Veronica Lake, née Constance Ockelman, was diagnosed as a classic schizophrenic as a teenager; unfortunately, her opportunistic mother’s idea of treatment was to prod her relentlessly into acting. Lake bombed out of her first RKO Radio Pictures contract after a year of bit-part assignments, moving next to M-G-M, where she landed a small part in the Eddie Cantor flick 40 Little Mothers (1940).
While posing for publicity shots for the picture, a length of her silvery-blonde hair fell provocatively over one eye, and “the girl with the peek-a-boo bang” was born. Only in Hollywood can an entire career turn on a dime because of an untamable lock of hair.
Lake signed a long-term contract with Paramount in 1941, and swiftly earned lead roles. She just as swiftly earned a reputation for being a pain in the butt: her Star Spangled Rhythm co-star, Eddie Bracken, commented of her exceedingly temperamental and unprofessional conduct, “She was known as ‘The Bitch’ and deserved the title.”
In 1942, studio executives teamed the petite blonde with equally diminutive up-and-comer Alan Ladd to create one of the first legendary screen teams. Their chemistry in This Gun for Hire (1942), The Glass Key (1942), and The Blue Dahlia (1946) worked so well because Lake projected a voracious man-eating quality that played well against Ladd’s palpable male insecurity.
As her popularity reached its zenith, Lake’s “peek-a-boo” hairstyle proved so popular among her American devotees that the government filed an official request with Paramount to have the actress change her look–they feared, probably justifiably, that a lock of hair obscuring one eye would cause female workers in wartime factories to have more industrial accidents. Lake complied, and once deprived of her signature languorous ‘do, she lost significant momentum at the box office.
The year 1948 marked a bad turning point in Lake’s career: not only was she dropped cold by Paramount, but she was sued for support payments by her mother. Lake filed for bankruptcy in the early fifties, at about the same time she began to exhibit behaviors likely attributable to her schizophrenia: she drank heavily; bailed out of unsuccessful relationships; abused her first child; and succumbed to promiscuous behavior with random men.
Lake made repeated attempts to revive her career, but by 1959, she could only land a gig as a Manhattan barmaid. In the sixties, two shabby film vehicles, a bitter tell-all autobiography titled Veronica, a staged comeback as a Baltimore TV host, and a stint of theater work in London failed to rekindle the slightest bit of critical or popular interest. Lake’s alcoholism degenerated her already precarious physical and mental state, and in 1973, she died of hepatitis while visiting friends in Vermont.