As Veronica Lake’s 1969 autobiography is re-released, Turner Classic Movies host Eddie Muller talks about the mysteries and misconceptions around this enigmatic Hollywood icon.
“I guess I had a career in reverse: I was a star first, and learned to live afterwards.”
That’s how Veronica Lake summed up her life in Hollywood in a 1971 interview with Dick Cavett, during which she largely shrugs off her stardom. These days most fans likely conjure only glamorous images of the iconic actress from her sultry appearances in films like 1942’s This Gun for Hire or 1946’s The Blue Dahlia (both co-starring Alan Ladd). And never to be forgotten, of course, is Lake’s most celebrated feature, that alluring mane of blonde hair that fell seductively over one eye, a style that was quickly dubbed “the peekaboo” and was widely copied by women in the 1940s.
Lake's appearance on Cavett’s show coincided with the U.S. publication of her autobiography, which Dean Street Press re-released this week. Veronica: The Autobiography of Veronica Lake explores the actress’s life in a decidedly warts-and-all fashion: She was born Constance Ockleman in Brooklyn, New York, and moved around the country with her mother and stepfather before they landed in Hollywood when she was just 16. She was already a beauty, and her mother already had designs on “Connie” achieving a film career. Working with ghostwriter Donald Bain, by page 8 Lake is outlining the “stranger-than-fiction saga” of her legendary hair, and soon after she’s diving into how Connie Ockleman became Veronica Lake, the instant stardom she achieved upon the release of 1941’s I Wanted Wings, and her experiences on now-legendary films like Sullivan’s Travels that same year and 1942’s I Married a Witch.
Notably, Lake never minces her words: “I don’t believe there is an actor for whom I harbor such deep dislike as Fredric March,” she says while discussing I Married a Witch. Lake is equally frank about her multiple marriages and romances, as well as her later struggles with money and alcoholism. Yet she never adopts a maudlin tone in telling her story; instead it’s straightforward and no-nonsense throughout. “I made a lot of mistakes in my life,” Lake says simply at one point, after describing her quick realization that marriage to director André DeToth, her second husband, would not be easy. Lake died not long after the book’s initial publication, in 1973, at the age of 50.
Her autobiography’s re-release almost 50 years later naturally allows fans to view both Lake’s work and her life through a contemporary perspective. And perhaps no one is better suited to that task than Eddie Muller, the San Francisco-based author, founder and president of the Film Noir Foundation, and host of Turner Classic Movies’ popular Noir Alley film series. Lake’s autobiography has been updated with an introduction written by Muller, and in the midst of touring the U.S. with his 2020 Noir City film festival, he took some time to discuss Lake and her pragmatic approach to her life’s story.
Screen Chic: Before you read Lake’s autobiography, what were your thoughts about her and her place within the Hollywood pantheon?
Eddie Muller: I felt like I had known the image of Veronica Lake before I had a sense of who she really was — that iconic look of hers, I had seen it parodied before I saw the real thing. I was a little surprised that she wasn’t exactly what I expected; she had been depicted as this femme-fatale character, but she struck me as something else entirely. She was very self-reliant and self-possessed, more like one of the boys than a manipulative femme-fatale type. Especially in her roles opposite Alan Ladd, she was his ally, not his enemy. And of course, she photographed like a million bucks.
SC: Why was now the right time to re-release her autobiography?
EM: I was relieved that [Dean Street Press] was smart enough to go after it and do it properly. I think it’s very timely, because there were so many misconceptions about her, this idea that her life was a tragedy and she’s deserving of self-pity. I’ve seen clips of her, like the Dick Cavett interview, and that’s not a woman who’s tragic and looking for pity. Despite all the travails — she’s clearly an alcoholic and was a little dodgy about other substances in the book — she also had a great sense of humor and a wonderful attitude about herself and her career.
I didn’t commit to writing the intro until I had read the book, and I loved it. I also think of her as Connie, not Veronica, because Connie is the voice you hear throughout the book. But I thought she was marvelous, and very courageous; there’s a real person here. I’ve interviewed survivors of Hollywood who were not all there and didn’t have her attitude. There are some Norma Desmonds out there, but she wasn’t one of them.
SC: How do you position Veronica Lake in Hollywood history, either within the film-noir genre or overall?
EM: I view her as the great blonde of the 1940s. I hate to ascribe physical characteristics, but it’s interesting that most of the actresses from that decade who were thought of as sexy were dark-haired: Ava Gardner, Lauren Bacall, and Rita Hayworth, though of course she was a redhead. There weren’t a lot of blondes; just Lana Turner and Veronica Lake. I think of the 1940s as the era of Alan Ladd and Veronica Lake; the height of their fame didn’t extend into the 1950s, so they represent something very specific. Both of them also suffered through difficult years and drank heavily, and both of them died too young, when they were both 50. That is tragic, that they both died so young.
SC: Why was she a perfect actress for film noir?
EM: She had a way with a wisecrack — nobody talks about her humor or her insouciance, they just talk about her sex appeal. But she had this attitude of, “No one’s gonna put one over on me,” and in that respect she’s like one of the guys. That’s a very male quality in these movies. She had it even more than Bacall, who only had it when she was with Bogart. And it was there in [Lake’s] work with Preston Sturges also. I really do believe that’s why she became so popular during wartime, because it was an image that American women admired and wanted to emulate. That self-reliant, “Watch it, buster” kind of attitude, that’s very appealing to men and women alike.
SC: Your intro mentions that the book might feel a bit sanitized to some readers, and you defend that idea. What are your thoughts about any star’s approach to his or her autobiography?
EM: Having done one of these myself, with Tab Hunter, I find that if you put in everything, people are going to look for the worst passage in the book, and that’s what they’ll take away from it. When I did the book with Tab, we were very cautious about how much we wanted to get into; we knew we would discuss the fact that he was gay and would mention his real relationships, but we weren’t going to discuss all the men. I knew there were a lot more guys, but we didn’t want it to just turn into Twitter fodder.
Ultimately Connie told you what she felt you needed to know, and you get a sense of who she was. I can fill in some blanks perfectly well, and it doesn’t alter my opinion of her. And I always say: If I wrote my own story, would I make sure I put in everything I ever did? Everyone should ask themselves that question.
SC: What is it about her onscreen style that you think continues to resonate with fans?
EM: Well, it helped that she had Edith Head designing her costumes. Edith knew how to deal with Veronica’s body; she was tiny, just 5 feet, 2 inches, and short-waisted but also kind of busty, and Edith knew how to work with that.
Beyond that, her onscreen attitude also played a role in her style. It was this idea of, I can take it or leave it, and you didn’t see that with too many women on the screen then. They were all secretly plotting to get the guy or being archly dramatic, and she underplayed everything. She was hip before hip was a thing, in much the same way Robert Mitchum was.
I’m a huge Raymond Chandler fan, and I’ve always thought it was very hurtful of him when [after The Blue Dahlia] he famously referred to her as “Moronica Lake,” especially because she was perfect for his stories — not as the femme fatale, but as the self-possessed woman who’s the equal of the guy. That’s what’s really interesting about noir, that the women were allowed to be the equals of men: equally tempted, equally compromised, and equally guilty.
SC: There seems to be quite the no-nonsense flavor about the book, in both Lake's tone and her anecdotes. How do you think this reflects her personality overall?
EM: That to me is what was most appealing about the book. Here’s a person who went through the bullshit factory and realized that she had no use for it, and I totally appreciated that. There’s the passage in the book when she discusses going to work as a cocktail waitress [at the Martha Washington Hotel in New York], and she didn’t understand why people felt sorry for her. She was doing what a lot of people do for a living, and she talks about how she really liked that job.
There’s also the moment when she’s with the merchant marine, [Andy Elickson]. She really fell for him, and they had a torrid romance, and she would spend time with him by scraping the hull of a boat. Connie looks at it like an honest day’s labor, and of course there’s nothing shameful about it, even if you used to be a big star. She hit it big when she was young and then had to learn everything in reverse; she got out of the trap of celebrity to find out who she really was.
SC: What do you think readers will take away from her story, 50 years after it was first published?
EM: That she lived a far fuller life than people had realized. It’s certainly a shame that it ended early, but Connie never viewed her own story as tragic. I wish I had met her; she’s somebody I would have enjoyed knowing. That’s the main thing for me.