This article first appeared in the Dec. 24, 2015 issue of Smashpipe.
By Tony Sokol
Lana Turner, the daughter of a bootlegger, was discovered at a soda shop in Hollywood after she left home in the wake of her father’s gangland execution. The “Sweater Girl Judy” pinup girl became a Tinseltown legend, paired onscreen with the likes of John Garfield in the classic noir film The Postman Always Rings Twice, and off-screen with stars and mobsters. She became a notorious legend after the stabbing death of one of those mobsters.
A new book called Movie Star and the Mobster talks about the stabbing death of Lana Turner’s lover Johnny, a former marine known as “Handsome Harry” when he got a job as an enforcer for famous LA gangster Mickey Cohen.
It wasn’t Lana who whacked Stompanato in 1958, but her daughter Cheryl Crane, Turner’s child from her brief second marriage to restaurateur Stephen Crane. Crain was acquitted on the grounds that she was protecting her mother. By the time Cheryl was 10, Turner was on her fourth husband. Cheryl herself had been violently and repeatedly raped by Lana Turner’s fourth husband, actor Lex Barker. When Lana found out, Crane said in an interview, Turner held a gun to Barker’s head while he slept, decided not to spend the rest of her life in prison and kicked him out of the house instead.
“On the rainy night of April 4, 1958, inside Lana Turner’s rented home in Beverly Hills, the body of gangster Johnny Stompanato lay motionless,” reads the press release for Movie Star and the Mobster. “With only a small knife wound in his upper abdomen, hidden beneath his clothes, one might think he was only sleeping, but he was dead.”
Stompanato was a first generation Italian American. His parents were born in Italy and married in Brooklyn but Stompanato grew up in Woodstock. He graduated from the Kemper Military School for boys in Boonville, Missouri and joined the U.S. Marines serving with the 1st Service Battalion, 1st Marine Division. While he was stationed in China he met his first wife, Sarah Utish, a Turkish woman, and Stompanato converted to Islam and moved back to Woodstock where he sold bread. He moved to Hollywood in 1947 where he owned and managed “The Myrtlewood Gift Shop” in Westwood until he got the gig with Cohen. The enforcer got so well known in Hollywood Circles that Frank Sinatra asked Cohen to tell Stompanato to keep his mitts off Ava Gardner in 1948. Cohen stuck by his man, telling Old Blue Eyes to go back to his wife and kids.
The book “takes readers back to that dark, stormy night, and through the dark and stormy relationship of Hollywood glamour queen Lana Turner and her mob insider boyfriend, Johnny Stompanato. From the whirlwind romance, to the knock down fights and murder threats, the affair would come to an abrupt halt when Lana Turner’s 13-year-old daughter came rushing into her bedroom during their final encounter, accidentally stabbing Stompanato to death.”
Author John William Law “recreates a detailed timeline of events to give readers a look behind the glamour and inside the abusive relationship, the night of the killing, the police station arrest, the coroner’s inquest, and verdict in one of Hollywood’s most enduring scandals.”
“Hollywood was rocked by the scandal,” Law said in the press statement. “Few people have ever really heard what really went on during those weeks just prior to, and after Johnny Stompanato’s death.”
Movie Star and the Mobster revisits Lana Turner’s Oscar-nominated performance in Peyton Place and how her unwillingness to take Stompanato to the Academy Awards just weeks earlier, put tragedy in motion.
What makes Movie Star & the Mobster unique is Law’s recounting of the fateful moments, a story that has never been fully told.
“Lana offered her own take on the events, but really covered only a small portion of the story for her autobiography, and her daughter Cheryl also told her story, but it was more focused on her relationship with her mother and the effect the tragedy had on her life,” Law said in the statement.
“Using court transcripts, police reports, and other available documents surrounding the case I was able to piece together a chronology that takes readers back – not only to the killing, but to the events that led up to and after Johnny Stompanato’s death.”
Law chronicles the media storm that came crashing down on Lana Turner after, and how she moved past the tragedy.
“She didn’t think her career would survive the events. Some say she gave her greatest performance on the witness stand, recounting the moment her daughter came rushing into her bedroom, fearing her mother was in danger, and stabbed her lover to death.”
After a series of box office flops, Turner lost her MGM contract in 1957 and began dating Stompanato. He had a long history of being abusive with Lana while they were dating. Stompanato was arrested seven times by the LAPD for various criminal charges ranging from vagrancy to suspicion of robbery.
“B-picture good looks… thick set … powerfully built and soft spoken … and talked in short sentences to cover a poor grasp of grammar and spoke in a deep baritone voice. With friends, he seldom smiled or laughed out loud, but seemed always coiled, holding himself in … had watchful hooded eyes that took in more than he wanted anyone to notice,” Turner’s daughter Cheryl Crane described him in her book Detour: A Hollywood Story. “His wardrobe on a daily basis consisted of roomy, draped slacks, a silver buckled skinny leather belt and lizard shoes.” He wore a heavy gold-link bracelet on his wrist with “Lanita” inscribed inside.
Jealous, Stompanato stormed onto the set of Another Time, Another Place and threatened Sean Connery at gun point, but the future James bond wrenched it from Stompanato’s hand and the boyfriend was deported from the United Kingdom. Connery had to go into hiding after Stampananato’s death.
“Stompanato assaulted Lana the night of the Oscars, and both her mother and daughter urged her to go to the police,” Law said in a statement.
“Lana felt her career would never survive if people knew she was dating a mobster, so she refused to seek help.”
According to Hollywood Babylon author Kenneth Anger, Turner called Hollywood’s hottest trial lawyer, Jerry Geisler in tears. Lana Turner’s 13-year-old daughter Cheryl Crane claimed she was protecting her mother. A trial returned the verdict of justifiable homicide. Stompanato’s family sued Turner for $7 million.
After the murder Crane spent three weeks in Juvenile Hall before being made a ward of the court and was released in her grandmother’s custody. Crane was sent to the Institute of Living sanitarium in Hartford, Conn., after a suicide attempt. Cheryl maintains that beloved comedian Jonathan Winters, who was also an inmate at the time, gave her back her will to live.
Turner, born Julia Jean Mildred Frances Turner, on February 8, 1921, in Wallace, Idaho, died in Century City, California, on June 29, 1995. She made over 50 films after Zeppo Marx sent the 15-year-old actress in the form-fitting sweater to director Mervyn LeRoy for the thriller They Won’t Forget in (1937). The “Sweater Girl appeared om The Great Garrick (1937), The Adventures of Marco Polo (1938), Love Finds Andy Hardy (1939), These Glamour Girls (1939), Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1941), Green Dolphin Street (1947), The Three Musketeers (1948) The Bad and the Beautiful (1952) and Peyton Place in 1958, which got her nominated for an Academy Award nomination for best actress.