The rise of Lana Turner (1920-1995) from humble origins to Hollywood stardom made her an inspiration to a generation of young American women. She achieved great popular acclaim during her acting career, but her personal life was marred by a series of failed marriages and scandals.
Lana Turner was born on February 8, 1920 into a financially strained family that lived in the rural area of Wallace, Idaho. Her father, Virgil, held a variety of jobs, including miner, insurance salesman, and bootlegger. As the family struggled to make ends meet, they moved often and Turner's education suffered. In 1928, her parents separated, and she moved with her mother to stay with friends in Modesto, California. Turner's mother took a job in San Francisco and was reunited with her daughter after discovering that friends in Modesto had physically abused the child. In 1930, while Turner and her mother were in California, Virgil was killed after winning a high-stakes craps game. Turner and her mother remained in San Francisco for three years before moving to Los Angeles in 1933.
The Turners did not have an easy life in Los Angeles. It was difficult for a single parent to make a living during the Great Depression, but Turner's mother made her daughter attend high school instead of taking a job to supplement the family income. Turner did not apply herself fully as a student, but that cavalier attitude had a totally unexpected consequence. One afternoon in 1936, she decided to have lunch at a nearby restaurant instead of attending classes. Accounts differ as to where she was eating, but it is thought that she was either at Schwab's drugstore (as Hollywood publicists later insisted), the Top Hat Cafe, or Currie's Ice Cream Parlor. As she ate her meal, Turner was noticed by Billy Wilkerson, publisher of the Hollywood Reporter. Wilkerson was so taken by her wholesome good looks that he introduced Turner to Zeppo Marx, a member of the Marx Brothers comedy team, who also ran a casting agency for the film industry. Marx immediately recognized what Wilkerson had seen in Turner and introduced her to Warner Brothers' film director Mervyn LeRoy, who in turn decided to cast her in his upcoming film They Won't Forget. LeRoy suggested that Turner adopt the first name of "Lana," advice which she readily accepted. In a matter of days Turner had gone from being a poor high school student to a film actress earning $50 per week, a handsome sum at the time.
Turner's first film appearance was as a little-noticed extra in the classic, A Star is Born, but her second performance in They Won't Forget had an electrifying effect. As Turner herself recounted years later, she and her mother attended the first screening of the film and were mortified by the whistles from men in the audience when Turner appeared onscreen wearing a tight fitting sweater. In fact, Turner would come to be known as the original "Sweater Girl." Although the enthusiastic male response may have embarrassed Turner, to Hollywood filmmakers, such reaction meant only one thing-box office success.
Professional Success and Personal Strife
During the next two years, Turner continued to make films while completing her high school education at studio schools. LeRoy transferred to Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios (MGM) in 1938, and was followed by Turner. She completed her high school studies in 1939, and began spending more time making movies. Turner was given her first starring role later the same year in The Dancing Coed. As Turner's career progressed, she began making a name for herself among Hollywood's party set. In 1940, she married bandleader, Artie Shaw, on a whim in Las Vegas. Shortly thereafter turner became pregnant. MGM officials did not wish to see their sexy starlet assume a more maternal look and convinced Turner to obtain an abortion, an illegal medical procedure at the time. Her marriage to Shaw ended after only four months.
Turner's loyalty to MGM was rewarded, as she received increasingly important roles in the early 1940s. Her social life was also very active. She was reported to have dated such notable figures as actors Clark Gable and Robert Stack, bandleader Tommy Dorsey, and movie producer, aviation pioneer, and oilman Howard Hughes. Despite having had these highly publicized relationships, Turner's second marriage was to the relatively unknown Stephen Crane, a restaurateur from Indiana. Once again Turner became pregnant, only to discover that Crane was still legally married to his first wife. She was inclined to leave Crane, but at the studio's insistence, and after suicide attempts by Crane, she agreed to marry him again after his divorce was finalized in 1943. Their daughter, Cheryl, was born later in the year. Turner sued Crane for divorce in 1944. Despite personal turmoil, Turner continued to receive good parts, including the role of Cora Smith in The Postman Always Rings Twice in 1945. She also became a favorite "pin-up" of servicemen during World War II.
Turner's personal life made bigger headlines than her movies during the late 1940s. Her involvement with actor Tyrone Power, who was married at the time, was widely followed by the popular press, as was her association with legendary singer Frank Sinatra. After Power divorced his wife in 1948, only to marry someone else, Turner immediately married Henry J. Topping, a businessman. Their marriage did not prove to be a happy one. Turner suffered a miscarriage, sued Topping for divorce, and made an attempt on her own life in 1951. Her fourth husband, actor Lex Barker, sexually abused Turner's ten-year-old daughter, Cheryl Crane. When Turner discovered Barker's crime in 1957, she immediately divorced him. According to Cheryl, Turner held a loaded gun to his head as he slept, before deciding that his life was not worth her incarceration.
Indignity and Rejuvenation
Despite the turmoil of her personal life, Turner's career continued to thrive throughout the 1950s. Her performance as an abused starlet in The Bad and the Beautiful brought her first critical recognition. She also received an Academy Award nomination for her 1957 portrayal of Constance MacKenzie in Peyton Place. Her professional success was once again eclipsed by her life off screen, however. Turner confided to her daughter in 1958 that she feared that her current lover, small-time mobster Johnny Stompanato, would become violent with her. Shortly after this discussion, Stompanato threatened to cut Turner's face with a coat hanger. Upon hearing this threat from an adjoining room Cheryl found a large knife and went to her mother's defense. In the ensuing struggle, Cheryl fatally stabbed Stompanato in the chest. The stabbing was eventually ruled a justifiable homicide but the entire affair, including Turner's testimony at the coroner's inquest, was highly publicized. This negative publicity threatened to make Turner too controversial for any studio to hire. Under these circumstances Turner's next contract for Imitation of Life in 1959 called for her to be paid almost exclusively in royalties rather than the more customary salary. In this way the studio would not have to pay her much if the film proved a commercial failure. The strategy backfired however when Imitation of Life proved a tremendous success and eventually netted Turner $1 million. The success of the film demonstrated that Turner was still a popular actress. She continued to work steadily until the late 1960s.
By the end of the 1960s, Turner's age made her unsuitable for the type of role that she had played throughout her career. She still maintained an active and turbulent social life, marrying rancher Fred May in 1960. The marriage lasted for two years. Her sixth marriage, to producer Robert Eaton ended in 1969. Turner attempted to broaden her acting horizons by appearing on television but her series, The Survivors, lasted only 15 weeks in 1969. Shortly prior to the series' cancellation Turner entered her seventh and final marriage, to nightclub hypnotist, Ronald Dante. The marriage ended after just a few months, when Dante walked out on Turner and allegedly defrauded her of $35,000. For the rest of her life, Turner would remain single. In the wake of the failure of her marriage and The Survivors, Turner attempted to perform on stage. She was so painfully shy in front of a live audience, however, that she found it difficult to talk, much less perform. Her last feature film appearance was in Bittersweet Love in 1974. Turner enjoyed a final acting stint on the prime-time television drama Falcon Crest in the early 1980s. She retired from acting in 1983 and moved into a two-bedroom condominium in Los Angeles.
Turner's personal life improved during her later years. In 1985, her daughter Cheryl wrote an autobiography, Detour: A Hollywood Story, detailing the travails of her childhood. Although the book was highly critical of Turner as a mother, talking about its contents brought mother and daughter closer. Turner lived a quiet life, out of the public eye, during the 1980s. A heavy smoker throughout her life, Turner was diagnosed with throat cancer in the early 1990s. The cancer spread to her jaw and lungs by 1992, and she died at her home in Los Angeles on June 29, 1995.
Lana Turner exemplified Hollywood stardom during the 1940s and 1950s. Her improbable discovery and ongoing popularity made her a major public figure throughout her life. The notoriety of her off-screen activities did nothing to lessen her fame.
Further Reading on Lana Turner
American National Biography, edited by John A. Garraty and Mark C. Carnes, Oxford University Press, 1999.
Turner, Lana, Lana, E.P. Dutton, 1982.
Entertainment, April 10, 1992.
Life, October 1986.
People, February 15 1988; 17 July 1995.