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From the Archives: Veronica Lake, Peek-a-Boo Star of the '40s, Dies at 51

From the Archives: Veronica Lake, Peek-a-Boo Star of the '40s, Dies at 51
Joel McCrea and Veronica Lake in "Sullivan's Travels." (L.A. County Museum of Art)

Veronica Lake, whose over-the-eye blonde tresses and fragile-tough girl looks made her a major box office attraction and pinup girl of World War II years, died Saturday in a Vermont hospital. She was 51.

The sultry-voiced actress' death followed by five days that of the No. 1 pinup girl of that era, Betty Grable, and by one day of that of comedian Joe E. Brown, also a favorite of 1940s audiences.

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A spokesman at the Medical Center of Vermont in Burlington said death was caused by acute hepatitis.

Miss Lake, whose pinup pictures, unlike most of the genre, usually showed her from the shoulders up, flared like a comet among the Hollywood stars of the '40s and faded almost overnight when the decade ended.

After falling from stardom in such memorable films as "This Gun for Hire" and "I Wanted Wings" to jobs as a factory worker and cocktail waitress, she rose again in the '60s to flickering successes on the English stage.

A ghost-written autobiography, published in 1970, spoke with startling frankness about the "Hollywood star machine" that she said "ground me out like a production on an assembly line," and of post-Hollywood days of hard drinking and obscurity in less than star-caliber hotels and bars.

When a newspaper reporter discovered her in the early '60s working as a waitress and hostess in a second-rate New York cocktail lounge she denied, however, that she was down and out.

"I'm sick and tired of having people ask me about that," she told an interviewer later. "I was paying $190 a month rent then and that's a long way from being broke."

Publication of "Veronica" brought a kind of literary fame with a resurgence of interviews and, perhaps, a promise of better days.

Her former publicity agent and long-time friend, William Roos in New York City, told The Times Saturday that Miss Lake was in good spirits and looking forward to a new movie role in a film which was to have begun production late this summer. He did not name the film.

Missed Court Date

She had been in the Virgin Islands, Roos said, awaiting a divorce from her fourth husband Robert Carelton-Munro, a retired English naval officer. The divorce would have been made final Friday if she had been able to appear in court, he said.

Born Constance Ockleman in Brooklyn, the daughter of a merchant seaman, she grew up in Lake Placid and Miami. A third place title in a Florida beauty contest was the catalyst that sent her to Hollywood. Her mother pushed her career and, years later, sued the actress for nonsupport.

Hollywood changed her name and cast her in some bit parts as a college ingenue.

According to Hollywood legend, the famous hair style was an accident. In rehearsal for her first big role in 1941, her long blonde hair fell down over her right eye. It was so effective it became her trademark and a national fad.

Hairdo Copied

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During the war there was a report, possibly true, that the Manpower Commission requested her to change her hairdo because so many defense plant employees, copying it, were in danger of getting their tresses caught in machinery.

The peek-a-boo hair was such a trademark that readers of the nation's leading cartoon strip of the era, Li'l Abner, had no difficulty identifying the prototype of a character called Miss Cherry Blossom when she made an appearance in the strip.

Miss Lake made 26 movies, including the classic "This Gun for Hire" which catapulted the late Alan Ladd to star status. Other films included "Sullivan's Travels," "I Married a Witch," "Blue Dahlia" and "Bring on the Girls." At her peak she earned $4,500 a week.

She was married to an Army major and art film director, John Detlie, in the early years of World War II. They had two children, one of whom died shortly after birth. She later married Hungarian film director Andre De Toth and they had two children. She and De Toth declared bankruptcy in 1951 and divorced the following year.

Veronica Lake and Brian Donlevy in "The Glass Key."
Veronica Lake and Brian Donlevy in "The Glass Key." (American Cinematheque)

Not a Homebody

By her own admission, she was not a homebody and in later years she said she rarely saw her children or heard from them.

Her third husband was music publisher Joseph A. McCarthy. That marriage also ended in divorce in the '50s.

Despite her professional ups and downs, she managed to view her fame and fall with rather surprising honesty. Asked about being a sex symbol of her time, she told an interviewer she "never took that stuff seriously . . . I was laughing at everybody."

In Los Angeles to promote sales of her book two years ago, she revisited the old Paramount lot and burst into tears when she saw how it had changed.

"God, my knees feel weak," she said. "Tom Wolfe was right. You can't go home again." Later in the car she told The Times reporter, "I'm out of it now—well out of it. I knew back then that I wasn't cut out for all the con that goes along with working here.

"And when it became clear to me that the only way to survive was to get out, I left." She went back to her given name, Connie, when she left Hollywood.

Miss Lake is survived by three children, Elaine, Michael and Diane, three grandchildren and her mother.

Funeral arrangements are pending.

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