Veronica Lake’s Long Escape: A Deeply Sad Page from Hollywood History

The Barmaid 

In Lake’s telling, it was her financially disastrous second marriage to the controlling, abusive, often absent Hungarian director Andre De Toth that sent her into a spiral. “Off he’d go, leaving me in California with the children, animals, thoughts of a career obviously down the drain and, more and more, a bottle,” she writes. 

Matters weren’t helped when her estranged mother sued her for non-support in 1947, viciously attacking her daughter to reporters, claiming she had been left destitute after sinking all her money into Lake’s career. Lake was eventually reduced to pawning her jewelry. In 1951, her marriage over and movie career dead, she left for New York City.   “As corny and overly dramatic as it may sound,” she writes, “I actually did utter an official farewell to Hollywood as I stood ready to board the plane. ‘The hell with you, Hollywood,’ I said to myself. ‘And fuck you too.’”

Thus begins the saddest reading this reviewer has ever done for Old Hollywood Book Club (yes, more devastating than the tales of both Rita Hayworth AND Barbara Payton, if possible). Although she scored some success on television and the stage, Lake bluntly and bravely recounts her descent into chronic alcoholism (and according to Lenburg, untreated mental illness) and her neglect and occasional indifference to her three children. 

There were evictions, another drunken marriage, and violence. By the early 1960s, Lake was working at a factory pasting flowers on lingerie. In 1962, the New York Post discovered that the former movie star was living in NYC’s Martha Washington Hotel and serving as a barmaid under the name Connie De Toth. Although the public pitied her, Lake claims it was a place of refuge. “I liked the people there, the merchant marine seamen, the occasional hookers, the broken-heart guys and the problem drinkers,” she writes. “There was a TV over the bar and sometimes a movie of mine would light up the screen. You could hear a pin drop. Everyone watched so attentively, much to the dismay of the bartender; no one drank when my movies played.”

Return of the Sex Zombie 

While working at the Martha Washington, Lake met a rugged blond sailor named Andy, her “teddy bear” who became her beloved life partner and drinking pal. In pitiful and occasionally purple prose, she recounts their booze-soaked love affair—living together in flop houses, sneaking on ships—like some kind of Bowery version of Romeo and Juliet that she clearly wishes had never come to an end. 

But it did. Andy was slowly drinking himself to death despite his doctor’s warnings: “Why, Andy?” I asked him so often in the tiny room we shared. We would lie together on the bed, both drunk, and I would ask him why. He never answered the question and it really didn’t make any difference. I wouldn’t have known what to do with the answer.

In 1965, shortly before Andy’s death, Lake was arrested for drunk and disorderly conduct after having a breakdown on the steps of a Catholic Church in San Diego. After nursing Andy through his final, harrowing illness, Lake would move to Miami and then England, appearing in plays and low-budget films. In 1969, Veronica was released, and—game but often drunk—she hit the publicity circuit, calling herself a “former sex zombie” and wryly quipping, “I’ve earned this face.” 

Lake died in Burlington, Vermont, on July 7th, 1973, of acute hepatitis. In death, one hopes she finally found the peace she once imagined while sleeping on the beach.

“There were times I just stayed on the beach all night, heady with a belly full of lobster and gin,” she writes. “I’d just sleep right there and smile at the thought of the water sneaking in and carrying me away to a place where peace was always present and never interrupted by life.”

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