The golden girl of the movies was having another violent argument with her mobster boyfriend. Before he could beat her up again, her young daughter stabbed him in the stomach with a kitchen knife, leaving the handsome thug to bleed to death on the luxurious pale pink carpet.
Julia Jean Mildred Frances Turner was born Feb. 8, 1921 to John and Mildred Turner in Wallace, Idaho. Her parents loved music, and Julia Turner spent many evenings dancing and curling up with her family near the record player where she developed an appreciation for the arts.
Little Julia adored going to movies. Every weekday she would save a nickel of her lunch money and on Saturday used the 25 cents to see her favorite stars at the local movie palace. She adored fashion plates like Kay Frances and Norma Shearer, and wished that she, too, would someday be drenched head to toe in fabulous gowns and jewels, or maybe even design them herself.
John Turner, working in the mines all day, supplemented his income with late-night card games. One evening, after bragging about planning to buy a tricycle that his beautiful 10-year-old girl had begged him for with his winnings, he was robbed and murdered.
Searching for a better life, mother Mildred and daughter Julia moved to Los Angeles in 1936, and the mother worked in a beauty parlor. One day not long after their arrival, 15-year-old Julia was sitting on a stool at the Top Hat Cafe, across the street from Hollywood High School ( not Schwab's, as legend told it ) having a coke. The publisher of the Hollywood Reporter, W.R. Wilkerson, was sitting there at the same time. Enthralled with her beauty, he introduced himself, gave her his card and instructed her to call his new talent agent, Zeppo Marx of the Marx Brothers.
Soon, Turner was teamed with director Mervyn Leroy, and together they decided to change her name to Lana. She appeared in her first role: the sweet, cute girl wearing a tight sweater who gets murdered in the well-written film They Won't Forget ( 1937 ) . The critics loved her, and she soon became widely known as 'The Sweater Girl.'
When Lana appeared as an Asian in The Adventures of Marco Polo ( 1937 ) , her hair was dyed black. The director insisted her eyebrows be plucked off and painted on black and straight. They never grew back again, and for the rest of her life, Turner had them either drawn on or imitated with individually glued-on hairs. Other films she made include Love Finds Andy Hardy ( 1938 ) with Mickey Rooney, Calling Dr. Kildare ( 1939 ) with Lew Ayres, These Glamour Girls ( 1939 ) , Ziegfeld Girl ( 1940 ) with Judy Garland and Hedy LaMarr, and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde ( 1940 ) , with Ingrid Bergman and Spencer Tracy.
In 1940, on her 20th birthday, she eloped with bandleader and drummer Artie Shaw ( her co-star in 1939's Dancing Co-Ed ) , who became the first of her seven husbands. She kissed him for the very first time right after their Las Vegas ceremony. The violent union gave way within four months. Two years later the woman now dubbed the 'Nightclub Queen' married the unknown Stephen Crane. That union dissolved with an annulment when it was learned he had not yet been divorced from his first wife. Pregnant Turner, not wishing an illegitimate childbirth, reluctantly remarried Crane for one more year, and they had a daughter, Cheryl Christine. Other husbands included millionaire Bob Topping ( 1948-52 ) , Tarzan actor Lex Barker ( 1953-57 ) , ranch owner Fred May ( 1960-62 ) , merchant Robert Eaton ( 1965-69 ) and nightclub hypnotist Ronald Dante ( 1969-72 ) . All ended in divorce, and Turner's affairs with the film colonies' leading men were legendary.
When Leroy left Warner Bros. for MGM Studios, he took Turner with him and her salary continued to rise. The first thing she did was buy a home for her mother and her to live in. Soon, she was making $1,500 a week. When the United States entered the war, Turner rode the rails selling war bonds, and offered 'a sweet kiss' to anyone who bought $50,000 or more in bonds. Turner told the press, 'I kept that promise hundreds of times. I'm told I increased the defense budget by millions of dollars.'
In 1945, Turner's salary rose to $4,000 per week, and she won a role in a sensational story, The Postman Always Rings Twice ( 1946 ) , which had been adapted from James M. Cain's steamy novel. The author was delighted that Turner was playing the role of Cora—the sensuous, murderous, gorgeous waitress who never gets a spot on her spectacular white designer wardrobe—and she rose to new heights of movie stardom.
In 1948, Turner made her first color appearance on screen in The Three Musketeers, and was a knockout in lavish gowns and jewels. One critic wrote, '...she is a proper goddess.' In 1953, Turner was highly acclaimed again for her performance in a fantastic story about Hollywood, The Bad and The Beautiful, with Kirk Douglas, Gilbert Roland, Dick Powell and Gloria Grahame.
However, there was drama away from the screen as well. Turner's daughter, Cheryl, killed Turner's insanely jealous small-time gangster boyfriend when he threatened to kill her mother April 4, 1958; the famed Jerry Geisler defended her. She was acquitted at the inquest, never going to trial. Later, Turner's sensational, sexually charged letters to her dead lover were stolen from her home and sold to the press. The onslaught of publicity was severe and the courts sent Turner's daughter to live with the actress' mother, believing it was a better environment for her.
Amazingly, Turner's career survived and flourished, and she went on to make Imitation of Life ( 1959 ) , a huge, glossy production with John Gavin and Sandra Dee. Turner's film successes continued through middle age, when she often played the love interest of much younger men. Her final film was Madame X ( 1966 ) , with Ricardo Montalban, John Forsythe, Keir Dullea and Constance Bennett. She continued her career on the stage, and later appeared regularly on television's Falcon Crest.
Turner once stated, 'If I could have foreseen everything that was going to happen to me, all the headlines my life would make, all the people who would pass through my days, I wouldn't have believed a syllable of it.'
After a lifetime of heavy cigarette smoking, Turner died of throat cancer June 29, 1995, in her Century City, Calif., home. Her ashes were given to Cheryl.
—The Hollywood Reporter-Star Profiles edited by Marc Wannamaker
—They Had Faces Then by John Springer and Jack D. Hamilton
—The New York Times Directory of the Film
—Lana Turner Web sites
Steve Starr is the author of Picture Perfect-Deco Photo Frames 1926-1946, published by Rizzoli International Publications. A photographer, designer, artist and movie-star historian, he is the owner of Steve Starr Studios.
Visit www.SteveStarrStudios.com or call 773-252-5171.
His new book, STARRLIGHT-Glamorous Latin Movie Stars of Early Hollywood, will be published in 2009.
Photo of Steve Starr in Chicago, Sept. 2, 2007, by Patrick Hipskind