September 16, 2015

Lana Turner Started as a "Sweater Girl"

Lana Turner built a successful movie career on her first screen appearance as a teenage "sweater girl."

Turner was discovered in early 1937 at the Top Hat Cafe, a shop across the street from Hollywood High. She cut a secretarial class and went to the cafe for a nickel Coke. W.R. Wilkerson, publisher of the Hollywood Reporter, spotted the pretty teen, gave her his card and asked her to call talent agent Zeppo Marx. This led to an MGM contract at age 15 and a teaming with director and producer Mervyn LeRoy. Julia Jean Mildred Frances Turner was renamed Lana (pronounced LAH-nah) Turner. ("Lana" is Spanish for wool and is used as a slang term for money in Mexico.)

Turner first attracted attention in They Won't Forget (1937). Wearing a skintight sweater and skirt, she sauntered along a street, spoke not one line, was murdered in the first reel and began a quick climb to stardom.

Lana Turner in They Won't Forget (1937)

Within a year after it hit the movie houses, she was making $260 a week and had received 1,000 marriage proposals. Students at Harvard named her the country's sexy-chestiest girl, and by her 20th birthday, 40 fraternity chapters had adopted her as their sweetheart. For her, the MGM commissary concocted the Lanallure Salad. Columnist Walter Winchell coined the phrase "sweater girl" in her honor. During World War II, she traveled the country promising "a sweet kiss" to any man who would buy a $50,000 war bond, "and I'm told I increased the defense budget by several million dollars."

Mervyn LeRoy guided her career. Some of her early films included Love Finds Andy Hardy (1938), Calling Dr. Kildare (1939) and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1941). She studied with a dramatic coach and soon co-starred successfully with such leading MGM actors as Spencer Tracy, Clark Gable and Robert Taylor.

She was quite convincing in love scenes and in some melodramas. Her films included Green Dolphin Street (1947), Cass Timberlane (1947), The Three Musketeers (1948), The Merry Widow (1952), The Rains of Ranchipur (1955) and Diane (1956).

Her best performance was that of unfulfilled wife Cora Smith who persuades a drifter (John Garfield) to kill her husband (Cecil Kellaway), in The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946). She wore a turban, a halter top, the 1940s version of hot pants (all in white) and an insolent expression.

Critics hailed the scene in Postman in which she puts on lipstick and preens tauntingly in front of John Garfield as "a great film moment." Not until Marilyn Monroe was any actress to prove her equal at projecting such obvious sexuality from the screen.

Other major roles were a rebellious student in These Glamour Girls (1939), a shallow performer in Ziegfeld Girl (1941) and an alcoholic actress in The Bad and the Beautiful (1952).

Recalling The Bad and the Beautiful, John Houseman, the producer, said he and Vincente Minnelli, the director, had agreed Miss Turner "was capable of brilliant individual scenes, but seemed to lack the temperament or the training to sustain a full-length performance."

"This made our episodic film just right for her," Mr. Houseman said.

Mr. Minnelli recalled using "many ruses and subterfuges" to extract a major performance from Miss Turner, adding, "As she got more into the picture her nervousness disappeared, and she effectively made the character's transition from tramp to glamour queen."

The actress, a star at MGM for 17 years, was a quintessential product of the Hollywood studio system. She recalled in 1969: "It was all beauty and it was all power. Once you had it made, they protected you; they gave you stardom. The ones who kept forging ahead became higher and higher and brighter and brighter and they were stars. And they were treated like stars. We had the best."

Miss Turner was nominated for an Academy Award in 1957 for her portrayal of a neurotic mother in the film adaptation of Grace Metalious' novel Peyton Place. In many later movies, including remakes of Imitation of Life (1959) and Madame X (1966), she played heroines racked by sacrifice and suffering.

On television, her most ambitious effort was The Survivors, a lavish, prime time soap opera based on the Harold Robbins novel about a sordid banking family. Later, she toured in several plays, including the comedy Forty Carats.


Miss Turner was born on February 8, 1921 in Wallace, Idaho, and was named Julia Jean Mildred Frances Turner. Her father, John, was a miner. The family soon moved to San Francisco, where her parents separated. When she was 10, her father was murdered and robbed of money he had won in a craps game. Her mother, Mildred, became a beautician and moved to Los Angeles, where the girl lived for a while in a foster home before returning to her mother. As a teenager, she made $12 a week wrapping packages.

Husbands and Lovers

As she herself once said, "I like the boys, and the boys like me." She eloped with bandleader Artie Shaw on their first date. Within three days she had decided she was unhappy. Within seven months they were divorced and she aborted the baby she was carrying. (February 13, 1940 - September 12, 1940)

She fell in love with Joseph Stephen Crane, a restaurateur and her second husband, over dinner and married him a month later. Someone once said Turner picks husbands in less time than it takes to order off a menu. Crane fathered her only child, Cheryl Christina. Turner and Crane were married and divorced twice. Their first marriage was annulled after it was discovered that Crane's previous divorce had not yet been finalized. After a brief separation (during which Crane attempted suicide), they remarried but divorced 17 months later. (July 17, 1942 - February 4, 1943) and (March 14, 1943 - August 21, 1944)

Her third husband was millionaire sportsman Henry J. "Bob" Topping. "If I didn't love Bob, then why was I marrying him?" she was to ask herself years later. Well, he had proposed by dropping a 15-carat marquis diamond ring into her martini at 21 in New York, "and there's something awfully compelling about a large engagement ring." (April 26, 1948 - December 12, 1952)

Her fourth husband, ex-movie Tarzan Lex Barker, passed out drunk on their first date. Turner divorced him after discovering he had sexually molested and raped her daughter. (September 8, 1953 - July 22, 1957)

Her fifth husband was businessman and rancher Frederick "Fred" May. They remained friendly after their divorce. (November 27, 1960 - October 15, 1962)

Her sixth was handsome Virginia aristocrat and businessman Robert P. "Bob" Eaton. He was a decade younger, and she found out about the extramarital debauchery he practiced in her own bed when her appalled maid saved the soiled sheets. "I vowed...that I'd never trust any man ever again. But in the words of the song, I always pick myself up, dust myself off and start all over again." (June 22, 1965 - April 1, 1969)

This time she dusted herself off with nightclub hypnotist Ronald Dante. She fell -- "Why, oh, why?" -- for his persuasive voice and compelling eyes. Their sixth-month marriage ended in court with suits, countersuits, and a judgment of malice, oppression and fraud against Dante. (May 9, 1969 - January 26, 1972)

She was also loved and wooed -- at different times -- by lawyer Greg Bautzer (who ultimately married actress Dana Wynter), by Robert Taylor (then wed to Barbara Stanwyck), by Howard Hughes, by Turkish-Viennese actor Turhan Bey, by Tyrone Power (whose baby she had aborted), by Fernando Lamas (in need of consolation after his split with Arlene Dahl), and by a two-bit bully named Johnny Stompanato.

In 1958, Stompanato died of a stab wound on Lana Turner's bedroom floor. He had been killed by Turner's daughter, Cheryl Crane, then 14. Stompanato and Turner had been fighting. They often fought. But this time, Cheryl seized a carving knife Stompanato had bought the day before and plunged it into his stomach. The killing was ruled justifiable homicide. Lana Turner always referred to it -- the most spectacular scandal ever to hit Hollywood -- only as "the incident" or "the happening."

At 61, Turner discovered "the thing about happiness is that it doesn't help you to grow; only unhappiness does that."

You live, she said, "because you live. You do the best you can, and if you're lucky, it's good enough."

Miss Turner's 1982 memoir, Lana: the Lady, the Legend, the Truth, focused on her eight marriages and many romances. The memoir also recalled a suicide attempt (in 1951), two abortions, three stillbirths (in 1949, 1951 and 1956), alcoholism and her religious awakening in 1980.

Why she wrote her memoir: "I refuse to leave this earth with that pile of movie-magazine trash, scandal and slander as my epitaph."

Lana Turner died June 29, 1995, in Culver City, California, after a long bout with throat cancer. She was 74 years old.

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