Lana Turner was the quintessential blonde bombshell who turned on the whole world with her many sexualized and femme fatale roles in the 30s and 40s. A legend from the very start, her beauty and sex appeal quickly made her a huge draw. Unfortunately, the true and talented actress she aspired to be often lay stifled beneath many layers of hair dye and sex symbol hype which she had to constantly fight to get out from under. Her tumultuous personal life, filled with elicit affairs, several short-lived marriages and violent abuses, also threatened to sabotage much of the success Lana enjoyed in her 30 year career. In life, Lana achieved so much so quickly as an actress, but the love she so craved in life always seemed to elude her.
Born Julia Jean Turner in Wallace, Idaho in either 1920 or 1921 (no one's completely sure about that, as Lana liked to fib a bit about her age), Judy, as she was called early on in her life, came to understand misfortune, hardship and scandal almost from the start. Her father, a miner, was unable to make a go of it in Idaho and moved the entire family to San Francisco. Her parents separated soon after their arrival in San Francisco, leaving Lana's mother to look after her alone. Her father eventually came into money, thanks to a lucky game of craps, but didn't live long enough to enjoy it. Hiding his winnings in his sock, he was soon after found dead on a street corner, his left shoe and sock missing. His murder was never solved.
Living in depression era times, Lana's mother was often forced to leave her daughter with friends and acquaintances just so she could keep her head above water. Eventually, Lana's mother took ill from the damp San Francisco climate. She was advised by doctors to seek a warmer, drier place to live. So in 1931, a ten-year-old Lana and her mother set out for Los Angeles, having no idea how much this move would change both their lives forever.
The story of Lana Turner's discovery by Hollywood is the stuff of legend and the dream of many an aspiring starlet who followed her. It was 1937 and a 16-year-old Lana decided to skip her typing class at her school, Hollywood High, preferring to divert to the local drug store for a Coke. Also at the drug store that day was William R. Wilkerson, publisher of the Hollywood Reporter. Impressed with young Lana's looks, it is said he approached her with the standard remark "How'd you like to be in pictures?" The answer, of course, was yes and Wilkerson immediately introduced her to Marx brother Zeppo Marx, who's agency soon signed her on and introduced her to director Mervyn Leroy, who cast Lana in her first movie, 1937's THEY WONT FORGET. Her part - the role of a pretty, young girl, sitting at a drug store counter wearing a tight sweater and drinking a Coke. Her life became her Hollywood debut. It was also be the beginning of a reputation Lana came to despise
Her role in THEY WONT FORGET soon earned her the nickname "Sweater Girl" amidst the high ups at Warner Pictures, for the tight sweaters she wore in the role. It was an insult to Lana and a slur on her name that unfortunately followed her for years afterward. Lana moved on from Warner to MGM quite quickly, thanks to the skepticism of many Warner execs who seemed to think she wouldn't "amount to anything." This was just the first in a long series of skeptical reactions Lana would fight against in the coming years. Her first role at MGM was in the 1938 Mickey Rooney vehicle LOVE FINDS ANDY HARDY, playing the flirtatious young girl with the "kissing bug." There was a pattern starting to form here, with Lana always playing the promiscuous, flirtatious vixen. Of course, it was quite purposeful on the part of MGM execs, who looked at their new, young starlet as the next Jean Harlow, another sex symbol of the screen who had died only months before Lana's start at MGM.
As the '30s gave way to the '40s, Lana's move toward screen siren was fully underway. Several movies with titles like DRAMATIC SCHOOL, THESE GLAMOR GIRLS, and DANCING CO-ED made her the darling of young, college aged men. As WWII flared up, she quite naturally turned into a pin-up queen for young GIs, even finding herself as nose art on her own B-17 bomber, The Tempest Turner. This time also saw Lana taking on leading role status, starring alongside one of Hollywood's most legendary leading men, Clark Gable. Their films became some of the most successful in her early career, thanks in part to coverage in the tabloid media concerning rumors of an illicit relationship between the two stars. This scuttlebutt was just fine by MGM execs, who funneled it into publicity for their films, even changing the name of one of her movies to SLIGHTLY DANGEROUS to fuel her controversy. Thanks to all this hype, by the middle of the 1940s, young Lana had become a cultural and box office sensation.
Now that she was a huge star, Lana could use her star power to get the more meatier parts she so longed to play. Passing up 4 so-called "pretty roles" in a row, 1946 brought Lana just the kind of role she wanted in the form of the film noir classic, THE POSTMAN ALWAYS RINGS TWICE. It was her first real opportunity to let loose as an actress and Lana certainly delivered. Her performance as the murderous adulterer Cora was very well received and hailed by critics as her finest acting performance, which officially graduated Lana into the big time. She could now angle for the big roles, even edging out huge names like Katherine Hepburn and Vivien Leigh for the juiciest parts at MGM. So in demand was Lana toward the late '40s that she was literally signing on to her next film before the last one was even finished. All these big roles were giving Lana a big name, but also some big paychecks. By the late '40s, Lana was one of the highest paid women in the entire United States.
As her star soared, so did tabloid interest in her personal life - a life Lana did very little to hide or protect. Her fondness for trysts with her co-stars and many others in the various celebrity circles was quite well reported, as were her rather bizarre, spur of the moment marriages. Throughout a roughly 30-year period between 1940 and 1969, Lana married 7 times - twice to the same man. These marriages never lasted more than a few years, some lasting mere months. Many were plagued with verbal and physical abuses. She had only one child by these many men, though it came out later that she suffered miscarriages and even had a few abortions during this time. Like many female icons, her efforts to find love pretty much always ended in abject, painful failure, worsening her crippling alcoholism. She later said of her marriages "My goal was to have one husband and seven children, but it turned out to be the other way around."
As the 1950s arrived on the scene, Lana's juggernaut career began to dim somewhat, in conjunction with the beginning of the end of the old studio system in Hollywood. Many of Lana's films in this time received mixed results, some succeeding, some tanking badly. MGM attempted to broaden her appeal by putting her in musicals and other varied productions, but a new stable of young, up and coming stars were starting to monopolize more attention away from established stars. An increasingly fickle movie going public was also starting to grow tired of the same old films, preferring the freshness of a relatively new technology on the scene called television. With falling ticket sales and a new generation of Americans looking for something different, many older stars found themselves ushering in the 1960s with their long-standing studio contracts not renewed.
However, it was not just the woes of the studios that prompted Lana's decline in Hollywood. Moving into her late 30s and increasingly desperate for meaningful relationships, Lana made the rather counter intuitive choice to take up with notorious gangster Johnny Stompanato. Their torrid relationship was a constant mention in tabloid headlines, earning her rebuke from many and tipping her press from beneficial to lurid and destructive. The two clashed several times, sometimes physically, splitting and reconciling repeatedly. One infamous incident between the two took place on the set of Lana's film ANOTHER TIME, ANOTHER PLACE, which she starred in alongside a young Sean Connery. Convinced that Lana was having an affair with Connery, Stompanato came to the set with a gun, threatening the actor. Unfazed, the badass Scotsman and future Bond slammed Stompanato across the face and took the gun right out of the gangster's hand. Stompanato was quickly deported for the incident.
Her Oscar nominated performance in 1957's PEYTON PLACE was one of the brighter moments in a dark time for Lana, however the stormy relationship with Stompanato continued, culminating one night at Lana's home in Beverly Hills. Amidst a rather violent encounter between Lana and Stompanato, Lana's daughter Cheryl, fearing for her mother's life, grabbed a kitchen knife and entered the room where Stompanato and Lana were arguing. There has never been any definitive explanation for what followed, but when everything was said and done, Stompanato lay dead on the floor, stabbed with the knife. Obviously this was a massive scandal, generating headlines everywhere. A coroner's inquiry and an impassioned plea from Lana eventually cleared Cheryl of any charges in the killing, but the effects of the incident hurt her mother's career for years to follow.
Movie roles came sporadically in the 1960s, her last with MGM being 1966's MADAME X. She attempted a brief foray into television in the late 60s, then again in the 80s with a few appearances on the on the hit show Falcon Crest. However, she was usually content to stay out of the limelight in the last few decades of her life, passing into movie legend in that time thanks to the publication of more than one biography about her tumultuous life in Hollywood.
A lifelong, heavy smoker, Lana was diagnosed with throat cancer in the early 1990s. Though she held out for a few years, she eventually succumbed to her illness in 1995. She was 74. Or 75. No one ever got a straight answer on that. Though sometimes stifled in her career and often deprived of the love she craved in her life, Lana will go down in history as one of Hollywood's greatest beauties of the screen and an inspiration to countless actors and actresses dreaming of their big break in Hollywood.