From the moment she was born, Lana Turner was a magnet for tragedy: She had a heartbreaking childhood, slept with awful men, lost her babies, and even attempted to take her own life. But it gets worse. Living a real-life horror story, her darkest moments led her straight to the most disturbing scandal imaginable.
Lana Turner truly had a Hollywood rags-to-riches story. She was the beloved only child of John Virgil Turner and Mildred Frances Cowan, who both came from sturdy Midwest mining stock. But sadly, her family was on the brink of falling apart. Poor and struggling to get by, the Turners ended up moving to San Francisco—and that’s when the nightmare began.
A brand new city did not usher in better times. Lana stood by as her parents finally admitted defeat and separated for good. But the worst was yet to come. When she was only nine years old, her father met a gruesome end. On that fateful day, John Turner had won a craps game, storing his winnings in his left sock. But he never made it home.
The horror that followed haunted Lana for the rest of her life. Officers found his body, bludgeoned to death, at the corner of Minnesota Street and Mariposa Street in San Francisco. His left shoe and sock were missing. This sudden loss had an acute effect on Lana, who later said, "I know that my father’s sweetness and gaiety, his warmth and his tragedy, have never been far from me".
Her father’s unsolved murder cast a shadow across her childhood—but her suffering was far from over.
Even from a young age, Lana happily sacrificed everything she had for her loved ones. All alone with her mother, Turner took to staying over at friends’ houses just so Mildred could save a little money and keep them afloat. She later remembered times when the two were "living on crackers and milk for half a week". However, this desperate period of her life also had a darker side.
Lana didn’t escape these lean years unscathed. At one point, she stayed with a family in Modesto for a stint while her mother squirreled away pennies, working 80 hours a week as a beautician. According to Turner, the family was incredibly cruel to her, exploiting her and even treating her "like a servant".
Sinking into the darkness that surrounded her, it’s no wonder that little Lana searched for something to believe in.
Although destined to become one of the most alluring actresses in Hollywood, Lana Turner certainly didn’t dream of fame and fortune as a youngster. In fact, she wanted to be the complete opposite: a nun. She became completely enthralled with the church’s rituals—and even converted—but her hopes of a pious destiny were cut short.
After all, her fate spelled scandal.
Lana’s road to stardom truly began when she and her mother moved to Los Angeles in 1936. As a blossoming teenage beauty, she’d already come a long way from the dust and dirt of her childhood. Little did she know, her life was about to change forever. For a while, the story behind her discovery was murky at best—but eventually, Lana set the record straight.
As a junior in high school, Lana decided to skip class one day—and this one decision made all the difference. She purchased a Coca-cola at the local malt shop, and that’s where she caught the eye of William R. Wilkerson, the publisher of The Hollywood Reporter. Although she was still underage, Lana’s curvaceous physique piqued Wilkerson’s interest.
And that’s when he approached her with a very important question.
With her mature figure and sweet face, Lana had "starlet" written all over her. But when Wilkerson asked her if she was interested in becoming an actress, she replied, "I’ll have to ask my mother first". This got the ball rolling—and once it started, it didn’t stop. Her big break lay just around the corner. After all, Lana had something no other girl in the business had.
In 1936, director Mervyn LeRoy was on the hunt for an actress that could be both seductive and innocent. He needed the perfect girl for his film They Won’t Forget, but everyone he auditioned fell short. The casting director at Warner Bros. said it was an "impossible" task. And then, after seeing 50 disappointing girls, LeRoy locked eyes with Lana Turner.
LeRoy’s first impression of Lana Turner was unforgettable: "Her hair was dark, messy, uncombed. Her hands were trembling so she could barely read the script. But she had that sexy clean quality I wanted. There was something smoldering underneath that innocent face". However, there was one thing about this fresh newcomer that he did not like at all.
At the time, Lana’s first name wasn’t actually Lana—it was Judy. But LeRoy didn’t think "Judy" and "Turner" meshed well together, so he suggested the name "Lana". It was a significant change that ushered in a new chapter of her life. Taken under Leroy’s wing as his protégée, Lana jumped headfirst into the dangerous world of Hollywood.
When Lana went to see a sneak preview of They Won’t Forget, she couldn’t believe her eyes. She’d never been so aware of her own body in her life and it embarrassed her deeply. As she watched herself bounce across the screen in a tight skirt she began "squirming lower and lower" in her seat. The audience, however, had a very different reaction.
Lana Turner became an overnight sensation. Her minor role earned her the lusty nickname "The Sweater Girl" for her noticeably shapely bust. Unfortunately, the young girl absolutely detested the moniker. She was absolutely mortified when she saw her hourglass figure in the film and heard the men in the audience hoot and holler at her.
Lana now understood the power of her own beauty—but it also left her in the crosshairs of those who desired her.
By 1939, Lana was well on her way to becoming a huge star. Even Louis B. Mayer believed her to be the next Jean Harlow. So far, her heart had been safe from the perils of Hollywood’s romantic minefield…but not for long.
When Lana met thirty-year-old attorney Gregson Bautzer, she naively believed that he was her prince charming. She couldn’t have been more wrong.
On paper, Greg Bautzer seemed perfect. He was charming, respectful, and successful—heck, even Louis B. Mayer approved of this relationship. He swept Lana off her feet.
As a couple, they became inseparable, attending premiers, nightclubs, and private parties. According to Lana, she’d never been intimate with anyone until meeting Bautzer. But once she slipped beneath the sheets with him, everything turned sour.
When it came to Bautzer, Lana saw a wedding in her future. After sleeping with him, she fully expected him to propose, but all she received was his silence. Still, the actress didn’t push the subject as being single made her far for valuable to MGM. Lana kept seeing her beau while working hard on new projects…And then the other shoe dropped.
According to Lana Turner’s biography, her relationship with Greg Bautzer ended because of a terrible betrayal. Apparently, she got a pointed call from Joan Crawford, asking her over for tea. Because Joan was such a respected actress, Lana felt flattered. But this was not a friendly little tea party. Joan was about to drop an unforgivable bombshell.
Joan confessed something awful to Lana: She admitted that she was also seeing Bautzer and that she was the one he really loved. Joan even advised her to break the relationship off. Lana fled the meeting feeling utterly humiliated and immediately tracked down Bautzer to interrogate him. But though he denied the accusations, there was just no coming back from this.
Her trust in him had shattered.
After this revelation, Bautzer slowly faded out of Lana’s life and she returned to the nightclub scene to play the field. But though she dated around, she kept one steady eye on her career. Bolstered by her success, Lana wielded her newfound confidence expertly. She even demanded her own dressing room from Mayer. Then, when she landed a part in Dancing Co-ed, he gave her top billing.
It was on the set of Dancing Co-ed that Lana met her future husband...
When Lana Turner met bandleader Artie Shaw, it certainly wasn’t love at first sight. In fact, she was completely turned off by his massive ego and only crossed paths with him during the dance routines. You see, Shaw thought very little of Hollywood, but very highly of himself. This left a bad taste in Lana’s mouth.
She wasn’t the least bit attracted to him—but all that was about to change.
Six months after Dancing Co-ed wrapped, fate brought these two unlikely characters together again. Invited to the set of Two Girls on Broadway, Shaw stumbled across Lana rehearsing. She was resplendent—dressed in a provocative green dress.
At first, he didn’t recognize her, and then she said, "Remember me"? Lana turned the tables on Shaw, shocking him with her eager flirtations. But this relationship could only end one way…badly.
Lana was a hopeless romantic and threw herself into passionate—and reckless—trysts. On her first date with Shaw, she became entirely vulnerable and confessed her deepest desire: to marry and have children. As the date progressed, her opinion of Shaw began to swing in the other direction.
Swept up in the moment—and still bitter about her ex-boyfriend’s betrayal—Lana made a horrible decision.
Lana Turner was still a teenager when she agreed to marry Artie Shaw after just one date. They ran away to Las Vegas together and eloped. Though Shaw was almost a decade older than the ingénue, Lana said she was "stirred by his eloquence". Pretty quickly, she realized that this was not the "happily ever after" she’d dreamed of.
The first red flag was the wedding night. What was supposed to be the most romantic evening of Lana’s life turned out to be an underwhelming flop. And then came the fury of MGM, particularly Louis B. Mayer. He only gave her three days to enjoy her honeymoon and demanded that she not get pregnant. The studio was completely shaken by her "impulsive behavior".
But everything that could possibly go wrong did.
Lana’s hasty marriage dissolved as quickly as it came. It only lasted a mere four months, but it left her with permanent emotional scars. Shaw himself admitted he was a "very difficult man," but Lana’s confessions about the union were even more sinister. According to her, he mistreated her "like an untutored blonde savage, and took no pains to conceal his opinion". But that wasn’t all.
To her dismay, Lana discovered that her husband had a red-hot temper and often threw tantrums. He also controlled her every move and expected her to be an obedient housewife. Lana had to keep everything clean, cook his meals, and read whatever literature he provided her. At this point, the actress knew she’d made a colossal mistake.
The horrors Lana faced at the hands of her brutish husband were heartbreaking. She once said that he threw a meal she’d cooked onto the floor and screamed, "Clean it up"! The worst part? It was in front of guests. With the condescension and humiliation mounting, Lana needed one final push to break out of this gilded cage forever.
In June 1940, Artie Shaw demanded that Lana Turner shine his shoes despite the early call time. That was it. The final straw. She got on the phone and looked into getting a divorce. But though Lana escaped her twisted marriage, one more tragic surprise awaited her. In the spring of 1940, after the pair had been separated for months, she discovered that she was pregnant.
Lana’s pregnancy was disastrous news. Her star was just on the rise, and stuffy studio executives were apoplectic at the thought of a breaking scandal. Producers quickly hushed up the pregnancy, told the press Turner had been hospitalized for the classic "exhaustion" excuse, and she had an abortion...but it would not be her last.
When it came to matters of the heart, Lana had been through the wringer. But luckily, things were looking up, especially her career. In 1941, she starred in a film that really got her "interested in acting"—Ziegfeld Girl. She even found a lifelong friend in her co-star Judy Garland. In fact, they became so close, they lived next to one another in the 1950s.
However, maintaining friendships with her male co-stars became increasingly difficult.
Cast in the Western Honky Tonk, Lana Turner starred opposite the hunky Clark Gable. Their chemistry sparked rumors about a secret affair. The following year, this scandalous gossip continued to swirl when the actors came together again for Somewhere I’ll Find You. But right in the middle of the production, tragedy struck.
Lana was shocked to hear of the sudden passing of Clark Gable’s wife, Carole Lombard, in a plane crash. It put filming on hold for many weeks, and yet, despite Gable’s devastation, the press didn’t cut him a break. Rumors claimed that he and Lana were a romantic item. But nothing could be further from the truth.
Lana denied ever being involved with Gable, and later stated, "I adored Mr. Gable, but were [just] friends. When six o’clock came, he went his way and I went mine". For Lana, navigating her career and friendships was easy, but when it came to falling in love, she was a disaster waiting to happen. Her next beau was no exception.
In 1942, Lana went out to the Mocambo nightclub—and met a man she was instantly attracted to. Stephan Crane was tall and handsome and his voice sounded like money. He said he was a tobacco heir with many business prospects. To Lana, he seemed perfect. With blinders on, she made another reckless decision in the name of love.
Lana should have realized that Crane wasn’t all that he claimed to be. His tiny apartment must have been a big fat clue, and yet she ignored all the warning signs. Even Louis B. Mayer stepped in, informing her that Crane had sunk into the underworld and had ties with gangsters. Being associated with him had the power to destroy Lana’s shiny reputation.
Did she listen to reason? Absolutely not.
Three weeks after their worrisome meet-cute, Crane proposed to Lana. This romance seemed to be a chilling mirror of her first. By July 1942, they’d eloped in Las Vegas. Again, it wasn’t long before Lana’s new husband began to show his true colors. Crane was a liar, but it would take four months of earth-shattering disappointments for Lana to see him for the liar he was.
Although he’d presented himself as a wealthy man, Lana began to wonder why her husband rarely contributed to the household expenses. Of course, as an independent woman, she didn’t need his money, but it still bothered her when he consistently opted out of paying for the dinner bill. Oh, but that wasn’t even his worst transgression.
Lana was absolutely furious when she discovered that Crane was, well, already married. She split the moment she found out his previous divorce hadn’t been finalized. But wait, there’s more. Just like her marriage with Shaw, Lana discovered she was pregnant after the separation.
This time, however, she made a very different decision.
Determined to keep the baby, Lana decided to remarry Crane—but fate wasn’t on her side. The pregnancy was incredibly difficult and dangerous, and doctors urged her to have another abortion. Lana stubbornly refused and carried the baby to term. In July 1943, she gave birth to her daughter Cheryl. But there was something terribly wrong with the baby.
In July 1943, Lana gave birth to her daughter Cheryl. But it almost ended in tragedy. Due to her blood condition, her daughter was born with a near-fatal hemolytic disease. Luckily, the baby pulled through. Lana's marriage, on the other hand, did not. A year later, Lana divorced Crane a second time—his gambling and unemployment an undeniable factor.
As a new mother and single once again, this seemed like a great chance for Lana to start over. But the decade only went from bad to worse.
Although Lana expanded her repertoire and took on more dramatic roles, her personal life plummeted to new lows. She’d fallen deeply in love with the married actor Tyrone Power, but to her dismay, he didn’t reciprocate her feelings as ardently. Because of Power's split devotions, the affair was doomed from the beginning.
Throughout her numerous marriages and dalliances, Lana Turner only considered one man the love of her life: actor Tyrone Power. Together, they made jaws drop—Lana, with her icy blonde locks and blue eyes, and Tyrone with his dark features. Physically, they complimented one another perfectly. But it was never meant to be.
When Lana became pregnant with Power’s child, she opted for an abortion. The relationship never had the chance to take flight, so Lana left brokenhearted. Allegedly, during this time, the actress also entertained affairs with other hotshots like Frank Sinatra and Howard Hughes. So, unsurprisingly, the man she eventually landed on was not husband material.
Lana’s next lover was the millionaire socialite Henry J. "Bob" Topping Jr. Again, she didn’t waste any time, and after Topping dropped a sizable diamond ring in her martini glass, she married again. But this wedding began to interfere with her career in a shocking way.
Due to her marital celebration, Lana arrive on The Three Musketeers set three days late—and after the film wrapped, Louis B. Mayer put her contract on temporary suspension. But that wasn’t all. Lana discovered she was pregnant again, but this time, the nightmare she dodged during her first pregnancy came back to haunt her.
In early 1949, Lana Turner’s worst fears became a reality. She went into premature labor—and tragically, the baby was stillborn. Truth be told, Lana began to unravel, and once the 1950s hit, the actress’ life spun out of control: Her finances were a mess, she faced bankruptcy, and she suffered from chronic depression.
And that’s when poor Lana reached her breaking point.
Drowning in her personal demons, Lana tried to take her own life. She locked the bathroom doors and ran a blade across her wrists. This could have been the end for the distraught actress, but fate stepped in. Her business manager came to her rescue, breaking down the door and calling for help.
If you can believe it, this was only the beginning of the nightmare.
Less than a year after divorcing Bob Topping, Lana had another husband on her arm, actor Lex Barker. But over the next few years, her career faltered and then imploded. MGM terminated her contract at the start of 1956—an omen for what would be a horrifying year. Pregnant again, Lana felt hopeful when she made it to her seventh month. But it only ended in tears. Again, Lana lost her baby.
Sadly, Lana’s most recent marriage to Lex Barker had a twisted dark side. Because of him, her only surviving child lived out a real-life horror story. Cheryl alleged that her stepfather had consistently assaulted her. Enraged, Lana confronted Barker and even pulled a piece on him, threatening him and telling him to get out of the house.
Lana seemed like a magnet for danger—but the worst was yet to come.
In 1957, Turner started getting phone calls and flowers from a mysterious gentleman while on the set of her new film The Lady Takes a Flyer. He went by the name "John Steele," and Turner didn’t even know how he got her phone number. Nonetheless, he pursued her relentlessly and showered her with gifts, and she eventually gave in and started dating him.
Sadly, it seemed that every time Lana Turner reached a high in her life, a crushing low was just around the corner. Soon after becoming involved with this mysterious "John Steele," Lana found out from a friend who he really was: the dangerous mafioso Johnny Stompanato.
Though she tried to break off the affair after the discovery, it was just the beginning of an aggressive and tumultuous relationship.
Stampanato was Lana’s most disturbing love interest to date. On one infamous occasion, he tried to visit her on the London set of Another Time, Another Place. But their happy reunion quickly turned terrifying after Lana told Stompanato he couldn’t visit her on set. He started a fight and tried to choke her. That’s when Lana put her foot down.
Lana and her makeup artist called the authorities in an attempt to have Stompanato kicked out of the country. Unfortunately, he discovered her sneaky plan. He came barging onto the set with a piece in hand, threatening both Lana and her co-star Sean Connery. Connery wasn’t backing down. He grabbed and twisted the aggressor’s wrist around, causing him to flee the scene.
But this was only a taste of his awful jealousy.
Everything went south in the spring of 1958. Lana angered Stompanato once again for not inviting him to the Academy Awards. Looking to punish her, he waited for her to return home from the ceremony. That’s when he got physical with her. Stompanato was a monster Lana couldn’t escape, that is, until the fateful night of April 4, 1958.
On April 4, 1958, the most infamous scandal of Lana’s career took place. Stompanato came over to Turner’s Beverly Hills home and started an argument where he threatened to end her, her mother, and her 14-year-old daughter Cheryl. It would be the last threat he ever made.
Cheryl had been listening to the fight from the next room and, terrified that he would make good on his word, grabbed a kitchen blade.
The blade ended up lodged in Stompanato’s stomach—and he passed on Lana’s bedroom floor. According to Lana’s testimony, she didn’t realize the horror of the situation right away. At first, she thought that Cheryl had simply punched him. However, once Stompanato collapsed—his blood blossoming on his shirt—she knew it was serious.
But though Stompanato was gone, the consequences of this gruesome night were explosive.
After Stompanato’s shocking demise, Turner and Cheryl were instantly embroiled in a media frenzy. The press turned the ensuing court case into a chaotic three-ring circus, with over 100 reporters showing up to the inquest. But, at last, it had something of a happy ending. After just 25 minutes of deliberation, the jury determined it was "justifiable homicide" and Cheryl was let go.
However, some historians believe there’s more to the story.
In historian Darwin Porter’s book, Lana Turner: Heart and Diamonds Take All, he reveals some chilling evidence about Stompanato’s passing. Detective Otash was a key player in the case, but before his passing in 1992, he made a wild confession. Apparently, Lana herself—not Cheryl—had ended Stompanato’s life.
Detective Otash admitted that he and Lana’s lawyer, Jerry Geisler, rearranged the crime scene. Geisler insisted that Cheryl take the blame because minors didn’t have to go to trial. According to the book, Otash allegedly said, "I was the one who wiped the fingerprints off the knife in Lana’s bathroom sink. I was a naughty boy doing what I’m not supposed to do".
Oh, but the shocking claims don’t end there.
According to this theory and Otash’s confession, Lana had grabbed a blade after finding Stompanato in bed with her daughter. She believed he’d seduced Cheryl and sought vengeance. Perhaps nobody will ever know the truth about that dark day, but one thing’s for certain: Lana had a difficult time coping.
Just like with the loss of her father all those years ago, the tragedy deeply affected Turner. On the set of her next film, Imitation of Life, she was often so distraught that she couldn’t act. She suffered frequent panic attacks and sobbed for three full days after filming the fatal scene of one of the characters.
Lana Turner may have had the face of an angel, but she had some bad habits. She drank and smoked heavily throughout her career. Although she managed to kick drinking, her penchant for lighting up came around to bite her. In 1992, doctors diagnosed the aging actress with throat cancer. She went into remission…but it didn’t last for long.
In the summer of 1994, Lana’s cancer returned with a vengeance and this time, there was no hope. Cheryl described her mother’s passing as a "total shock" because Lana’s health had seemed so robust. At the age of 74, Lana Turner’s wild ride came to an end. She left a scandalous legacy behind—one that continues to shock all that know her story.
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