Monday, 24 March 2008

Celebrity Crime: Lana Turner And Johnny Stompanato

By Mark Gribben

Lana Turner

Lights, Camera, Murder

It's no secret that the glamorous veneer of Hollywood is paper-thin and that beneath the glitzy surface exists a world of greed, violence and decadence. Like a movie set, the Hollywood facade has no depth and cannot stand too close scrutiny. There is no other place where the difference between style and substance is so great. Hollywood is a dream factory, and dreams are not reality.

One can't blame this all on the people who make the movies. No matter how well built the image is of the hero, behind the mask is someone with all the faults and foibles of an average person. But through the lens of celebrity, everything is larger than life: the successes, the excesses and the failures.

Movies created a new kind of idol. In movies, unlike theater, actors could be on hundreds of screens across the country and became "stars." The idea of hitting it big in Hollywood was a powerful draw, and young innocents from all over flocked to the West Coast. Starstruck young hopefuls fell prey to established actors, agents, directors and producers who promised a big break in exchange for their souls or bodies. Tragedy was often the result and the situation was ripe for scandal.

Hollywood needed a huge publicity machine and the studios created stars whose public personae were as false as the roles they played on the silver screen. Innocent young virgins were actually fast-living sex kittens with a taste for drugs and alcohol. Lovable stars were known for their sexual conquests and more than one hero who made the ladies swoon secretly found young men more to his liking.

When scandal broke, it was hard for the Hollywood public relations machine to keep the stories off the front pages. The very newspapers they courted when things were going well were eager to show Hollywood's dark underside. The public ate up gossip about the lifestyles of the rich and famous. It was all the more exciting when one of those stars crashed and burned in full view of their admiring public.

One of the first stars to see his career ruined by scandal was comedian Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle in 1921. After Charlie Chaplin, Fatty was America's most popular comedian and in September 1921 had just signed a three-year $3 million contract. The former Keystone Cop had just completed three pictures and was in San Francisco for a little R&R.

Hollywood insiders knew that meant booze and broads -- the more expensive the liquor and the more innocent the girls, the better Arbuckle liked them. Chaplin's favorite director, Henry Lehrman, would later tell the tabloids that Arbuckle "often bragged to me that he had ripped the dress off an 'uncooperative' girl and ravaged her. In the end, I told him if he didn't keep away from the female dressing-rooms, I'd have him thrown out of Hollywood on his fleshy ear."

Arbuckle gave a big party in his suite in the St. Francis Hotel and a pretty young starlet named Virginia Rappe came to it. The party was quite a wild one and Arbuckle found Rappe unconscious on the floor of one of the bathrooms. Assuming that she had drunk too much, he put her on a bed and left to change his clothes. When he went back to check on her, she had rolled off the bed and was writhing and moaning.

A doctor was called and for nearly a week, Virginia hovered between life and death. Eventually she died, saying over and over: "He hurt me. Roscoe hurt me." After an autopsy revealed Virginia's bladder had been ruptured, Fatty Arbuckle was charged with murder. The press speculated that her injuries meant Fatty had violated the woman in "a most unnatural way," implying that he had used some sort of implement.

It took more than a year and three trials to find Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle not guilty of murdering Virginia Rappe. The "not guilty" verdict wasn't enough to save Fatty's career. For the first time the public had a peek behind the Hollywood curtain and didn't like what it saw. Arbuckle died a bitter and lonely man almost 12 years to the day after Virginia Rappe.

Six months after Virginia's death, director William Desmond Taylor was found dead in his Hollywood bungalow and, in the aftermath, the public learned that Taylor was probably bisexual and had been trying to help starlet Mabel Normand kick a drug habit. Taylor was murdered; the homicide was never solved. Normand's career and that of another starlet-lover of Taylor’s, Mary Miles Minter, were ruined.

In the years that followed Hollywood and crime mixed it up a few times, but nothing truly noteworthy occurred. There was the Black Dahlia murder case and Charlie Chaplin and Erroll Flynn's statutory rape charges, but these cases weren't front-page news east of Los Angeles.

But before long, the public again had something to talk about. The next Hollywood crime to make the headlines involved one of Hollywood's top starlets, her grown-up-too-fast daughter, a gigolo and a gangster mixed in for good measure. A sex and murder mystery, the slaying of Johnny Stompanato by Lana Turner's daughter had all the trappings of a Hollywood melodrama, but this time it was for real.

Curse of the 'It Girl'

Attaining the status of female sex symbol has always been fraught with peril. While starlets who portrayed the virginal characters seemed to escape scandal, the women who were known as vamps more or less attracted trouble. The first three women who were known especially for their ability to play the vamp, Clara Bow, Jean Harlow and Lana Turner, each struggled with adversity. Their individual troubles and the public's reaction to them is indicative of how standards and values change over time.

A little bit of luck, a lot of talent and drive to succeed put Clara Bow, Hollywood's first sex symbol, on top. Dubbed the "It Girl" because of her natural beauty, sensuality and screen charm, Clara was best known for playing flappers. Her voluptuous body, heavy-lidded eyes and pouting, kissable lips made men desire her and women want to be her. "It," of course, is a polite way of referring to sex appeal, and the name came from her 1927 breakthrough film.

Clara enjoyed several successful years but was brought down by scandal in 1930 when an ex-secretary revealed that Bow was a nymphomaniac who spent her huge salary on no-good gigolos. Her film career faltered as the public was unwilling to allow its sex symbols to emulate their screen roles in real life.

Mae West filled the comedic need for a sexually confident woman and studio executives tapped Jean Harlow to be the next sex symbol. Harlow was the first "Blonde Bombshell" whose on-screen personality was a toned-down Mae West and a stepped-up Clara Bow. She reigned supreme in Hollywood for nearly a decade.

The year 1932 was a busy one for Harlow. She married Paul Bern, starred with Clark Gable and almost immediately began an affair with him. Her marriage to Bern was an affectionate one, despite her infidelity. She and Paul genuinely loved each other, but their intimacy was adversely affected by Bern's still-close relationship with a possessive former girlfriend. Bern ended up committing suicide, and his farewell note to Jean hinted that he killed himself because he was impotent. Harlow's affair, Bern's suicide and the events surrounding his last night alive (the fact that the couple incorporated sex toys in their lovemaking leaked out and was scandalous at the time), seriously damaged Harlow's career. Jean made several films after Bern's death, but she was struck down by kidney failure and died in 1937.

With Harlow gone, Hollywood executives began looking for the next sex symbol. A newspaper editor spotted the perfect girl while she was playing hooky from Hollywood High. He risked a slap in the face when he approached Julia Jean Mildred Frances Turner and asked if she would like to be in motion pictures. Hollywood would never be the same after it found the "Sweater Girl."

Legend has it that Turner was spotted by an agent in Schwab's Drug Store on Sunset Boulevard and vaulted to stardom. In reality, the 15-year-old Turner, who was given the name Lana by Warner Brothers studio execs, was discovered by Hollywood Reporter Editor Billy Wilkerson in a soda fountain across from Schwab's. Wilkerson gave Turner his card and introduced her to an agent who managed to get the attractive and well-put-together teen a walk-on part in a low-budget film called They Won't Forget. The rest of the film was forgettable, but audiences and studio executives alike noticed the fresh young girl in the tight sweater. Publicity agents dubbed Lana "The Sweater Girl," a nickname she hated the first time she heard it. Lana thought it detracted from her skill as a serious actress.

She made three more films in 1937, and the next year was working steadily, moving her way up the marquee to stardom across from Lew Ayers in These Glamour Girls (1939). By that time, she was well established and living a glamorous lifestyle. The curse of the It Girl was still years away, but it was coming.

Lana's Loves

Lana Turner was no stranger to violent crime. She was born in an Idaho mining town, the daughter of a miner. Her father supplemented his meager income by gambling and was well known as a skillful card player. One evening after a successful run at the tables, John Turner was robbed and murdered. He made the mistake of bragging that he was going to buy his beloved daughter a bicycle and attracted the attention of thieves. His murder, while the family was living in San Francisco, was never solved. Her mother moved to Southern California when Lana was a young girl and she lived a nondescript life until Billy Wilkerson discovered her at the Top Hat Cafe.

Lana's first attempt at marriage was unsuccessful, a pattern she repeated six more times before her death. Lana and band leader Artie Shaw met on the set of a film featuring Shaw's orchestra, {Dancing Co-ed}, which was Lana's first top billing. Shaw was an arrogant intellectual who was not well liked by the members of his band. He considered himself a scholar who led a band as a means to earn a living, but his true love was writing.

In her biography, Lana: The Lady, The Legend, the Truth, Turner remembers that although she was a star, she was a naive 19-year-old on the rebound from her first love when Shaw entered her life. Had she not been despondent over the end of that relationship, her marriage to Shaw never would have occurred.

The marriage was difficult almost from the beginning. Lana was no dummy and she wasn't a shrinking violet, but Shaw made it clear he did not think her his intellectual equal. He demanded that she dress down, not wear makeup and be on hand to serve his every whim. Artie was jealous of the time Lana spent making films; this drove a wedge between them and doomed the relationship. The marriage barely lasted a year and they parted bitterly.

Stephan Crane, a restaurateur with no formal Hollywood connections, was Lana's second husband, and their relationship caused a bit of a stir when, shortly after their wedding, Crane learned that his Mexican divorce from his first wife was not recognized in the United States.

In the meantime, Lana became pregnant with her daughter and only child, Cheryl. Crane secured a legitimate divorce from his first wife and remarried Turner before Cheryl was born. Unfortunately, that second marriage was no more successful than the first, although Crane and Turner remained friendly.

Hollywood's Hoods

Drawn by the lure of easy money, the criminal element moved west to Hollywood shortly after Nestor Studios began making movies on Sunset Boulevard in 1911. Los Angeles itself was already an immigrant town, and where there were immigrants, there was poverty, and where there was poverty, there was crime.

Hoods of high and low standing were attracted to Hollywood for the same reasons that people from all over came: to be part of the action. Ben “Bugsy” Siegel was the first racketeer to gain a foothold in the movie industry when he took over control of the extras union and started extorting money from actors and studios.

Siegel would shake down his friends by threatening to pull the extras off the set unless the star or the studio coughed up dough. He had the power to do it and he had the backing of the national syndicate. For some strange reason, the Hollywood community not only accepted Siegel, they liked him.

Siegel was a handsome man and was well connected in Hollywood thanks to his lifelong friendship with actor George Raft and his relationship with actress Ketti Gallian. Everyone wanted Siegel at their parties, even while he was twisting their arms for a couple grand in protection money. Siegel was gunned down in southern California in 1947 and no other hoodlum would come close to living as high in Hollywood as Siegel.

Jack Dragna controlled the Los Angeles rackets, dubbed the “Mickey Mouse Mafia” because of its proximity to Disneyland and because of their bumbling methods, under the direction of the East Coast syndicate. Dragna, who had been bumped down in status when Siegel came west, chafed under the syndicate's direction, but he knew which way the wind blew, shaped up and followed orders.

However, Siegel’s wire service and other operations were taken over by his protege, Mickey Cohen, who was at war with Dragna. The diminutive Cohen was a media darling who lacked Siegel 's style but not his propensity for violence. While he interacted with the Hollywood elite, Mickey didn't enjoy the same level of entrĂ©e that Siegel did. Siegel would be invited to the parties at the stars' homes, but Mickey was not. It was only through his nightclub ownership that Mickey rubbed elbows with studio powers.

The West Coast mob may have been considered "Mickey Mouse" by the rest of the syndicate, but Mickey Cohen was a tough man. He survived five attempts on his life and was reputed to have the police department in his pocket. He was the real deal with all the trappings of a mobster. If there was a chance to make a buck, legal or otherwise, he was in. Cohen was a driving force in bringing tragedy into Lana Turner's life when he took Johnny Stompanato into his gang.


In Lana's autobiography she describes how Johnny pushed his way into her life in 1957 by first telephoning, then sending flowers day after day and then by finding out what kind of music Lana liked and sending her records. He was charming and gentlemanly. Having just divorced her fourth husband, Lana was ready for something different.

"That's how the blackest period of my life began," she wrote. "It started with flowers and an innocent invitation for a drink, and it was to end with screaming headlines, in tragedy and death."

He called himself John Steele and he had the wavy hair and olive-skinned good looks of a movie star with a physique to match. For some reason he told Lana he was five years her senior, when in fact it was the other way around.

Stompanato had already lived a life of adventure by the time he got to Hollywood. A Marine war veteran, he converted to Islam when he married a Turkish woman. He spent time in China after World War II, telling people he ran nightclubs although he was really a government bureaucrat. Johnny's childhood had been troubled, he had been in military school, and he apparently continued down the same path as an adult.

"[Sir Charles] Hubbard was in the United States looking for investments when he took John to California as a companion in 1948," wrote Cheryl Crane in her autobiography, Detour. "During the next two years Hubbard gave him $85,000. John told the IRS he had 'borrowed' the money, but the agency suspected that he was blackmailing Hubbard."

When Hubbard ran into trouble for a marijuana bust shortly after arriving in California, Johnny dropped him and took a job as a bouncer at one of Mickey Cohen's nightclubs. His size, personality and style got Mickey's attention. Before long Stompanato was pulling in $300 per week as Cohen's bodyguard, Crane said. Stompanato was Cohen's moneyman and twice when he was arrested he was found to be carrying more than $50,000 cash. Having a flunky carry all the money was typical in the syndicate. Since the top guys were often harassed by police and arrested on trumped-up charges such as vagrancy, it would be difficult for a flower shop owner like Mickey Cohen to explain why he had so much cash. Since bodyguards are less likely to be arrested and searched, they carried the weapons and money.

Despite his connection with Cohen, Stompanato was still a small-time hood and could be described as a gigolo. He was always on the arm of a beautiful, older woman and he was dependent on them for his livelihood. He was married at least two more times before he met Lana Turner, but nothing lasted more than two years. The evidence that he was a gigolo comes from court records: In the course of his divorce from actress Helen Gilbert (the teacher in the Andy Hardy series), she testified, "Johnny had no means. I did what I could to support him." The police knew this and made a note of it in his dossier. "When the victim's money is dissipated, he becomes interested in another woman. Usually he frequents expensive nightspots to meet wealthy female types," a detective wrote.

Looking back, neither Turner nor her daughter had much good to say about Stompanato. After all, Cheryl Crane stabbed him to death and Lana testified that she was frightened for her life. However, she must have seen something in Johnny, because her relationship with him lasted longer than any other he had in Hollywood. If he had not died, there is no telling how long it would have gone on. Lana recognized this herself.

"I believed the lies a man told me, and by the time I learned they were lies it was too late," she wrote years later. "I was trapped, helpless because of my fear for my own life, for Cheryl's and my mother's."

Forbidden Fruit

Things moved quickly between Lana and Johnny.

"He was utterly considerate, and I began to warm toward him physically," Lana wrote. "His wooing was gentle, persistent and finally persuasive. By the time I found out his real name, we were already having an affair."

Johnny showered Lana and Cheryl, whose relationship was rocky, with gifts ranging from jewelry to a full-length portrait to a horse. Lana said she wore the jewels on screen in Peyton Place and that every time she saw the film after Johnny's death, chills ran down her spine.

It wasn't long after their relationship became public that one of Lana's close friends broke the news that John Steele was actually John Stompanato. Lana said she had mixed feelings about dating a man who was a known gangster. To her he was dangerous and yet appealing.

"Call it forbidden fruit or whatever," she wrote. "This attraction was very deep -- maybe something sick within me -- and my dangerous captivation went far beyond lovemaking."

Lana was in England filming Another Time, Another Place with Sean Connery and she had hoped that when she said goodbye to Johnny in Los Angeles, that he would move on to another woman. Instead, Lana found herself lonely and asked Johnny to join her.

It was in England that Lana said Johnny became physically violent for the first time. He was bored and complaining bitterly about Lana's reluctance to be seen in public with him when the argument escalated into a shoving match.

"I reached for the phone, but he knocked it away and lunged for my throat," she wrote. "As his grip closed around my larynx, I managed to let out a loud scream, though I could feel the strain on my vocal chords."

Since Johnny had entered England illegally (he used a passport with the name John Steele), Lana was able to get him deported. Eventually she would have to return to the United States, where Johnny Stompanato would be waiting.

Oscar & Johnny

But first, Lana decided that she would take a quiet vacation in Acapulco, away from Johnny, Hollywood and Cheryl. At 14, Cheryl had already run away from home, fled a Catholic boarding school and otherwise made foolish teenage decisions that, because of her celebrity mother, landed her in the gossip columns of Louella Parsons, Walter Winchell and the like.

"I think I rebelled against the whole fishbowl life that we were living," Cheryl told CNN's Larry King years later. "You know, every move was fodder for somebody. You know, and I resented it. I just wanted to be Jane Doe."

Lana arranged to keep her arrival in Mexico secret, but when she landed at the airport Stompanato and a phalanx of journalists met her. No studio publicity agent was present, leading her to believe Johnny had set up the press conference.

"To this day I can't tell you exactly how John Stompanato knew when I was leaving England or that I was flying to Mexico via Copenhagen," she wrote. "He proved over and over that he had the power to do anything he wanted."

Johnny continued to be physically abusive in Acapulco, once pulling a gun on Lana when she tried to order him out of her room. Usually he didn't have to use violence, since Lana was terrified into compliance by mere threats.

While she was in Mexico, Lana learned that she had been nominated for an Academy Award for her work in Peyton Place. John was equally excited until she made it clear that he would not be accompanying her to the ceremony. There was no way, she wrote, that she would be seen in public with a known gangster. No amount of pleading or cajoling could change her mind.

She was concerned for her image, but the press was waiting when Lana and Johnny landed in Los Angeles. A photographer was there to capture their reunion with Cheryl and sent the picture of the smiling trio across the wires with the headline "Lana Turner Returns with Mob Figure."

The night of the Academy Awards began as a dream for Lana Turner and ended as a nightmare. She wrote that she didn't expect to win -- she felt her work in The Postman Always Rings Twice was better than as Constance Mackenzie -- and the award went to Joanne Woodward for The Three Faces of Eve. A photo of Lana and Cheryl at the awards dinner shows a stunning Lana in a form-fitting strapless white lace gown, wide, bright eyes, flawless skin, charming smile and beautiful platinum blonde hair, seated next to a very grown-up looking Cheryl Crane in a more modest green taffeta gown. Leaning down between them, paying his respects is Cary Grant in white tie and tails. They look like the quintessential Hollywood stars, down to the extravagant jewelry and martini glasses.

At 730 North Bedford Drive in Beverly Hills, John Stompanato sat home alone with the servants, watching the ceremony on TV and growing angrier by the minute. By the time Lana returned home from the post-Oscar parties (Cheryl had come home earlier), Johnny was raging.

"You'll never leave me home again!" he shouted. "That's the last time."

He berated Lana for not winning and for her increased reliance on alcohol. Then he got physical and began slapping her face.

"He cracked me a second time, this time knocking me down. I staggered back against the chaise and slid to the floor," she wrote. "He yanked me up and began hitting me with his fists. I went flying across the room into the bar, sending glasses shattering on the floor."

Picking her up again, he grabbed her shoulders and peered down at her.

"Now do you understand?" he asked. "You will never leave me out of something like that again. Ever."

In her biography, Lana explains the fear a battered woman has for remaining with her abuser.

"Underlying everything was my shame," she wrote. "I was so ashamed. I didn't want anybody to know my predicament, how foolish I'd been, how I'd taken him at face value and been completely duped."

In the early morning hours of the day after the Academy Awards ceremony, when she should have been sleeping with dreams of her night in the spotlight, Lana lay bruised and bleeding in bed.

Next to her lay a sleeping Johnny Stompanato, blissfully unaware that his time was running out.

The Happening

It all happened so quickly, they both said later. Like in an old-time silent movie, events in Lana's Beverly Hills mansion on that fateful Good Friday 1958 had a disconnected feeling to Lana and Cheryl.

In all the years afterward Lana would only refer to it as "the happening" and Cheryl would not talk about it at all, but in a matter of seconds the lives of Lana Turner, Johnny Stompanato and Cheryl Crane would be changed forever.

The "happening" began on a Friday evening. Lana and Johnny were fighting and Lana would later say she knew this fight was going to be a bad one. They were in her bedroom and Cheryl was in her room next door. Their voices were loud enough that Cheryl could easily hear everything that was being said. Lana had already told Cheryl that that was the night she was going to end her relationship with Johnny.

After the Academy Awards, Cheryl had seen her mother's bruised face and knew John was beating her. Lana forbade her daughter from telling anyone, including her grandmother or father. Cheryl never said she saw Johnny hit Lana, but she did see the after effects in London and after the Oscars.

"There were awful fights, screaming and yelling and smashing glasses and just, you know, things I wasn't used to hearing," Cheryl told Larry King. "And she finally sat me down and told me the whole story about having had him thrown out of England when she was filming there because he beat her so badly. How he had threatened her life, my grandmother's life. She couldn't get him out of the house. She couldn't get rid of him. And my reaction was, 'Well, mother, call the police.'

"And of course, that was last thing in the world she would do because publicity. You know, I mean, it would have been -- she felt -- the end of her career."

Outside the bedroom, Cheryl called to her mother and Johnny, trying to quell the fight.

"I was, you know, hoping to get them apart," Cheryl said later.

"Cheryl, get away from that door!" Lana yelled. "I'm not going to tell you again!"

But Cheryl didn't go away. Instead she begged her mother to stop arguing and open the door. "And she wouldn't open the door," Cheryl said. "She said, 'Go back to your room. John is leaving.'

"And, of course, he didn't leave. And then I started hearing the threats that he was making that he was going to cut her face, that he was going to kill my grandmother. 'And I'll get your daughter, too.'"

As Lana and Johnny argued behind closed doors, Cheryl went down to the kitchen and grabbed a carving knife from a drawer. Johnny and Lana had purchased the knife earlier in the day. She returned upstairs and found herself outside her mother's closed door.

The argument then tapered down and Stompanato was going to leave the house. He went to the closet and took a set of clothes and some heavy, wooden hangers.

Armed with the knife, Cheryl pleaded with her mother to open the door, which an exasperated Lana did. She stood between Cheryl and Johnny. He was facing the door and looking at Lana with a raised arm holding the clothes over his shoulder in such a way that all Cheryl could see was the arm and some sort of weapon.

He moved to go past Lana toward the door, his arm upraised holding … something … and Cheryl thrust out her arm. From Lana's vantage point it looked like Cheryl had punched Johnny in the stomach and he sucked in his breath and jerked like someone who has been hit.

"Oh, my God, Cheryl, what have you done," he gasped. Then he did a small pirouette and fell to the floor. Eyes closed and wheezing awfully, Johnny lay dying on the carpet of Lana Turner's new home. Cheryl backed away, the knife falling from her hand and Lana realized the horror of the event. Cheryl had not punched John; she had stabbed him with the carving knife. Lana went to her daughter, who was sobbing, and helped her back to her room. She returned to tend to John Stompanato.

Johnny was unconscious by the time he hit the floor. His breathing was labored. As if in a trance, Lana picked up the knife and dropped it into the sink in the pink marble bar. Then she called her mother.

Within minutes a doctor and Lana's mother were on the scene. Turner was giving Johnny mouth-to-mouth resuscitation when they arrived. The doctor, a family friend, gave Stompanato a shot of adrenaline directly into his heart, but it was fruitless. Johnny Stompanato, military hero, wannabe actor, small-time hood, gigolo and abuser was dead.

"Get Geisler"

In Hollywood's Golden Age, the criminal defense attorney everyone used was Jerry Geisler. The precursor to celebrity lawyers like Robert Shapiro and Johnny Cochran, Geisler had successfully defended Charlie Chaplin and Errol Flynn on rape charges. He represented Marilyn Monroe in her divorce from Joe DiMaggio four years earlier. He was expensive and worth every penny. No one in Los Angeles could match Geisler's skill before a jury.

"'Get me Geisler.' That was one of the jokes at the time," Lana wrote in her tell-all book. "If you were in trouble, you knew whom to call. Only now it wasn't a joke, it was something unspeakable; all too real."

Lana did a very smart thing in the moments after Stompanato's death. She called a lawyer and then had him contact the police. Geisler was on the scene before the cops.

Soon the Beverly Hills Police descended on Turner's home and with them came the press. It was inevitable that the media would be tipped to the story by police sources. The next morning, crime scene photos of Johnny Stompanato lying dead in Lana Turner's bedroom were on the front page of hundreds of newspapers.

Lana and Cheryl rode to the Beverly Hills Police Station in Geisler's limousine. There had been some questioning at the homicide scene, but formal statements were not taken until after Lana and her daughter had time to strategize with Geisler. That opportunity to confer helped spur rumors that Lana had killed Johnny and tried to blame Cheryl.

Under questioning by authorities, with her mother present, Cheryl recounted the story of Stompanato's death.

"I think that they were so careful to make sure they dotted all their I's and crossed all their T's," Cheryl told Larry King. "And they didn't want anyone to show -- say they showed favoritism, you know, a star's kid or anything like that, because they kept me overnight at the Beverly Hills police station in a cell."

Plan B

Mickey Cohen identified Johnny Stompanato's body, and the former Marine was shipped home and buried with full military honors in Illinois. Then Mickey fell back and regrouped. He knew all about Lana Turner and Johnny Stompanato. In fact, he was the one who helped Johnny gain access to Lana and the muscle behind Stompanato's uncanny ability to know where Lana was and where she was heading. He bankrolled Stompanato's seduction of Lana, not because he was interested in playing Cupid, but because he wanted to use Lana for his own purposes.

She was rich and powerful and he intended to blackmail her. Johnny Stompanato was the one who would help put the plan in place.

"I can't understand it," Mickey told the press, which was all over him. "I thought she liked him very much. We were happy -- Cheryl and Johnny and me. We used to go horseback riding together."

Then, after he went to the morgue to retrieve Johnny's body, he talked to the press again.

"I don't like the whole thing," he said. "There's lots of unanswered questions … I'm going to find some of those answers no matter what happens."

Weeks after the homicide, one of Lana's attorneys stopped by the house with a package. Inside was a series of negatives showing a naked, sleeping Lana Turner. Johnny had taken them.

"He had asked her [Lana's maid] to keep [them] for him just before he met me in England," Lana wrote. "He told Arminda that the contents were extremely valuable to him, and that she should keep it safe until he came to reclaim it."

Other negatives in the roll showed Johnny having sex with another woman.

With a few darkroom tricks, "he could hold them over you for blackmail," Lana's attorney said. Together, they destroyed the negatives and burned them. They flushed the ashes down the toilet.

Mickey wasn't finished yet. The blackmail plan had fallen through, but Mickey knew that Stompanato had kept the love letters he and Lana had exchanged. Cohen dispatched one of his hoods to break into Johnny's apartment and steal them. Then he leaked them to the press. If he wasn't going to make money off Lana Turner, he was damned sure going to arrange it so that she was finished in Hollywood.

The Los Angeles Herald Examiner was the first to break the story, and two days before the inquest they reprinted every word of Johnny's letters to Lana and hers back to him. The letters provided an intimate look at Lana and Johnny's relationship, from steamy early letters talking of "our love, our hopes, our dreams, our sex and longings" (Lana to Johnny) to her pleas for space later on.

"You must let me alone in my 'own world' for a while, to rest, think, rest, think," she wrote to Johnny.

Cohen freely admitted that he leaked the letters.

"I thought it was fair to show that Johnny wasn't exactly 'unwelcome company' like Lana said," he told the Herald Examiner.


Two days after the homicide, Los Angeles County District Attorney William B. McKesson held a press conference and made it clear the case would receive no special treatment simply because Lana Turner was involved. Cheryl, who had been held overnight in the Beverly Hills jail, was taken to the county Juvenile Hall until the matter was concluded. There was still no talk of criminal charges, and Cheryl was not being held as a suspect but as a material witness and adjudicated juvenile.

Easter came and went and on Monday morning Cheryl was brought before a probate judge for a predetention hearing. All sides were permitted to address the court. Geisler told the judge that he could prove Stompanato's death was justifiable homicide, and asked that Cheryl be released to her grandmother's custody.

"Let's go to trial," said Beverly Hills Police Chief William Anderson. "I am satisfied that Stompanato was killed with a knife and we have the party who did it."

McKesson recommended that Cheryl not be released on bail. He was afraid that the mob or Lana Turner would pressure Cheryl one way or another. The judge agreed and ordered Cheryl detained.

He further ordered, against the will of the police and the DA, a coroner's inquest to determine whether a crime had indeed been committed. In a coroner's inquest, a jury selected by the coroner examines the circumstances surrounding a suspicious death and renders a verdict. The verdict may identify the person responsible for a death or assign blame to negligent parties. In addition, juries may recommend further investigation and assign blame to negligent parties.

Unlike a grand jury indictment, a coroner's inquest verdict is not binding and law enforcement officials may still charge, or not charge, depending on their preference. Still, it is helpful to law enforcement because it formally establishes cause of death and any elements of the crime. It gives prosecutors a chance to see how evidence influences jurors.

A week after the homicide the coroner convened the inquest. Geisler had managed to get Cheryl excused from testifying because of the trauma she had already been through. Although some policemen were called to testify, there was only one witness that mattered: Lana, the only person who saw Cheryl stab Johnny.

Never before had she had to perform under this much pressure. Some 20 years since she was discovered on Sunset Boulevard, Lana Turner was about to take center stage in her most dramatic and important role ever. This time she wasn't playing for the Academy. At stake was her daughter's life.

Role of a Lifetime

The coroner's inquest into the death of Johnny Stompanato was the most anticipated television event ever. This was no Peyton Place; it was the real thing. Depending on how Lana played it, her daughter was either going to walk away a free woman or be charged with the death of her mother's boyfriend.

In the Hall of Records in downtown Beverly Hills the largest courtroom was reserved for the inquest. Of the 160 seats, 120 were reserved for the press. CBS and ABC announced that they were going to broadcast the inquest live and it would go out over radio, as well.

Interest in the case was overwhelming. Peyton Place, already a popular movie, saw its box office receipts jump by a third the week after Johnny's death. Coincidentally, one of Lana's key scenes in the melodrama was a courtroom interrogation, where she was questioned about crimes committed by her daughter.

The lines formed for the 40 public seats at 6 a.m. Shortly before 9:00, under a merciless sun made all the hotter by the television lights and flashbulbs, Lana, Stephan Crane and Geisler entered the building and quickly made their way to the courtroom.

Mickey Cohen was the first person called to testify, since he had identified Johnny's body at the morgue. Ever the showman, he caused a stir by refusing "to identify the body on the grounds I may be accused of this murder." He spent all of two minutes on the stand and left the building shortly thereafter.

The coroner introduced the autopsy report that showed how "a whole team of doctors" could not have saved Johnny's life. He had been stabbed once in the abdomen. The knife had sliced a kidney, struck a vertebra and twisted upward, puncturing his aorta. The medical examiner also announced that Johnny probably wouldn't have lived another 10 years because of his bad liver.

Then it was time for Lana.

Dressed in a gray silk suit, white gloves and hat, Lana was ready for her close-up. Her platinum hair was impeccable, not a strand out of place, and the best makeup artists had made her look as beautiful as she had ever been. Even though she had not slept at all the night before, Lana's high cheekbones glowed a healthy pale rose that only accented her crystal clear blue eyes, long doe lashes and pencil-thin eyebrows.

She sat down at the witness stand, removed her gloves and took a deep breath. For the next hour, Lana answered questions from the coroner, his deputy and Geisler while a 10-man, two-woman jury watched intently. She barely made eye contact with her questioners, instead staring at the back of the courtroom, where the wall met the ceiling. She broke down twice on the stand.

Speaking quietly, she tried to explain why she stayed with a man who beat her, something she said in her autobiography that she didn't herself understand. Under Geisler's gentle questioning she recounted a moment-by-moment recap of the argument that led to the stabbing.

When she had finished, the coroner asked for a recess and the press immediately surrounded Lana. She was on the verge of fainting when Jerry Geisler moved her out of the center of the crowd. Reporters talked among themselves about the quality of Lana's performance.


The inquest wasn't over after Lana left the stand, but most of the drama was gone. Police investigators testified that they were confused by some of the details. First, the knife was new, but it was scratched and chipped as if it had seen significant use before. Second, there were no fingerprints on the knife. Third, there was no blood in the bedroom or on Lana Turner's clothes and the bedroom was not in any sort of disarray. Finally, the blood on the knife contained "several light and dark fibers or hairs," which could not be identified.

As the inquest concluded, a mysterious man jumped up from the gallery and shouted that he needed to testify. As he was escorted from the room, he shouted, "Lies! All lies! This mother and daughter were both in love with Stompanato! Johnny was a gentleman!" Whether the man was a nutcase, a publicity hound or a Cohen plant was never determined, but regardless, he was taken away and disappeared.

The jurors retreated to deliberate and took less than a half-hour to decide that John Stompanato's death was justifiable homicide. Acting out of fear for her life and for her mother's life, Cheryl Crane was justified in using deadly force to stop Johnny, they ruled. The decision was not unanimous, nor did it have to be.

The inquest verdict was not binding on the prosecutor, but the next day McKesson decided not to pursue charges. He did, however, initiate court proceedings to determine Lana's fitness as a parent.

Mickey Cohen was outraged at the coroner's verdict and immediately went to the press. "It's the first time in my life I've ever seen a dead man convicted of his own murder," he said. "So far as that jury's concerned, Johnny just walked too close to that knife."

Johnny Stompanato's family brought a wrongful death lawsuit against Lana Turner and Stephan Crane. The case was settled out of court.

In 1962, Mickey Cohen was sentenced to 10 years in federal prison for income tax violations. He was released in 1972 and began a campaign for prison reform. In 1974, Mickey made headlines again when he said he had had contact with people holding Patty Hearst for ransom. He died in 1976 of natural causes.

Cheryl Crane eventually went to live with her grandmother, Lana's mother. There were many years of hardship ahead for this young woman, including more alienation from her mother, but overcoming those obstacles, Cheryl went into the restaurant business with her father. Today Cheryl is a successful businesswoman. She recently helped produce a Lana Turner retrospective on cable television.

Lana Turner's career, which hit a plateau before Johnny's death, was rejuvenated in 1958. She went on to make many more movies and starred on television in "Falcon Crest." Lana and Cheryl mended fences and reconciled long before her death in 1995. Well-respected and honored until the end, the "Sweater Girl" proved to be a survivor who had more than enough mettle to stand up to the curse of the Hollywood bombshell.

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