The scandal that rocked Lana Turner’s world
Daughter tells all about the 'justifiable homicide'
Cheryl Crane clutched the kitchen knife in her hands. Trembling with fear, she could hear her mother screaming in her bedroom. Johnny Stompanato was in a rage — threatening to kill Turner and her daughter if the movie star left him. What Stompanato didn’t expect was Cheryl’s willingness to protect her mother. Coming of age under the shadow of murder, Cheryl Crane learned how to forgive herself in more ways than one.
Lana Turner, a star with a hopeless love life
Lana Turner was one of the biggest stars to grace the silver screen. Not only was she glamorous and classy, but she was elegant, and was regarded as Hollywood’s “sex symbol” (Turner later confessed to hating the title). Despite the glamour, Turner faced many pitfalls throughout her career, mainly in her love life.
Like her successor, Elizabeth Taylor, Turner married eight times, to seven husbands. Turner’s attitude toward romance was as if she was flipping a switch. Once she was charmed, she was in love. Unfortunately, not all her lovers were as attentive and caring as she hoped. Some were just slimy and abusive.
Lana Turner was no stranger to love and had many lovers
After Turner was “discovered” in front of the Top Hat Malt Shop in Hollywood in 1936, her legacy as an actress ushered in myriad people who eventually became her directors and boyfriends. Unlike Judy Garland and Shirley Temple, Lana Turner was not the “innocent type” and was a well-known party girl.
Sure, being a party girl in Hollywood isn’t a stigma today, but party girls had a bad reputation in the 1930s, and Turner was dubbed the “Nightclub Queen.” Despite Louis B. Mayer’s concern (her employer), Turner was going to enjoy life to the fullest, including men.
Lana’s daughter lived a sheltered life
Unlike her mother, Cheryl Crane was far from a party girl. In fact, Turner made certain that Crane was watched over like a hawk on a rabbit. From nannies to governesses, Crane was never left alone under any circumstances, which was stifling for a preteen.
Turner was an overprotective mother who sought to protect her child at any cost. Perhaps it was to prevent her daughter from creating scandal as Turner did in her youth. Regardless, Turner’s relationship with her daughter was distant, but Crane knew her mother loved her in her own way. It was Crane’s love for her mother that forced her to one day commit an inconceivable offense.
Turner wasn’t shy about her love life
In her biography, Detour: A Hollywood Story, Crane wrote about her mother’s exuberant life during Hollywood’s golden age. Crane described her mother as a wild and free spirit who wasn’t shy about her sexuality. After being asked about the multiple men coming in and out of her life, Turner once told a reporter, “Let’s face it, it’s the physical that attracts me first.”
She went on, “If you get to know a man’s heart and soul, that’s icing on the cake.” Turner would link arms with Hollywood hunks such as George Raft, Victor Mature, and Richard Hutton. “I liked the boys and the boys liked me,” Turner said. All the men in Turner’s life would fizzle and fade. But not Johnny Stompanato.
Johnny caught Lana’s eye instantly
Turner was already reaching her late 30s when she met calm and cool John Stompanato. Turner had just divorced her fourth husband, Lex Barker, and was itching for a distraction. Love wasn’t hard to find; Stompanato practically fell in her lap. Stompanato sent Turner flowers and notes, pleading for her to give him a chance.
Just because Lana Turner threw herself at Cupid’s mercy didn’t mean she picked her lot from the bottom of the barrel. Turner gave Stompanato a chance for two reasons: one, he was good-looking; and two, he claimed to know people within her circle. Turner took the bait and gave Stompanato a chance without confirming with their “mutual” friends.
Perfection was absent in the Turner home
At the time during which Turner decided to give Stompanato the benefit of the doubt, she was struggling as a star, emotionally, physically, and financially. Aging in Hollywood was a cruel business. Nearing her 40s, Turner struggled to find work and hustled to keep herself relevant in the public’s eye. What’s worse?
Love never stuck, and the IRS wasn’t bashful about taxing their celebrities. On top of her career, at home, her 14-year-old daughter, Cheryl, was a constant reminder of her age. Turner needed to feel wanted, and she saw Stompanato as the cure. Unfortunately, he turned out to be a sickness, one that ended with blood. Crane had to bear the cross of her mother’s lifestyle choices.
Stompanato lied about his age and occupation
Despite his quiet (but tough) demeanor, Stompanato didn’t want to scare the meal ticket with his rough background. Stompanato told Turner that he was nothing more than a humble “businessman” who ran a gift shop. He also told Turner he was 43, a good five years older than her, making Turner feel young and exuberant.
But Turner discovered the truth. When introducing Stompanato to her friends in Hollywood, some recognized him as a sleaze, a guy who worked with mercenaries and criminals. It turned out they were right. Not only did he work with criminals, but he was once a bodyguard for one of LA’s notorious gangsters, Mickey Cohen.
Johnny was Mickey Cohen’s bodyguard
When Turner confronted Stompanato, he played defense. “You’d never have given me a chance if you knew,” he said, according to Crane’s autobiography. Stompanato lamented, “I don’t see those guys no more — promise.” Stompanato was deceitful, but Turner gave him the benefit of the doubt.
Even if Turner wised up and wanted to leave their relationship, it was too late. After six months of dating, Stompanato labeled Turner as “his girl,” and demanded the world through his new girlfriend, including royal benefits provided by Hollywood. What Stompanato didn’t anticipate was Turner’s high morals and her sticking to her professional scruples, separating business from pleasure.
Johnny was rough with Lana
Stompanato pressured Turner to give him a fitting role in Hollywood — specifically, as a producer. Unfortunately for Stompanato, Turner was no pushover. Turner knew how to separate her personal life from business, and refused to involve her newly appointed lover in her work.
With his gangster background, Stompanato physically abused Turner out of sheer frustration. Stompanato wasn’t shy in throwing a stream of profanities in her direction, a black rainbow of words and phrases that did not fit a woman of Turner’s stature. At one point, in an ugly rage, Stompanato attempted to take Turner’s life while filming abroad.
Johnny made several attempts to take Lana’s life
While filming in England, Turner and Stompanato had an argument that led Stompanato to smother Turner with a pillow. Her screams were heard outside her room and someone on the production team, who acted as a bouncer, swiftly kicked Stompanato out the door without another word.
Stompanato was out of the country within 24 hours and just about out of Turner’s life. But throwing Stompanato out in the gutter wasn’t enough for the ex-gangster or the starlet. When Turner returned home to Hollywood, she returned to Stompanato out of loneliness, and the two “made-up.” The abuse was far from over.
The peace didn’t last long
The peace between Turner and Stompanato turned out to be a false truce. Although the couple reconciled, Stompanato was still adamant about becoming Turner’s producer. Again, Turner turned him down, and it was clear what was going to happen next. During a trip to Acapulco, Mexico, Stompanato took his anger to the next level — assaulting Turner.
It seemed like, no matter what she did or said, Turner could never change a man like Stompanato. She gritted her teeth but kept quiet. Little did she know, Stompanato would get his in the most unexpected way.
Cheryl understood her mother’s distress
Cheryl Crane was 13 when Turner introduced her to Stompanato. Crane remembered him as quiet and initially liked him because, unlike her mother’s previous suitors, he didn’t try sweet-talking her. Crane was smitten when Stompanato gifted her a horse, a red Arabian mare named Rowena.
Unfortunately, the illusion Crane had of Stompanato would quickly vanish when she and her mother returned home from the 1958 Oscars. Stompanato was furious when Turner refused to take him to the Oscars, and resorted to violence that shook Crane’s world and made her realize that Stompanato was violent and abusive.
Cheryl witnessed domestic violence firsthand
The first time Crane saw Stompanato go into a rage was a terrifying experience. “I saw for the first time what he (Stompanato) looked like when he was angry. He seethed. He clearly hated her (Turner),” Crane wrote. Despite her mother trying to end their relationship, Stompanato refused to leave Turner’s life.
He was possessive. “You’re not getting rid of me that easy Miss Moviestar …” Stompanato said. “I’ll cut you up first!” When it was clear that Turner was in a dangerous situation with Stompanato, she turned to her daughter for comfort. Alone and scared, she ran to the only person that she knew wouldn’t hurt her, regardless of the fact that it was her teenage daughter.
A daughter’s plea
Crane hated what she saw (as she should!) and pleaded for Turner to send Stompanato away. “Why don’t you just tell him to go?” Crane said. “You’re a coward, Mother.” For Turner, her daughter’s words cut like glass, but she pushed away the pain and tried to explain her relationship with Stompanato. “You don’t understand,” Turner said.
“I’m deathly afraid of him — I’m terrified,” she said. Crane saw the fear in her mother’s eyes and understood. Crane begged her mother to call the police, but Turner turned down the suggestion, afraid of a scandal. Ironically, a scandal would come knocking on their door whether they liked it or not, and Crane would pay the price.
Good Friday got bloody
The final act of violence took place on Good Friday in 1958. With her daughter’s well-being in mind, Turner was determined to break it off with Stompanato. Another violent argument rose between the adults. Stompanato raged. “You’ll never get away from me,” Stompanato said with a vicious snarl.
“Wherever you go, I’ll find you. Or I have people who can … if someone makes a living with their hands, break his hands. If someone makes a living with her face, destroy her face. I’ll cut you good, Baby … And don’t think I won’t also get your mother and your kid. I don’t even have to be there. I have people to do the job for me — and I’ll watch.”
Cheryl wanted to defend herself
Crane knew something was wrong, but her mother instructed her to stay in her room and do her homework while she tried to get rid of Stompanato. Despite her mother’s warning, Crane left her room and overheard their argument, and her mother crying in her bedroom. Afraid, and unsure what to do, Crane went into the kitchen.
She needed to defend herself. What if Stompanato hurt her mother? What if he hurt her? Crane saw a lone kitchen knife glistening beside the kitchen sink and took it upstairs. When she approached her mother’s door, she listened in on her mother’s and Stompanato’s conversation, “This is the end — oh, yes!” Stompanato said. Crane then did something she’ll never forget.
It was Cheryl Crane, in the bedroom, with a kitchen knife
Terrified, Crane waited outside her mother’s door. The door opened and out came Turner, who rushed behind her daughter. Stompanato charged after Turner, but not without running into Crane. And her knife.
It happened so fast, Crane was in shock the moment she realized Stompanato walked into the knife. “I took a step forward and lifted the weapon. He ran in the blade. It went in. In! For three ghastly heartbeats, our bodies fused. He looked straight at me, unblinking … In slow motion, he pulled off and jerked in backward steps toward the bed … He knew his life was ending, and he hadn’t seen it coming.”
They tried to resuscitate Stompanato
Stompanato fell to the floor and struggled to breathe, the air escaping his lungs in a gurgle. The scene was horrifying to both mother and daughter. Once she realized what she had done, Crane dropped the knife. She didn’t know what else to do but say “I’m sorry, Mother!” But Turner wasn’t paying attention to her distressed daughter.
Turner was at Stompanato’s side, doing her best to resuscitate him — but it was no use. Stompanato was gone, and the room fell silent. In a panic, Crane raced to the phone and dialed the only person in the world who would help her; her father. That’s when the scandal unfolded.
Cheryl went to court
Needless to say, all of Hollywood, if not the world, knew about John Stompanato’s sudden death. Turner was horrified when she realized what her daughter had done. And although Turner wanted to take the blame for her daughter’s crime, it was no use.
Crane was admitted into juvenile hall, where she was held for two weeks without bail while the adults went to trial. During those two weeks, Mickey Cohen was involved and was outraged when he heard the news about his former bodyguard. Known to be chatty with the press, Cohen decided to stir the pot and cause an even bigger scandal on Turner’s behalf.
Love letters and death threats
Once Cohen got involved, things became difficult for Turner. Cohen told reporters, “I can’t understand it,” he said in Crane’s autobiography. “I don’t like the whole thing … There’s a lot of unanswered questions … I’m going to find some of those answers no matter what happens.” Soon after Cohen made his statement, Stompanato’s apartment was broken into.
Nothing was taken and many speculated it was Cohen and his men who purposely snuck into the apartment. Whoever broke in got what they were looking for, because the next set of newspapers released a series of privately written love letters between Stompanato and Turner, turning the entire ordeal into a “Who to trust?” issue. Was Turner making this up? Or was she the one who wielded the knife and blamed her daughter?
Murder was only the beginning of Cheryl’s troubles
In the end, Crane was released, and the crime was deemed as “justifiable homicide.” Though Crane was released from custody with a so-called new lease on life, the past continued to haunt her. In an interview with Phil Donahue, Crane talked about her release from juvenile hall and stated that she and her family never once spoke about the murder. “It’s not something one just closes the door on,” Crane said.
“When one is responsible for someone’s life ending, whether it’s a justifiable act or not, it stays with you and you have to cope with it and it took many years to do that … we never discussed what had happened … I had no idea what my own parents thought of me.”
The obedient daughter turns rebellious
Granted, after the incident, the young girl would be supervised and tended to, but it was clear that Crane’s home was broken. With a court order, the state took custody of Crane until she was 18, and she would legally stay with her grandmother.
After fourteen years of being kept under her mother’s thumb, Crane was able to breathe fresh air, but it was stifled by routine checkups with a psychiatrist and going into hiding. Though her mother was no longer present to control her daughter, she pressured Crane’s grandmother to act by proxy. Crane’s freedom was affected. She conveyed in her book that in retrospect, the best way to move forward from the past was for her family to treat her like a regular teenage girl.
All Crane wanted was to be normal
No one can change the past. Despite what Crane wanted, and no matter how much she willed it, nothing could bring her mother’s lover back. Crane wanted to experience the world like a normal teenage girl. But Crane was no ordinary teenager, she was (and always will be) Lana Turner’s daughter.
Unfortunately, Crane was robbed of that opportunity and retaliated with rebellious behavior. She made hung out with the bad boys, desiring to push back the images of Stompanato’s death far from her mind. Sadly, Crane’s problems were only beginning.
Riding in cars with boys
Crane frequently snuck out to get away from her mother’s tyrant eye and from the press. Sure, she was free, but that didn’t mean the scandal was over. The press was watching Crane, and Stompanato’s family were out to drain every drop out of Lana Turner’s money.
The only way Crane could get away was sneaking out when her grandmother drank herself stupid. Once she escaped, Crane would dance and drink the night away. As Crane grew older, a custody battle would continue between Turner and Crane’s father. While they clashed, Crane found herself in daring situations that would eventually have her institutionalized against her will.
Crane craved freedom
Turner enjoyed being in control of her environment, partially with the people who surrounded her, including her daughter. But her daughter had a fighting spirit that was pushed down at a young age, and it was time for the real Crane to break out. She started to wear makeup and adult clothing, and she went out dancing.
Her mother hated each thing she did, preferring her daughter to wear children’s clothing and minimal makeup. Crane didn’t have a care. Crane wanted to forget everything that happened in her past. She wanted to forget her mother, Stompanato, and to live her life the way she saw fit. Unfortunately, it was a downward spiral to complete psychological oblivion.
In and out of prison-like racing through a revolving door
Unfortunately, control over Crane’s life continued to hold firm, despite Crane living with her grandmother. Crane was no fool. Between the ages of 15 and 17, Crane took up some questionable hobbies, including drinking, taking tranquilizers, and riding in fast cars with boys.
Her choice of drinking and staying out late past curfew (10 p.m. at the time) would land her in the back seat of a police cruiser, only for Turner’s lawyer to bail her out soon after. Then, sometime before her 18th birthday, the year she could really declare her independence, Crane did something that made her family question her sanity.
Cheryl never questioned her sexuality
Crane always knew she saw the same sex differently. Though Crane had dated boys, she admitted that from an early age she found herself attracted to girls. She admitted as much to her mother at the age of 10, a confession not taken seriously by her family, but there was no backlash against her coming out.
As Crane grew up, it was clear that she preferred women over men, but that didn’t mean Crane abhorred men entirely. She made lasting relationships with boys, and one in particular made her an offer that could possibly provide her with an early escape into emancipation.
Her boyfriend proposed marriage as a form of escape
A boy Crane was dating knew of her troubles. He knew that Crane wanted, more than anything, to escape her family and start her own life — one where she wasn’t labeled as “Lana Turner’s daughter,” or a murderer. She simply wanted to be Cheryl. The boy in question, Martin, proposed that he and Crane get hitched.
It would be a quick-fix solution. She’d be independent and seen as an adult. The catch? She had to tell her parents, a task Crane did not want to carry out. Sure enough, the temptation of freedom was too great to resist, and she approached her parents about marrying Martin. Their reaction was deceiving.
Turner pretended to take the news well
Crane made sure to show that her engagement to Martin was serious. She even staged it so that her grandmother walked in on Crane and Martin asleep together in her bed. It worked. What Crane didn’t anticipate was how easily her parents took to the news.
They smiled and told her they had her blessing, told her that they needed time to make the necessary arrangements. Crane was beside herself; were her parents really going to allow her to marry this boy? She didn’t care as long as they gave their written consent. That night, Crane went to bed, happy to know that her freedom may just be within reach after all.
Institutionalized against her will
The morning after Crane broke the news to her folks, Turner informed her daughter that she was going to a mental institute. Crane was shocked at the news. Her mother tried to downplay the situation, calling it a resort, a fit facility where she would be happy and given all the help she needed.
Crane’s father and grandmother also urged her to go. Seeing that her 18th birthday was only a few weeks away, she consented, believing she could sign herself out on her birthday. That’s not what happened. The day she turned 18, doctors told Crane she couldn’t check herself out of the institution, telling her she was powerless to do so.
The doctors and lawyers lied to her
Crane was anything but uncomfortable in the mental facility. There, she felt completely imprisoned. What she didn’t know, was that she was free to leave the facility the day she turned 18, but her mother’s controlling grip took hold of the doctors and lawyers.
When Crane reached out to her mother’s lawyer, she was falsely told she was legally bound to her physicians. Only they could say when she could leave. As a result, she spent 10 months in a mental institution until her mother realized Crane wasn’t getting the help she needed. Turner eventually sprung her loose.
Sleeping pills lured Cheryl to attempt suicide
Crane was outraged but could do nothing. She was institutionalized for nearly a year before she was finally released. Eighteen and independent, Crane continued with her destructive lifestyle, drinking, smoking, and partying, never knowing where she would end up, and not caring whether she’d wake up the next morning.
One night, after an evening of partying, Crane found some pills in her medicine cabinet and swallowed them all. Unhappy, and plagued by the memories of her past, she just wanted to escape. She nearly did. When she woke up from the hospital, something in Crane clicked.
Lana Turner wanted nothing more than to help her daughter
When Crane woke at the hospital, she realized that her life was nothing but pain. She threatened to take her life, an act she didn’t want to see through. Realizing that something was wrong with her, she phoned her mother for help. Crane wrote, “I was so grateful to be alive.”
She continued, “I wanted to live now, to do something with what I had been given. I saw that the answer was not in death, which was a waste … After a week I telephoned my Mother… ‘I want to make real changes in my life,’ I said. ‘Will you help me?’” Turner didn’t hesitate. She wanted nothing more than to help her daughter continue to live.
Crane turned her life around
Overall, all Turner wanted was for her daughter to find happiness — for her only child to live, love, and be well. But, with her tainted past, this proved difficult. Heres was pain that stemmed from abuse, neglect, and murder.
Older and wiser, Crane decided it was time to doing the impossible — to live. Crane forgave her mother for the neglect and was able to reconnect and forge a stronger bond. Once Crane turned herself around, she was blessed with a fruitful life, one that would eventually open the doors to love and forgiveness.
Cheryl discovered a zeal for life with the love of her life
Years passed, and Crane, through struggle, trial, and error, maneuvered her way best through life. She worked various jobs until she became a hostess in her father’s restaurant chain. She went to Cornell University and studied hospitality to help her father’s business. She worked for her father for 15 years, during which time she met the love of her life, a model and athlete named Joyce LeRoy, or simply “Josh.”
After meeting her match, she found a life of gratitude and success. She was eventually able to cope with living in her mother’s shadow and that terrible night of Stompanato’s death. Crane ended her story with a happy ending: “I was discovering a profound truth: when you accept yourself, people accept you … The fact is, I’ve come through.”