The Bad and the Beautiful: Lana Turner and the murder of Johnny Stompanato

“I raced down the stairs in a panic…I ran through the kitchen door. On the sink lay a gleaming butcher knife…I grabbed the knife, ran upstairs and had it beside the door.” Cheryl Crane in Detour (1988)

“I shake my head defeated. What happened I can never forget, but why it happened, I’ll never really understand. I was weak, I’ll admit it, but I never meant anybody any harm – God is my witness to the truth of that." Lana Turner.

Fifty years ago, Hollywood was rocked by a scandal involving Love Goddess Lana Turner. While scandal was nothing new in Hollywood, this was something the town had never seen before. Lana's lover Johnny Stompanato had been stabbed by her daughter Cheryl Crane.

It seemed like every decade there was some new scandal, each one bigger than the one before. In the twenties, there was the unsolved murder of William Desmond Taylor and the rape trial of Fatty Arbuckle, in the thirties, the death of Jean Harlow's husband Paul Bern, the forties brought the antics of Errol Flynn. But there was something particularly unsavory and scandalous about the murder of Johnny Stompanato. Already in the 1950's, Hollywood had had to deal with the spector of the House Unamerican Activities Committe probing into Communist infiltration into the movie business, the rise of scandal magazines like Confidential (the precursor to such modern tabloids such as The Star and The National Enquirer) and the erosion of the studio's power by the onset of television.

Lana Turner was born Julia Jean Mildred Frances Turner on February 8, 1921, in Wallace, Idaho. Like a lot of Scandalous Women, Lana had a troubled homelife. Her father, Virgil, was a gambler and bootlegger who was murdered when she was a child. Her mother seemed incapable of taking care of her, Lana bounced around from one miserable foster home to another until her mother moved the family to Los Angeles, where she found work as a hairdresser. The constant moving, and the death of her father, left a hole in Lana that she spent a lifetime trying to fill. Young Judy as she was called attended Hollywood High. She was discovered at the age of 15 sipping a soda at the Top Hat Café by Billy Wilkerson of The Hollywood Reporter while cutting school.

Soon she was part of the Hollywood machine, signed under contract to MGM. They changed her name to Lana and her hair color from auburn to platinum blonde. Lana was five foot three, with a perfect figure of 35-23-35. She became a top star in the 1940’s although she was no great shakes as an actress, the wax mannequins at Madame Tussaud's showed more emotion on screen. A reviewer in Time magazine once said about Lana, 'In any posture, Lana suggests she is looking up from a pillow.' Apart from The Postman Always Rings Twice, most of the 40 films Lana made by the time she hit her thirties were forgettable . She was at her best when she played a role similar to her, morally ambiguous roles, where the women made bad choices, usually involving men.

What she was good at was getting married, 4 times by the time she had turned 30. In fact, Lana was known more for her love life than she was for her appearances on screen. She was called 'The Nightclub Queen,' in the press. Men were Lana's weakness, her kryptonite as it were. "I find men terribly exciting," she once said. "Any girl who says she doesn't is an anemic old maid, a streetwalker, or a saint." An executive at MGM studios once said, “She was amoral. If she saw a stagehand with tight pants and a muscular build, she’d invite him into her dressing room.”

Her first boyfriend was Mickey Rooney who allegedly not only relieved her of her virginity but also got her pregnant leading to her first abortion. Her first husband Artie Shaw, she married impetuously on their first date. His ego was bigger than the Hollywood Sign, treated her cruelly, as he considered her intellectually inferior. Second husband, Stephen Crane, the father of her only child, was a restaurant owner. The marriage didn’t last. Fourth marriage to Lex Barker lasted four tempestuous years but she divorced him for mental cruelty after throwing him out when she realized that he was sexually molesting her daughter Cheryl. Along the way there were other lovers from Clark Gable to Tyrone Power. Lana was madly in love with Power who refused to leave his wife, despite Lana getting pregnant with his child, leading to Lana's second abortion.

Even as a mother, Lana was no great shakes. Children were seen as necessary accessories for most Hollywood stars, to be trotted out for magazine appearances, and then hidden away so that they didn't detract from Mommy and Daddy's image. In Lana's case, her relationship with Cheryl was particularly fraught. She alternately infantilized her, or treated her like she was on the verge of becoming world's biggest slut. Clearly, she was trying to avoid Cheryl turning into Lana 2.0.

Lana was a low point when she met Johnny Stompanato. MGM had let her go, and her last romance with Fernando Lamas had fizzled faster than her career. Johnny was dangerous and exciting. Although he told her that he was 43, in reality he was 32, five years younger than Lana. Stompanato worked for Mickey Cohen as an errand boy and had lived off of rich women before he met Lana. Tall, and good looking in a slick way, he wore his shirts open to his naval, like some kind of caricature of an Italian gigolo. His nickname around town was 'Handsome Harry' and the rumor was that he was incredibly well endowed.

Like Lana, he had been married a few times. He also had a son who lived with his mother back home in Illinois. After attending military school, he had served in the marines during WWII. After the war, he stayed behind, claiming that he had run nightclubs in China. After returning to the States, he and the Turkish woman he married, divorced and he moved to Los Angeles, hoping to break into the movie business either as an actor or a producer. Cohen hired Stompanato as a bouncer and personal body guard.

The romance started in spring of 1957. Out of nowhere, Lana began receiving phone calls, flowers and messages from someone calling himself John Steele who wanted to meet her. She said no, but he was persistent. Lana liked to call the shots with her men, but John Steele turned up on her doorstep unannounced. Before long, Lana couldn’t help but be flattered by the gifts and his personal knowledge of her.

Stompanato was smart, he used her daughter Cheryl as a ploy by suggesting that she might like to try out the horse that he had just purchased. The flirtation continued during the filming of Peyton Place, based on the best selling novel. Lana had been reluctant to do the film, claiming that she was too young to be the mother of a teenager on screen (forgetting the fact that she was the mother of one in real life!). In the film, she played Constance McKenzie, the mother of an illegitimate daughter, a fact she's concealed from her and the entire town. Although the movie wasn't a critical success, it was box office gold, reestablishing Lana as a major star, reviving her career.

Soon Lana discovered that Steele’s real name was Stompanato and that he worked for gangster Mickey Cohen who had taken over the rackets in Los Angeles after the death of Bugsy Siegel. Lana knew that her reputation would suffer if it got out that she was dating someone mob-related. When Lana realized exactly who she was dealing with, she tried to cool down the relationship. She dated others, but Johnny persisted. Now he wanted her to help him become a producer. One night, he climbed into her apartment by scaling the fire escape and tried to smother her. She threatened to call the police, but it was an idle threat. More than anything, Lana feared the bad publicity that would ensue.

Lana was hired to make the film Another Time, Another Place in England, starring a very young and handsome Sean Connery. Stompanato wanted to accompany her but she refused. However, when she got to England, loneliness overwhelmed her, and she called for him to come join her. At first things were good between the two lovers, but after awhile, Johnny became bored with sightseeing. He wanted to spend time with Lana on set. Lana, of course, was worried about people finding out. They had a huge fight during which he attempted to strangle her. Only the intervention of her maid saved her life. Lana had had enough. She called and had Johnny deported.

Unfortunately for everyone, Lana couldn’t stay away from Stompanato. She continued to write to him, letters that were used against her, after Johnny's death by Mickey Cohen. In one of her letters she mentioned that she was going to vacation in Mexico after the film shoot was over. Johnny met her plane in Copenhagen and joined her in Mexico. While in Mexico, Lana learned that she had been nominated for Best Actress for her role as Constance McKenzie in Peyton Place. It would be her only Oscar nomination.

Ecstatic, Lana rented a fully-furnished house on North Bedford Drive in Hollywood. While she waited for her lease to start, she stayed in a bungalow at the Bel-Air hotel. On the night of the Oscars, Lana was accompanied by her daughter and her mother. There was no way in hell that Lana was going to allow Johnny to accompany her, much to his fury. Lana lost the award to Joanne Woodward for her role in The Three Faces of Eve, but Lana was happy to be the center of attention once again. Lana and her daughter Cheryl stayed up for hours after the awards talking. After saying goodnight to her daughter, Lana discovered Johnny waiting for her in another room. They got into a huge argument which left Lana badly bruised and shaken. For the first time, Lana confided in Cheryl that Johnny had become violent. Cheryl begged her mother to call the police, but Lana refused.

Why didn't Lana break things off for good once Johnny started getting physical with her? Two reasons, Lana was afraid of the bad publicity that would ensue, if it got out not only that her boyfriend was possibly mobbed up, but that he was beating her as well. There was no studio behind her anymore, willing and able to sweep the dirt under the carpet. And the second reason was that Lana claimed that Johnny had threatened to harm not only her, but Cheryl and her mother as well.

Things finally came to head on the night of Good Friday, April 4, 1958, which forever after Lana would refer to as ‘the happening.’ Stompanato, jealous as ever, hovered over Lana as she got ready to move into her new home, even following her to the hardware store as she chose new china. A friend of Lana's, her makeup man, Del Armstrong and stopped by in the afternoon for drinks with a friend of his, C. William Brooks II. When Johnny left, Brooks mentioned that he and Johnny had attended the same military academy. It was then that Lana learned that her boyfriend was only 33, not 43 as he had claimed.

When Johnny returned that night, it was clear that he was aching for a fight. Lana, worried, ordered Cheryl to go to her room. For the first time, Cheryl saw Johnny's rage and it frightened her. 'His neck veins stood out and he breathed from one side of his mouth. He hunched his shoulders as though he were going to pull out a pair of six-shooters, while the hands at his sides clenched and writhed like a snake's tail in death.'

The two fought, Lana insisting that the relationship was now over. Reportedly, Johnny threatened to scar Lana for life. Lana later wrote that he told her "I would have to do any and everything that he told me, or he would cut my face or cripple me and if it went beyond that he would kill me and my daughter and my mother.' Cheryl, hysterical, banged on the door, begging her mother to let her in. While the two fought upstairs, Cheryl went downstairs to the kitchen to get a knife to protect her mother. Running back upstairs, she held the knife in her hand. When Lana finally opened the door, all Cheryl saw was Johnny looming over her mother with something in his hand. "Mother stood there, her hand on the knob," Cheryl wrote in Detour. "He was coming at her from behind, his arm raised to strike. I took a step forward and lifted the weapon. He ran on the blade. It went in. In! For three ghastly heartbeats our bodies fused. He looked straight at me, unblinking.' The wound was fatal, the knife sliced a kidney, striking a vertebra which punctured his aorta.

As Cheryl, shocked, stepped back, Johnny apparently gasped “My God, Cheryl, what have you done?” before falling to the floor. Lana, although hysterical, still had the presence of mind to call her mother who then called the doctor. After pronouncing Stompanato dead, he suggested that she call Jerry Geisler, a lawyer who was the Mark Geist of his day. Geisler was the one who called the police thirty minutes after the stabbing. When Mickey Cohen heard the news that Johnny was dead, he too rushed over to Lana’s house, but Geisler told him to get lost. Cohen, who had no love for Lana, never believed the story that Cheryl had killed Stompanato.

Lana feared that Cohen would retaliate against her and Cheryl. Meanwhile Cohen was pissed at the way the wagons circled around Lana to protect her. Mickey released to the press love notes that Lana had written to Stompanato that seemed to contradict her story that Johnny had threatened her if she tried to leave him.

My beloved love (Lana wrote), just this morning your precious exciting letter arrived. Every line warms me and makes me ache and miss you each tiny moment. It's beautiful—yet terrible . . . I'm your woman and I need you, my man! To love and be loved by—don't ever, ever doubt or forget that! My romance, hah! It's a hell of a lot more than that! That's for sure. I need to touch you, feel your tenderness and your strength. To hold you in my arms, so, so close—to cuddle you sweetly—and then to be completely smothered in your arms, and kisses, oh, so many kisses!

However, his scheme backfired as public opinion was firmly on Lana’s side. Cheryl, meanwhile, was being held at Juvenile Hall. At the coroner’s inquest, Cheryl did not testify on the grounds that it might further traumatize her. Her mother however did, giving the performance of her life. Camera jammed the courtroom. Lana made a dramatic entrance with her ex-husband Stephen Crane on one side, and her lawyer Jerry Geisler on the other, dressed in a gray silk suit.

Lana answered questions for the jury for an hour, twice breaking down into tears. When the judge called a recess, an emotionally drained Lana swooned in front of the press. Police questioned why the murder weapon, supposedly a brand new knife, had been scratched and chipped. There was also the question as to why there were no fingerprints on the knife, or blood on Lana or the carpet. Unexplained hairs and fibers on the knife remained just that, unexplained. None of these questions were ever resolved.

At one point during the inquest, an onlooker shouted out “Lies, all lies! The mother and daughter were both in love with Stompanato!” The unidentified man was quickly removed from the courtroom. It was alleged that he had been planted by Mickey Cohen. After only a half hour, the jurors reached the unanimous decision that it was a case of justifiable homicide, that Cheryl had used deadly force because she feared for her mother’s life. No criminal charges were filed but Stompanato’s family later filed a civil suit for damages which was settled out of court.
However, the district attorney did begin legal proceedings to determine whether or not Lana Turner’s was a fit parent. The outcome was that Cheryl became a ward of the court. For the next two years, she lived with her grandmother but the trauma never left her. She began getting into trouble, running up speeding tickets, and hanging out in nightclubs under age, ending up in reform school for almost a year. After she was released, she returned to live with her grandmother, but ran away twice. Finally, she was transferred to Institute of Living in Hartford, CT by her parents. While she was there, Cheryl tried to escape twice and later tried to commit suicide.

After she became an adult, Cheryl would go to work for her father for several years. She and her mother managed for forge an uneasy relationship before Lana’s death. She now lives on Hawaii with her partner of many years, a woman named Josh. As for Lana, she made a few movies such as Imitation of Life and the Story of Madame X but the sixties were not good to the former star. Moviegoers tastes changed, and the kinds of epic womens pictures that she had made with Ross Hunter were no longer in favor. She married twice more, starred in several forgettable films, before turning to television. She had a brief stint on Falcon Crest before retiring and writing her memoirs. She died in 1995 at the age of 75.

But the scandal wouldn’t die. Harold Robbins wrote a best-selling novel Where Love Has Gone about the case, which was later made into a movie with Susan Hayward and Joey Heatherton. To this day, there are people who insist that Lana was the one who murdered Stompanato, that she was jealous of his attentions to Cheryl, and that Cheryl took the rap because she was a juvenile. But both Lana and Cheryl stuck to the story they told police in their respective autobiographies. As recently as 2001, Cheryl Crane told Larry King on his show that she was the one to stab Johnny, but the rumors still continue.

Detour - Cheryl Crane
Hollywood Book of Scandals - James Robert Parrish
The Bad and the Beautiful - Sam Kashner & Jennifer McNair
The Golden Girls of MGM - Jane Ellen Wayne
Lana, the Lady, the Legend, the Truth - Lana Turner


Excellent post.

If you haven't, you might want to check out the work of Megan Abbott. Particularly her novel The Song Is You, about the disappearance of Jean Spangler in 1949, and her anthology of women in noir short stories, A Hell of A Woman. I think you might like them.
Thanks Stephen. I've never heard of the book but it sounds interesting.

And thanks Eliza for the compliment. I've always found this story particularly compelling. Although Lana and Cheryl had a tempestuous relationship, she defended her mother, when they thought she was in danger. That must have been particularly hard on Cheryl, particularly after years of sexual abuse by Lex Barker.
Bearded Lady said…
Great post. Funny how murderes always use that old "he ran at the blade" excuse. If I saw a big knife coming at me then the last thing on my mind would be to fling my body onto it.

And that picture of Johnny Stompanato cracks me up. He is such a caricature of the swarmy playboy!
Rover said…
Lana Turner's life was like Marilyn Monroe's in many ways - a troubled childhood going from foster home to foster home, the beautiful blonde girl being discovered by Hollywood, a series of troubled relationships with abusive men.

A very 1950's Hollywood story.
I agree Caroline, the only difference between Lana and Marilyn was that Lana was a survivor whereas I don't think that Marilyn ever got over her displacement or the fear that she would end up like her own mother. I think it weighed on her and being used by the Kennedys (among others, I include the Strasbergs in this)destroyed her, although I've always thought that Marilyn didn't mean to die that night.
Poor Cheryl. I feel so sorry for her.
Apart from Johnny, I think the true victim in all this was Cheryl. After finding out about the abuse that Cheryl suffered at the hands of Lex Barker, Lana should have been more attentive as a mother, or at least tried to get Cheryl help. She certainly shouldn't have brought someone like Johnny Stompanato into their lives.
Anonymous said…
Ross Hunter told Columnist Shirley eder from Detroit that during the Press Junkets tour for "Imitation of Life" Lana Turner received death threats and was even Shot at! and he said the only reason he hired her was because of the Stamponato case, he said no one would touch her and he thought it would sell tickets...
John said…
Stompanato was not so much killed as flushed.

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