Lana: A life dramatic enough for a movie
- Created on Sunday, 18 October 2015 20:18
After reading her autobiography, I have to wonder why they never made a movie about the life of the 1940s legendary screen goddess Lana Turner.
She was born way up in the remote Idaho panhandle in 1921 as Julia Turner, and her circumstances could not have been more disadvantaged. That was mining country, and her father was a miner. but, they always struggled financially. It seems her parents only married because of her conception, and they had no other children. They separated when she was 9, and she and her mother moved to San Francisco. But, it was such a struggle for her mother, that she had to place Lana in foster care briefly, which Lana hated. Her father, who remained in Idaho, died in a knife fight over a card game. She was just 11 at the time, but, she had only good memories of her father.
After that, her mother and she moved to Los Angeles- in fact, Hollywood- where her mother sought work as a beautician. More devoted to her, her mother could not have been, and that was true for life. Her mother never remarried, and she lived for Lana.
When she was 16, Lana was discovered in a Hollywood ice cream parlor drinking a Coke. Taken with her beauty, the man who discovered her was the publisher of a Hollywood magazine, and he referred her to Zeppo Marx- one of the Marx brothers who, by then, had become a Hollywood talent agent. Reportedly, she, herself, chose the name “Lana.” That year (1937) she was cast in her first film as a sexy tight “sweater girl” who wound up a murder victim. Then, she signed a contract with MGM for $100 a week, which was a lot of money in those days. And from then on, her mother’s career became that of mother of Lana Turner. In other words, from then on, she lived off Lana, but believe me, she earned it.
From the very beginning, Lana Turner became synonymous with sex, even though she was only 16. She defined “sultry.” She soon starred in a Mickey Rooney movie in which she played the bad girl offsetting Judy Garland’s good girl, and there is a famous photo of the three of them together doing schoolwork on the set, as required by law, which enabled Lana to finish high school.
And speaking of sex, there were two revelations that Lana made at the start of her autobiography. The first was that she was terribly shy, and her greatest fear was public speaking. Like many stars, she contributed to the war effort during WW2, and in her case, it meant visiting the troops, including on some of the Bob Hope tours, but also on tours to sell war bonds, where she was expected to get up and speak as Lana Turner. Well, she could do it easily enough as somebody else, a character, but not as Lana Turner. But, the second revelation was that she never really enjoyed sex that much, that in real life, she wasn’t sultry and sexy like her characters. She said she enjoyed romance and tenderness and courtship, but sex itself was no big thrill for her. And her most enduring quote is: “A gentleman is just a patient wolf.”
But, if I had to characterize her 1982 autobiography, written 12 years before her death, I would say it oscillated between her movie career, film by film, and her marriage career, husband by husband. And, there were 7 in total.
But, oddly enough, the man whom she declared to be the “love of her life” was one she never married but almost did, the actor Tyrone Power. Today, he is remembered for being bisexual, although she claimed to never see any inkling of that side of him.
Her first marriage at the age of 19 was to band-leader Artie Shaw, but that was undertaken so compulsively (after one date) that it was doomed from the start. Her second marriage was to businessman Stephen Crane, and it was with him that she had her one and only child, Cheryl Crane. Husband number three was a millionaire socialite whom she wasn’t even attracted to, and it wouldn’t be a stretch to say that she married him for his money. Next came an actor who played Tarzan in the movies several times, Lex Barker. Daughter Cheryl would later write in her memoir that Barker sexually abused her during their marriage, but, that wasn’t mentioned in Lana’s autobiography.
That marriage was followed by Lana’s harrowing relationship with mobster Johnny Stompanado. He was a real-life monster who beat her and abused her, and she literally feared for her life. She went to England to make a movie with Sean Connery, and Stompanado followed her there and stormed on the set, where Sean Connery had to physically subdue him. Then, they got Scotland Yard to deport him back to the US. And when Lana returned, it was Oscar time, which she attended with her mother and her daughter. Lana had been nominated for her role in Peyton Place, although she stood no chance of winning. (I should mention that Lana’s mother is the one who really raised Cheryl. Lana set them up in a house with another older woman who was like a second grandmother to Cheryl. Lana paid for everything, but she was more like a doting aunt than a mother.) But, that night, after the Oscars, Johnny stormed into her house, enraged that she didn’t take him to the Oscars. That resulted in a severe beating, and while she was being beaten, Lana kept worrying that 14 year old Cheryl, who was staying over that night, would be awakened in the next room. Well, Cheryl was awakened, and she did come into the room, but not before going into the kitchen and getting a carving knife. When she entered, she saw her mother bloody, battered, and bruised, and she saw Stompando approaching her mother with a wooden clothes hanger in his raised hand. It looked to Cheryl like he was about to hit her mother again. So, she shoved the knife into his belly. The blade really didn’t go in that far, but as luck would have it, it hit the abdominal aorta, and he bled out very fast. (Was that good luck or bad? I’d say good.)
The first thing Lana did was call a doctor friend. He came over and tried to resuscitate Stompanado, unsuccessfully. Next, she called her lawyer, who came right over. And that’s when they called the police.
The legal system never came down very hard on Cheryl. She did have to remain in custody for several weeks until the grand jury hearing. But even by then, Lana still had bruises left from the beating Stompanado had given her, which she displayed to the jury. And mercifully, they declared it a “justifiable homicide.” However, the judge, rather wisely in my opinion, didn’t let Lana off so easy. He pointed out that she’s the one who put Cheryl in that deplorable situation. So, he removed Lana’s parental rights and made Cheryl a ward of the state. But, he also made Lana’s mother Cheryl’s court-appointed guardian. So, nothing really changed in regard to the living situation. But, it involved regular probation visits for Cheryl, and court-ordered psychiatric visits for both Cheryl and Lana, which they did. Lana was so grateful that Cheryl got off without prison that she didn’t care about the rest. She gladly cooperated.
Lana’s next husband was a rather nice guy, compared to the others: the actor Fred May. And she was a little vague as to why they divorced, although she did say that him dipping into her money had something to do with it. But, they remained lifelong friends, and she always spoke well of him. But, the last two marriages which followed were awful; expensive and awful; including one to a much younger man who was serially unfaithful, a pathological liar, and an out-of-control spendthrift with her money, and the last one to a nightclub hypnotist who stole from her- cash, jewelry, whatever he could get his hands on. And that did it. After that, Lana finally stopped getting married. Thank God.
I won’t go into her movies too much because I want to focus on her health. But, I will point out that one of her early roles was Ziegfeld Girl in which she played a Broadway star who rises fast but then falls hard to alcoholism. But, in the movie, there was a song written for her by Nacio Herb Brown, You Stepped out of a Dream, which became Lana Turner’s theme song for the rest of her life. Whenever she entered a club or walked on stage, they played that song, and it is a fabulous song. Her most celebrated movie is The Postman Always Rings Twice, also considered her most sultry role. In Peyton Place, she played the single mother of a lone daughter- which mirrored her real life. Although she was nominated for Best Actress, it was really more of a supporting role than a leading role. The Bad and the Beautiful with Kirk Douglass was and is very highly acclaimed, but I’ve never seen it. And Imitation of Life was about a white woman who climbs to the top as an actress while raising her only daughter, while also living with a black woman who also had an only daughter. So, the relationship among the four of them is the story of the movie. And it was a very important project for Lana Turner because it was the first movie she made after the Stompanado killing, when it was uncertain whether her movie career would survive at all.
But now, let’s talk about her health because there are some interesting observations I can make.
First I want to point out how interrelated health and beauty are, how dependent beauty is on good health. Sparkling eyes, peaches and cream complexion, lustrous hair, svelte tone, etc. are the products of good health. And since her beauty was her stock in trade, you would think that health would have been a top priority for her, but it wasn’t. Lana Turner was a smoker; a heavy smoker, and she started young. In fact, she got in trouble for smoking on the sets as a teenager, and she complained bitterly about it because she wanted to smoke, and she felt she had as much right as anybody. There are quite a few photos of Lana Turner holding a cigarette, but, I learned that there would have been quite a few more if they hadn’t airbrushed them out.
She also drank. In the book, she played down her drinking, saying that she was more of a “sipper” than a “drinker”. But, others said otherwise. Most of her husbands were big drinkers, and she drank with them. Often, her husbands would get mad if she didn’t drink as much as they did. But, the fact is that women cannot handle alcohol as well as men. The female liver does not process alcohol as fast- doesn’t convert ethyl alcohol into acetaldehyde as rapidly. The result is - that for a given amount of alcohol- women experience a higher blood level of alcohol than do men, and it persists for a longer period of time. It is true across the races; women of all races cannot handle alcohol as well as men. And in the book, she admitted that she often self-medicated with alcohol. For instance, during the time that she was tormented by Johnny Stompanado, she drank heavily. And others who knew her said that she was, in fact, a big drinker and at times an alcoholic.
The only other drug she mentioned in the book as one she took was marijuana, but that was mainly during her brief marriage to Artie Shaw because he was a big pot smoker. But, like many people, she often took sleeping pills.
Regarding her diet, it wasn’t very good. Just the standard American diet, with an emphasis on meat. In the book, she mentioned steaks, chops, burgers. Fried chicken was mentioned as a favorite. Otherwise, it was the usual things; they had a barbecue; they had a birthday cake; they ate doughnuts on the set, etc. etc. Not a single fruit or vegetable was mentioned as being a favorite of hers.
Lana Turner developed appendicitis at the age of 17 and underwent surgery. But, that surgery was botched, and she had to undergo a second surgery for it at the age of 18 to fix it. Realize that people don’t develop appendicitis for no reason. It isn’t normal. It really shouldn’t happen to anybody. There has to be a morbid and abnormal condition in the digestive tract for appendicitis to happen, and it’s due, of course, to faulty diet: specifically: not enough fruits and vegetables; not enough fiber; and too much meat.
Lana Turner was lucky in that she had a nice figure, a nice shape, with dazzling proportions (36-23-36, reportedly) despite conventional eating habits. But, she was physically active; she enjoyed tennis and swimming; and it’s fair to say that she was naturally athletic.
But, she kept having miscarriages, so what does that tell you? She had at least 3, and she may have had more. That is, she may have had some miscarriages without knowing it- before she realized she was pregnant. So, all was not well inside her. It’s a bad sign if a young woman can’t carry a baby to term. She also had two abortions. The first was with first her husband Artie Shaw, but she didn’t realize she was pregnant until after they split up. It was a back alley thing because abortion was illegal then, and she almost died. The second abortion resulted from her relationship with Tyrone Power, but at least that one went well without complications.
I had read previously that Lana Turner really didn’t age well in the face, that the luster faded from her rose early, meaning in her 30s, and that what kept her going was one thing: makeup. And, she kind-of alluded to it in the book. She said that she brought her own makeup person on the sets to work with the studio’s. But, she said that there were instances in which, because of stress, lack of sleep, too much drinking, etc., they just couldn’t capture her look. They would try different angles, different lighting, but in the end, they just had to shut down production for the day because Lana Turner was nowhere to be found.
And it was the same way in her private life. She said that during her marriage to Fred May, what irked him about her is how long it took her to get ready to go somewhere. And he got sarcastic about it. He would tell her: “Now look: we’re going out with friends tonight at 6 PM, and I want you to be ready. It’s 10 AM, so you should get started: hair, nails, make-up, clothes; whatever. Just be ready by 6.” Invariably, she wasn’t.
But, it was the 1980s that her health really started falling apart. She was in her 60s and still acting some- not in movies, but on television and in live theater, when she started losing weight and getting very weak. Her weight plummeted to 95 pounds. I don’t know that she was diagnosed at that time, but for the first time, she stopped what she was doing and started focusing on her health. She spent much time at a health retreat in Hawaii where her daughter Cheryl was living. And she claimed to undergo a spiritual awakening that involved her renewing her faith as a Roman Catholic. She recovered well enough to return to the public eye, but mainly at charity functions and award presentations. Then, in 1992, at the age of 71, she was diagnosed with throat cancer- which was surely the result of a lifetime of smoking and drinking. She quit doing both, but it was too late. And, the last three years of her life were miserable, preoccupied with debilitating radiation treatments and chemotherapy. She really clung to life- she wanted to live- but it was to no avail. Her weight sank to 85 pounds, and she died, skin and bones, on June 29, 1995 at the age of 74.
Lana Turner hasn’t enjoyed the spectacular posthumous career that Marilyn Monroe has. But, I think Lana was lucky to make it to 74 considering how she lived and all the stress she had. It’s a shame that she was so unlucky in love. Her memoir does not speak well for the male gender, and I’ll point out (since it’s public knowledge) that her daughter Cheryl became a lesbian. Hmm. I wonder if it was because of what she saw and heard and experienced at the hands of the men in her mother’s life. I just have to hope that Lana Turner has found more peace in the next life than she found in this one.