The FIR Vault

LANA TURNER

By • Aug 30th, 2013 • Pages: 1 2

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The original sweater girl

It’s easy to put down Lana Turner by calling her a non-actress whose beauty happened to photograph well and whose character deficiencies caused her private life to be a mess and a menace. But that’s not her whole story.

Beautiful girls from background far better than Miss Turner’s have given the world far less. It was the motion pictures, to be sure, that enabled Miss Turner’s beauty to illumine millions of prosaic lives world-wide. But Miss Turner also had the ability – ambition plus luck, if you prefer – to make herself the mistress as well as the servant of the motion picture. Unlike, for example, Marilyn Monroe. As for the charge that Miss Turner’s rise was merely “a climb from man to man,” it is necessary to remember her major character deficiencies were handed her, and were not, like her lesser ones, her own handiwork.

She was born on February 8, 1920, in a small mining town in northwestern Idaho named Wallace. Her father, Virgil, was an itinerant miner from Alabama, where he has been one of twelve children. At a Saturday night dance in Wallace he met a blue-eyed, brown-haired, 15-year-old miner’s daughter named Mildred Frances Cowan and shortly thereafter eloped with her to Missouri, where he again worked in mines. Her disapproving parents relented when she became pregnant and the Turners returned to Wallace. Their only child was christened Julia Jean Mildred Frances, and subsequently nicknamed Judy.

An early Warners publicity portrait

The Turner family’s existence was a nomadic, impoverished one from mining town to mining town. Virgil Turner’s sporadic attempts to escape from the bottom of a world he had never made included bootlegging and petty gambling, and he frequently had to change his name. His wife’s disillusion changed to scorn and he turned for affection to his little daughter, and Miss Turner still remembers her father with love – their waltzing around the room, and their singing together. It has been said her father was the only human creature she has ever truly loved, and that her excusing his moral infirmities led to the amorality which delimited, and disfigured, so much of her life.

When she was about eight years old her parents decided to try their luck in San Francisco, The trip was made in the cheapest of secondhand cars (a Star), and ended in the factory district of Daly City, a suburb of San Francisco toward the south. The only work Virgil Turner was able to obtain was stevedoring, and he spent as much time in crap games on the docks as he did handling cargoes. Not long after their arrival in the Bay city Mrs. Turner decided she had had enough; found work in a small beauty parlor; separated from Virgil; and boarded her daughter with a family in Modesto which treated the child, Miss Turner has always said, “as a scullery maid”.

In THE ADVENTURES OF MARCO POLO

These events coincided with the beginning of the Great Depression, and at the end of its first year (December ’30) Virgil Turner was found dead from a fractured skull, on a street corner in the part of San Francisco called Butchertown. He was 36. The police learned that he had been in an all-night crap game in the basement of the San Francisco “Chronicle”. “The shock I suffered then,” Miss Turner said many years later, “may be a valid excuse for me now may explain things I do not myself understand.”

After the murder of her husband Mrs. Turner brought her daughter back to live with her. For a time they lived with the owner of a beauty shop in the Richmond district for whom Mrs. Turner worked. At another juncture Mrs. Turner thought she’d found a job with better prospects in Sacramento, but it proved to be an even blinder alley, and she and her daughter returned to San Francisco.

It was during the bleak and seemingly hopeless years after Mr. Turner’s never-solved murder that the weaving of his daughter’s destiny began. First, she herself was transformed into a stunningly beautiful adolescent; second, Mrs. Turner met a woman named Gladys Heath who became “a wonderful friend” to the Turners. The phrase “wonderful friend”, used years later by Miss Turner, is not exactly a revealing description. Except for the assertion that Gladys Heath, having decided for reasons now unknown, to move to Los Angeles, prevailed on Mrs. Turner to make the move with her, have been unable to discover anything more explicit about Gladys Heath. Which is a shame, for it was she who caused the Turners to take the turn that led to Julia Jean Mildred Frances Turner becoming the movie star called Lana Turner.

Upon their arrival in Los Angeles Mrs. Turner went to work as a hairdresser and the two women, and Mrs. Turner’s daughter, lived together in a small apartment near Hollywood High School, in which the daughter was enrolled and was soon the talk of both faculty and student body. Five foot three; flawlessly built; possessed of large gray-blue eyes, light brown hair, a marvelous complexion and a fetchingly dimpled cheek, Judy Turner, as she was then called, was the envy of every girl and the goal of every boy.

With Tracy in DR. JEKYL & MR. HYDE

There have been many false publicity yarns about how Lana Turner was “discovered.” She was not seen by a “talent scout” seated on a stool in Schwab’s drugstore wearing a sweater (that version was probably invented by Schwab’s publicity man). But she was seen in an ice cream parlor across the street from Hollywood High School by Billy Wilkerson, founder and publisher of “The Hollywood Reporter,” whose office was a block or two away. Through Wilkerson she became a client of the talent agency run by Zeppo Marx which endeavored un successfully, throughout ’36, to interest a studio in her. The only nibble was a one-day ($25) job as an extra in the first version of A STAR IS BORN. David Selznick, who produced that excellent film, spurned the agency’s suggestion that he place her under contract.

In December of ’36 she was working as a salesgirl in a dress shop on Hollywood Boulevard when Soil Baiano, one of the finaglers in the Marx Agency, decided to include her in a group of young “types” he was peddling to casting directors. At Warners it was thought she might be right for a part in THEY WON’T FORGET, a “message picture” about Blacks in the South for which director Mervyn LeRoy was casting. The part was brief and required an appealing young girl to walk down a street in such a way that her breast bounced and her buttocks swayed. Miss Turner was nothing loath. The sweater she was given to wear set off her figure, and the shot of her walk was exactly what LeRoy wanted. He got her to sign a contract to work for him – not Warners – at $50 a week. He also changed her name to Lana Turner – Lana having been the name of a girl he had known years before.

With Robert Taylor in JOHNNY EAGER

THEY WON’T FORGET was released in June ’37 and audience reaction to Lana Turner’s brief scene convinced the Warner brass that she “had impact.” Their publicity department promoted her as “the sweater girl;” photographed her in flagrant cheesecake poses; and put her on exhibition sitting in nightclubs accompanied by males who also hoped they were on their way up. Billy Wilkerson featured her repeatedly in “The Hollywood Reporter” and asked his friends on other trade-papers to do the same; Sam Goldwyn borrowed her for a bit part in Marco Polo; and LeRoy used her as a scullery maid in THE GREAT GARRICK.

When, in ’38, LeRoy left Warners for MGM, he raised Miss Turner’s salary to $75 a week and took her with him. “She wanted to be in movies,” LeRoy said later, adding: “she did what a director told her do and learned fast. I sold her to MGM in a deal arranged by Benny Thau.” The first MGM picture in which she appeared was the third of Andy Hardy series, LOVE FINDS ANDY HARDY, the cast of which also included Judy Garland.

With Robert Young in SLIGHTLY DANGEROUS

MGM built the Lana Turner image skillfully. After the Andy Hardy film she was put in CALLING DR. KILDARE; in DANCING CO-ED with Artie Shaw; was featured in several production numbers in ZIEGFELD GIRL; was given the role of the sweet, innocent fiancée of Spencer Tracy in DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE; and was then co-starred with Clark Gable in HONKY TONK. The first real evidence that Lana Turner was learning to act was JOHNNY EAGER (’42). It was directed by LeRoy, had her play a society girl in love with a big-time gangster (Robert Taylor), and it can still be seen without pain. Then, after half a dozen box-offices like SOMEWHERE I’LL FIND YOU (with Gable); SLIGHTLY DANGEROUS (Robert Young); MARRIAGE IS A PRIVATE AFFAIR (John Hodiak); and WEEKEND AT THE WALDORF (all-star cast), she gave what many regard as her second best performance in THE POSTMAN ALWAYS RINGS TWICE, an excellent cinemation of the James Cain novel in which a woman conspires with her lover to murder her husband.

One result of all this was Miss Turner becoming top box-office and making almost a quarter of a million dollars a year, and being given the maximum play by MGM’s publicity promotion and advertising departments. More important, the films she was given were expensively mounted and elaborately cast, though all were not well written or well directed. At outstanding example of how elaborate, and second rate, the Lana Turner vehicles were at the pinnacle of her career is THE MERRY WIDOW (’52), in which she had the title role and Fernando Lamas co-starred. She was probably her most beautiful in that re-make of a tried-&-true soapera, but William Ludwig and Sonya Levien’s re-write of the original libretto was uninspired, and Curtis Bemhardt’s direction was lifeless.

With Garfield in THE POSTMAN ALWAYS RINGS TWICE

That film was followed, fortunately, by THE BAD AND THE BEAUTIFUL (’53), one of the better pictures about the denizens of Hollywood in its hey day. Under Vincente Minnelli’s knowing direction Miss Turner actually acted, and her performance in the opinion of many, is the best of her career. She plays a movie star who has been created by a ruthless producer (Kirk Douglas).

THE BAD AND THE BEAUTIFUL was released in ’53 and some think Miss Turner has been in nothing as good since, but I think she was better it PEYTON PLACE (her only Academy nomination) and MADAME X for which she won Italy’s best actress award. Both were more difficult role and in MADAME X she had to age 20 years. MGM did not renew her con tract in ’56 (all the studios were abdicating from the contract system) and a year later she played a mother though she was only 37 (PEYTON PLACE). Her last film to date, THE BIG CUBE (’69), was made in Mexico and has her play an aging actress whose daughter keeps weirdo company.

Only three of Miss Turner’s 5 films are memorable, but a much higher percentage of her so-called romances, and of her marriages, remain in the public mind.

With Gable in HOMECOMING

With Allyson in THE THREE MUSKETEERS

Her relationship with Billy Wilkerson, of “The Hollywood Reporter,” has already been mentioned. Through Wilkerson she met the well known Hollywood lawyer and fixer named Greg (for Gregson) Bautzer and through those two men she met figures in the underworld who flitted about the fringe of her life for many years and conduced to the outstanding tragedy of her life. Miss Turner hoped to marry Bautzer, whom she later characterized as an “escape artist,” and it was to spite him, it is thought, that she married Artie Shaw. They were married in La Vegas on the night of her 20th birthday, and Miss Turner was granted a divorce seven months later. It’s been said Shaw blamed Mrs. Turner, and the fact that MGM’s president, Louis B. Mayer, had persuaded Lana to have an abortion without Shaw’s knowledge.

With Milland in A LIFE OF HER OWN

It is also believed that Miss Turner, like many other actresses, had hopes of marrying Howard Hughes, and it was between her marriage to Shaw and her marriage to Josef Stephen Crane (July ’42) that she was seen in Hughes’ company, as well as in the company of Tony Martin, Tommy Dorsey, Robert Stack and Gene Krupa.

Crane introduced himself to her in a Hollywood nightclub (Mocambo). He was 27 and something of an adventurer from Crawforsville, IN. A month later they were married in Las Vegas by the same judge who had married Miss Turner and Shaw.

On December 8, ’42, Miss Turner announced that she was pregnant. Whereupon Crane’s first wife declared that her divorce from Crane would not be final until January 19 ’43. The newspapers had a field day and Miss Turner, who has considerable publicity savvy, fed the fire astutely. She had her marriage to Crane annulled; let it be though, she would not remarry him when his divorce became final; and on March 14, ’43, remarried him in Tijuana, Mexico.

Their child was born on July 25 ’43, and christened Cheryl Christine. She was an RH baby and transfusions were necessary during the first weeks of her life until all her blood was changed.

With Pinza in MR. IMPERIUM

In the following April Miss Turner sued for divorce. And in the ensuing months was ought to be more than casually interested in Frank Sinatra and Victor Mature, and to be about to marry Turhan Bey. In the fall of ’46 she “fell in love” with Tyrone Power and when, after a year of everyone thinking they would be married, he took up with Linda Christian whom he later married, a change in Miss Turner’s psyche was noted by those who knew her best, Said Louella Parsons: “I feel this is where Lana’s self-destructive impulses took over.”

A few weeks after Miss Parsons published her suspicion Miss Turner was named as co-respondent in the suit for divorce filed by Mrs. John Alden Talbot Jr., and was spending the Christmas ’47 holidays with her mother and daughter at the Round Hill CT home of millionaire Henry J. (“Bob”) Topping.

Topping was then separated from his third wife (Arline Judge), whose second husband had been his brother, Dan Topping, at one time pan owner of the New York Yankees. On April 23, ’48, Arline Judge won an uncontested divorce in Bridgeport CT and three days later Topping and Miss Turner were married in Billy Wilkerson’s Bel-Air “mansion” by Rev. Stewart P. MacLennan, a retired pastor of Hollywood’s First Presbyterian Church, who informed the press: “Lana is such a sweet girl here is a spiritual quality about her.”

With Douglas in THE BAD AND THE BEAUTIFUL

The Toppings honeymooned in Europe and while they were abroad it as announced that Miss Turner was pregnant and would retire from films. But on their return to the US the entered NYC’s Doctors Hospital and suffered a miscarriage. Then, for most two years, the Toppings led what they called a “domesticate life,” and in October ’50 she suffered another miscarriage. A few months thereafter Topping left her “to go fishing in Oregon,” and in Sepember ’51 their legal separation was announced. Several days after the announcement she was treated in the Hollywood Presbyterian Hospital for a laceration across the lower portion or her left arm. Miss Turner said she had been taking a shower and had fallen against its glass door. Two tendons had been cut, but not severed.

Despite all this, she and Femando Lamas, her co-star on THE MERRY WIDOW, were soon inseparable. They were scheduled to make another picture together (LATIN LOVERS) but sometime later, at a Marion Davies party, Lamas reportedly objected to Miss Turner’s drinking and her conduct with Lex Barker; publicly derided her lovemaking ability; and concluded with the suggestion that if she “must be intimate with Barker she not be so in public.” Wrote Louella Parsons: “I assume Lana was as shocked as all of us at some of the things Lamas is reported to have said.” A week before shooting on LATIN LOVERS was to start, MGM replaced Lamas with Ricardo Montalban.

With Wayne in THE SEA CHASE

Miss Turner’s divorce from Topping was obtained in Carson City NV on December 15, ’52. She is supposed to have received a settlement of $216,000 plus clear title to all the jewelry he had given her. Some years later she was quoted as having said that the only one of her marriages entered into for “security” had been the one with Topping.

At the time Lex Barker (né Alexander C. in Rye NY) first became “interested” in Lana Turner he was endeavoring to escape from the Tarzan image which had accounted for his rise in Hollywood, and from his second wife (Arlene Dahl), and had concluded that film work in Europe would abet both purposes. European producers, taking advantage of a US income tax regulation, which granted benefits to US citizens who worked abroad for 18 continuous months were having considerable success inducing US stars to work in Europe. So, when Barker told Miss Turner he was going to Europe, she decided to make THE FLAME AND THE FLESH abroad. It was shot in Italy and after it was finished she went to Holland and England to make BETRAYED with Clark Gable (his last for MGM) During the shooting of those pictures she and Barker were seen together in widely separated portions of Europe and in Turin, on September 8, ’53, they married, despite the fact that Barker’s divorce from Miss Dahl did not become final until a month thereafter. Lana’s daughter and Barker’s two children by his first wife (Constance Thurlow) were present.

They remarried in California in December ’53 and remained in Hollywood, Barker working at Universal-International in non-Tarzan roles. They maintained an 11-room house, staffed with a maid, cook, governess and gardener, but spent much of their leisure in Acapulco. There was talk of them doing a picture together, and, to everyone’s surprise, they seemed to have much in common until the spring of ’55, when the first intimations of discord appeared in the press. In ’56 they separated and Miss Turner sued for divorce.

With Lex Barker

In the spring of ’57 she began an affair with a John Stompanato, a one-time bodyguard of a notorious gambler and gangster known as Mickey Cohen. When her divorce from Barker became final (July ’57) Stompanato is said to have pressured her to marry him, and, when she indicated she had no such intention, she later claimed, he threatened to cut up her face or to kill her. No withstanding, she continued to see him and when she went to England to make ANOTHER TIME, ANOTHER PLACE, he followed her, and they later spent eight weeks together in Acapulco – at her expense.

On the night of April 4, ’58 (GOOD FRIDAY), Stompanato was stabbed in the abdomen and die almost at once – in Miss Turner Beverly Hills home. A coroner’s inquest established that a kitchen knife had punctured his liver and severed an artery and that the knife had been wielded by Cheryl Crane, Miss Turner’s 15-year-old daughter. The coroner’s jury, consisting of then men and two women, voted that the stabbing had been “justifiable homicide.” When the verdict was announced an unidentified man arose and exclaimed that Cheryl Crane had stabbed Stompanato not to protect her mother but because of jealousy over Stompanato between mother and daughter. The girl was made a ward of the Juvenile Court and a year later was sent to one of California’s correctional institution (El Retiro). A dozen of Miss Turner’s letters to Stompanato, in which she professed love for him, were given, or sold, to “The Los Angeles Herald-Examiner” by Mickey Cohen and published by it and other US newspapers. Cheryl twice “escaped’ from El Retiro.

With Burton in THE RAINS OF RANCHIPUR

These horrible events produced pause in Miss Turner’s customary behavior, but not for long, and on November 27, ’60, she married Fred May in Santa Monica’s Miramar Hotel. He was 43 and a horse breeder-trainer-owner with a ranch at Chino CA. She got a Mexican divorce from him in October ’62. In January ’65 she married a 34-year old would-be film producer named Robert Eaton, who after they divorced in April ’69, wrote an alleged novel entitled THE BODY BROKERS, in which a 45-year old movie star and her “disturbed” daughter push a man, who won’t sleep with both simultaneously, off a cliff, and get away with it. A month after divorcing Eaton (April 1, ’69) Miss Turner married Ronald Dante, who was described at the time as a “39-year-old nightclub hypnotist.” They separated six months later and she sued him to regain $35,000 she said he had defrauded her of. He threatened to reveal intimate details about her and is supposed to have subsequently received “a settlement” of around $200,000.

Miss Turner’s last film, THE BIG CUBE, is a cheap, Mexico-math abomination which exploited the weirdo company kept by an aging actress’ daughter that was made in the days of husband No. 6’s ambitions to be a producer. Thereafter she was in a television series entitled The Survivors that was so bad it was withdrawn, but her appearance, live, in a summer (’71) stock production of Forty Carats, a comedy about 40-year old woman in love with young man, enjoyed some success.

Miss Turner’s mother, who is only 17 years older, is still alive. Cheryl, who has never married, works in a restaurant owned and operated by her father (who has remarried several times). At premieres and parties Miss Turner has most recently been escorted by a Taylor Pero, who is described as her “secretary-companion.” She is currently said to believe in reincarnation.

“The real Lana Turner is the Lana Turner everyone knows about,” says Adela Rogers St. John, one of the more knowledgeable writers about Hollywood in its heyday. “She always wanted to be a Movie Star, and loved being one. Her personal life and her Movie Star life are one.”

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