The Tri-State District has provided Hollywood with a number of actors and actresses. Many do not know there is a famous actress whose family had roots in the area. Lana Turner, whose career had tremendous highs and scandalous lows, had family in Webb City and Picher, Oklahoma.
Her father, John Turner, was a miner whose work took him to Picher, Oklahoma. It was there he met Mildred Cowan, daughter of a local mine inspector. He was 24 and she was 14. In the face her father’s objections, the couple eloped to Idaho. Julia Jean Turner was born in Burke, Idaho, in 1921. The family moved to nearby Wallace, where her father operated a dry cleaners and worked in the silver mines. As a young child she performed dance routines at the Elks club.
Her family moved to San Francisco in 1927, where her parents separated. Her father, a gambler, was killed for the money won in a card game in 1930; Mildred worked as a beautician.
“Judy,” as she was known, stayed with friends who treated her as their servant. When her mother learned of the situation, she took Judy back. Mildred developed health problems, and they moved to Los Angeles for the drier climate in 1933. Together, they struggled financially while Mildred worked 80 hours a week so Julie could attend high school instead of getting a job.
Discovered at lunch counter
However, Judy skipped school one afternoon in 1936 to go to lunch at a nearby restaurant. It was there she caught the eye of Billy Wilkerson, publisher of the Hollywood Reporter. He introduced her to the youngest Marx brother, Zeppo, who ran a talent agency. He in turn introduced her to Mervyn Leroy, a director at Warner Brothers. It was LeRoy who urged her to adopt Lana as her stage name.
In a whirlwind she went from high school student to movie starlet. LeRoy cast her as an extra in “A Star is Born,” but it was her first featured role in “They Won’t Forget” as a high school murder victim that revealed her box office potential to studio executives. She remembered how she and her mother were mortified when they heard the wolf whistles at the first screening of the film. She earned the nickname “Sweater Girl” because of the tight sweater she wore.
She moved from Warner Brothers to MGM in 1938 and completed high school while attending studio school. She took roles beginning in 1938 that established her as a heartthrob when she starred with Mickey Rooney in “Love Finds Andy Hardy.” Through World War II she appeared in a number of successful films. It was her role in the 1946 film noir classic, “The Postman Always Rings Twice,” that showed the range of her acting skill. Her Mary Clay was alternately weak and vulnerable or stubborn and mean, but always sexy, a real femme fatale. It solidified the image that typified her career.
As her movie career was gaining ground, her personal life became a revolving door of affairs and marriages. Her first marriage to band leader Artie Shaw lasted seven months in 1940. That was followed by a succession of eight marriages, three of which lasted four years. She and second husband Stephen Crane had her one child, a daughter, Cheryl.
She was regular in Hollywood gossip columns throughout the 1940s and 50s. Speculation on how long a relationship would last or who would be next was a common feature in Jimmie Fiedler’s daily column that ran in the Globe. Periodically, the Globe would run short notes reporting her aunt in Webb City would visit the Turners in Los Angeles. If she ever visited Webb City, it was done without publicity.
Johnny Stompanato affair
Her affair with Johnny Stompanato created front page headlines in 1958. Stompanato was an ex-Marine who found work after World War II as a bouncer and mob enforcer for Los Angeles gangster Mickey Cohen. Stompanato had used his smooth talk and good looks to romance several stars. After Turner’s divorce from Lex Barker in 1957, Stompanato pursued her with flowers and gifts. The couple had a tumultuous affair complete with breakups and reconciliations. Once the jealous Stompanato flew to London to confront a young Sean Connery on the set of “Another Time, Another Place” with a loaded pistol. Connery coolly grabbed the gun and forced him to drop it. The jealous lover was quietly deported.
Upon her return to the States, she attempted to break up with Stompanato. After a violent argument at her home, which her daughter overheard, Cheryl reacted. Fearing for her mother’s life she took a kitchen knife to her mother’s bedroom where she confronted Stompanato at the door. He made a move she interpreted as dangerous to her mother and stabbed him in the abdomen. He was dead when doctors arrived.
The resulting inquest with Turner’s testimony appeared to have been taken from one of her movie scripts. The jury decided it was justifiable homicide. Custody of Cheryl was given to grandmother Mildred Turner, though mother and daughter became estranged. Newspapers castigated Lana in editorials even as her film “Imitation of Life” achieved financial and critical success the next year.
Her subsequent career saw a notable success with “Madame X” in 1966. She worked on television and the stage the next decade until retiring in 1982. By then she and Cheryl achieved a reconciliation. A lifelong smoker, she developed throat cancer in 1992, which led to her death in 1995 at age 75.
Looking back on her life, she said, “The thing about happiness is that it doesn’t help you to grow; only unhappiness does that. So I’m grateful that my bed of roses was made up equally of blossoms and thorns. I’ve had a privileged, creative, exciting life, and I think that the parts that were less joyous were preparing me, testing me, strengthening me.”
Bill Caldwell is the retired librarian at The Joplin Globe. If you have a question you’d like him to research, send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org or leave a message at 417-627-7261.