Turner, Lana (1921–1995)

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Turner, Lana (1921–1995)

American actress and World War II "pin-up" who was nominated for an Academy Award for her performance in Peyton Place. Born Julia Jean Mildred Frances Turner on February 8, 1921, in Wallace, Idaho; died of throat cancer on June 29, 1995, in Los Angeles, California; only daughter of John Virgil Turner (a mine overseer) and Mildred (Cowan) Turner; attended the Convent of the Immaculate Conception in San Francisco and Hollywood High School in Los Angeles; married Artie Shaw (the bandleader), in 1940 (divorced 1941); married Stephen Crane (an actor turned restaurateur), in 1942 (annulled, then divorced 1943); married Bob Topping (a millionaire), in 1948 (divorced 1952); married Lex Barker (an actor), in 1953 (divorced 1957); married Fred May; married Robert Eaton; married Ronald Dante, also known as Ronald Peller (a hypnotist), in 1968; children: (second marriage) one daughter, Cheryl Crane (b. 1943).

Selected filmography:

A Star is Born (bit, 1937); They Won't Forget (1937); The Great Garrick (1937); The Adventures of Marco Polo (1938); Four's a Crowd (1938); Love Finds Andy Hardy (1938); The Chaser (bit, 1938); Rich Man Poor Girl (1938); Dramatic School (1938); Calling Dr. Kildare (1939); These Glamour Girls (1939); Dancing Co-Ed (1939); Two Girls on Broadway (1940); We Who Are Young (1940); Ziegfeld Girl (1941); Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1941); Honky Tonk (1941); Johnny Eager (1942); Somewhere I'll Find You (1942); Slightly Dangerous (1943); The Youngest Profession (1943); DuBarry Was a Lady (cameo, 1943); Marriage Is a Private Affair (1944); Keep Your Powder Dry (1945); Week-End at the Waldorf (1945); The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946); Green Dolphin Street (1947); Cass Timberlane (1947); Homecoming (1948); The Three Musketeers (1948); A Life of Her Own (1950); Mr. Imperium (1951); The Merry Widow (1952); The Bad and the Beautiful (1952); Latin Lovers (1953); Flame and the Flesh (1954); Betrayed (1954); The Prodigal (1955); The Sea Chase (1955); The Rains of Ranchipur (1955); Diane (1956); Peyton Place (1957); The Lady Takes a Flyer (1958); Another Time Another Place (1958); Imitation of Life (1959); Portrait in Black (1960); By Love Possessed (1962); Bachelor in Paradise (1961); Who's Got the Action? (1962); Love Has Many Faces (1965); Madame X (1966); The Big Cube (US-Mex., 1969); Persecution (The Terror of Sheba or The Graveyard, UK, 1974); Bittersweet Love (1976); Witches' Brew (1979).

The Hollywood "Sweater Girl" who blossomed into one of the most glamorous, popular stars of the 1940s and 1950s, Lana Turner kept her career afloat through a tumultuous private life that included seven marriages and a scandal which involved her teenage daughter, a knife, and the death of a reputed gangster. A survivor in every sense of the word, Turner retained her star power well into the 1980s, when she played a recurring role in the popular prime-time soap-opera "Falcon Crest."

Lana Turner was born Julie Jean Mildred Frances Turner in 1921, in Wallace, Idaho, where her father John Virgil Turner worked as a mine overseer. When she was six, the family moved to California in search of a better life, but her father had difficulty finding work. Her parents eventually separated, and Turner spent time in several foster homes before she was permanently reunited with her mother Mildred Cowan Turner . John Turner would subsequently fall victim to a robbery-murder. Turner attended a

convent school in San Francisco and completed her education at Hollywood High in Los Angeles, where she and her mother moved in 1936.

One of Hollywood's great legends is how Turner got her start in films. The story that she was discovered as a teenager sitting at a soda fountain is true, but it was not at Schwab's Drugstore. Lana set the record straight in her memoir Lana: The Lady, the Legend, the Truth. "The Hollywood columnist Sidney Skolsky often ate lunch there. One day, as he sat at the fountain, a busty blonde came up and asked which stool was Lana Turner's. Skolsky simply picked one and pointed it out. Just like that, Schwab's became a mecca to thousands of would-be movie stars, and Hollywood gained another persistent myth." In reality, Turner had cut an afternoon typing class and was having a Coke at the Top Hat Café across from the high school. With the counter clerk serving as an intermediary, W.R. Wilkerson, editor of the motion-picture trade journal Hollywood Reporter, introduced himself and asked her if she wanted to be in the movies. "I don't know, I'll have to ask my mother," she replied. He then gave her his business card and told her to have her mother call him for a meeting.

Wilkerson subsequently hooked her up with the Zeppo Marx Agency, where agent Henry Wilson got her a walk-on in A Star is Born (1937). The agency then arranged a meeting for her with director Mervyn LeRoy at Warner Bros. "She was so nervous her hands were shaking," LeRoy later said about his first encounter with the actress. "She wasn't wearing any makeup, and she was so shy she could hardly look me in the face. Yet there was something so endearing about her that I knew she was the right girl. She had tremendous appeal, which I knew the audience would feel." LeRoy gave her an exotic new name and a contract, which she signed just days after her 16th birthday.

Turner's first small role in They Won't Forget (1937), however, did not exactly exploit her innocence. It included a shot of her character walking down the street in high heels, a tight sweater belted at the waist, and a contoured skirt. At the previews, the sight brought howls and cheers from the young men in the audience, and Lana Turner, the object of desire, was launched. After two additional pictures, one at Warners' (where Jack Warner predicted that she would not amount to anything) and one at MGM, Turner moved with LeRoy to MGM. There, she continued to play leads or second leads in minor productions, winning little acclaim from the critics, but receiving sacks of fan-mail from admiring males.

Turner's next series of films, We Who Are Young (1940), Ziegfeld Girl (1941), Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1941), and Honky-Tonk (1941), indicated that she had some potential as an actress, although the studio continued to exploit her sex appeal. Her popularity continued to soar during World War II, when she ranked among the nation's top "pin-up girls." In the postwar years, she was notable in Green Dolphin Street (1947), Cass Timberlane (1947), The Three Musketeers (1948), and The Bad and the Beautiful (1956), but turned in her most credible performance as the femme fatale Cora Smith, who convinces John Garfield to murder her elderly husband in the film version of James M. Cain's The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946). Turner received her only Oscar nomination, as Best Actress, for her portrayal of Constance MacKenzie in Peyton Place (1957), an adaptation of Grace Metalious ' scandalous bestseller. John Houseman, who produced The Bad and the Beautiful, felt Turner "was capable of brilliant individual scenes but seemed to lack the temperament or the training to sustain a full-length performance."

Turner's private life probably provided more melodrama than her movies and undoubtedly contributed to her screen mystique. Her name was linked to countless male stars, and she was purportedly once engaged to five different men at the same time. She was married seven times (or eight, if you count her two marriages to Stephen Crane), but all of the unions were brief. She met her first husband, bandleader Artie Shaw, on the set of Dancing Coed (1939), and they eloped to Las Vegas on their first date. Their tumultuous relationship endured for 4 months and 16 days, which the actress later referred to as her "college education." Turner also eloped with second husband Stephen Crane in 1942, after a whirlwind courtship of nine days. Crane's divorce from his first wife was not yet final at the time, so Turner had the marriage annulled. They later reconciled and married for a second time in March 1943, shortly before the birth of their daughter Cheryl Crane . That marriage also ended in divorce, as did subsequent unions with Bob Topping, Lex Barker, Fred May, Robert Eaton, and Robert Dante. In her autobiography, Turner addressed the subject of her many marriages, blaming herself for choosing men who took advantage of her; "takers," as she called them. "Something in me must have yelled 'patsy,'" she writes, "otherwise why would I have been taken advantage of again and again?"

One of her amours was with underworld hoodlum Johnny Stompanato. On April 5, 1958, when Turner attempted to end the relationship, Stompanato, who was frequently violent, threatened to kill her. He was hitting Turner in her Beverly Hills bedroom when Lana's 15-year-old daughter Cheryl burst into the room and stabbed him with an eight-inch kitchen knife. "I thought she hit him in the stomach," Turner later testified. "They came together and then they parted. I never saw the blade." Stompanato, whose kidney and aorta were punctured, died. The killing generated headlines worldwide; it was eventually pronounced a justifiable homicide on the grounds that Cheryl was protecting her mother from what she believed had been a threat to her life. (The court, however, ordered Cheryl to live with her grandmother Mildred.) The adverse publicity, which included the public airing of Turner's love letters to Stompanato, was agonizing for the actress. She became reclusive and uneasy about resuming her career, but Ross Hunter persuaded her to star in a remake of the 1934 film Imitation of Life, which had starred Claudette Colbert . In his update, Ross had changed the main character from a successful businesswoman to a Broadway stage actress. The film turned out to be an enormous hit for Universal (perhaps due in part to a secondary plot line which involves the actress' troubled relationship with her teenage daughter), and Ross thereupon starred Turner in two follow-ups, Portrait in Black (1960) and Madame X (1966).

Turner continued in films throughout the next decade, but age was beginning to limit her choice of roles. She turned to television, starring in the short-lived series "The Survivors" (1970) and later playing the glamorous Jacqueline Perrault on the more successful "Falcon Crest" (1982–83). She also overcame her fear of audiences and toured in stage productions of Forty Carats and Bell, Book, and Candle, and opposite Louis Jourdan in The Pleasure of His Company.

In 1980, Turner suffered a period of ill health caused by alcohol and weight loss, but she emerged intact and ready to share her story. "I have come a long way since 1937," she wrote in the opening pages of her memoir, published in 1982. "I almost can't believe how far. I think it's because I've been so close to God these last two years. I wasn't born like this, the woman I am today. This new woman is no longer confused, she knows who she is." Turner died on June 25, 1995, after a battle with cancer, with her daughter Cheryl Crane at her side. "She never played The Star," said actress Hope Lange . "She had no sense of self-importance. There wasn't an ounce of condescension to her."


"The Bad and the Beautiful," in People Weekly. July 17, 1995.

Current Biography 1943. NY: H.W. Wilson, 1943.

Current Biography 1995. NY: H.W. Wilson, 1995.

Katz, Ephraim. The Film Encyclopedia. NY: Harper-Collins, 1994.

Obituary. Boston Globe. July 1, 1995.

Shipman, David. The Great Movie Stars: The Golden Years. Boston, MA: Little, Brown, 1995.

Turner, Lana. Lana: The Lady, the Legend, the Truth. NY: E.P. Dutton, 1982.

suggested reading:

Crane, Cheryl, with Cliff Jahr. Detour: A Hollywood Story. Arbor House, 1988.

Barbara Morgan , Melrose, Massachusetts

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