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What caused 1940s movie star Veronica Lake's death in Burlington?

What caused 1940s movie star Veronica Lake’s death in Burlington?

There was no fame in the 1940s quite like Hollywood fame, and Veronica Lake had it.

Her career in film rose during that decade, starting in 1941 with William Holden in “I Wanted Wings” and Joel McCrea in “Sullivan’s Travels.” Lake may have made her biggest mark in movies in film noir. Paired with another young rising star, Alan Ladd, Lake brought beauty and an evocative allure to popular dark crime films including the 1942 movies “This Gun for Hire” and “The Glass Key” and the 1946 noir “The Blue Dahlia.”

Even more famous than her acting, perhaps, was Veronica Lake’s hair. The “peekaboo” style she popularized, with lush blonde locks partially covering one eye in a way that seemed to reveal only a greater mystery within, set a standard for beauty that continues.

By the end of the 1940s, however, Lake’s career was all but over. A reputation for being difficult on set and a drinking problem exacerbated her decline. She would show up in unlikely places over the years, from tending bar in New York to acting in dinner theater in Florida, before ending up in a place to which she had no known connection – Burlington, Vermont.

That’s where Lake spent her last few days, dying in the Green Mountain State on July 7, 1973. The circumstances of Veronica Lake’s death in Vermont, much like the film noir characters she portrayed and the mercurial life she led, remain partially hidden in the shadows.

Lake was born Constance Ockelman in Brooklyn on Nov. 14, 1922. According to a 2013 article in the Sun Community News in Elizabethtown, New York, she relocated with her family in 1934 to Saranac Lake, New York, near the town’s famed sanitarium, after her stepfather was diagnosed with an early stage of tuberculosis.

The family moved frequently – the girl attended Catholic boarding school in Montreal, according to a 2022 profile in Vanity Fair – living in Florida and then California. The latter location is where a Hollywood producer bestowed Constance Ockelman with a new name, Veronica Lake.

Lake was tiny – only 4 feet, 11 inches tall, according to her biography on the website for Turner Classic Movies – and gained attention for her blue eyes, long blonde hair and “unique, smoky look.” TCM says her “ascendency to star status” began with the 1941 films “I Wanted Wings” and Preston Sturges’ “Sullivan’s Travels.”

“But it was her pairing with an equally diminutive co-star that, along with the cascading hair, created and solidified the Lake legend,” TCM writes. “Cast opposite screen newcomer Alan Ladd in the brutish noir thriller, ‘This Gun for Hire’ (1942), the couple’s unexpected partnership proved very popular with film audiences – so popular, that they would appear together in seven films, including such moneymakers as ‘The Glass Key’ (1942) and ‘The Blue Dahlia’ (1946).”

Her appeal went beyond film.

“Women adored her signature hairstyle – dubbed ‘the peek-a-boo;’ making Lake ‘the peek-a-boo blonde’ for all eternity – and tortured their hair in an attempt to match her color and wavy locks,” according to TCM. “G.I.’s placed her glamorous pin-up next to their Betty Grable and Rita Hayworth pics in almost equal frequency. Her impact on society was so dramatic, that during the war, she was forced by the government to temporarily change her peek-a-boo hair-do after women in factories were becoming injured when their long locks were catching in assembly-line machinery.”

According to the Vanity Fair profile, Lake’s “financially disastrous” second marriage “sent her into a spiral” that too often involved alcohol. “In 1951, her marriage over and her movie career dead, she left for New York City,” reads the article headlined “Veronica Lake’s Long Escape: A Deeply Sad Page from Hollywood History.”

Lake, once an omnipresent sex symbol, dropped off Hollywood’s radar.

“There were evictions, another drunken marriage, and violence,” according to Vanity Fair. “By the early 1960s, Lake was working at a factory pasting flowers on lingerie. In 1962, the New York Post discovered that the former movie star was living in NYC’s Martha Washington Hotel and serving as a barmaid under the name Connie De Toth.”

The Palm Beach Post looked back at Lake’s later life in Florida in a 2019 article headlined “Florida’s ‘misfit’ movie star.”

“Around the mid-‘60s, she returned to South Florida, moving into a small apartment,” according to the article. “She took a role in the comedy ‘Goodbye Charlie’ at a Miami dinner theater, got good notices, but quit after a dispute over payment.”

She lived in England for a time and returned to the United States, where she would spend her final moments in Vermont.

A New York Times news obituary published July 8, 1973, bore the headline “Veronica Lake, 53, Movie Star With the Peekaboo Hair, Dead.” (Her death certificate would indicate she was 50 when she died). “Veronica Lake, one of the screen’s leading box-office favorites of the early nineteen-forties, instantly recognizable for her long blond hair falling over her right eye, died yesterday in Burlington, Vt.,” the article reads.

Few people knew what brought Lake to Burlington. The website www.findadeath.com features a lengthy report about her last few days.

The former Hollywood star had returned to Saranac Lake – “the place where Lake had spent the happiest years of her childhood,” reads the findadeath.com. By that point, she was “pretty far along” with an acute case of hepatitis, according to the article, and was admitted to Will Rogers Hospital in Saranac Lake, about 80 miles west of Burlington.

“According to her doctor in Vermont, Warren Beeken, that facility (in Saranac Lake) did not have the resources to treat as well as the Medical Center in Burlington, Vermont, across Lake Champlain, so on June 26, 1973 she was transferred to the Vermont hospital,” the findadeath.com article reads.

The article says Lake’s condition following weeks of hepatitis deteriorated quickly once she arrived in Burlington.

“Word spread of her presence around the hospital, and strangers visited her room to pay their respects,” the article reads. “She visibly brightened due to the attention, signing autographs for the nurses and speaking confidently of future plans.” Beeken checked on Lake the evening of July 6, “when acute renal failure had set in,” according to the findadeath.com article. “Early on the morning of July 7, 1973, she passed away at age 50.”

Beeken’s son, Bruce Beeken, told the Burlington Free Press that his father spoke of Lake’s death on a couple of occasions. He recalled his father saying, “something along the lines of acknowledging that she was quite a star in her day.” Bruce Beeken said his father was able to see “the real person” despite her dire situation.

“I just remember him shaking his head and marveling at how such a good person, like anybody, would find themselves at the end of their days in not-good circumstances,” said Bruce Beeken, who lives in Bristol and makes furniture for Beeken Parsons at Shelburne Farms.

The findadeath.com article mentions that Lake’s son, Michael, who lived in Hawaii, came to attend her service in New York.

“He had asked his father, Lake’s 3rd ex-husband the director Andre de Toth, for money to fly to Vermont, but was met with obscenities for even bothering him,” the article reads. “He had to take a loan out to fly to Vermont to claim the body, which he found looking ‘small and lonely’ at the Corbin Palmer funeral home located nearby the hospital in Burlington, Vermont.” The article includes a copy of Lake’s death certificate, which says cremation took place at Mt. Pleasant Cemetery in St. Johnsbury.

Her lonely, quiet death did not diminish her brief, bright stardom. The Palm Beach Post article notes that “every time any celebrity wears a certain cascading hairdo, from Reese Witherspoon to Brie Larson to Meghan Markle, Lake’s name is invoked.”

The Turner Classic Movies website elaborates on Lake’s “ethereal glamour.”

“References to Lake’s peek-a-boo style and ice queen demeanor were seen in everything from the (1997) neo-noir flick, ‘L.A. Confidential’ to the animated femme fatale, Jessica Rabbit, who sports a scarlet version of Lake’s peek-a-boo in ‘Who Framed Roger Rabbit?’ (1988),” according to TCM. The website notes that Lake’s look inspired videos by pop singers Britney Spears and Aaliyah as well as the Veronica Rogers character in the “Archie” comics.

“Decades after her death,” according to TCM, “Veronica Lake’s particular smoky appeal lingered as one of Hollywood’s most enduring and recognizable symbols of sexiness and class.”

Source: Sun Community News, Vanity Fair, Turner Classic Movies, New York Times, findadeath.com, Palm Beach Post.