TOO BEAUTIFUL TO BE BAD: Part II
It is perhaps a tad harsh to suggest that Lana Turner was transparent. To be certain, she possessed a frank openness with no hidden motives. What Lana was to the people she interacted with was quite simply herself – no false airs or modesty. If that sense of self was utterly trusting and absent of the guile often celebrated in her movie roles than she made no apologies for this lack of subterfuge.
During WWII, many of MGM’s top male film stars served in the armed forces, causing a significant change in the line up of male talent being put before the cameras. But at least for Lana little in Hollywood seemed to change. She remained the ‘dream queen’ of the silver screen. In this wartime interim, Lana worked to reshape that dream into a legacy. Her painted likeness decorated the sides of fighter planes and bombers. She was one of the most popular pin-ups and her tireless attendance at bond rallies made her the very essence of the accessible star.
To state that Lana was impulsive is not to insult her intelligence, but rather, merely to suggest that she presented a void in common sense where men were concerned. Lana’s latest romantic hiccup had materialized one evening at the Mocambo; 21 year old Steven Crane.
Outwardly, Crane represented himself as a Phi Beta Capa graduate with former connections to the New York stock exchange. In reality, he was a Crawfordsville Indiana dropout with ties to organized crime. Crane’s larger than life flash and style were the result of lucrative betting and illegal card games he ran out of a Beverly Hills address. In short, Crane was an elegant sponge, his most notable accomplishment knowing how to manipulate the odds in his favor.
But on the eve that Lana decided to elope with him to the same Justice of the Peace that had married her to Artie Shaw, none of these shortcomings were obvious. Standing before the judge, Lana jokingly instructed, “Tie it tighter this time.” The judge needn’t have bothered.
Crane had yet to become legally divorced from his first wife, leaving Lana out in the cold. Angry and hurt by Crane’s betrayal, Lana also discovered that she was pregnant. L.B. Mayer put the machinery of his studio’s P.R. to work on damage control, with legal council granting Lana a speedy annulment and custody of her as yet unborn child – Cheryl. Eventually, legal council would also finagle a quickie divorce for Crane and an equally speedy re-marriage of Crane to Lana. One year later, Crane and Lana would legitimately divorce.
On June 25th, 1943, Cheryl Crane was born to Lana with a rare RH incompatibility. To save the child’s life, baby Cheryl received lengthy transfusions until all of her blood had been changed. To his discredit, Crane held Lana personally responsible for the child’s illness. Worse, Cheryl’s costly two month stay in hospital had depleted a large amount of Lana’s savings, forcing her back to work. The strain proved too great. Lana arrived on set for her latest film, Slightly Dangerous, looking haggard and careworn. “If we can’t photograph Lana Turner…” Mayer suggested, “…we might as well close the studio!”
As the war raged on, Lana continued to throw caution to the wind. Now a divorcee twice removed, she indulged in several affairs with Peter Lawford, Frank Sinatra and Rory Calhoun. To look after Cheryl, Lana hired Scottish governess, Mae Margaret McMurray – an attentive nanny primarily responsible for Cheryl’s rearing throughout most of her childhood while Lana pursued her career and many more romances, living a life largely apart from her daughter.
It was at this junction that Lana appeared in one of her best film roles; that of ruthless mantrap Cora Smith in The Postman Always Rings Twice (1945). Costarring opposite serious actor John Garfield, Lana found little to amuse herself. In fact, she was quite displeased with Garfield in general and frequently made that displeasure known. Nevertheless, ‘Postman’ was a critical and financial success and Mayer immediately put Lana to work in the costly, Green Dolphin Street (1947) – an epic melodrama.
Meanwhile, Lana began a torrid liaison with 20th Century-Fox’s heartthrob, Tyrone Power. Once again, Lana assumed that Power’s affections for her would be the basis of a lasting love match, though as the year wore on both she and Power continued to see other people on the side. However, when news of Lana’s public dalliances in New York reached Power in Spain his affections for Lana began to rapidly cool. To patch up their differences, Lana gave Power a lavish $10,000 catered affair at the Mocambo. It proved to be a parting gesture. Weeks later, Power announced his marriage to actress Linda Christian. For Lana, the sting from this latest romantic fiasco was immediate and lasting.
Though her personal life had spiraled to a new low, professionally Lana was at her zenith. She was MGM’s number one box office draw, earning a salary of $200,000; making her one of the ten highest paid women in America. To this success, Lana accrued another husband – Henry J. Topping. At the start of their affair, Henry (‘Bob’ to his closest friends) had been a married man. Nevertheless, Topping openly courted Lana and, as production wrapped on The Three Musketeers (1948), proposed marriage. It was an offer too good to refuse.
Four days after his divorce, Lana and ‘Bob’ Topping were husband and wife. By all accounts, Topping was the most giving and forgiving of Lana’s spouses. He lavished his new wife with the gift of an opulent mansion nicknamed ‘Maple Top’ and adopted Cheryl as his own. For two years, the Toppings resided at this blissful paradise, indulging in an ongoing series of lavish parties that eventually and severely strained Topping’s financial resources. During this tenure, Lana retired from making movies. However, the day eventually came when Topping discovered he was broke. Becoming a reclusive alcoholic, Topping continued to quietly fade into the background of his own financial shame, leaving Lana once again as the sole bread winner of her family.
BAD TIMING AND LATER YEARS
“It's said in Hollywood that you should always forgive your enemies - because you never know when you'll have to work with them.” – Lana Turner
The last act finales in most actors’ careers rarely equal their debuts and, in the final analysis, the choices made by Lana Turner immediately following her divorce from Henry Topping carried a faint odor of embalming for the wild-eyed existence that had preceded their marriage, though tragically, refused to perish.
In Hollywood, times and tastes had begun to change. Movies were increasingly more expensive to produce and, with the advent of television stealing away audiences, were not guaranteed the box office once merely assumed and expected. In the wake of this growing exodus away from the theater, Lana’s comeback movie, A Life of Her Own (1950) was a box office disappointment. That same year, L.B. Mayer – who had been the guiding hand behind Lana’s career – was fired by the New York office, leaving Lana without a mentor at the helm of her future prospects.
It is one of Hollywood’s ironies that Mayer’s replacement, Dore Schary had little regard for the star system Mayer had worked so hard to create and foster at MGM. To Schary, Lana Turner was an expensive diva and an expendable commodity that had run its course in profitability for the studio. Precisely to illustrate this point to Lana and set the record straight as to who was now in charge of whose career, Schary cast Lana opposite Ezio Pinza in Mr. Imperium (1951), an abysmal musical programmer that severely damaged her public reputation as a bankable star.
As far as Schary was concerned, after Lana’s embarrassment in this film his reprieve for her sagging career would make sufficient recompense; the studio’s expensive remake of The Merry Widow (1952), opposite Fernando Lamas. Unfortunately, The Merry Widow was ill received, though for Lana it yielded a brief and volatile affair with her costar.
Now, divorced from Topping, Lana obliterated his memory with Cheryl, removing from her home all photographs that bore his likeness. Lana further asserted authority in her private life by ditching Lamas for muscled Tarzan hunk, Lex Barker. At work, Lana delivered the most revealing performance of her career in Vincente Minnelli’s The Bad and the Beautiful (1952) – a seething melodrama about the ugly underbelly of Hollywood royalty.
In the backdrop of this zeitgeist in personal activity, Lana wisely assessed Maple Top as a liability. More than that – it was a direct and very tangible reminder of her failed marriage to Topping. Henceforth, and to save on expenses, more than half of the property was closed up. The grounds crew and staff were reduced to all but a cook and one gardener and Mrs. McMurray who continued to look after Cheryl in the massive shell that had once been the family home.
In the meantime, Lana and Lex traveled, partied and jetted back and forth between Hollywood and Europe. But Barker carried a deeper secret beneath his loin cloth. Eventually, Cheryl would reveal to her mother that the Tarzan hunk had repeatedly raped her during his three year stay while living under their roof. For Lana, the news was devastated. However, more bad news was to follow.
Accepting the role of sexually repressed Constance McKenzie in 20th Century-Fox’s Peyton Place (1957) for a percentage of the gross instead of her usual salary, for the first time in her career Lana began to speculate that perhaps her best years as an actress were behind her. Fortunately, Peyton Place was a colossal hit with Lana’s percentage providing handsome returns.
Whether it was willful spite for all the years of maternal neglect or retaliation for the abuse endured at Barker’s hand, on the home front Cheryl Crane was becoming increasingly difficult for Lana to manage. After an alleged homosexual incident, Cheryl was sent to an institution. Now, alone and living in the mausoleum that Maple Top had become, Lana chose a new live-in companion, Johnny Stompanato; a front man for mobster Mickey Cohen. It was a match made in hell.
Stompanato’s lack of couth and patience resulted in frequent outbursts between him and Lana. On more than several occasions, Stompanato also left bruises on Lana’s person. Before long, the relationship degenerated into one of fear and loathing. When Lana elected to take Cheryl and her mother as guests to the annual Oscar telecast instead of her boyfriend, Stompanato flew into a jealous rage. It would be his last.
On April 4, 1958 their volatile association reached a most tragic and bizarre climax. Reportedly, Cheryl awoke to a confrontation between Lana and Stompanato in Lana’s bedroom, whereupon she instinctively grabbed a knife from one of the kitchen drawers and cut Stompanato clean through his pelvis with a fatal blow. Even if these attested facts continue to resonate with more than a hint of implausibility today, the jury sitting in judgment at the time of Cheryl’s arrest found them more than sufficient to acquit her of the crime of murder but place her in a juvenile detention hall until her 21st birthday.
The severity from fallout derived from this trial branded Lana an unfit mother and social pariah in the court of popular opinion. And now, even her closest associates inside Hollywood seemed to enjoy the exploitation and spectacle of Lana’s private life. On screen and at the age of 39, Lana was hired by producer Ross Hunter for his remake of Imitation of Life (1959) – a syrupy melodrama that echoed many of the incidents in Lana’s real life.
Lana also acquired another husband; Fred May. While Cheryl was placed in a sanitarium May and Lana lived luxuriously – if briefly - in Malibu. Lana’s final film role followed in 1966 in Madame X. Although Lana officially retired from movies thereafter, her personal life continued to have its ups and downs through two more failed marriages.
When, in 1993, she was diagnosed with cancer Lana, who had already retreated from the public spotlight, now became a veritable recluse in her own home. To her credit, Cheryl Crane – who, remarkably harbored no ill will towards her mother - returned to Lana’s side for this final act in her life. On June 29th, 1995, Lana Turner died of throat cancer – her personal demons finally resolved.
“I expected to have one husband and seven babies. Instead, I’ve had seven husbands and one baby!” – Lana Turner
Superficially and in hindsight, the life of Lana Turner resonates with a faint air of the perverse and utterly tragic – that is, until one stops to reconsider that Lana Turner never regarded herself as such. In fact, she lived her own life on her own selfish terms.
In many ways Lana Turner retains the luster from that stardom because her private life became such a ravaged public spectacle. But the darkness that so often intruded in those later years should not eclipse the filmic legacy Lana Turner has left behind. She was and remains one of cinema’s most elusive, surreal and enduring screen goddesses. Her talent – endlessly debated amongst critics even today – is second only to her ardent fan following and Lana’s ability to suspend her own reality in that quest for impossible perfection quantifiable only on the screen.