TURNER, LANA ( Julia Jean Mildred Frances Turner) (1920–1995) Actress
The epitome of the Hollywood glamour girl, Lana Turner was as famous for her melodramatic life as for her film performances. On February 8, 1920, she was born Julia Jean Mildred Frances Turner in Wallace, Idaho. Her family moved frequently as her father struggled to find work. When Julia was nine, he was murdered during a craps game. She and her mother subsequently moved first to San Francisco, then Los Angeles, where Julia attended Hollywood High School. An unenthusiastic student, 15-year-old Julia attracted the attention of Billy Wilkerson, the editor of the Hollywood Reporter, while she was cutting class. (Legend has it that they met at the lunch counter at Schwab’s drugstore, but some accounts cite other locations.) Wilkerson introduced her to Zeppo Marx of the Marx Brothers, who was then working as a casting director. Marx sent Turner to Warner Brothers producer Mervyn LeRoy. He was looking for a young actress who could project both sexiness and innocence. LeRoy placed her under contract and probably renamed her Lana, though Turner later claimed to have made up her stage name herself. Turner’s first film role was a small part in They Won’t Forget (1937). While attending a screening with her mother, Turner was horrified when male audiences began to whistle when she appeared on screen wearing a tight sweater. Her appearance was so memorable that she became known as the “sweater girl.”
After playing several more small roles, Turner followed LeRoy to Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM), She appeared in such films as Love Finds Andy Hardy (1938) and Rich Man, Poor Girl (1938) before winning her first starring role in Dancing Coed (1939). On the set, she met bandleader Artie Shaw, whom she wed on a whim in 1940. During their four-month marriage, Turner became pregnant, but had an illegal abortion under pressure by MGM. Shaw was the first of Turner’s seven husbands. She also had many high-profile lovers, including Clark Gable, Tyrone Power, and Howard Hughes. Turner’s reckless romantic life and her affection for the nightclub scene made her a regular feature in Hollywood gossip columns. While emerging as a major MGM star, Turner married entrepreneur Stephen Crane in 1941. Soon after she learned she was again pregnant, she discovered that Crane had never divorced his first wife. At MGM’s insistence, she married Crane after his divorce was finalized. She gave birth to a girl, Cheryl Crane, before dissolving the marriage. In 1946, Turner played Cora Smith in The Postman Always Rings Twice. Wearing white in most scenes, she exuded a sinister sexuality while looking like the girl next door. The movie solidified her image as a femme fatale. It also helped to make her a favorite pinup during the war years.
Though popular with moviegoers, Turner was considered more of a beauty than an actress. Hoping to be taken more seriously, she effectively played a troubled starlet in the hit The Bad and the Beautiful (1953). Turner also won praise starring as Constance MacKenzie in Peyton Place (1957). That performance earned Turner her only Academy Award nomination.In 1958, Turner found herself at the center of a nationwide scandal. On April 4, her daughter, Cheryl, stabbed and killed Johnny Stompanato, a mobster who was dating Turner, at her Beverly Hills home. A sensational trial followed, during which Turner’s explicit love letters to Stompanato were read as testimony.
The stabbing was determined to be a justifiable homicide because Cheryl believed the abusive Stompanato was going to kill her mother. Still, the scandal tarnished Turner’s reputation. Rumors spread that she herself had killed Stompanato, then forced Cheryl to take the rap. While Hollywood insiders debated over whether Turner’s career was over, she was asked to star in the melodrama Imitation of Life (1959) for Universal. Unsure about whether moviegoers were eager to see Turner, the studio required that she take a percentage of the profits rather than a salary up front. The deal was a boon to Turner, earning her $1 million when it became Universal’s most profitable film ever.
Crane, Cheryl, with Cliff Jahr. Detour: A Hollywood Story. New York: Arbor House, 1988.
Turner, Lana. Lana: The Lady, the Legend, the Truth. New York: Dutton, 1982.
Wayne, Jane Ellen. Lana: The Life and Loves of Lana Turner. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1995.
Recommended Recorded and Videotaped Performances
Peyton Place (1957). Twentieth Century-Fox, VHS, 1992.
Imitation of Life (1959). Universal, VHS, 1997.
The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946). Warner Home Video, VHS, 1996.