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LANA TURNER

lanaBorn Julia Jean Mildred Frances Turner on Feb. 8, 1921 to John and Mildred Turner in Idaho. Her earliest years were spent in a humble household in the nearby mining town of Wallace, in which she was known as Judy. She would recall her days in Wallace highlighted by her and her mother dancing with her father to songs on their wind-up Victrola.

Early Life
All was not well in the Turner home. Her father worked in the silver mines and money problems plagued the family, compounded by his frequenting Wallace’s red light district, where he squandered his share on booze, dice and cards. John also had a side business, bootlegging corn liquor, until the authorities caught whiff of this and the family loaded up their car and escaped to San Francisco. They resettled there when Judy was just six, but the couple soon separated. Three years later, Turner had found work on San Francisco’s docks, but maintained his gambling habits.

One night in December 1930, after winning a basement poker game downtown, he was bludgeoned to death. Turner had kept his winnings in his left sock, which had been stripped from his foot when the corpse was discovered in an alley the next morning, but the murder went unsolved.

Mildred Turner struggled to make ends meet and eventually had to put Judy up in foster homes, in at least one of which the young girl suffered both verbal and physical abuse at the hands of her caregivers.

Mildred suffering from chronic bronchitis was advised by a doctor that her condition might be helped by the drier climate of the Southland, secured a ride from a friend and moved herself and her daughter to Los Angeles. Then 16 and blossoming into a beauty with a china-doll complexion, auburn hair and a curvy figure, Judy matriculated at Hollywood High School, where her looks and a devil-may-care streak inherited from her father would soon vault her to stardom and lore. Her beautician mother had trained her from childhood how to present herself to bring out the best of her natural beauty, and to use costuming and comportment to hide any rough edges or raw vulnerabilities. Turner’s beauty regimens included using moisturisers such as Nivea and exfoliating with Boraxo soap once a week.

She was discovered one afternoon whilst sipping a soda at the counter at Top Hat Café, instead of attending her typing class at Hollywood High School. Talent agent William R. Wilkerson spotted her, sitting across from her at a U-shaped counter and indeed stunned by her beauty, asked the counterman who she was and if she would consent to talk to him. Turner refused, but the counterman vouched for Wilkerson, who asked what would become a “player” cliché thereafter, “How would you like to be in the movies?” Turner famously replied that she would have to ask her mother, and Wilkerson left her with his business
card. Judy kept the card to herself for a couple of days, hesitant to tell her mother she had talked to a stranger, but when she did, they learned Wilkerson was one of the most powerful men in town.

Mildred called him immediately and two days later, Turner signed a contract with Warner Bros. Wilkerson wound up fast-tracking Turner to the talent agency of Zeppo Marx, of the famed Marx Brothers, and from there to Warner Bros, casting honcho Solly Biano, who brought her almost immediately to director Mervyn LeRoy, then prepping a film calling for someone of her type.

Still naive to Hollywood politesse, Turner showed up in an anything-but-glamorous cotton dress, rumpled hair - which actually wowed LeRoy. She got the small but pivotal part as the sweet, virginal college student murdered in a Southern city in “They Won’t Forget” (1937). LeRoy even helped her brainstorm a new glamorous stage name - Lana Turner. The whirlwind did not stop there; in her brief appearance lithely walking down a street, her form-fitting wool sweater over her curvaceous upper torso seeded her reputation among slavering new fans as “the Sweater Girl,” which also came to describe a genre of pin-up model. Wilkerson’s publication did its part to highlight the new arrival, noting in its review of Turner’s “vivid beauty, personality and charm.”

During the war years, MGM issued Turner’s pinups to remind G.I.’s the world over what they were fighting for, and she did her part by touring on behalf of the government’s “Buy War Bonds” campaign, offering a kiss to any man who bought bonds worth $50,000 or more.

lana2TURNER ACHIEVED FAME AS AN ACTRESS IN FILMS SUCH AS DR JEKYLL AND MR HYDE, AND PEYTON PLACE, FOR WHICH SHE WAS NOMINATED FOR AN OSCAR.

Miss Turner won critical acclaim for “Ziegfeld Girl” in 1941, a milestone in her career because it was the first time she was taken seriously in a role. After the movie, MGM, recognizing her as a serious actress, began casting her opposite three legendary Hollywood leading men: Spencer Tracy, Clark Gable and Robert Taylor. She became one of Hollywood’s most popular romantic heroines and MGM’s most publicized star.

“On New Year’s Day, 1945, I became one of the most highly paid actresses in the world. My new contract paid me $4,000 a week, and by Hollywood ritual that meant it was time to buy a new home. I looked for a place in Bel-Air, a gracious section with handsome estates enclosed by Spanish- style adobe walls or ornate wrought-iron fences and sculptured hedges, and I found a lovely house hidden in the woods overlooking the ninth green of the Bel-Air Country Club. Sometimes golf balls smacked the windows or flew into the pool.

Whenever I retrieved one I would fine the player a quarter for going out of bounds. It gives me a chuckle to remember those startled faces.” Apart from her many films, Turner’s tumultuous personal life (seven husbands, eight marriages) ensured she was always in the public eye. She once aptly referred to her own journey as “a series of emergencies.” According to the actress herself, she wanted to get married once and have seven children, but it was the other way around.

Miss Turner’s sudden marriage to band leader Artie Shaw stunned her fans when they eloped to Las Vegas in 1940 for a union that lasted less than five months. Lana had become such a dedicated party girl that she was nicknamed the Queen of the Nightclubs. This was the peak of a certain kind of Hollywood hot spots like Ciro’s, The Brown Derby, The Coconut Grove - restaurants with full dance floors and nightly entertainment, where to simply show up was to be complicit in a narrative disseminated the next day in newspapers by photographers who roamed the floor or planted themselves by the door. Lana loved to stay out late, to dance and drink and flirt, but she also understood what it meant to have your photo in the newspaper every single morning, and she was all too happy to play her part in this show, dressing to the nines and delighting in making entrances.

“I had a special table right by the stairs so I could watch the comings and goings. I’d head straight there, never glancing right or left. And then, when I was seated, I’d give the room a long casing, bowing to this one or blowing that one a kiss. Silly, I guess, but fun.” Ciro’s was designed for dramatic entrances and exits because a long flight of stairs led down to the tables and dance floor. And at the top of the stairs – that’s where the stars stopped, to let everyone see them come in. It was all part of the game.

Everyone would stare, and you knew you were making an entrance. “I’d usually be dressed in something clingy, black or white, sometimes gold, occasionally red. I’d wear diamonds and a fur of some kind draped
over one shoulder. Often white fur, my favorite. Maybe ermine or silver fox, the fashionable furs at that time. Or sable. I had beautiful sables. I’d have jewels in my hair, or flowers, and every hair in place.”

The Stompanato Murder
Her second marriage, to Stephan Crane III, produced Miss Turner’s only child, Cheryl, who gained notoriety April 4, 1958, when she stabbed her mother’s then-boyfriend, John Stompanato, in the abdomen with a 10-inch kitchen knife.

Back in America Stompanato and Turner spent some time together in Mexico. Her career, which had been on the skids, seemed to be coming back. She was nominated for a Best Actress Oscar for Peyton Place, but she infuriated Stompanato when she told him that she would be taking her mother and her 14 year old daughter, Cheryl Crane, to the ceremony and not him. Turner knew that if she was going to keep her career
she would have to break things off with this mob palooka, but as you can imagine Stompanato wasn’t taking it kindly.

Johnny Stomp met his end on the night of April 4, 1958, Good Friday. With Cheryl, now 14, staying with Turner at the North Bedford house during her school’s Easter break, her mother told her, “This is it. I’m going to get rid of him. You stay in your room.” Crane tried to do homework, but she could not concentrate with the argument coming from her mother’s room. Crane went to the door and overheard Stompanato promising to menace Turner’s entire family, “making threats that he was going to cut her face.” Crane ran down to the kitchen, found a carving knife and dashed back upstairs, calling to her mother to open the door. When Turner opened the door, Crane saw Stompanato behind her mother with his arm upraised, still shouting. Crane moved past her mother and thrust the knife into his abdomen. He collapsed. Turner, aghast, called her mother, who picked up their physician and rushed him over to the mansion. But it was too late. Cheryl had cut Stompanato’s aorta and he bled out. The doctor advised Turner to call well-known defence lawyer-to-the-stars, Jerry Geisler, who contacted police. Beverly Hills police chief Clinton Anderson arrived to question Turner personally and said her first words to him were, “Can I take the blame for this horrible thing?”

Her stormy personal life, peppered by many marriages and publicized romances, was as lurid as many of her films, but her identity as a sex symbol served to insulate her career from scandal’s consequences.
According to Lana Turner, “A successful man is one who makes more money than his wife can spend. A successful woman is one who can find such a man”.

The Collector Issue 31

 

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