Hollywood’s Own “Crime of the Century”: The Lana Turner and Johnny Stompanato Affair and Murder

On April 4th, 1958, two worlds violently collided when mob associate, Johnny Stompanato, was fatally stabbed in the stomach by Cheryl Crane, daughter of notable actress and sex icon, Lana Turner. The altercation occurred in the pink-colored upholstered bedroom of Lana Turner after an intense argument between the two. Stompanato, who had become increasingly controlling and violent towards his celebrity girlfriend, was killed in a desperate act by Crane, who felt her mother’s life was in danger. Given the abusive history of their turbulent and often paranoid relationship, Crane’s motives were not outside the realm of reason. Nonetheless, the media went crazy for the story.

Yet, the Turner-Stompanato scandal and subsequent  “trial” wasn’t a case worthy of being sensationalized. The situation was an open-and-shut case, in which Cheryl Crane undoubtedly was going to be found not guilty and the Stompanato death would be ruled as justifiable homicide. However, the press couldn’t help sensationalizing the story because johnny-stompanato-body-02it merged two topics of fascination: Hollywood gossip and underworld crime, better referred to as “the mob.” The American public had a morbid fascination with the mob, especially with individual gangsters. While the press gave notoriety to individuals, such as Al Capone in the 1930s, Hollywood further encouraged this underworld fascination with notable films, such as Little Caesar (1931), The Public Enemy (1931), and Scarface (1932). These films gave audiences and the general public a glimpse into a relatively unknown world where crime was the norm and violence was the method of success. Therefore, the Turner-Stompanato scandal gave people the opportunity to get a clear glimpse of a crime world that was typically hidden from view.

lana-turner-home-1958
Lana Turner’s home after the night of the murder

In contrast was Lana Turner, known as “the sweater girl” and her sultry films of the 1940s. She was very public figure, especially with her recent Oscar nomination for Peyton Place (1958). For the general public, the Turner-Stompanato romance was the perfect scandal and “crime” because it put on display the ramifications of a celebrity intermixing with organized crime. The public’s interest hinged on what would be described as “Lana’s greatest performance” (Law 1892), referring to her eventual testimony on the witness stand to exonerate her daughter from being found guilty of murder. It is due to these reasons as to why this lackluster and somewhat predictable case was sensationalized by the media and press. The scandal fed into the public’s morbid interest of Hollywood gossip and underworld crime.

The Murder in the Pink Bedroom

 Lana Turner’s rise to fame was the quintessential Hollywood success story. Discovered at a soda shop on a day she decided to skip school, Turner was destined to become a star. At lana-turnerthe age of sixteen, she signed a long-term contract with MGM Studios, beginning her film career in 1937. As John William Law describes it in his book, Movie Star and The Mobster, “She quickly found her face and figure getting noticed by movie makers and fans, as well as the tabloids. Men either adored her or lusted after her – or both” (111). This was especially so considering that Lana Turner was seen as the penultimate “sweater girl,” which is a reference to Hollywood starlets who wore tight sweaters to emphasize their petite figure.

It was undoubtedly her attractiveness that bore the initial attention of many, yet Turner’s talent ensured her success. She demanded the attention of many when she starred in 1946’s The Postman Always Rings Twice, which featured her as a femme fatale who plots the murder of her husband. The film showcased her acting ability, but also defied the possibility of her being typecast in secondary movie roles. Lana Turner enjoyed a successful film career after the 1946 film, which traveled into the late 1950s. Yet despite her professional success, Turner’s personal life was continually in turmoil. By the end of her life, Turner would have married eight times, all of which ended in divorce. However, it was with her second marriage to Stephen Crane that she would get pregnant with her only child, Cheryl Crane, who was born in July of 1943.

In contrast, Johnny Stompanato also thrived off of his good looks, but they disarmed people in a manner different to Turner’s own. As Cheryl Crane describes in her johnny-stompanatoautobiography when first meeting Stompanato, “He was charming in a terse, manly way, and as part of his gentle pressure, he dropped the names of friends he said they had in common ” (198). Unbeknownst to them at the time, Stompanato was an enforcer for the underworld mobster organization. By many, it is also claimed that his worked as a bodyguard for notable mobster Mickey Cohen. Cohen was considered to be the “king of the Hollywood underworld” (Law 413) whose past consisted of illegal gambling and murder. Cohen’s primary interest in Hollywood was twofold: He saw it as an untouched resource of revenue, but also loved the spotlight Hollywood offered to those involved. Due to his unpopular reputation with the mob organization, who saw Cohen as greedy, Stompanato was hired as his “muscle.”

According to both Cheryl Crane’s personal account and William Law’s book, Johnny Stompanato introduced himself to Turner as “John Steele.” At the time of his introduction to them, neither Crane or Turner were aware that Stompanato had an obsession with Hollywood starlets, having tried to date Janet Leigh and Ava Gardener prior to wooing Turner. Stompanato was “described as a gigolo. When he wasn’t doing Cohen’s dirty work, he was often found with his arm around a beautiful, sometimes older woman.” lana-turner-and-johnny-stompanatoStompanato especially enjoyed the company of older women because “they often had money to spend on him” (Law 589). Lana Turner fit within both of those categories: She was older than Stompanato, although he lied about his age, claiming to be older than her. Turner was also a wealthy Hollywood actress, which appealed to the lavish lifestyle Stompanato craved. Therefore, it can be argued that Stompanato’s interest in Lana Turner had more to do with what she could potentially offer him, opposed to seeing her as someone he saw as a lifelong companion.

Turner’s relationship would immediately become turbulent as Stompanato became increasingly controlling and threatening. This shift in demeanor began when Turner was made aware of who Stompanato actually was, to which he didn’t deny that he had lied about his true identity. Nonetheless, Turner remained with Stompanato, even writing him checks to pay for his gambling debts. The relationship was toxic, yet Turner found herself strangely attracted to Stompanato’s crude behavior. Yet even Turner couldn’t deny that lana-turner-and-johnny-stompanato-02the relationship was rapidly going from infatuation to increasingly unhealthy. This especially was apparent when Stompanato’s jealousy of Turner translated into him becoming obsessed about her cheating on him. This escalated to Stompanato even pointing a gun at Sean Connery on the set of Another Time, Another Place, when he became convinced Turner was cheating with her co-star. In an instant that has become part of Hollywood lore, Connery tore the gun from Stompanato’s hand, and by some accounts, punched him in the face (Law 944). It was such instances that gave Turner the strong realization that her relationship was one that not only could damage her career, but could put her life at risk.

Yet it was the night of the 30th Academy Awards on March 26th, 1958, when the inevitable truth could no longer be denied. Turner, realizing that her association with Stompanato could damage her career, chose not to take him to Academy Awards. She instead took her mother and Cheryl Crane, which infuriated Stompanato. According to Crane’s account of the evening, she could hear Stompanato shouting obscenities to her mother and the sounds of items being thrown against the wall. The line that would forever haunt her after hearing her mother being abused was Stompanato coldly declaring, “You will never get rid of me. I’m stickin’ around” (14). This immediately put Crane in a protective mode for her mother, poised to defend her when the moment presented itself.

lana-turner-1958-oscars
Lana Turner with Red Buttons at the 1958 Oscar ceremony. Hours later, Turner will be beaten and threatened by Stompanato for not taking him with her to the ceremony.

Tragically, the moment did present itself less than two weeks later when Turner discovered Stompanato had been lying about his age. Upon learning that he was actually younger than her, Turner saw this lie as the final insult from Stompanato that she could no longer tolerate. According to Crane, her mother had said to her “His age! He’s not forty-three, he’s thirty-three! Which makes me five years older than he is! I’m such a fool!” (24). Turner immediately recognized that the consistent lies, along with the controlling demeanor of Stompanato, had to be put to an end. However, her demands for him to leave her home immediately shifted to direct threats. Among the threats he shouted to Turner, “You’ll never get away from me. I’ll cut you good, baby. No one will ever look at that pretty face again” (Law 1380), was enough for Crane to become concerned for her mother’s safety.

turner-stompanato-and-crane
Lana Tuner, Johnny Stompanato, and Cheryl Crane photographed together on April 1, 1958, three days before the murder.

Crane had been in her bedroom watching television when the arguing began and as the argument become more heated, she immediately feared not only for her mother’s life, but her own. Running down to the kitchen, Crane grabbed a knife and ran back upstairs to the closed door of her mother’s bedroom. According to Crane’s account, the door flew open, revealing a cowering Turner with a dominant Stompanato declaring that he would ruin her career by cutting her face. As Crane described the incident, “I took a step forward and lifted the weapon. He ran on the blade. It went in. For three ghastly heartbeats, our bodies fused” (29). While it was a single blow to Stompanato’s abdomen, it was fatal and he died almost instantly.

johnny-stompanato-knife
The knife used by Cheryl Crane to kill Johnny Stompanato on April 4, 1958

A Not-So Sensational Case      

When fully aware of the backstory of the Turner-Stompanato relationship, the situation was an open-and-shut case of justifiable homicide. While the circumstances were unfortunate, especially considering Cheryl Crane was fourteen-years-old, the outcome was unavoidable considering the brutality of Johnny Stompanato towards Lana Turner. johnny-stompanato-bodyHowever, the press and the general public immediately took an interest in the case, describing it as “the gossip-strewn romance between the one-time sweater girl and the dark-haired former underworld figure who had squired her here, in London, and Acapulco, Mexico” (Law 1695). This is primarily because there was a demand for celebrity gossip by the general public. Celebrities feared this scrutiny, not only because it was damaging to their careers, but it was a complete invasion of privacy. This was precisely why the general public craved such stories.

The love for celebrity gossip can be largely attributed to Hedda Hopper, who was one of the most notorious gossip-writers of the 1940s into the 1950s. Her column for The Los Angeles Times was read by nearly 35 million people, all of whom thrived on what details she could muster that would expose the lives of celebrities who were supposedly pristine, which was a perpetuation that Hollywood set for all of its actors and actresses. She was famously known for her statement, “Nobody’s interested in sweetness and light” (The Telegraph), which implied that her goal was to acquire the secrets of others and expose them to a large audience. Hopper particularly enjoyed destroying careers, sometimes lying or exaggerating scenarios on her column, knowing this would further enthrall her readers.

hedda-hopper
Hedda Hopper was known as the “gargoyle of gossip”

Hopper’s own motivations were furthered due to the now-famous rivalry with Louella Parsons, another tabloid columnist. Refusing to allow her adversary to have information better than her own, Hopper’s ambitions of being the best tabloid columnist was at the expense of Hollywood, whose carefully guarded secrets were actively investigated by Hopper for the hopes of a story. Therefore, Hopper was known as a “gargoyle of gossip” who grew increasingly rich off of the gossip of celebrities. She was someone who continually “knew the truth and was the one who decided when, how, or if to use it” (The Telegraph). As a result of her own ambitions, there was a readership public who not only craved the latest celebrity gossip, but now expected something noteworthy of reading. The Lana Turner-Johnny Stompanato affair was the perfect gossip to expose all over newspapers.

Hedda Hopper’s own newspaper, The Los Angeles Times, made the story headline news (Law 1711) and immediately contacted Stompanato’s brother, Carmine, for an interview about the relationship. The media ran with the story that the mob, especially Carmine Stompanato and Mickey Cohen, were not “satisfied” with Lana Turner and Cheryl Crane’s recounting of the night, both of whom were claiming self-defense (Law 1732). The mere fact that Lana Turner, who was recently at the forefront of moviegoers’ minds as an Oscar nominee, was involved in a relationship with a mobster who was subsequently stabbed to death by her daughter, the story was irresistible.

lana-turner-scandal-newspaper

Aside from the tremendous celebrity gossip that involved Lana Turner’s personal life, the general public thoroughly enjoyed the added fact that this scandal directly involved the mob. It should be noted that this particular fascination was first fueled by the conception of the American mob as a result of the liquor Prohibition that began in 1920 and lasted until 1933. The general public was aware of the mob’s existence, but it was actually the mobster films in the early 1930s that brought about a visual representation of the crime underworld empire. There was a morbid fascination with this crime ring because it defied the norm expectation of work in that era. Mobsters openly defied the law, used violence as a means to get results, and flaunted their illegal activities to the police, daring the authorities to try and stop them, as Al Capone famously did when running Chicago’s underground mob in the early 1930s.

paul-muni-scarface
Paul Muni in Scarface (1932).

The Hollywood film industry, which was just beginning to flourish in the early 1930s, took advantage of the public’s morbid fascination with the mob by crafting three famous mobster movies that were popular with the relatively new movie public: Little Caesar (1931), The Public Enemy (1931), and Scarface (1932). While the films functioned as cautionary tales of greed and corruption, they had an adverse effect. The films perpetuated stereotypes of Italian immigrants that were seen as being factually correct representations (Cavallero 52). Part of this was due to misconceptions and relative fear of the Italian immigrants due to the onset of World War II. According to Jonathan Cavallero in his article, “Gangsters, Fessos, Tricksters, and Sopranos,” the American mob was a product of American policy failures, such as Prohibition, but also the economic policies of the 1920s that would ultimately lead the Great Depression. However, the general public typically equated the mob’s existence not with the systemic failures of the country, but rather due to the idea that Italian immigrants were an “other” faction in contrast to the ordinary American.

The gangster movies of the 1930s classified Italian immigrants as an example of the American ideal being corrupted, to which it reinforced xenophobic attitudes towards immigrants during the 1930s. As Cavellero describes it, “Ethnicity becomes an important tool in these films, as it replaces the failure of these myths and becomes the problem itself” (52). This was especially true with Scarface (1932), which was a fictitious account of Al Capone’s life of crime. The film’s principle character, Tony Camonte, is represented an Italian immigrant who resorts to violence to build his illegal empire before his greed ultimately is his undoing. This crafted the notion that the conception and existence of the mob was a direct result of the community itself, formulating a visual that Italian immigrants that reinforced the general public’s “active imagination and wide-scale prejudice against average Italians” (53).

mickey-cohen-johnny-stompanato
Mickey Cohen paying his respects at the wake for Johnny Stompanato

The direct involvement of Mickey Cohen in the Lana Turner-Johnny Stompanato scandal brought this perceptive back at the forefront of the public’s mind. As Cheryl Crane describes it, “Cohen was able to jump into the drama as a principle player, taking the role of the grieving friend who was suspicious of police investigation methods” and further suggested that Cohen wanted to embarrass the Beverly Hills’ police department for their numerous run-ins with him (229). Cohen’s role in the scandal was to humiliate Turner, even going as far to suggest that she herself murdered Stompanato. His main claim to the press was crafting the idea that Turner and Stompanato were supposedly happy and that her claims about his violence were entirely fabricated. Cohen even managed to get his hands on Stompanato’s collection of love letters from Turner, leaking them to the press, and justified it by stating, “I thought it was fair to show that Johnny wasn’t exactly ‘unwelcome company’ like Lana said” (Law 1811).

As Law writes in his book, the general public had no idea what the ‘true story’ was and were only aware of the speculations and the slandering of Cohen and Carmine Stompanato. Yet despite all of this, the scandal had no need to be sensationalized. Given the public’s unfair perception of Italian immigrants, both Cohen and Carmine Stompanato fit the criteria of ill-intentioned individuals. As Cheryl Crane recounts in her autobiography, she was well-aware that the Hollywood industry and the police department were on their side regarding the case. As she recounts, the Hollywood Insider, in reference to her case, wrote that the town’s “sympathies were with Steve Crane and his daughter” (235).

Linking back to the general public’s unhealthy addiction to celebrity gossip, Lana Turner’s testimony to the coroner’s inquest to determine if the death was justifiable homicide was sensationalized for public consumption. Turner’s testimony was deemed as “Lana’s greatest performance” (Law 1982) since it was thought that her testimony was the only thing preventing her daughter from being charged with first degree murder. Yet even the fact that the scandal was to be determined by a coroner’s inquest, rather than a jury, strongly indicated the lack of severity when determining whether the case was a homicide or not. A coroner’s inquest “examines the circumstances surrounding a suspicious death and renders a verdict” (Law 1928). Nonetheless, the scandal was heightened when networks such as ABC and CBS declared they would be broadcasting Lana Turner’s testimony live, thereby giving the general public a firsthand vantage of the most sensational of celebrity gossip. As Law describes it, “She had to tell the story that people wanted to hear – and in a way that made it clear and believable what happened” (2039).

lana-turner-coroner-inquest
Lana Turner on the witness stand during the coroner’s inquest. The media dubbed her testimony as “Lana’s greatest performance.”

Ultimately the inquest found Cheryl Crane to be exonerated and the death deemed “justifiable homicide.” The inquest’s decision was largely influenced by two factors: The wound Stompanato received was fatal and nothing could have saved his life, but also Lana Turner’s testimony. While the testimony itself was uneventful, with the exception of her teary answers to the coroner’s questions, it gave the general public the opportunity to hear of a Hollywood starlet who was scared for her life, trapped in a unwanted world of crime and abused before her daughter killed her lover to protect them both. The story was largely sensationalized due to this representation of the mob infiltrating what was deemed a respectable household. Mickey Cohen attempted to challenge the verdict, but both the press and general public saw the verdict as silencing the mob and stopping them from destroying the career of a notable actress. The public perception was that Johnny Stompanato was out of control and he needed to be stopped.

Conclusion

The Lana Turner-Johnny Stompanato affair and scandal, while sensational, was built up to be more than it actually was. The case was an open-and-shut instance of justifiable homicide, in which a physically abusive male was killed by a daughter who was determined to protect her mother and her own welfare. It was primarily due to both the general public’s love for celebrity gossip, which was initially due Hedda Hopper’s column in the Los Angeles Times. Additionally, the mob’s involvement in the Turner-Stompanato case reinforced a morbid fascination with the mob that was first given a visual vantage with the mobster films of the 1930s that perpetuated Italian stereotypes that were ironically reinforced with the involvement of Mickey Cohen in this Hollywood scandal. Regardless of these two elements, the Turner-Stompanato case shouldn’t have gotten the intense media scrutiny that it did. In actuality, the scandal was a private affair that didn’t need to revealed to the public and the mob had no involved with Turner’s own life until well after Stompanato’s death occurred. Nonetheless, fifty-eight years later, the Turner-Stompanato affair remains one of Hollywood’s greatest “crimes of the century.”

 

Works Cited:

Cavallero, Jonathan J. “Gangsters, Fessos, Tricksters, And Sopranos.” Journal Of Popular Film    & Television 32.2 (2004): 50-63. Communication & Mass Media Complete. Web. 17 Nov. 2016.

Crane, Cheryl. Detour: A Hollywood Story. New York: Arbor House, William Morrow, and          Company, 1988, Print. Pgs. 197-292.

Law, John William. Movie Star and The Mobster: Lana Turner, Johnny Stompanato and    Homicide in the Pink Bedroom. Aplomb Publishing, 2016, Kindle File.

“Hedda Hopper: the woman who scared Hollywood.” The Telegraph, 2016. Web.

< http://www.telegraph.co.uk/film/trumbo/hedda-hopper-woman-who-scared-hollywood/&gt;

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