August 2013

Veronica Lake

The sultry star's Saranac Lake roots

IN THE EARLY 1940s Veronica Lake was one of Hollywood’s highest-paid actresses. She appeared in a string of hits and was named “box office star of the year” by Life magazine in 1943. Today she is recognized more for her iconic peekaboo hairdo than her acting, and her movies have receded from our memories. So has her surprising, sordid personal history, including several years in the Adi­rondacks, where she was known as Connie Keane.

Lake was born Constance Frances Ockleman on November 14, 1922. Her father, Harry Ockleman, died in a dockside explosion in 1932. Not long after the devastating accident, her mother, Constance “Veronica” Keane, remarried. The family moved to Saranac Lake, where Connie’s stepfather, Anthony Keane, came to take “the cure” for tuberculosis.

According to local records, the Keanes resided at 1 Watson Place, now 27 Seneca Street, in 1935, and 1 Riverside Drive, now Lake Kiwassa Road, in 1936. “We lived in a lonely little home with a small terrace and I had my own little rock garden,” Lake wrote in Veronica, an autobiography published in 1971. She was likely referring to the house on Riverside, where lifelong Saranac Lake resident Natalie Leduc, now 82, was a neighbor. “I knew Veronica Lake quite well, as she was my babysitter in the early ’30s,” Leduc says. “Her mother and my mother were in their 20s, neighbors, and very good friends. They used to attend the vaudeville shows at Will Rogers, taking Connie and me with them. As I remember, she was a slight girl, honey-colored hair, pretty, with a soft voice.”

By Lake’s own account, her stay in the Adirondacks was sometimes trying: She nursed her stepfather dutifully. A priest be­came a little too friendly. At one point she was shipped to Villa Mar­ia convent school in Montreal, and possibly ex­pelled for her misdeeds, a ru­mor Lake didn’t address in her autobiography.

She did recall her first Adirondack crush: “He was the older brother, eighteen, of a close girl friend of mine. I guess I was fourteen. The problem was he didn’t know I existed. He’d race past us in his very own Chris-Craft and wave at his sister and I’d die a little.… Unfortunately, the only time he ever gave me a second look was when my halter broke and fell off.… He said hello every time he saw me after that. He called me for a date. I turned him down.” That same year, she took her first, fateful drink, according to Brooke Monfort, a former girlfriend of Lake’s late son Michael.

Lake’s family moved to Miami in 1937  and then, after a beauty-pageant judge suggested Hollywood to Lake’s mother, to Los Angeles. Connie enrolled in the Bliss-Hayden School of Acting. She was quickly cast in extra roles and a few bit parts led to some recognition and an agent at William Morris.
That was where she was given her soon-to-be famous stage name. “Lake” reminded her of her home in the Adi­rondacks, though it was given for her deep blue eyes.

Veronica signed a contract with Paramount and her big break came in 1941, when she was cast in I Wanted Wings. In her autobiography she claimed to have won the role because of her hair. “You’ve got to have a gimmick,” she wrote. “And my gimmick, my featured feature was my hair, fine blonde hair hanging loose over one eye.” Her uncooperative mane was something she had always cursed for sweeping into her vision, but it wound up being her calling card.

She had critically acclaimed and com­­­mercially successful turns in Sullivan’s Travels, I Married a Witch, The Blue Dahlia and several other films, seven alongside co-star Alan Ladd. During World War II Lake was so popular that her hairstyle was deemed a threat to national security: imitators working in war man­ufac­turing were getting their locks caught in machines. In 1943 government officials asked Lake to change her look and warned female workers against the fad in a cautionary newsreel.

At the height of the starlet’s fame, fans in her former hometown tried, un­successfully, to have Lake Colby re­named Veronica Lake.

But by 1951 she had divorced twice and had three children, plus a fourth who died. She declared bankruptcy after credited roles in 23 movies. Hollywood lost in­terest. Lake relocated to New York City to work in theater and television, but by the 1960s, she was again divorced, destitute and virtually unknown.

Around then, she was ap­proached by Saranac Lake native James Quigley, whose recollection is recorded by Philip “Bunk” Griffin, unofficial keeper of Sar­anac Lake history, on his website, “Jim [Quig­ley] said ‘I went to the bar at #1 Fifth Avenue, a very chic and popular bar for New Yorkers. Veronica was tending bar and when I told her I was from SLK [Saranac Lake], she cried, kissed me and continued to work. What a mo­ment!’”

In 1962, when an unnamed reporter discovered her in the bar at the hotel where she lived and worked, interest in Lake was renewed. She was offered some roles and a chance to write the autobiography. Author Donald Bain be­came Lake’s friend and confidant while collaborating on her book. He called her Ronnie, and dedicated a chapter to their relationship in Murder He Wrote, his own 2006 memoir.

Lake lived in Florida and the Baha­mas after leaving New York City. She married for a fourth time, separated, and relied on the generosity of fans and friends. “She was attracted to whoever would take care of her at the time,” says Bain.

He refutes re­ports of Lake’s mental illness, saying, “Her mother was the one who talked about her being schizophrenic and I don’t believe that. I nev­er saw any sign of mental instability with her, other than being drunk.” Bain notes that Lake’s mother once sued her for nonsupport, and won. “Her mother hated her.”

He could not confirm Lake’s ru­mored return to Saranac Lake near the end of her life. Even to those closest to her, her fi­nal years re­main mysterious. “I got a call,” Bain says. “She had flown to Vermont to the hospital there, where they had a ward that specialized in alcoholics with liver problems. So as far as I know she went di­rectly from the Baha­mas to Ver­mont. That’s what I was told anyway.”

Leduc agrees. “I would be surprised if she did return. It seems to me that if she did, she would go looking for her roots,” she says. “I would have heard through the grapevine. I am confident about that.”

But Griffin believes Lake came to the Adirondacks in 1973. “At that time she still had a lot of childhood friends she hung out with,” he says. On his Bunk’s Place site he claims Lake was admitted to Will Rogers Hospital before being trans­­ferred to what is now Fletcher Al­len, in Burlington, Vermont.

Estranged from her mother and three children, Lake died alone on July 7, 1973, in Burlington from hepatitis and liver failure. She was 50 years old. “I called her mother and said Connie had died,” Bain says. “She said, ‘I could care less.’” Ru­mors later suggested that Lake was the mistress of a mobster and had actually died in Montreal, her body smuggled back across the border. Both Bain and Griffin discredit this story.

A precise accounting of Lake’s life and death may be lost due to the passage of time and the proliferation of misinformation on the Internet. The assertions of Lake’s mother and others, including Lake herself, may be tainted by motive or distorted by drunkenness or imperfect memories.

But Lake’s trademark style is everlasting. Kim Basinger’s character in L.A. Confidential and Jessica Rabbit in Who Framed Roger Rabbit? were Veronica Lake copies. Actress Kate Winslet and Lake Placid–raised singer Lana Del Ray emulate her, too. A play about Lake’s life, Drow­ning in Veronica Lake, debuted in New Zealand in 2012. A documentary is in the works. Interest in the Saranac Lake femme fatale is again on the rise.

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