and by 9 o’clock I will have anything I want’. That was how she operated.

In July 1943 she deliberately brought about a miscarriage by climbing onto a stool and jumping off! She immediately began to hemorrhage and was rushed to hospital. Her producer/lover had refused to divorce his wife and marry her. She was herself married anyway, but that did not prevent her making a play for her attending doctor in retaliation. Dr McGee was also a married man. They commenced a sexual relationship right there in the hospital, but he would not leave his wife either. When he started to feel guilty about the affair he quickly ended it.

John S. Detlie

Veronica’s baby, a little boy, arrived three months premature and died seven days after his birth. Her husband, John S. Detlie, knew only too well that the child was not his. Interestingly, not a single flower arrived from anyone at Paramount while Veronica was hospitalized. When an executive attempted to organize a ‘flower fund’ he was regularly met with the same response: ‘That goddam bitch, I wouldn’t send her anything.’ So he gave up the ghost. Later, flowers arrived from all over America once the tabloids disclosed that Veronica was devastated by the loss of her ‘desperately wanted’ child.

Soon after the boy’s death Veronica filed for divorce. At the hearing she managed to convince the court that her husband was totally responsible for the breakdown of the marriage and that she was a fit mother to care for their daughter Elaine. In fact, Lake was a horrendous mother known to beat the little girl severely if she soiled her diaper. On top of that Veronica was an alcoholic, yet she easily won custody of her two children by Detlie and he drifted out of her life.

Twenty-one years old and free as a bird, Veronica was soon dating heavily. ‘But the very fact I had half a dozen different dates’, she told an interviewer, ‘shows that I wasn’t serious about any of them.’ Maybe so, but she slept with them just the same. Gary Cooper, Clark Gable, Bob Hope, Howard Hughes, Victor Mature and Milton Berle all warmed her bed at one time or another. Most were one night stands. Before her looks faded completely she added John F Kennedy, Porfirio Rubirosa, Jorge Guinle, William Dozier and Jean Negulesco to her lengthy list. She was, nevertheless, unpredictable. Errol Flynn tried his damndest to bed her, but she steadfastly rejected him on numerous occasions.

 

Sturges angered Paramount when he told Life Magazine, ‘One of the charms about Veronica is she has a pear-shaped ass, rather than apple-shaped.’ Lake accepted two thousand dollars for her part in the same article because she was strapped financially at the time. Soon afterwards Manhattan socialite Tommy Manville sent her the following proposition: ‘Will pay you 100 thousand dollars, repeat 100 thousand dollars, to marry me STOP Promise divorce with three repeat three days STOP Request immediate answer STOP Thank you. Tommy Manville’. It was an extraordinary proposal from a filthy rich clown who would marry eleven women in thirteen marriages and squander over a million dollars in divorce settlements. Lake seriously contemplated his weird proposal, but ultimately said ‘no’, as unpredictable as ever.

Tommy Manville

By the beginning of 1944 Veronica’s popularity had begun to wane. The ‘Peekaboo’ hairstyle gimmick had also run its course, but it was her scandalous lifestyle that really took its toll on the public. She had always been difficult to handle, even at the height of her fame, but now there were other less volatile, prettier young stars coming through the ranks and challenging her spot in Hollywood’s pecking oder. But then, two things happened to change her luck. First, she married director Andre DeToth. Second, she became Alan Ladd’s choice once again as his leading lady in The Blue Dahlia. They had already made This Gun for Hire together back in 1942 and it had been a box-office winner. His successes of late had earned him a say in who would appear opposite him, and that meant one thing only to big Al. His leading lady had to be shorter in height than him. He was barely 5’6”. Veronica was a tiny 4’11”, the shortest actress (along with Judy Garland) in Hollywood. It was a pairing made in movie heaven. In all, the couple would make seven film noirs together before the public tired of both the genre and them.

Ladd & Lake in The Blue Dahlia

The Blue Dahlia proved to be Veronica’s last good role. Its writer, Raymond Chandler, referred to her as ‘Moronica Lake’. He was not a fan. By 1948 Paramount had cut her loose. From 1952 until 1966 she did spots on television and a little stage work, but as the booze took over her life parts became few and far between. By 1962 she was tending bar in an old hotel and living there. Several times she was picked up by the police for being ‘drunk and disorderly’. Her final appearance on the silver screen was in a low budget dud called Flesh Feast (1970). Less than three years later she died, the official cause of death being ‘hepatitis and acute renal failure’. Her kidneys had collapsed and she had cirrhosis of the liver. She was only 50.

Veronica in 1969

Her career had spanned 30 years and consisted of just 30 movies and some TV guest appearances. Surprisingly, she learned to fly an airplane in 1946 and in 1948 flew a light plane from Los Angeles to New York. Among her many lovers was Marlon Brando when he was just starting to hit the big time. Years later, upon learning she was bankrupt and struggling to make ends meet, he sent her a check for a thousand dollars. She was far too proud to cash it. Instead, she kept it framed in her living room to show to friends.

With lecherous Fredric March in I Married a Witch (1942)

For all her faults, and they were many, Veronica held no illusions about the industry she inhabited for three decades. ‘Hollywood gives a girl the aura of one giant, self-contained orgy farm, its inhabitants dedicated to crawling into every pair of pants they can find’, she said. She liked Alan Ladd and admired Paulette Goddard for her honesty. Like most of her peers (if not all of them), she had no time for the lecherous Fredric March with whom she made I Married a Witch in 1942. ‘He treated me like dirt under his talented feet’, she recalled with bitterness. ‘Of all actors to end up under the covers with. That happened in one scene and Mr. March is lucky he didn’t get my knee in his groin.’

Her famous ‘Peekaboo’ hair style

Doing her bit for the war effort in a documentary

Veronica Lake will always hold a tiny place in the history of World War Two long after her movie career has faded into oblivion. Her ‘Peekaboo’ hairstyle was the cause of a mini crisis in the war industry when a few copycat young women caught their long tresses in machinery at factories around the nation. Veronica agreed to make a small instructional film (minus her famous coif), asking America’s women to wear more practical hair styles.

Her family did not seem to be overly interested in what happened to her ashes after her death in 1973. For three years the urn sat unclaimed on a shelf in the funeral home until it disappeared. Thirty years later it resurfaced in an antique shop in New York in 2004. Presumably, the contents were eventually spread along the Virgin Islands coastline in accordance with her wishes several decades earlier.

18 Comments on What was Veronica Lake really like?

  1. Well I have a bit of information that you might like. I remember as a young boy going with my father into Manhattan and he visited Veronica at the bar in the hotel. Many years later I asked my uncle about my father knowing her. I would never had asked my father. According to my uncle he and my father knew her from when they were young. My father was a professional wrestler and wrestled under several different names. He had many 8 by 10 glosses done in LA in 1940. I was wondering if there were any rumours of Veronica having an affair with a wrestler. I remember she was short, bosomy, smelled of smoke and was tipsy or just strange. It’s funny I would remember she was wearing a shinny gold blouse with one of those pointed bras underneath. Maybe I wasn’t so young after all. So, what do you think?? Thanks.

    • Much of my assessment of Veronica is based on Lenburg’s biography on her, a source that certainly has its detractors. Other than that and her own mother’s comments (also open to question), there are few sources to examine. She does appear to have been a really ‘wild child’ who was extremely promiscuous over a long period, so it is quite possible she had an affair with a wrestler at one time or another, but I have been unable to verify any such encounter. My apologies, Bill.

  2. Wilfred Clifford // August 16, 2018 at 7:28 am // Reply

    I am 83 years old; I can remember hearing a Bob Hope radio program sometime in the 1940’s, where there were some one liner talking fests in progress, when he piped up with something like: “The lake that I would want to lay on is Veronica.” That comment was immediately followed by music, and he never returned to that particular broadcast that evening.

    • I believe they got away with a lot on radio back then, Wilfred. I don’t think that medium was policed as tightly as the movies were. Even in the fifties and sixties here in Western Australia we had at least one radio personality who got away with all kinds of innuendo. For example, I think I was about 10 when we heard him give a news item that ran: ‘Today, a young man was dragged from the surf at Cottesloe by the balls! Thank you very much Mr. & Mrs Ball.’ The radio guy was named Lionel Lewis and he did that kind of thing regularly without being censored. Thankyou for your interesting story, Wilfred.

  3. The expression is just party animal, not “partying animal.”

  4. Phillip Rhodes // March 29, 2018 at 10:19 am // Reply

    Veronica Lake is a fascinating character. From all accounts she seems to have come from very ordinary circumstances and at a very young age was a working actress. Her on screen charm is evident and she could deliver her dialogue with a tongue-in-cheek lightness. From her later recorded interviews, Veronica presented as a complex but thoughtful woman who could eloquently express herself through original answers in the face of commonplace questions. In comparison to many of the mumbling, bumbling ‘stars’ of today, I am always impressed how the young starlets of old Hollywood presented themselves, given that their education seems to have been haphazard and secondary to work commitments.

  5. Judging from that article I guess it is safe to assume that Veronica Lake was not a virgin. That’s OK otherwise non of us would be here.

  6. You make another mistake. Ladd and Lake did appear in seven films together but three of these were gag appearances as themselves and only three of the remaining four could be considered “noir.” You also neglect to mention that ‘Flesh Feast’ was actually filmed in 1967, though released in 1970 and you don’t mention that she produced the film.

  7. Actually. Joel McCrea did work with her again in ‘Ramrod’ (1947)

    • You are right, of course. McCrea vowed he would never work with her again after ‘Sullivan’s Travels’, but by 1947 she was married to the director of ‘Ramrod’, Andre de Toth. Perhaps, he talked both of them into it.

  8. Kristen Lopez // May 25, 2016 at 2:28 pm // Reply

    Hi Alan. I’ve been researching and talking to Veronica associates for over two years and I’m confused on some of the information in your article as I’ve never heard this recounted by any of my sources, particularly the miscarriage which, from what I’ve heard, was a very traumatizing thing that affected Veronica and her family dearly. I’d actually love to chat with you if possible.

    • Hi Kristen. Thank you for your comment. The miscarriage story I recounted from a biography by Jeff Lenburg (2001) titled ‘Peekaboo: The Story of Veronica Lake’. As historians we can only determine for ourselves how reliable a source might be. I felt that his account (complete with dialogue) sounded genuine enough, especially when he stated that the studio story that she ‘tripped over a lighting cable on the set’ was a deliberate cover to minimize talk that Veronica had openly said that she did not want the baby. It was just the kind of statement the studio ‘fixers’ were adept at issuing. Maybe, one day Mr. Lenburg’s account will be proven false, but until then I am inclined to believe him. I wish you well with your book on Miss Lake, Kristen. And thanks again for your input.

      • Hi Alan,

        That book by Lenburg is trash. So many historical inaccuracies are printed in it (dates of films, dates of marriages,etc) I’m surprised it ever got on to print. His main source was Veronica’s elderly mother, who was, as documented, just bitter over the fact that Veronica did not bankroll her for the rest of her life. In fact, she had not contact with her after about 1947. Veronica was never diagnosed as schizophrenic and had she been working in films would have proven impossible.

        Also, more than half of his book is just lifted from her ghost-written autobiography. I would just not trust it as a credible source of information on Veronica, period.

        • Thank you, Brian. It is so very difficult to research someone like Veronica. There are so few books that focus on her. I appreciate your assessment of the Lenburg book and have no doubt you are correct in your critique of it. Thanks again for setting the record straight.

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