Actress Lana Turner – the idol of every girl who dreamed of being discovered for stardom and whose scandal-plagued offscreen life often eclipsed her career – died June 29 of throat cancer at her home in Los Angeles, after years of treatment. She was 75.
Her daughter, Cheryl Crane, was at her side. Crane told Daily Variety columnist Army Archerd, “She was doing fine. This was a total shock. She’d completed seven weeks of radiation a short while ago, and it looked like she was fine. She just took a breath and – she was gone.”
Turner was a glamour queen in the old tradition of Hollywood, who was often cast in a series of melodramas that seemed designed to showcase her impeccable grooming and gowns as much as her talent.
Nevertheless, the actress turned in several memorable performances, including “The Postman Always Rings Twice,” “The Bad and the Beautiful,” “Imitation of Life” and her Oscar-nominated work in “Peyton Place.”
Early in her career, she was also tagged “The Sweater Girl” for her buxom good looks, and became a symbol of instant stardom with the widely accepted, but incorrect, story that she was discovered sitting at a soda fountain in Schwab’s drug store in Hollywood.
The glamorous blonde was a permanent fixture in Hollywood gossip columns for her many marriages and torrid affairs.
However, the most notorious incident in her offscreen life was the 1958 murder of her boyfriend, Johnny Stompanato, by 15-year-old daughter Cheryl Crane. The fatal stabbing quickly took its permanent place in the annals of major Hollywood scandals and was played out in newspapers and on television for years afterwards.
But Turner was a movie star first and foremost, one of the most celebrated women in the MGM stable, from her discovery in 1936 to the end of her tenure on the Culver City lot in the mid-’50s.
She was born Julia Jean Mildred Frances Turner (nicknamed Judy) in the small mining town of Wallace, Idaho, on Feb. 8,1920.
After her parents separated, Turner was boarded with a family in Modesto, but returned to her mother after her itinerant father was found dead from a fractured skull in San Francisco.
Turner said she was first sighted at a soda fountain, the Top Hat Cafe, across the street from Hollywood High School by W.R. Wilkerson, the publisher of the Hollywood Reporter, which led to her being signed by a talent agency run by Zeppo Marx.
Her first professional appearance was as an extra in “A Star is Born,” for $25. Director Mervyn LeRoy doubled her salary for a small role in Warner Bros.’ 1937 “They Won’t Forget” as a flirtatious young woman in a tight sweater.
The studio machine then kicked into overdrive, selling “The Sweater Girl” to the public and placing her on the arm of up-and-coming handsome male hopefuls. LeRoy changed her name to Lana and she soon segued from being a brunette to an incendiary blonde.
When LeRoy left Warners to go to MGM, he took Turner with him and upped her salary to $75 a week. Her first assignment there was in 1938’s “Love Finds Andy Hardy,” with Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland.
By the time she was 20, she had already married and divorced bandleader Artie Shaw and had a highly publicized affair with lawyer Greg Bautzer (who later arranged her divorce from Shaw).
The studio slowly groomed her with increasingly larger roles opposite some of its top leading men, such as Spencer Tracy (1941’s “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde”) and Clark Gable (“Honky Tonk”).
Although she was always famous for her beauty, the studio’s attempt to make a “lady” of her onscreen was never very interesting, with few exceptions such as LeRoy’s “Johnny Eager.” She was far better and more believable in more risque roles such as the larcenous, frustrated housewife (all in white) in 1946’s “Postman.”
Although she didn’t work at the same pace as other MGM stars, by the late ’40s she was earning almost $250,000 a year.
Other films of the period include “Ziegfeld Girl,” the ’45 “Grand Hotel” remake “Weekend at the Waldorf,” “Green Dolphin Street” and “Cass Timberlane.”
Her productions all boasted superior production values, if not always the best scripts (“The Three Musketeers” in 1948, or “The Merry Widow” in ’52).
The exceptions included Vincente Minnelli’s “The Bad and the Beautiful,” in which she played a self-destructive actress, and “Peyton Place,” based on Grace Metallious’ racy bestseller, in which she played a sexually repressed mother. It brought Turner her only Academy Award nomination.
But by the ’50s her private life was much more interesting than anything she did on screen. She had been married and divorced from Shaw; Stephen Crane (twice), the father of her only child; millionaire Henry J. (Bob) Topping; and actor Lex Barker, whom Crane accused of molesting her in her 1988 memoirs “Detour.”
Turner’s affair with Stompanato, whom she had met as John Steele and who reputedly had mob ties, ended tragically on April 4,1958, after he and Turner had an argument at her Beverly Hills home. Crane testified she stabbed him because she feared for her mother’s life and was exonerated on grounds of justifiable homicide.
The story spawned a number of books, including accounts by Turner and Crane. Harold Robbins’ novel “Where Love Has Gone,” which was filmed with Susan Hayward and Joey Heatherton, was loosely based on the incident. (Turner condemned Robbins for capitalizing on her tragedy, then later agreed to appear in the 1969-70 TV series “The Survivors,” which he had created.)
After her daughter was exonerated, Turner stepped into Douglas Sirk’s excellent 1959 remake of the melodrama “Imitation of Life.” In the film, a mother (Turner) and daughter (Sandra Dee) are both in love with the same man, which helped keep alive rumors that Crane had killed Stompanato out of jealousy.
Other salacious, glossy melodramas such as “Portrait in Black,” “By Love Possessed,” “Love Has Many Faces” and another remake, the 1966 “Madame X,” continued to blur the distinction between Turner’s on and offscreen life.
Over the next decade she was married and divorced three more times: first to hotelier Fred May, producer Robert Eaton and nightclub hypnotist Ronald Dante.
Her rocky relationship with her daughter and bouts with alcohol continued to be played out in the media. In her later years Turner was reconciled with Crane, who became a real estate agent.
She made a few more forgettable films, such as the ’76 “Bittersweet Love” and 1980’s “Witches’ Brew.”
Besides “The Survivors,” Turner made regular appearances on the TV soap opera “Falcon Crest” and toured in the comedy “Forty Carats.” In 1982 she published “The Lady, the Legend, The Truth.”