You Must Remember This: Lana Turner, Cheryl Crane, and Johnny Stompanato.

How Hollywood Turned Lana Turner’s Personal Tragedies Into Box Office Gold

How Hollywood Turned Lana Turner’s Personal Tragedies Into Box Office Gold

The secret history of Hollywood.
Dec. 4 2015 8:06 PM

The Movie Star, the Gangster Boyfriend, and the Daughter With a Knife

Lana Turner and the movies that turned her personal tragedies into box office gold.

Lana Turner
Lana Turner in a publicity portrait from 1944.

Photo by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer/Getty Images

You Must Remember This, the podcast that tells the secret and forgotten history of 20th-century Hollywood, has joined Panoply. And when each episode airs, creator and host Karina Longworth will share some of the research that went into the episode in a transcript excerpt here on Slate. Listen to the complete Episode 12 below, and subscribe to You Must Remember This on iTunes.

Lana Turner is one movie star whose off-screen life was a lot more interesting than most of her movies, and she was definitely an exception to the rule at MGM, in that she didn’t need the studio to create a fake image for her. She didn’t need to be groomed or made over—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.

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For 20 years, Turner worked hard and played harder, often to the annoyance of the studios that employed her. To regain control, producers formulated movie vehicles for Turner that borrowed the circumstances of the actress’s real life. This is one matter when it comes to art imitating an adult woman’s life, even when that woman’s life encompassed a number of scandalous relationships; it would be another matter when the movies started to imitate Lana Turner’s daughter’s life. By the time Cheryl Crane was 14, and watching her unstable home life reflected back to her in one of her mother’s biggest hit movies, reality and fantasy must have seemed pretty confused. Within weeks, Cheryl was on the cover of every newspaper in town for murdering her mother’s boyfriend—a shocking twist of real life that was certainly stranger than fiction.

By 1940, after her first marriage to bandleader Artie Shaw dissolved, 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 spot—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 by now 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.

Turner’s love life during this time is a tricky thing to figure out. Everyone she was photographed with, on the clock or off, was rumored to be her new lover. I don’t know who Turner actually had sex with, and I don’t really care. All that matters, I think, is that the idea of her as a maneater was in the culture then, to the extent that Carole Lombard apparently got on the plane that would bring her to her death because she thought her husband couldn’t be trusted to work with Turner while his wife was out of town, and that it persists to this day, because it was the role Turner looked like she was born to play.

If affairs are tough to document, marriages are a matter of public record, and Lana had eight marriages to seven men, nearly all of them marked by some kind of wishful thinking or failure of judgment on Turner’s part. About two years after her split from Artie Shaw, Lana eloped, annulled her marriage with, re-eloped with, and divorced a nobody from nowhere named Steve Crane (who would go on to launch a successful chain of Polynesian restaurants). But she came out of that marriage with the baby she desperately wanted after having been forced to abort Artie Shaw’s child when they split up. Cheryl Crane, Lana’s daughter, would spend much of her childhood raised by governesses and her grandmother—it was a full year before she and her mom were ever alone together—and she’d spend her entire childhood and much of her adulthood meeting new friends of Mommy’s.

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By 1956, Turner was out at MGM. When she got an offer to lend her star power to the film adaptation of the hit novel Peyton Place, she wasn’t in the position to turn the part down, because she needed the money. In her autobiography, Lana called the part of Connie, a glamorous yet extremely buttoned-up single mother of a teenage girl in a small town, “a departure.” What she meant by that is that to play the mother of a teenage daughter would be to acknowledge that she was old enough to be the mother of a teenage daughter—that she was, in fact, the mother of a teenage daughter. In her autobiography, Cheryl wrote of her mother’s work in Peyton Place, “I knew why her acting was so good. It wasn’t acting.”

In Peyton Place, Turner would play a woman who fronts as if she’s beyond sex, but she does it only because she’s hiding a secret, reckless romantic past. The parallels to Turner’s real life went beyond the fact that, like Connie, Lana had had a child with a man who she wasn’t destined to be with in the long run. For one thing, on screen Lana’s character is so concerned with appearances that she and her daughter have a falling out over the mother’s false impression that the daughter had risked their reputation. This superficiality was familiar to Cheryl Crane, who grew up knowing how to present herself to dinner guests. When Cheryl saw the movie, and watched her mother look at the actress playing her daughter with disapproval, it was like déjà vu. There’s also the fact that Peyton Place’s plot turns on the rape of a beautiful teenage girl by her crude stepfather, mirroring the abusive nightmare Cheryl lived through with Turner’s fourth husband, Lex Barker.

Peyton Place was released in December 1957. It became the second-highest grossing film of 1958, and it was nominated for nine Oscars—and for the first and only time, Lana was included in the nominations. She found out about the honor while she was vacationing in Mexico with Johnny Stompanato, her boyfriend of about a year. Stompanato was a low-level gangster, an associate of Mickey Cohen. In Mexico, the already abusive Stompanato started threatening Lana at gunpoint almost daily. Sometimes he told her he could have her mother and daughter killed. Sometimes he told her that he would kill himself if she managed to leave him. Every time, Lana became a little bit more scared. But she was still determined to figure this out for herself, without asking for help, because, as she put it, “Underlying everything was my shame. I was so ashamed. I didn’t want anybody to know my predicament, how foolish I’d been, how I’d taken him at face value and been completely duped.” This was a woman who was mockingly posited by the international press as an aging sex bomb with terrible taste in men. Her fear of living up to that image kept her in danger.

They returned to Los Angeles. John wasn’t happy that Lana didn’t want to take him to the Oscars, but he allowed her to take her daughter instead. Lana didn’t win, but she and Cheryl had an incredible night, dancing and drinking champagne into the wee hours.

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A week after the Academy Awards, Lana and Cheryl moved into a new house in Beverly Hills. John was still hanging around. On Good Friday, Cheryl was up in her room when she heard Lana and John arguing. “You damn bitch,” Cheryl heard John yell. “You’re not getting rid of me that easy. I’ll cut you up!” She came down to investigate, but Lana told Cheryl to go back to her bedroom. As she walked away, Cheryl could hear John continue to threaten her mother. “Wherever you go, I’ll find you. If someone makes a living with their hands, break their hands. If someone makes a living with her face, destroy her face. I’ll cut you good, baby. You’ll never work again. And don’t think I won’t also get your mother and your kid. I have people to do the job for me—and I’ll watch.”

Cheryl didn’t go back to her bedroom. She ran downstairs, and in the kitchen, she saw, among a bunch of household items that her mother had just bought that day, a brand new kitchen knife. Cheryl had never used a kitchen before, let alone a knife, but she instinctively grabbed it. “Scare him,” she thought. “That’s it. Scare him.”

Cheryl went upstairs and banged on her mother’s bedroom door. She heard John threaten her mother: “Cunt, you’re dead!” Lana was crying and wailing, begging John to leave. Suddenly the door to the bedroom flew open. Cheryl could see that John was behind her mother, that he had his hands raised like he was about to hit her. Cheryl stepped forward with the knife in her hand, and John moved right into it. She wrote, “For three ghastly heartbeats, our bodies fused.” Their eyes locked, too, and John stared at her as he asked, “My God, Cheryl, what have you done?” He pulled backward off the knife, and still looking straight at Cheryl, fell to the ground. The 14-year-old dropped the knife and ran into her bedroom, where she curled up into a ball and cried. Lana wasn’t sure what had just happened. She saw that John’s sweater was cut, and when she lifted it up, blood started gushing out.

The inquest declared that the crime had been justifiable homicide, and the DA decided not to prosecute for murder. Lana Turner was now in massive debt. Cheryl’s legal bills had averaged $1,000 a day during the whole ordeal, Lana still owed money to MGM, and after being branded the mother of a murderess in the media, she had no idea if anyone would want to cast her again. But Ross Hunter did.

Universal’s producer of lavish melodramas approached Turner about starring in Douglas Sirk’s remake of Imitation of Life, about two single moms, one white and one black, and their respective struggles with their teenage daughters. Hunter was transparent about his interest in the ways in which the material would play on what the public knew about Lana’s real life. To exaggerate them, in this version of the story Lana’s character would be an actress whose career causes her to neglect her daughter—until her daughter becomes involved with the mother’s boyfriend. Lana took the job for the paltry salary of $2,500 a week, but negotiated a then-uncommon deal that would net her a portion of the film’s profits.

Cheryl felt extremely hurt by the ways in which Imitation of Life referenced her real-life mother-daughter troubles, but she went along with the studio’s plan to include her and her supposedly tight bond with Lana in the publicity because she was afraid not to. Imitation of Life became a huge hit, by some reports rescuing a struggling Universal and netting Turner more than $5 million in its first year of release. But it made Cheryl feel colder toward her mother, and the next few years were tough. Cheryl would end up in a disciplinary school, and then what she called “a luxurious asylum” before she was 18. Lana would marry three more times over the next 10 years. She’d never have another hit like Imitation of Life, and she’d make her last film in 1980. Cheryl would eventually find her calling working in her father’s restaurant; she came out as a lesbian as a teenager, and at a party at Marlon Brando’s house in 1968 she met Josh LeRoy—a woman who is still her partner today. Cheryl and Lana were close by the time Lana died at age 74 in 1995.

*Correction, Dec. 5, 2015: This article originally misspelled Josh LeRoy’s last name.

Karina Longworth is the creator and host of You Must Remember This, a podcast about the secret and forgotten history of Hollywood’s first century. She is the author of books about George Lucas, Al Pacino, and Meryl Streep and has contributed to LA Weekly, the Guardian, NPR, Vulture, and other publications.