Actor Lana Turner’s Daughter Kills Turner’s Gangster Lover Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

A beautiful and popular film actor who made headlines for her many marriages and romances as often as for her films, Lana Turner became romantically involved with violent gangster Johnny Stompanato. Turner’s daughter, Cheryl Crane, stabbed him to death one night when he was threatening them both. Some continue to suspect that Turner killed Stompanato, who was known for abusing women.

Summary of Event

Lana Turner could easily serve as the archetype of the American movie star of the first half of the twentieth century: modestly talented but gorgeous, stylish, photogenic, sexy, and shamelessly profligate in her love life. In the Hollywood rags-to-riches tradition reflected in a number of her films, Turner was discovered as a high school student from a working-class family when a reporter saw her in a drugstore in Los Angeles and was impressed by her beauty. [kw]Actor Lana Turner’s Daughter Kills Turner’s Gangster Lover (Apr. 4, 1958) [kw]Turner’s Daughter Kills Turner’s Gangster Lover, Actor Lana (Apr. 4, 1958) Turner, Lana Crane, Cheryl Stompanato, Johnny Turner, Lana Crane, Cheryl Stompanato, Johnny [g]United States;Apr. 4, 1958: Actor Lana Turner’s Daughter Kills Turner’s Gangster Lover[01040] [c]Murder and suicide;Apr. 4, 1958: Actor Lana Turner’s Daughter Kills Turner’s Gangster Lover[01040] [c]Organized crime and racketeering;Apr. 4, 1958: Actor Lana Turner’s Daughter Kills Turner’s Gangster Lover[01040] [c]Hollywood;Apr. 4, 1958: Actor Lana Turner’s Daughter Kills Turner’s Gangster Lover[01040]

Lana Turner, left, Johnny Stompanato, and Cheryl Crane at Los Angeles International Airport, fifteen days before Stompanato’s murder.

(AP/Wide World Photos)

Within months, the teenager was a professional actor, working steadily for the next twenty years for two of the most prestigious studios in the film industry at the time, first Warner Bros. and then Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, appearing opposite superstars such as Clark Gable and Spencer Tracy. Her costars most often received the critical acclaim, however. Before the Stompanato scandal, she had given only two thoroughly effective performances in leading roles, first as the unfaithful and murderous young wife in The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946) and as the harried mother in the screen version of Grace Metalious’s best seller, Peyton Place (1957), for which she received an Oscar nomination for Best Actress.

Instead, most of Turner’s fame was based on her glamorous face and figure and on her many Marriage;Lana Turner[Turner] marriages and romantic escapades. Dubbed the Sweater Girl, she became a popular pin-up among soldiers during World War II. By the time she got involved with Johnny Stompanato in 1957, she had had four husbands: bandleader Shaw, Artie Artie Shaw, restaurateur Crane, Stephen Stephen Crane (Cheryl Crane’s father), millionaire Topping, Henry Henry Topping, and actor Barker, Lex Lex Barker, whom she divorced after Cheryl accused him of molesting her. Her list of other lovers was rumored to include Gable.

Stompanato came from a middle-class family in Woodstock, Illinois, where it seems he had been something of a problem child. His father sent him to a military school, where he spent most of his high school years. He enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps during World War II and served honorably in the Pacific. His activities between the time he left the military at the end of the war and his emergence in Hollywood are uncertain. He likely traveled in Asia and the Middle East, married at least once, and worked in night clubs. Arriving in Hollywood during the mid-1950’s, he became part of the entourage of infamous California mobster Mickey Cohen, serving as his bodyguard and operating a gift shop that sold bric-a-brac as a cover for a number of Cohen’s criminal activities. He and Turner met in 1957 soon after her separation from Barker. They had been together slightly more than one year when he was killed by Turner’s daughter.

Stompanato had a reputation for being temperamental, violent, and insanely jealous. According to both Turner and Crane—at the time of the killing and later in interviews and autobiographies—he often was abusive, flying into rages over trivialities and striking Turner, sometimes beating her viciously. A public demonstration of Stompanato’s temper and jealousy had occurred earlier in 1958 when Turner was in England making a film called Another Time, Another Place opposite Sean Connery. Stompanato brandished a gun in Connery’s face, and the two men fought. It was a similar fit of anger and jealousy that allegedly led to Stompanato’s death in April of 1958.

As in many such cases, what really went on during the early hours of Good Friday in 1958 in Turner’s Beverly Hills home remains uncertain. According to Turner and Crane, Stompanato was infuriated because Turner wanted to end the abusive relationship and insisted that he move out of the house at once. Crane at first tried to talk the couple into calming down, but Stompanato’s wrath only increased, and he began to threaten to kill not only Turner but also Crane and Turner’s mother. In a panic, Crane raced to the kitchen, grabbed a butcher knife, and returned to her mother’s bedroom. Minutes later, Stompanato lay dying from a stab wound. Turner later testified that she had not actually seen her daughter stab her lover, as he was standing in front of her, blocking her view of Crane.

Years later, Crane suggested that she had not intentionally stabbed Stompanato; instead, she brandished the knife only as a warning to make him back away from her mother. In a rage, however, he thrust himself forward to disarm her and ended up impaling himself on the knife when she held it out to protect herself. Turner summoned first a doctor, who tried but failed to revive Stompanato, and then Jerry Geisler, the most renowned show-business lawyer of the time. Crane spent the Easter weekend in juvenile detention.

One week later, a coroner’s inquest was held. Unsurprisingly, the inquest quickly became a spectacle. Reporters swamped the small hearing room, and the public lined up at dawn to get into the court. When Turner herself testified, minutiae pertaining to her clothes, makeup, vocal inflections, and emotional breakdowns on the stand appeared in newspapers across the United States. Debate erupted about whether Turner’s distraught behavior and appearance in court were authentic or merely histrionics aimed at getting herself and her only child out of a desperate situation. Numerous rumors arose, the two most prominent being that Turner had actually killed Stompanato and that both mother and daughter had been in love with him. At one point, a mentally disturbed man disrupted the proceedings and had to be removed. Eventually, the jury deliberated for half an hour and found that Crane’s killing of Stompanato had been justifiable homicide.

Impact

Because of the scandal, Turner’s career surged again: Sales of tickets to Peyton Place, which was still in theaters, skyrocketed. Soon afterward, famed cult-film director Douglas Sirk offered Turner the lead in Imitation of Life (1959), which dealt with mother-daughter conflicts, and it was a box-office hit. She continued to act through the 1980’s, dying of cancer in 1995. However, the effects on Crane’s life were wholly negative. The court investigated Turner as an unfit mother, and Crane was sent to stay with her grandmother. Her adolescence was troubled, and she spent time in reform school. As an adult, however, she became a successful businesswoman and wrote a well-received autobiography.

The Stompanato scandal maintains a place in American popular literature, films, and music. In 1962, Harold Robbins’s best seller, Where Love Has Gone, was inspired by the scandal, especially the unfounded rumor that both mother and daughter had been in love with Stompanato. In 1964, a film version of Robbins’s novel was a financial success and earned several Oscar nominations. In 1987, Woody Allen wrote and directed September, the focal characters of which are a mother and daughter based on Turner and Crane. Allen drew on the other common rumor from the 1950’s: that Turner had actually slain her lover and then let her daughter take the blame. James Ellroy’s 1990 crime thriller L.A. Confidential and its 1997 film adaptation feature Cohen, Stompanato, and Turner as characters, though the latter two are minor.

Furthermore, much of Turner’s makeup, hairstyle, and public persona were appropriated by pop singers of the 1980’s and 1990’s, including Madonna (who refers to Turner in her hit song “Vogue”) and Gwen Stefani. In 2003, urban folksinger Tom Russell included the song “Tijuana Bible” on his album Modern Art. The song encapsulates in a few lines the story of the Turner-Crane-Stompanato scandal. Turner, Lana Crane, Cheryl Stompanato, Johnny

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Crane, Cheryl, with Cliff Jahr. Detour. New York: Arbor House, 1988. Crane’s autobiography. Provides details of the night Stompanato was killed.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Lewis, Brad. Hollywood’s Celebrity Gangster. New York: Enigma Books, 2007. Offers insight into mobster Mickey Cohen’s involvement in the Stompanato scandal.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Turner, Lana. Lana. New York: Dutton, 1982. Turner’s autobiography, containing her most thorough and consistent account of the killing and its aftermath.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Wayne, Jane Ellen. The Golden Girls of MGM. New York: Carroll & Graf, 2003. The chapter about Turner gives an engrossing account of what reportedly happened between the time of the stabbing and the time police arrived.

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