It was like a scene out of "Sunset Boulevard."

A faded star, her glamour days long past, is watching her old movies on the late show in a West Palm Beach hotel in 1971.

In "Sunset Boulevard," actress Norma Desmond, played by Gloria Swanson, screens her silent films and famously declares, "We didn't need dialogue. We had faces!"

In real life, watching her mystery thrillers "This Gun For Hire" and "The Glass Key" on that West Palm hotel room television, Veronica Lake had a similar reaction:

"It's just nice to know that I was that young once."

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By then, Lake was three decades past her glory years of the 1940s, when her famous "peekaboo" hairstyle of cascading blonde curls made her a memorable star of films such as "Sullivan's Travels," "I Married A Witch" and a string of thrillers with Alan Ladd.

Her hair was shorter now, the peekaboo long gone. Years of alcohol abuse and hard times -- an overbearing mother, failed marriages, menial jobs, the death of a child -- were obvious on her face.

But she was still acting, though far from the dazzling soundstages of Hollywood. She had defiantly abandoned the studios in the 1950s, branded as unreliable. Lake, though, saw herself as a "misfit" who was forced to develop a cocky attitude for protection from a "Hollywood machine that ground me out like a product on an assembly line," she wrote in her autobiography.

By 1971, Lake's star had dimmed so much that she was appearing at the Century Village seniors complex with a regional theater troupe, part of a small-time circuit that included dinner shows at restaurants and hotels. She still had dreams. Lake hoped to transform the Gold Coast Players into a touring company "where there is no such thing as a star," she told The Palm Beach Post.

As for remembering her youth, it wasn't that she was old. She was only 48. But in two years she would be dead of liver cirrhosis and kidney failure, the final chapter in a long, slow decline.

Maybe she just got tired of being Veronica Lake, which she always claimed was her pushy mother's dream, not hers.

"She lived through me vicariously," Lake told the Post, not bothering to hide her bitterness. "She was Veronica Lake. I wasn't."

From Miami beauty contest to Hollywood fame

When she first came to Florida in the late 1930s, she definitely wasn't Veronica Lake. She was a 15-year-old, Brooklyn-born high schooler named Constance Frances Marie Ockelman Keane. She attended Miami High School, where a former teacher remembered her as a "little firecracker," a 4-foot-11-inch beauty who wasn't afraid to stand up to fellow students. "She had more spunk than the average teenage girl," the teacher wrote in The Miami News.

What some saw as spunk, her mother saw as a sickness. According to "Peekaboo: The Story of Veronica Lake," by Jeff Lenburg, her mother claimed she was diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic while in high school. But her mother was what lawyers might term an unreliable witness, often with an agenda and narrative at odds with Lake's.

As film writer-historian Karina Longworth noted on her "You Must Remember This" podcast, where she brings a welcome perspective to accepted wisdom concerning Hollywood actresses, such a diagnosis, if it even happened, would be highly suspect today.

Connie refused treatment, according to her mother, and turned to competing in local beauty contests. Her talent: a dress that she would pull off suggestively to reveal a swimsuit underneath. In 1938, she came in third for "Miss Miami," part of the preliminaries for Miss America.

"The night of the 1938 contest, Connie walked into the dressing room and informed all the contestants that she didn't want to hurt anyone's feelings, but she was going to win the contest," pageant official Lloyd Butler recalled to The Miami News in 1943. "Following the contest, she told the same crew, 'What the hell do I care, I'm going to Hollywood, anyway.'"

Sounds apocryphal, but the family quickly decamped to Los Angeles to pursue Connie's movie stardom. She soon was playing small roles and made a splash in 1941's "I Wanted Wings," as a singer torn between Ray Milland and William Holden.

But first she got a new name. Connie Keane became Veronica Lake without any warning, she told the Post. Film producer Arthur Hornblow simply announced it to her. "Veronica was for my classic features and Lake was for the coolness people felt looking into my eyes," she recalled with a smile.

The hair helped. "Mother Nature put the wave there," Lake told the Post of the peekaboo, "but it never really fell over one eye. That was due to camera angles."

In two short years between 1941 and 1943, Lake would make the films that catapulted her to icon status. She paired well with Ladd in their film noirs. "And no, Alan Ladd was not a midget," she said with a laugh. "He was just small-boned."

But her best films were two classic comedies, Rene Clair's gossamer-light "I Married A Witch," in which she plays a Salem temptress who bewitches mortal Fredric March, and Preston Sturges' Depression-era "Sullivan's Travels," in which she plays a down-on-her-luck actress tramping across country with Joel McCrea.

If she never made another film other than "Sullivan's Travels," she'd still be remembered today. Lake proved she could act, handling the verbal gymnastics of Sturges' witty script with aplomb, her low voice - modern-day director Guy Maddin describes it as "a tiny, mellifluous burr" - adding to her allure.

Lake was busy offscreen, too, getting married and having the first of eventually four children. And after Pearl Harbor, she got busier.

In 1942, she made a triumphant return to Florida in a nationwide tour to sell war bonds. It is hard to overemphasize what a major star she was -- her publicity photos were everywhere. Young women demanded the Lake look, and beauty shops across America obliged. Her hairstyle was parodied in movies such as Billy Wilder's "The Major and the Minor" and by comics Groucho Marx and Bob Hope.

At every Florida stop — Tampa, Orlando, Daytona Beach, Jacksonville, Miami — she was big, front page news.

In West Palm Beach, on Sept. 26, 250 people crowded into the Hotel George Washington along Flagler Drive to hear Lake promote the sale of World War II victory bonds. She had been mobbed by fans at previous stops, and was wearing a bandage on her forehead after a slight concussion from being bumped into a windshield.

The same thing could have happened here -- she was supposed to speak publicly on Clematis Street, the Post reported, but so many people crowded around her car that she was whisked away for safety.

The Post headline called her an "ace bond salesman."

"No one can talk to Miss Lake for more than five minutes without sensing that she is very definitely all out for service to her country at this time," the Post reported. "Her career is secondary for the duration."

Those words proved prophetic. In Hollywood, her ascent was basically over. Her marriage was in trouble, she became pregnant again (there were rumors that it wasn't her husband's child) and the baby died after Lake gave birth prematurely.

Onscreen, she pinned her hair up because military brass worried that working women would get their long, Lake-inspired tresses caught in factory machinery. Some said Lake wasn't as glamorous without the peekaboo.

She had a reputation. Other actors, writers and directors (always men, it should be noted) badmouthed her. She was tardy on set, and hung over. Film writer Eddie Selover quotes her abusive second husband, director Andre de Toth, with whom she had two children, as saying she was like two people -- one introverted and fearful, the other reckless and raging.

Between marriages, she found time for romances with Howard Hughes and Aristotle Onassis. Both proposed, she told the Post, but she turned them down.

By the 1950s, she would only make a few more films, none of them good, and she gave the impression of not caring. Headlines would appear -- Lake collapses in hotel lobby, Lake's home's seized for taxes, Lake files for bankruptcy. In 1948, her mother even sued her for financial support.

Lake definitely had mother issues that were never resolved. As she said in the 1971 Post interview: "At least I had sense enough to keep her off the set. I was born not seeing eye-to-eye with her."

From Palm Beach stage to bad B-movie

She could still draw an audience, though, doing regional appearances and plays. In February 1952, she starred in Philip Barry's "The Animal Kingdom," the debut production of the Palm Beach Playhouse, later known as the Royal Poinciana in Palm Beach. She was made an honorary West Palm police officer, and was photographed presenting a polo trophy at the Gulfstream Club in Delray Beach, and to a winning dog at the Palm Beach Kennel Club.

A year later, she was riding in the parade of the Delray Beach Gladioli Festival and cutting a ribbon of flowers for the fair's opening.

Lake slipped from public scrutiny until the early '60s, when a reporter found her working as a hotel barmaid in New York City. Around the mid-'60s, she returned to South Florida, moving into a small apartment near Hollywood ("the wrong Hollywood," as Maddin put it.) 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 took off again, moving to England, doing plays, getting married for a fourth time to a sea captain, and working with a ghostwriter on a frank, successful autobiography, in which she expressed regret over not spending time with her children but not over leaving Hollywood in the rear view.

The state of her career? In 1969, she got a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Writer Sue Cameron reported that she accompanied Lake to the unveiling. Only one other person was there.

She came back to Miami again, where she would make her last movie, a horror cheapie called "Flesh Feast," which she also co-produced. It's no "Sullivan's Travels." She plays a doctor whose mother was tortured in Nazi experiments. Discovering that Adolf Hitler is not dead (don't ask), she gets revenge by pouring flesh-eating maggots on his face.

You can watch the big climax on YouTube. It's awful. Her voice is bruised, her teeth look bad. The weird thing: You can tell that she has acting skills, a natural presence on screen, even in this B-movie, which makes it doubly sad.

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By then, according to Lenburg's book "Peekaboo," Lake was in terrible shape, prone to paranoia and drinking heavily.

"She was convinced that people were spying on her," he wrote. "She even thought the FBI was tapping her phone."

In early 1971, she promoted her autobiography with an appearance on The Dick Cavett Show. Cavett later said she was drunk. By that summer, she had hooked up with the Gold Coast Players, appearing in and co-directing "Goodbye Charlie" in Fort Lauderdale and West Palm. Despite her dreams for the company, the arrangement didn't last long.

It may have been the last performances she ever gave.

By early 1973, gossip columnists reported that she had bolted from her fourth marriage and disappeared. Her family was worried. In early summer, she was hospitalized in Vermont. Then on July 8, she made the front page of the Post for the last time:

"Peekaboo blonde Veronica Lake dies in obscurity."

From star-crossed life to timeless influencer

Lake did make one more trip to Florida. Sort of.

This is where a twisted tale gets even twistier.

After dying in Vermont, her remains sat unclaimed for three years because nobody paid the cremation bill, her ghostwriter Donald Bain (who also wrote the '70s stewardess novel "Coffee, Tea Or Me?") told the Associated Press. In 1976, two of Bain's friends apparently took Lake's ashes and dumped them off the Miami coast, which was supposed to be what she wanted. (Some accounts say it was the Virgin Islands.)

Before that happened, as the story goes, a scoop of ashes was taken out and went to another person, who shook some into a manila envelope and sent it to another person and in 2004 they end up on a shelf at a Catskills antique store, which gets a lot of press attention. Who can resist a dead star's ashes? Are they really Lake's remains? Who knows? It made for a good story.

And it was another indication that Lake may have led a star-crossed life, but her mark on pop culture would be timeless.

The name of Veronica in the Archie comics was inspired by Lake. Kim Basinger's Oscar-winning turn as a call girl in the 1999 film "L.A. Confidential" was modeled on Lake. And every time any celebrity wears a certain cascading hairdo, from Reese Witherspoon to Brie Larson to Meghan Markle, Lake's name is invoked.

In 1971, as she talked to a Post reporter over coffee and cigarettes at Century Village, she tried to sum up her self-abbreviated Hollywood career.

Fame "was almost handed to me on a silver platter," she said. "I was a full-fledged star at 17. Quite an experience.

"In retrospect, it was a hoot and a holler," Lake said. "A tough life."

That same year, veteran Florida journalist Nina L. Diamond was a 15-year-old, movie-mad high schooler in Miami Beach helping out at a local broadcast for the Jerry Lewis muscular dystrophy telethon. For hours, she answered phones next to a woman whose nametag simply read 'Ronni.'

"She's a very nice, very non-descript middle-aged woman," Diamond recalled in a phone interview. "She looked older than her years. Frumpy, no makeup."

Finally, she heard somebody address her as Veronica Lake.

"I damn near fell out of my chair," said Diamond, who was a devotee of '30s and '40s movies on late night television. "I looked at her and said, 'Are you the Veronica Lake?'

"I will never forget this. All of a sudden she came alive and said, 'Honey, there is only one Veronica Lake.'"

Diamond quickly got her autograph -- and still has it. ("She had nice penmanship.")

As Diamond has recounted the story over the years, people have asked two things: Did she really look that tiny? And was she drunk? (For the record, no and no.)

It saddens Diamond to think back and realize that such a once-glamorous star was near the end of her string at 48.

"If I had to guess her age, I'd say she looked like she was in her early 70s," said Diamond. "She seemed like someone's grandma."

This story was reported from information by the following sources: Stories by The Palm Beach Post, especially the 1971 interview by Marsha May; The Miami News, Associated Press, Los Angeles Times, New York Times, foxnews.com, Fort Lauderdale News and United Press International; Jeff Lenburg's 2001 book, "Peekaboo; Karina Longworth's highly recommended podcast "You Must Remember This"; Guy Maddin's expansive essay on the Criterion Collection's DVD of "I Married A Witch" and Eddie Selover's insightful essay "The Outsider" on his blog, eddieselover.com.

laydlette@pbpost.com