Before writing this post, I debated on who to cover. Lana Turner exuded glamour, but I wouldn’t really classify her as holding the same icon status as others (most people tend to view her as infamous) while Ginger Rogers really symbolizes the 30s for me. June Haver never caught on and Lizabeth Scott is (unjustly) ignored. Carole Landis and Frances Farmer have become shells of themselves, steeped in real-life tragedy rather than having their filmographies appreciated. I wanted to showcase two women who have stood the test of time, and symbolized competing aspects of the 1940s as a kind of cultural study. I finally landed on Veronica Lake and Betty Grable. Both women experienced peak stardom during the decade, were promoted via physical features and died tragically only days apart.
Betty Grable was born Elizabeth Ruth Grable on December 18, 1916 in St. Louis, Missouri. Her mother, Lillian, stayed at home while her father, Conn, worked as a stock broker. Lillian quickly became the quintessential stage mother, enrolling Betty in dance classes by 3 and creating a star-maker program that consisted of not only dance, but an array of instruments from saxophone to ukulele. By 1929, Lillian and Betty were in Hollywood (Betty’s education outside of performing stopped at this time as well), and Betty found herself with a studio contract from Fox that falsified her 12 years to 15. Fox soon learned of the rouse and dropped the promising newcomer, but Samuel Goldwyn swiftly picked up (he likely just didn’t care that her birth certificate had two years added). Betty became one of the original Goldwyn Girls, working in films like Whoopee! and Palmy Days. Goldwyn decided to drop her after a year, and she worked for RKO between 1932-1936. Betty was popular on the RKO lot, but was dropped when execs couldn’t figure out what to do with the vivacious blonde. Paramount signed her within days, likely partially due to her December 1935 engagement to former child star Jackie Coogan, and put her in a string of college films. But Paramount wasn’t the right fit either, and Betty found herself dropped in 1939. Thinking that her film career had come to an end, she set her sights on Broadway, winning a supporting role in Du Barry was a Lady. Betty made the cover of Life for the role, and studios again took notice. 20th Century Fox’s Darryl Zanuck came a-knocking, offering Betty a film contract. Betty jumped on the offer, telling herself if it didn’t work out, she would turn her back on Hollywood forever. Betty made Down Argentine Way, replacing Fox’s resident blonde, Alice Faye, and became a star nearly overnight.
Constance “Connie” Frances Marie Ockelman, born November 14, 1922 in Brooklyn, New York, new tragedy from a young age when her father, Harry Ockelman, died in an industrial explosion in 1932. Her mother, also named Constance, remarried a newspaper artist in 1933. Connie was educated at elite schools, but experienced behavioral issues that culminated in her expulsion from Villa Maria, a Montreal Catholic boarding school that still runs today. The family briefly lived in Miami, and Connie was known as a local beauty (she is pictured above competing in the 1938 Miss Miami pageant). The family moved to Beverly Hills in 1938, and Connie signed a contract with MGM. The studio placed her at the Bliss Hayden Theatre (which would also briefly work with Marilyn Monroe a decade later), where Connie discovered her love for stage work. MGM loaned her out and gave her bit roles in some of their films, but didn’t foresee stardom for the slight blonde (she was reputed to be 4′ 11″, although Lake would always claim she was actually 5’2″) and either dropped her or sold her contract to Paramount in 1940, who quickly renamed her Veronica Lake. In 1941,her first feature film, I Wanted Wings, was released. Veronica was deemed by the press as the “find of ’41.”
Betty became a singing and dancing sensation. Women wanted to be her and men wanted to be with her. She wasn’t a great beauty like Lana Turner, nor did she radiate sexuality like Veronica Lake. Instead, Betty played up her wholesome looks in a string of musical features that showcased her singing and dancing abilities. Betty was always honest with herself, acknowledging that she didn’t have a great singing voice and her dancing was average at best. She jokingly referred to herself as a pin-up for truck drivers. This self-deprecating humor served her well in life, with the public seeing a glamour girl who was also relatable. After her divorce from Coogan, Betty had a two-year relationship with George Raft. After realize Raft would never divorce his wife for her, Betty began to embark on a relationship with Harry James–with Raft and James eventually getting in a fist fight over Betty. It was during this cross-over in relationships that Betty was photographed in the most famous photograph of her career (pictured above (and no, she wasn’t pregnant)), wearing an ankle bracelet given to her by Raft. Betty eventually chose James, and the couple were wed in Vegas in July of 1943. Betty was one month pregnant, welcoming a daughter, Victoria, in March of 1944. Motherhood could be the kiss of death for stars in Hollywood, but it had the opposite effect on Betty’s career. She reached new heights after becoming a mother, and her most successful film of her career, Mother Wore Tights was released just a few months after Betty’s second daughter, Jessica, was born. Betty had first made the Top Box Office Draws of 1942 and would stay on the list every single year until 1951 and was the highest-salaried woman of the 1940s, making an estimated $300,000 year.
Veronica’s skyrocketing career seemed unstoppable in the early 1940s. She appeared in hits like Sullivan’s Travels and I Married a Witch to great critical acclaim. She also found a space for herself in early noirs, frequently being teamed up with Alan Ladd. Women around the country changed their hair to match Veronica’s peek-a-boo style. Amazingly, she was only in her early 20s during the peak of her career; and she found the whole process rather foreign. Always forecasting that her career would be short, Veronica told reporters she would return to medical school when it ended (even though she’d never actually gone). Veronica soon found herself labeled troublesome on set, although the public was willing to overlook these transgressions as long as she was on the screen. Due to the popularity of her hairstyle, the U.S. War Department asked Veronica to change it due to female riveters repeatedly getting it stuck in machinery. She agreed. With a photographer in tow, Lake’s locks were lopped off for the world to see in 1943. Some have theorized this led to her career’s decline, although it seems there were other issues at hand. Unlike Betty, Veronica’s pregnancies (she would have four children in the 1940s) may have come into play. Playing a sex symbol on the screen while tending a baby off didn’t work for a lot of actresses in the 1940s. There were also the increasing amount of stories about Veronica’s disposition, with many reporters and fellow actors calling her everything but a bitch.
Grable believed 1952 would keep being kind to her as it always had been. She looked forward to working on Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, fully expecting to receive the role of Lorelei Lee. While Betty had always kept close tabs on the new up-and-comers Fox attempted to use as replacements, there was no stopping Marilyn Monroe. While Betty’s athletic frame had served the 40s well, Marilyn’s voluptuous curves and come-hither pout perfectly symbolized the 1950s fertility goddess (which Monroe herself acknowledged as ironic due to her inability to have children, a fact that devastated her). Grable came to symbolize years Americans didn’t want to relive. When Marilyn received the role of Lorelei Lee, Betty knew her days were numbered. After officially passing the crown to Marilyn in How to Marry a Millionaire, Betty walked into Zanuck’s office and demanded she be released from her contract. He agreed. Betty was 37. She went over to Columbia to make Three for the Show, a musical comedy with Gower and Marge Champion and up-and-coming Jack Lemmon. In 1955, Fox realized they had put all their eggs in Monroe’s basket, but that she wasn’t willing to make film after film as Betty had. They lured Betty back as a freelancer, co-starring her with one of the succession of blonde’s they’d hoped would replace Marilyn, Sheree North. The film, How to be Very, Very Popular, was successful, but not to the extent Fox was hoping. Realizing her time in film was up, Betty left Hollywood, never making another film in her life. Betty soon found that television and the stage were much more courteous to their stars, and she embarked on a host of projects that still allowed her to perform on her own terms. Betty would work up until a few months before she died on July 2, 1973.
After appearing on a war bond tour in 1944, Veronica received a hefty amount of criticism for her behavior. She eked out a few more hits with The Blue Dahlia and Ramrod, but her career was coming to a halt. By 1948, Paramount saw no more use for Veronica and dropped her. She struggled in supporting roles and independent productions, but in 1950, had some sort of breakdown. Having received her pilot license a few years before, Veronica made a solo flight from Los Angeles to New York, leaving her husband and three children behind. Veronica appeared in summer stock productions and even went to England to appear on stage, but it was far from enough to pay the bills. By the 1960s, she was working as a cocktail waitress. While reports claimed she was destitute, Veronica was in fact making a livable wage. When fans and actors alike sent her money or checks, she returned them. Veronica soon found interest in her somewhat revived, and she made appearances in stage productions, became a television hostess and made a handful of films. Her face ravaged by years of alcoholism, Veronica sadly couldn’t obtain a stronghold in the acting world. After releasing her memoirs in 1969, financed a Z-horror film, Flesh Feast, that failed. She went on tour in summer stock in the UK before returning to the U.S. in 1973. Complaining of stomach pains, Lake checked herself into a local hospital where she was diagnosed with cirrhosis. She passed away at the hospital on July 7, 1973.
Betty and Veronica both led interesting lives that made them icons. Both women worked hard for what they achieved, and both have left lasting legacies that are still relevant today. Veronica Lake was a key inspiration for Jessica Rabbit while Betty Grable’s swimsuit pose has been copied more times than I can count. It’s a shame both women aren’t as remembered as much as they should be for their film work, but they’ve both left a lasting mark on the film industry and American society.