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Two Survivors: The Scandalous Saga of Lana Turner and Cheryl Crane

May 19, 2023

By Hadley Hall Meares

"Even to this day when my mother and I refer to the tragedy in conversation, we euphemize it as ‘the paragraph,’ because no press mention of us seems to be complete unless it includes a paragraph about what happened that Good Friday 1958."

So writes Cheryl Crane, daughter of movie star Lana Turner, in the amazingly frank and compassionate 1988 autobiography Detour: A Hollywood Story. On April 4, 1958, 14-year-old Crane killed Johnny Stompanato, her mother's abusive boyfriend, who had ties to the gangster Mickey Cohen. The story became a media sensation. YetCrane's chronicle of her life as Hollywood princess turned exploited killer is about more than "the paragraph;" it's filled with so much searing honesty and graceful forgiveness that it almost boggles the mind. (Crane is an accomplished author: she also co-wrote the celebratory coffee table book LANA: The Memories, the Myth, the Movies in 2008).

While Crane paints Turner, the glamorous star of films including Ziegfeld Girl, The Postman Always Rings Twice, and Imitation of Life, in an often-unflattering light, her tone doesn't emulate the bitter memoirs of other stars’ children. "Mother was never intentionally cruel to anyone," she writes, "though sometimes it may have seemed to me that she was."

Lana: The Lady, the Legend, The Truth , Turner's own highly enjoyable—if carefully curated—1982 autobiography, bears this assertion out. In it, Turner recounts her seven tumultuous marriages, numerous tragic miscarriages, and reckless choices. The actor, who died in 1995, comes across as a fundamentally good-hearted, but woefully gullible romantic, someone who bought into the Hollywood star system hook, line, and sinker. But Crane emerges as the true star, a woman who refused to let "the paragraph" define her life. "It's been a long, hard journey for her," Turner writes of Crane, "but she's made it—made me proud, too, to be her mother."

Julia Jean Turner was born in Wallace, Idaho, on February 8, 1921. In Lana: The Lady, the Legend, The Truth, Turner bluntly describes her rootless, hardscrabble childhood, speculating that the trauma of the 1930 murder of her charming gambler father, Virgil, may have led to her many obsessive love affairs.

Turner's mother, hairdresser Mildred, tried valiantly to raise her daughter, but had to leave her with an abusive foster family when money got tight. (Mildred immediately pulled her out when she learned of the abuse—which would become something of a theme in the Turner family—but the damage was already done.) In 1936, the duo took a mud-covered jalopy to Depression-era Los Angeles.

Determined to be seen as ladies, Mildred and her daughter would pour over etiquette books by Emily Post and read Vogue cover to cover. According to Turner, she was discovered sipping a Coke with friends at the Top Hat Café by Billy Wilkerson, the infamous founder of The Hollywood Reporter.

Turner was quickly cast in the 1937 film They Won't Forget as a sexy murder victim, wiggling down the street suggestively in a tight sweater. The objectification of the role mortified the young teenager, but it caused a sensation. Turner—now rechristened Lana—became a sex symbol overnight.

Seemingly addicted to romantic drama, Turner palled around with the equally voracious Ava Gardner and carried out a stream of high-profile relationships with the likes of Tyrone Power (her true love), Artie Shaw, Howard Hughes, Frank Sinatra, Victor Mature, Robert Stack, and (allegedly) a married Clark Gable. Brutally honest about some relationships and mum on others she unabashedly discusses her love of partying, which gained her the moniker "the nightclub queen."

"How I’d love to dress up and go dancing with a handsome dark man," she writes. "Ciro's was a favorite haunt…the headwaiter would spring forward-— ‘Ah, Miss Turner . . .’ and escort me in. I had a special table right by the stairs so I could watch the comings and goings. I’d head straight there, never glancing right or left. And then, when I was seated, I’d give the room a long casing, bowing to this one or blowing that one a kiss. Silly, I guess, but fun."

It was into this heady atmosphere that Cheryl Crane was born on July 25, 1943. Her father, Stephen Crane, was a magnetic, slightly shady actor and gadabout whose marriage to Turner was already falling apart. To make matters worse, Cheryl was in danger because her blood was incompatible with her mother's RH factor blood. "My birth was a life and death struggle that swayed in the balance for nearly two months," Crane writes. "That was me all over."

By Anthony Breznican

By Anthony Breznican

By Hillary Busis

Nicknamed "the baby," Crane was immediately turned over to her beloved Scottish nanny, taken for airings in the park where she was coddled by a cooing Greta Garbo. Turner admits to being an absentee mother who didn't personally give Cheryl a bath until she was a year old.

She defied me in every way a baby possibly could… She was playing games, while I was trying to be a serious mother. "Cherry," I said, "stop it." And all at once we both began laughing—the first time I’d ever heard a baby give a real belly laugh.

But these moments were few and far between. "Both of my parents were driven personalities—vain, gifted, selfish, and wild," Crane writes. "I was enthralled by them, but I lived at a distance, their princess in a tower."

Crane searingly recounts her painfully lonely childhood, but refreshingly also acknowledges her enormous privilege. Allowed to play only with other "star-babies," she struck up a friendship with her next door neighbor Liza Minelli. Lizawould belt out songs on the roof of her mother's garage while a shy Crane "applauded until her hands hurt."

At night, Crane recalls slipping out of bed to stare from the staircase at her idolized mother and her glamorous friends. "To my child's mind," Crane writes, "she was the perfect dream of golden beauty, unattainable, beyond reach, everything delicate and soft and feminine that one day I wanted to…what? To be? To possess?"

Forced by Turner to obey whoever her latest love interest happened to be, the benevolently neglected Crane was an ideal target for predators. Crane claims the movie star Fernando Lamas would swim naked in front of her when they were alone, and that a nanny touched her inappropriately and nibbled her ear. But it was Tarzan star Lex Barker, Turner's fourth husband, whose alleged abuse of Crane would almost lead to murder.

By Anthony Breznican

By Anthony Breznican

By Hillary Busis

According to Crane, Barker first sexually abused her in the family sauna when she was only ten. In dissociative shock, she heartbreakingly recalls walking up to her room after the attack. "I pulled Raggedy Ann and a teddy bear from the toy trunk and propped them beside me at a table, then set out tiny teacups," she writes. "For a long while, a late day, softened into twilight, we had a very nice tea party, chattering away all manner of tales…me and my friends."

In horrific and vivid detail, she alleges that Barker violently raped her repeatedly throughout his marriage to her mother. Encouraged by school friends, Crane finally told her mother, who immediately went home and held a gun to a sleeping Barker's head. Then, writes Crane, she kicked him out (Turner does not write about the molestation in her own autobiography.) Weeks later, a frantic Barker allegedly accosted Turner and Crane in a parking lot, grabbing Turner's steering wheel. According to Crane, her mother reacted with true film noir stealth:

"I’m pulling out of here, and if you don't let go, I will run you over." She waited. His eyes narrowed in on me. With that, she hit the gas, dragging him along several feet until a grab of the brakes sent him tumbling to the asphalt. We sped away and he shrank to a tiny figure dusting himself off, intently watching our flight.

"Here we sat in our golden coach, the three Turner girls—all gowned, coiffed, and lacquered to death," Crane writes. "Carefully, we held in our bottoms so as not to wrinkle the dresses—just the way we held in our thoughts so as not to let out real feelings. You see, even when we were together, we were still alone. In this family, souls never touched."

It was Oscar night, March 26, 1958. Turner, along with her daughter and mother, were on their way to the 30th annual Academy Awards at the Pantages Theater. Though Turner lost best actress—she’d been nominated for her role in Peyton Place—her daughter was in awe. At the Oscar ball later that night, 14-year-old Crane finished dancing with Sean Connery who was also entranced. "’Cheryl, luv,’" he whispered in my ear, ‘look over there at your mom. That's what I call a star.’"

But a catastrophe was brewing. That night at the Beverly Hills Hotel, Crane overheard small-time hood Johnny Stompanato, her mother's latest toyboy, screaming and abusing Turner. In her autobiography, Turner explicitly describes the physical and mental abuse Stomapanto heaped on her (while, as Crane notes, ignoring Turner's own reckless psycho-sexual game playing).

By Anthony Breznican

By Anthony Breznican

By Hillary Busis

Turner refused to go to the police for fear of bad publicity. But bad publicity would soon come tenfold. When it comes to what happened on the night of April 4, 1958, Crane and Turner's stories are perfectly aligned. Turner says she attempted to break things off once and for all. Stompanato then went crazy, threatening to destroy her face and harm her mother and child.

As the fight escalated, a frantic Crane, who had been drawn into the drama by her mother, listened at the door as the abuse continued. She ran downstairs and grabbed a knife before running back upstairs where the screaming continued. She writes:

I picked the knife up off the floor. The door flew open. Mother stood there, her hand on the knob. He was coming at her from behind, his arm raised to strike. I took a step forward and lifted the weapon. He ran on the blade. It went in. In! For three ghastly heartbeats, our bodies fused. He looked straight at me, unblinking. "My God, Cheryl, what have you done?"

As Stompanato lay dead in Turner's all pink bedroom, a shocked Crane was led by her father out of the crowded mansion. "The door opened and the pop-pop-pop of flashbulbs produced a moment of daylight," she writes. "The night was filled with the crackle of police radios, reporters’ shouts, sirens, and the rustling speech of onlookers. Dad slid me into the police car, and we sped off to the Beverly Hills Police Station."

With Crane held in Juvenile Hall, peered at by other girls "like an animal in the zoo," her parents fought for their daughter's release. At the inquest, Turner, whose life had been ruled by publicity for two decades, gave the performance of her life. She writes:

It was a humiliating ordeal to explain on the witness stand what I barely understood myself, to confess before the cameras that strange helplessness that bound me to John for so long... More than once I nearly broke down on the witness stand from the mixture of agony and shame, of grief and relief that I felt about John's death. But all my emotions were secondary compared to Cheryl's release—that was what mattered now.

By Anthony Breznican

By Anthony Breznican

By Hillary Busis

The killing was ruled a justifiable homicide. But while Turner's career continued to soar thanks to her casting in films like Imitation of Life, Crane, racked with guilt and anger, justifiably blamed her mother for their new infamy. "Considering all that she and I had just been through, I suppose our relationship was destined to be like gasoline and matches," Crane writes. "I wanted to defy anything she stood for."

Over the next few years, Crane would run away numerous times and attempt suicide. She would be enrolled in a series of reformatories (where she befriended another "notorious" teenage abuse victim, Errol Flynn's girlfriend Beverly Aadland), and finally a psychiatric hospital, where a fellow patient, the comedian Jonathan Winters, told her "as long as we keep laughing, they can't get us."

By the age of 21, Cheryl Crane felt like she had lived a lifetime. "Having survived three institutions, seven schools, six governesses, fourteen homes, and five stepparents," she writes, "I really did feel like an old broad."

But remarkably, Crane found the inner strength to change. She went to work with her father at his Hollywood hotspot, The Luau. Over the next 15 years, she would rise to become vice president of her father's wildly successful hospitality company. "I think I radiated what I was feeling, which was that I like myself, was proud of my work, and was determined to have a good time," she writes. "I was discovering a profound truth; when you accept yourself, people accept you."

This acceptance deepened when she met her future wife, a model named Joyce "Josh" LeRoy, who she first noticed sitting under a pool table with Marlon Brando at a party. Long out of the closet, Crane and LeRoy forged a life together, eventually moving to Hawaii and becoming prominent real estate agents and restaurateurs.

But relations between mother and daughter remained tense. Turner admits in her book that she came to rely too much on alcohol, while Crane wryly claims that the trauma of the Stompanato affair sent Turner permanently into haughty movie star mode, a character Crane referred to as L.T.

But according to both mother and daughter, by 1980, Turner had quit booze and pills, found religion, and arrived in Honolulu a changed woman: kind, casual and clear.

"We became a real family that summer, Mom, Gran, Josh and I," Crane writes. "Not only did I fall in love with her all over again, but she took to calling Josh her ‘second daughter.’"

According to Crane, they became even closer when she announced she was writing Detour. The two finally had deep heart-to-heart talks—and with some gentle prodding by LeRoy, Turner effusively told Cheryl how grateful she was that she had rescued her from Stompanato. "We embraced, dabbing our eyes with tissues, then started to laugh," Crane writes. "Which made us fall into each other's arms all over again."

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