Two weeks ago I reviewed the Veronica Lake biography Peekaboo that sought to tell the “true” story of Lake’s life by way of her estranged mother Constance Marinos. You can read my review of it here but suffice to say I doubted everything author Jeff Lenburg said because he didn’t have a bibliography and made bold assertions about schizophrenia with no backup. With that I decided to read and compare it against Lake’s autobiography entitled Veronica: The Autobiography of Veronica Lake, which came out a few years before the Lenburg book. While its still sad that the only two books written about Lake are over 30 years old, I have to recommend fans read the autobiography. It’s not perfect, mainly due to Lake’s sometimes racist dialogue (it was 1969), and ability to sidestep issues like her drinking and estrangement with her children, but Lake is candid and discusses her failures and regrets. And despite being about her life she does include a bibliography proving that there’s hearty background research outside her own thoughts. I do wish someone would write a comprehensive, and current, biography on Veronica Lake but for now her life, in her own words, will have to suffice.
It’s always strange reading an autobiography from a celebrity as they tend to fall within two camps: The one who glorify themselves and refuse to acknowledge any of their wrongs or the ones who tell endless sob stories and discuss how they’ve overcome adversities and darkness imposed upon them by the destructive Hollywood film machine. I would say Veronica falls in between, neither glorifying nor condemning Hollywood or her life. The book opens with some brilliant quotes that sum up the majority of the book’s chapters. Our star says there are two distinct personalities in her life, that of young Constance Ockleman and Veronica Lake. While Lake is appreciative of her fame she says she was never what Hollywood set her up to be. She’s incredibly self-aware of her writing this book and what others would say about her, summarizing that in an autobiography the star can “present a devil-may-care attitude when reaching back into your own private past, a past with no one really to refute what you say about your inner feelings. It’s a strong temptation to lie, or at least embellish, which is probably why any autobiography is usually less true than biographies written by the impartial bystander” (11). I have to wonder if she knew of Lenburg’s book while writing this because he epitomizes the impartial bystander…who got things completely wrong.
Speaking of Lenburg, it’s shocking how much of his material was directly lifted from Veronica. Remember how I mentioned there’s no works cited in his book? This should be the only work as he follows the same structure, refuted certain points or told stories from the mother’s side, and in some sections lifted entire paragraphs and jokes from this book passing them off as “never before read!” Peekaboo becomes the Veronica book as filtered through Constance Marinos and that’s why it fails as a biography of the star. If you read both back-to-back this becomes painfully apparent. And in many cases Lenburg left out truly important things that would have helped readers understand Veronica. Case in point, an anecdote where Veronica tells about being molested by a family priest her mother left her alone with! Why was that story not included in Lenburg’s book, you’d think Marinos would have loved to call that a lie! Another story involves her unintentionally auditioning for a porn film…where was that in Lenburg’s tome?
On its own merits Veronica reads as an incredibly sad piece of work, even more so if you believe the rumors Lake wrote it for money. She says she dreams of seeing her movies more on television, that audiences have forgotten about her and that she’s felt taken advantage of by others (a possible dig to her mother?). Lake discusses the reputation she gained throughout her career as one cultivated due to her refusal to play the Hollywood game and creating a “shell” so that others wouldn’t take advantage of her. Her first stories open with the fact these aren’t generalizations, but based on her experiences such as her bad time working with the William Morris Agency. Starting her career at the tender age of 17 caused Veronica to want to appear strong and confident which she believes might have been seen as bitchiness. That’s not to say she doesn’t admit when she’s wrong. In the case of her leaving I Wanted Wings, she tells of how the director made her cry which now admittedly was the response of an immature child. Regardless, her attitude and demeanor was one of determination, not craziness like Lenburg claims. Her demands for respect never seem unfounded or over-the-top and she comes off as far smarter than 17-year-old stars of today.
Her stories are all candid, and many times funny. Lake has a snarky attitude that lightens her story and makes the reader feel as if the actress is sitting there telling the story first-hand. She applauds marriage but maintains it should be easier to get out of if it doesn’t work. The story about Veronica having VD that’s cited in the Lenburg book, is one Veronica told to others in a joking manner. She admits the doctor did ask her if she had VD but once it was proved to be her appendix she just kept the story going. Hell, she has a story about visiting a strip club with Gary Cooper and Rita Hayworth! What other classic celeb has a story like that? There’s also a sense of nostalgia in her stories like her theories on how entertainment isn’t as good as it was back in the radio days but what older person writing doesn’t have that mentality?
She does discuss her sex life in rather frank detail and this is the only section in which she names names although they aren’t too prominent. I was most surprised to see director Jean Negulesco cited as one her paramour. Towards the end she goes into hot and heavy detail about her life with a seaman named Andy. These sections read like a tawdry romance novel and really pushed the narrative away from her career at the time. It just appeared like she’d forsaken her career for sex. Lake alludes to a recent biography of Hedy Lamarr that went into torrid detail on her love life which I can only made Lake want to compete for headlines and money.
Despite this Lake remains classy and doesn’t go on any smear campaigns in her book. It’s apparent when she’s holding something back because a particular actor or director was still alive at the time although in a few instances it seems to be due to her need to cope and keep some things to herself. Lake never explains why her and Frederic March hated each other (I’m starting to believe Lenburg’s views that it was due to March’s inability to woo his co-star) because he was still alive. Despite hating him she’s never anything but respectful to him and does praise his work in the film as well as his ability to take the pranks she dished out. She also never expresses any hatred or vitriol to her mother (wonder how long that lasted). Lake’s feelings on her mother are mixed in her words and she maintains her desire to leave home was to carve out a life for herself, not out of spite or mental illness and she questions why people would assume that’s odd. Later on in the book she mentions how her relationship with her mother worked best when they just didn’t talk. She even admits she could lie and say she never promised to pay her mother anything but she did “pledge” to support her and did so until Lake herself fell on hard times (eventually settling her mother’s lawsuit out of court). Lake briefly mentions her relationship with her stepfather describing it as a love born out of knowing he was sick and that “My mother seemed to resent this close relationship I enjoyed with my stepfather” (24).
As for her children, Lake says she was proud of all her pregnancies and loved her children very much. If anything she accuses her mother and husbands of being demanding and upset over her pregnancies. In discussing her relationship with her kids it’s apparent there’s a lot of pain and hostility in her words. Lake says she’s aware of her failings as a mother, that her career came first and yet it’s obvious she’s been told this by her children before. She hopes they stop using her failings as a “crutch” for their failures in life which sadly didn’t appear to happen as her only son was the one who cared for her in her final days and her body laid unclaimed for a while. As the book comes to its final chapters Lake comes off as hardened and removed from her children even more. She again admits to mistakes and regrets but feels her children have taken things too harshly, that their life could have been worse. There is a touching segment towards the end about Veronica’s relationship with only son Michael (there was another son who sadly passed at birth). Michael again was the son who stayed with Veronica in her final days and while the reader is able to see the boy had issues Lake never explains these issues. Why did Michael not live with his father (his sisters did)? This is why a current biography needs to be written, to tell how the children felt and why they were so removed from their mother’s life. Until that story can be told, no true account of Veronica Lake’s life can be seen.
There are flaws with the book outside of the ones I’ve already mentioned. Lake is prone to diverge from the story to mention her views on life today. In certain instances they’re cute like telling stories about running into old crushes. In others she goes on to condemn Shirley Temple Black and Ronald Reagan for entering politics. Her views are also a bit out-of-date for the 2012 audience as she discusses how Vietnam should be escalated and being politically incorrect and racist towards Chinese people (using slang terms and other quotes). The book also includes her childhood slapped right into the middle of the book which makes the reader wonder if these childhood events happened during her career or not.
“I had acquired a reputation for saying what I thought. I hadn’t played the Hollywood game very much, and a certain resentment built about that…I’d adopted a cockiness to cover my obvious inadequacies. And I found that as my confidence increased, I saw little or no reason to change myself and my approach to functioning in Hollywood” (120). I thought this quote summed up the life of Veronica Lake. She was never driven to be a star (despite what her mother says), even refusing to put her hands in Grauman’s Chinese because she didn’t feel like it! Her infamous peekaboo style she felt was both a blessing and a curse which is why she had short hair after her fame passed. As the book reaches its conclusion it’s apparent that Lake hasn’t truly finished battling her demons. She never admits to alcoholism, carefully skirting the line and says she used drink to escape her troubles but was never consumed by it. Based on how her final days turned out I don’t think she won that battle.
Veronica: The Autobiography of Veronica Lake is a tender, wry, and frank look at the life of one of Hollywood’s most troubled, gorgeous, misunderstood, and forgotten (sadly) stars. She met so many bizarre people (include Howard Hughes and Katherine Hepburn in two totally different situations) and led quite a life that’s never been fully explored. The picture section shows this lack of exploration as it only includes two photos of Veronica from her childhood, one photo of daughter Elaine and her later in life, and the rest are Hollywood publicity photos. Veronica is a far cry from Peekaboo and is better written and researched but in the end neither book will satisfy the true fans of Lake. It pains me to no end that Lake has been dumped like this by Hollywood and I continue to beseech authors to research her and do her justice with a true biography, warts and all just make sure it’s researched!
A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.