By Gloria Mann
I still vividly remember that hot Miami day when my mother brought a stranger home to meet us. Her friend was wearing an elegant blue and white summer dress, elbow-length white gloves, a white sun hat and huge sunglasses. She greeted me and said, “Hello darling, it’s so wonderful to meet you! Please call me Aunt Connie.”
I soon grew to know and love this unique person. Aunt Connie was a funny, insightful and loving woman; complex, world-weary, cynical and tender. Above all, she was a courageous person who was never afraid to speak her mind. Aunt Connie was also known to the world by another name, as famed 1940s and 50s glamour icon and film noir actress, Veronica Lake.
Born Constance Ockelman in Brooklyn, NY, she studied acting at what is now the Beverly Hills Playhouse. Starting as a film extra, she quickly worked her way up to bigger parts and finally became a Hollywood star, chiefly as femme fatale in atmospheric film noirs. She became especially known for her “peek-a-boo hairstyle” with long golden bangs hanging down over her right eye, creating a sense of mystery.
She starred in a number of major films and appeared with Alan Ladd and other male leads. She became typecast as a sex symbol, which was unfortunate as she had real talent for both comedic and dramatic roles. She was given her professional name, Veronica Lake, by a prominent film producer as part of her Paramount contract.
Aunt Connie attended high school in Miami, Florida and had continued to visit the Miami Beach area as an adult. My mother, Yanka Mann, was herself a night club singer, film, TV and stage actor. She and Aunt Connie met one another when they were cast together in a play, “Goodbye Charlie” by George Axelrod, and they became close friends. In her forties, after tragically losing the “Love of Her Life,” Aunt Connie moved back to Miami to live with us. She stayed with us on and off for years and was an integral part of our family.
The two women were both glamorous, highly social, and loved a night out on the town! They belonged to that elite circle of performing artists that congregated at Miami’s luxurious Fountainbleu Hotel during the late 1960s, a circle that included Judy Garland, Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Jerry Lewis, Cyd Charisse, Tony Martin, Robert Goulet, Johnny Desmond, Jackie Gleason, Joan Crawford, Sammy Davis Jr., Peter Lawford and Liberace. It was always exciting to see the two of them getting ready to go out and I would intently watch them as they dressed. I would sample their makeup, dab on their Chanel No. 5 perfume and try on their jewelry and clothes. Occasionally they would take me along with them and I might be out until 3 AM at various smoke- and music-filled nightclubs. While this may seem inappropriate by modern standards, I was being raised by two strong, feminine and creative women and loved every minute of it!
Everyone seems to have their favorite Veronica Lake film. Mine is the great women’s war story, “So Proudly We Hail,” co-starring Claudette Colbert and Paulette Goddard. Based on a true story by a wartime nurse, this Academy Award-nominated film tells the story of a group of Army nurses trapped behind enemy lines in the Philippines during World War II. The nurses attempt to maintain their humanity as much as possible while tending to gravely wounded men and under constant threat. Aunt Connie’s character saves her friends from capture and death by surrendering to the enemy while concealing a live grenade under her blouse, which she then heroically detonates. It was my first Veronica Lake film, and I watched it with her when it came on the late show one Friday night.
Saturday evenings were for the Fountainbleu. But Friday evenings were always reserved for our watching all night movies together at home. My mother often performed on Friday evenings, so Aunt Connie would prepare popcorn for me (and a scotch for herself), and we’d settle down to watch classic films with insider commentary provided by her. I remember that we watched Aunt Connie’s own performances in “Sullivan’s Travels;” “I Married A Witch;” “The Blue Dahlia;” “This Gun for Hire” and “So Proudly We Hail,” but also other great films like “Double Indemnity,” “Sunset Boulevard,” “Sweet Smell of Success,” “I Want to Live!” and “Kiss Me Deadly.” She had many stories to tell. While it was fun, it was also a wonderful introduction to the world of film noir by one of its own icons!
Aunt Connie had a dry, sarcastic sense of humor and her speech was frequently peppered with words that perhaps someone my age should not have heard, but that was just the way that she was. She spoke cynically about both the Hollywood machine and her carefully-crafted image, which had been conceived by studio executives. She made fun of the term, “sex symbol,” and instead called herself a “sex zombie”. Mocking her hair style, she often said that, “I never did “cheesecake” like Ann Sheridan or Betty Grable did; instead, I just used my hair!”
Just after Aunt Connie moved in with us, the pianist and performer Liberace performed at the Fountainbleu Hotel. A flamboyant master showman, Liberace was something of a rock star in those days. On the day of the show, we arrived at the sold-out event and were seated at a table just two rows away from the stage. Within moments, the MC announced over the microphone, “Ladies and Gentlemen, the Fountainbleu Hotel proudly welcomes Liberace!” He swept out in his glittering finery and began to enchant the audience with his mastery of the piano. Or he would have, except for one small interruption.
I was mesmerized by this sparkling performer. As soon as I heard the first note, I ran up on stage and stood next to him, never once considering how I would get back to my mother and Aunt Connie again! When he saw me, he immediately placed me beside him at the piano. As he played, his fingers seemed to lovingly caress the keys. I can still picture the gem-encrusted, piano-shaped ring that he wore. When he’d finished playing the piece, he then stood up, bowed to the audience and walked me back to the steps to leave the stage.
No sooner did he turn his back than the audience began laughing; I had climbed back on stage again! He graciously accepted my presence and again sat me alongside him at the piano, where I remained enchanted for the rest of the show. After his final number, he lifted me in his arms and gestured for me to blow out the flames on the candelabra. We then walked off, stage left, hand in hand, back to his dressing room where my mother and Aunt Connie could retrieve me. As they chatted with Liberace, Aunt Connie leaned over to me and whispered in my ear, “Never be afraid to do what you want to do.” I have never forgotten that moment, or those words.
Later I learned that despite her Hollywood fame, Aunt Connie had a reputation as being difficult to work with. Toward the end of her career, many directors refused to work with her, though I believe that this was sometimes due to artistic differences and how women were expected to behave. But for all her industry reputation for being “difficult”, I myself never experienced her as anything but a kind, warm, generous and loving person.
Like so many of her talented colleagues in those days, Aunt Connie had a well-deserved reputation as a heavy drinker. I saw this side of her many times in my childhood but had no context for it. To my younger self in those days, it simply seemed part of who she was. Often on the road, Aunt Connie’s life was lonely and I believed that she suffered. We all loved her and always reminded her to come home.
A fiercely independent person, Aunt Connie never wanted or asked for help from anyone, so we had to be careful how we reached out to her. She was deeply loyal to her friends. The only way that my mother could get her to come home and rest was to say, “Ronnie, please come back to Miami; I need you!” (Her friends called her Ronnie.) Then she would fly back right away!
I was deeply saddened by Aunt Connie’s sudden death, and felt that she died too soon. She was in truth her own worst enemy. But even now, with a modern adult’s understanding of alcoholism and the damage that it does, I celebrate Aunt Connie’s life and what she gave to all of us.
She may have ultimately lost the battle with her own demons, but she was one of the bravest people that I have ever known. She taught me that being courageous is not an achievement, but a path. Veronica Lake walked that path.