TOO BEAUTIFUL TO BE BAD: Part I
The Stormy Life of
by Nick Zegarac
Ostensibly, Lana Turner was a star before she was born; a dream child emerging from behind the velvet curtain of a studio system that knew how to manufacture glamour. From the start, she was fully-formed – her bulbous cleavage trademarked at the age of 16; loosely bobbing just beneath the thin angora of a tight fitting sweater in her first on camera appearance.
Off screen she was tagged ‘queen of the nightclubs’ before the age of 19 in reference to her bottomless stamina for endless partying with the fast and rich. To the world who only knew her from the movies, she was quite simply the most stunningly beautiful embodiment of stardom yet to be discovered – the girl every other girl wished she could be and the only one that any man should ever want as his own.
It was, of course, all just an illusion. For, behind the glycerin smile and false lashes, Lana Turner was just a girl; a tender and mildly insecure waif from a broken home, plucked from obscurity by accident under the watchful eye of Warner studio publicist, Irving Fine. There was nothing in Lana’s youth that should have suggested the riches to come.
She was born into hardship on February 8, 1921 in Wallace Idaho to Virgil Turner and his wife Mildred. A traveling salesman and con-artist, Virgil was found murdered on a San Francisco street when Lana was only 9 years old. To make ends meet, Mildred took in laundry. But the long hours were hardly conducive to motherhood and Mildred placed her daughter in foster care for a time, where Lana endured physical abuse for several years.
In 1936, Mildred decided to move her and Lana to Los Angeles. They arrived in town with nothing but a pair of modestly packed suitcases. Shortly thereafter, Mildred took a job as a hairdresser, working 80hr. days to maintain a modest household. In the meantime, Lana, now a teenager, enrolled in Hollywood High School located just across the street from Schwab’s Drug Store – a popular hang out with students, but also with publicity men and free agents looking for the next hot young talent. With her attractive 5’3” frame and sultry blond locks, Lana certainly fit that bill.
Eyeing her from across the counter, respected talent scout Billy Wilkerson asked the teen if she would like to be in the movies. Lana’s unabashedly naïve reply – “I’ll have to ask my mother” became one of the most celebrated beginnings to a Cinderella fairytale that sadly, was all too meteoric and fleeting.
MGM’s New Harlow
“It was a club then…and you were very happy to be invited to the party!”
– Carol Lombard
In retrospect, it seems prophetic that Lana’s first movie at Universal for producer/director Mervyn LeRoy should be titled They Won’t Forget (1937). Lana, once seen, was hardly forgettable. Though she appeared for mere moments on the screen, the sight of her bouncing un-tethered breasts loosely tucked into a sweater instantly trademarked her ‘the sweater girl’ a moniker Lana reportedly abhorred. She was also mortified by the cameras adulation with that particular part of her anatomy.
Nevertheless, Lana was on her way. When the 29 year old LeRoy migrated from Universal to MGM he took Lana with him as his protégé. Lana signed her MGM contract for $100 a week, telling Mildred “quit your job, ma. You’ll never have to work again!”
Lana’s arrival at the grandest motion picture studio in the world could not have been more fortuitously timed. Jean Harlow – the resident bombshell – had died six months earlier at the age of 26 from uremia, leaving MGM without a suitable replacement. At least on the surface, there were certain similarities between Harlow and Turner. Both were cut from the same ilk of platinum and both were mere children when first discovered. But while Harlow’s early career had begun at playing rather severe and slightly campy femme fatales with voracious sexual appetites, Turner’s personality leant itself to a strange and intoxicating blend of innocence and raw animal magnetism.
Set under acting coach Lillian Burnes, Lana excelled at picking up the business of becoming a star. Her first appearance in an MGM film was as Mickey Rooney’s latest romance, Cynthia Potter in Love Finds Andy Hardy (1938); a cameo where Lana’s feminine wiles clearly outweighed the clean cut wholesome boyhood of Rooney’s title character.
While teaching Lana how to walk, it suddenly became obvious to Burnes that despite Lana’s youth – she was only 18 - MGM had suddenly discovered not a new child star, but a full-fledged female starlet. Within a few short months, MGM’s publicity would take advantage of Burne’s ‘discovery’ by billing Lana as their new Harlow.
To say that Lana took to her celebrity as a duckling does to water is an understatement. Assertive and in complete understanding of the value and power of her own beauty and stardom, Lana aggressively made the rounds at all of Hollywood’s ‘seen and be seen’ nightclubs. One of her more popular dates from this period was actor Robert Stack, though when it came to encouraging men’s affections, Lana was certainly not selective. She had bracelets made with the inscription ‘love, Lana’ and frequently handed them out to all her male admirers.
Inside MGM’s front office, studio mogul L.B. Mayer was slightly appalled. Lana was fast becoming a creature of dangerous habits too difficult to break. Though Mayer encouraged a more restrained lifestyle, Lana continued to party it up with the boys in the backroom until the wee hours of the morning, but never missed her 6:00am call at the studio. Lana would later joke that “I can’t face the day or an audience without vodka.”
In her first two years, she would appear in 8 films for MGM including the impractical, but amusing, Rich Man, Poor Girl (1938) and Calling Dr. Kildare (1938), opposite Lew Ayres.
THE MEN OF LANA’S BOUDOIR
“A gentleman is simply a patient wolf.” – Lana Turner
It is perhaps a sign of the times that today Lana Turner’s lengthy list of male conquests would more easily brand her a loose woman. That she pursued men relentlessly, but frequently found less than happiness in their arms, is a matter of public record. However, and for their time, Lana’s antics with men were deemed flirtatious fun and mildly obsessive boy-craziness at its best.
On one of her frequent outings, Lana met brilliant young attorney and ladies man Greg Bautzer. Soon, the two became inseparable. Lana was Bautzer’s first live-in romance. For Lana, the affair was a love match. However, Bautzer was not entirely convinced that his days of bachelorhood should come to an end. Though Lana pressed for an engagement, Bautzer repeatedly delayed any concrete plans to marry. Hence, after standing Lana up on her 19th birthday, the impetuous starlet grabbed her ermine and darted off in the direction of her favorite nightclub; the Mocambo.
There, band leader Artie Shaw caught her eye. On a whim, Lana agreed to marry Shaw – the two eloping to Vegas for the start of a life together that proved anything but kismet. To say that the elopement was impulsive is putting things mildly. Shaw was already twice divorced by the time Lana entered his life. A misogynist with definite ideas about a ‘woman’s place’ in the home, Shaw also had a penchant for carousing with many starlets on the fly and drinking to excess until he became violent In hindsight, it seems obvious that such a marriage should last only a mere four months. But for the moment, Lana truly believed that she had found her great love.
At MGM, L.B. Mayer was modestly concerned that Lana’s steadily crumbling marriage to Shaw would impact her box office appeal. It did not. Instead, Lana was more popular than ever. She had transcended the pitfalls of a starlet, emerging instead as Teflon-coated Hollywood royalty to whom no scandal stuck. When, the ink had officially dried on her divorce from Shaw, Lana disregarded that brief tenure in the press with sprite nonchalance and a devilish wink. “Artie was my college education.” she said.
In an effort to capitalize on Lana’s new image as a woman of the world, Mayer cast her in the plum role of Sheila Regan for MGM’s Ziegfeld Girl (1941). As the chorine gone bad, Lana brought a smoldering sensuality and unerring grand gesture of tragedy to the part – delivering an iconic performance in an otherwise largely forgettable musical melodrama. The film’s success earned Lana Mayer’s appreciation. She graduated to the first tier of MGM’s female roster, received her own private dressing room and a salary increase to the then staggering amount of $1500 per week.
To celebrate her new financial independence, Lana went out and bought a shiny red convertible. She also began to see a lot of men, including matinee idol Robert Taylor – whom she costarred with in Johnny Eager (1941). Although she publicly regarded Artie Shaw as a ‘learning experience’, Lana scaled up her association with musicians – frequently seen in the company of Gene Krupa, Frank Sinatra and Benny Goodman; all ardent admirers. For Lana, life had become one ongoing party. “I like the boys and the boys like me!” she proudly told a reporter, “I think men are exciting and the gal who denies that is either a lady with no corpuscles or a statue!”
In 1942, Lana appeared with Clark Gable in Somewhere I’ll Find You – a playful romantic comedy that created mild sparks on the set. Well aware of Lana’s frequent libidinous flirtations with her costars, and determined not to have the pattern repeat itself with her husband, Gable’s spouse Carol Lombard kept a watchful eye throughout the production shoot. Weeks later, Lombard perished in a plane crash leaving Gable a distraught widower. Gable, who perhaps otherwise would have wound up on the rebound in Lana’s arms, instead abandoned his Hollywood career for a stint in the air corp.