I Wasn’t a Sex Symbol; I Was a Sex Zombie

Veronica Lake? Judy Klemesrud? Walter Clemons? Anonymous? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: A pulchritudinous movie star of the golden age of Hollywood supposedly said:

I wasn’t a sex symbol; I was a sex zombie.

Is this an authentic quotation? If someone did deliver this line would you please tell me who it was?

Quote Investigator: The earliest match located by QI appeared in “The New York Times” in March 1971. Journalist Judy Klemesrud interviewed actress Veronica Lake and asked about her sex symbol status. Boldface added to excerpts By QI: 1

Miss Lake, dressed primly in a two-tone green suede suits cringed when the term “sex symbol” was mentioned. She prefers “sex-zombie,” which a book critic recently used in referring to her.

“That really names me properly,” she said. “I was laughing at everybody in all of my portraits. I never took that stuff seriously. I will have one of the cleanest obits of any actress.”

Thus, an unnamed book critic applied the phrase “sex zombie” to Lake, and she thought that it was appropriate. Perhaps she felt that the publicity machine of Hollywood had constructed an artificial and deadening role for her to play.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In May 1971 literary critic Walter Clemons wrote a piece in “The New York Times” stating that Lake was marketed as a “sex-zombie”. Clemons may have been repeating this term from the March 1971 article, or he may have been repeating his own coinage: 2

By one of those quirks of movie history, her work now looks contemporary instead of dated. She was a studio concoction, as she admits; she was also, as she contends, “in some small ways able.” Marketed as a sex-zombie, she had a comic knack and her coolness has worn well. She’s best in “Sullivan’s Travels,” as the out-of-luck starlet . . .

Lake died in July 1973 and shortly afterward the Associated Press published an article that referred to the phrase: 3

In her book, she said “it was the Hollywood star machine that had ground me out like a production on an assembly line, and I knew my lack of confidence would ruin me.”

She said she liked the tag one reviewer had given her — “sex zombie.”

“That really names me properly,” she said.

In 1985 the book “Movie Stars of the ’40s: A Complete Reference Guide” by David Ragan attributed the statement under examination directly to Lake: 4

. . . she was not greatly popular at the studio; except for acquiring a self-deprecating sense of humor (“I wasn’t a sex symbol, I was a sex zombie”) . . .

In 2007 “The Wall Street Journal” attributed the same statement to Lake: 5

“I wasn’t a sex symbol, I was a sex zombie,” recalled Veronica Lake, the girl with the peek-a-boo wave who became a star because she was tiny enough to make her frequent co- star, the 5-foot-4 1/2-inch Alan Ladd, look like a leading man.

In 2008 the book “Genius and Heroin” by Michael Largo also attributed the remark to Lake: 6

She admitted she wasn’t much of an actress, saying, “I wasn’t a sex symbol. I was a sex zombie.” She died from . . . acute hepatitis, in 1973, at age fifty-three.

In conclusion, during an interview in 1971 Veronica Lake stated that she preferred the term “sex zombie” to “sex symbol”. “That really names me properly,” she said. Lake died in 1973, and by 1985 she had received credit for the statement, “I wasn’t a sex symbol, I was a sex zombie”. This remark was consistent with the Lake’s viewpoint, but QI has not yet found any direct evidence that she said it.

(Great thanks to the anonymous fan of 1940s Hollywood films whose inquiry led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration.)

Notes:

  1. 1971 March 10, New York Times, For Veronica Lake, the Past Is Something to Write About by Judy Klemesrud, Quote Page 38, New York. (ProQuest)
  2. 1971 May 5, New York Times, “Hollywood, Inside and Out” by Walter Clemons, Quote Page 31, Column 4, New York. (ProQuest)
  3. 1973 July 8, The Hartford Courant, Veronica Lake Dies; Ex-Film Star Was 51 (Associated Press), Section A2, Quote Page 32, Column 2, Hartford, Connecticut. (ProQuest)
  4. 1985, Movie Stars of the ’40s: A Complete Reference Guide for the Film Historian or Trivia Buff by David Ragan, Entry: Veronica Lake, Quote Page 107, Prentice-Hall, Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey. (Verified with scans)
  5. 2007 October 26, Wall Street Journal, WEEKEND JOURNAL; Review / Books: The High Price of Glamour by Edward Kosner, Quote Page W5, New York. (ProQuest)
  6. 2008, Genius and Heroin: The Illustrated Catalogue of Creativity, Obsession, and Reckless Abandon Through the Ages by Michael Largo, Chapter: Veronica Lake, Quote Page 160, HarperCollins, New York. (Verified with scans)