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Veronica Lake: Movie Star, Hollywood Rebel, ‘Sex Zombie’

3 minute read

Veronica Lake, a femme fatale icon of 1940s Hollywood noir, was born Constance Frances Marie Ockelman on Nov. 14, 1922, in Brooklyn, New York. Small in stature — she was less than five feet tall — the platinum blonde with the distinctive peek-a-boo haircut was a huge screen presence and box-office staple during the war years. Often paired with Alan Ladd (at just 5′ 6″, Ladd was another famously short movie star), Lake brought to the screen an air of mystery, contained sensuality and quiet wit that lit up the screen. But, as she herself said, she just wasn’t cut out to be a movie star — at least not as Hollywood in the Forties envisioned that role — and her later life was marked by broken marriages, addiction and illness.

Lake herself, meanwhile, was always self-deprecating when it come not only to her stardom, but her acting chops. “You could put all the talent I had into your left eye and still not suffer from impaired vision,” she reportedly said of her film career, while also once claiming that she was not a sex symbol, but a “sex zombie.”

“That really names me properly,” she once said. “I never took that [sex goddess] stuff seriously.” Moviegoers, on the other hand, were drawn to Lake’s films in droves, attracted, in large part, by the enigmatic mix of playful eroticism and aloofness that defined many of her best performances and biggest hits — dramas like The Blue Dahlia and The Glass Key and Preston Sturges’ classic comedy, Sullivan’s Travels.

Lake largely disappeared from the big screen after the 1940s, working mainly in TV and on the stage in the 1950s and ’60s. Mental illness and alcohol took their toll. She was married four times and had four children, but when she died in Burlington, Vt., from hepatitis and kidney injury at just 50 years old in July 1973, only one of her kids and none of her exes bothered to attend her memorial service in New York. (She was, later in life, notoriously prickly and by all accounts was neither a loyal spouse nor an especially good mother.)

For a while there in the 1940s, however, Veronica Lake — “sex zombie” or not — was the sort of star that Hollywood doesn’t seem to produce anymore. Smoldering. Inscrutable. Suspicious of her own fame, yet somehow innately, deeply alluring. Her influence, four decades after her death, is still felt. (Kim Basinger’s Oscar-winning turn in L.A. Confidential, of course, was as a prostitute coiffed and dressed to resemble Lake, while none other than Jessica Rabbit was something of a red-haired, more voluptuous Veronica.)

Lake’s life was not destined for a storybook ending, but she left behind at least a few films — and created a unique persona — that endure.

In the long history of the movies, how many stars can honestly say the same?

[See all of LIFE’s galleries]

[Read EW’s review of the 1942 Lake comedy, I Married a Witch]

Veronica Lake, 1942
Actress Veronica Lake, Hollywood, 1942.Eliot Elisofon—The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

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