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3 forgotten leading ladies from Hollywood's Golden Age

On the screen or off, the stories of the stars rarely go as planned, and the same can be said of their legacies. Whereas some of the starlets of yesteryear find themselves immortalized in the memory of classic cinema, other leading ladies from the Golden Age find their credits missing in the pages of history. However, some of us remember — and we're here to share our memories with you.

Hedy Lamarr

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They say to tell an intelligent lady that she’s beautiful and a beautiful lady that she’s intelligent. Hedy Lamarr was both. Born of a well-to-do Jewish family in Vienna, Lamarr’s father nurtured her curiosity from an early age with long conversations about the intricacies of complex machinery. These early influences left a profound impact on the young Lamarr, who went on to patent a secure radio signal in her later years through her own tinkering and self-training. Her invention was later used as the basis upon which Bluetooth and WiFi were created, earning her a Pioneer Award from the Electronic Frontier Foundation in 1997.

However, throughout most of Lamarr’s life, her brilliance was overshadowed by her beauty. She began her study of drama at the age of 16 and gained wider acclaim as an actor in 1932 with her role in the film “Ecstacy.” Her entrance into the spotlight attracted the attention of Austrian munitions dealer Fritz Mandl, to whom she was briefly and unhappily married. After fleeing her abusive husband in 1937, Lamarr was swept up by socialites and creatives from the likes of Louis B. Meyers of MGM studios to none other than Howard Hughes. On the silver screen, she found further acclaim for leading roles in “Samson and Delilah” (1949) and “White Cargo” (1942).

Veronica Lake

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Though in her day Veronica Lake was the quintessential femme fatale, her star on the Walk of Fame tells a story laden with irony in that she was a threat to no one more than herself. Born Constance Frances Marie Ockelman, the daughter of an oil rig laborer, Lake lost her father at an early age to an industrial accident before moving to Beverly Hills with her mother and stepfather from whom she took her last name.

One year after her move to Los Angeles and subsequent enrollment in acting school, she landed her first role in 1939 as a pin-up girl co-ed in “Sorority House” (1939). She quickly caught the spotlight after starring in “This Gun For Hire” (1944) alongside Alan Ladd before continuing along a string of leading roles while mingling with the Hollywood elite. In a gossip-column interview, Lake commented on her autobiography covering her life at the time, stating "If I had written everything I know about Hollywood, there'd be a rash of divorces and at least a hundred people would die of apoplexy."

Tragically, Lake’s mental health and her proclivity for dangerous substances proved a deadly combination. Lake’s mother has gone on record about her daughter's diagnosis of schizophrenia. Her time in the Hollywood high life nurtured a heavy drinking habit that cost her dearly. After a string of failed marriages, Lake’s stardom in the film industry began to fade, and her mental health declined. In 1973, Lake died of complications from hepatitis.

Mae West

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Most starlets saw the lights shine brightest at the peak of their youth, but Mae West was an exception in that her career didn’t begin to take off until her late 30s. However, it wasn’t from lack of trying. Mae showed interest in drama from an early age and dreamed of the spotlight. She began her career in Vaudeville at the age of 14 and was given roles in a number of shows, some failed and others acclaimed.

In the 1920s, she decided to take her performances into her own hands as a writer, producer and, above all, a provocateur. In 1926, she wrote and starred in the Broadway act “Sex.” Her play was labeled as obscene, and she was sentenced to 10 days of jail time. Far from holding her back, West’s censorship brought her into the national eye. She continued a successful run on Broadway before the downturn of the medium during the Great Depression. In 1932, West signed her first film contract with Paramount Pictures, which proved a lucrative decision on behalf of the studio. She continued a career marked by controversy and challenges to social norm.

Cover photo credit: franckreporter/ iStock