It was a scandal tailor-made for the tabloids: aging movie star Lana Turner is suspected of killing her boyfriend and second-string hoodlum Johnny Stompanato. The year was 1958, the setting Beverly Hills. The way Lana told it she and Johnny were fighting when it got rough. Lana’s teenage daughter, Cheryl, in an attempt to protect her mother, stabbed Stompanato to death.
The press went wild. The official verdict was justifiable homicide but to this day people still speculate over what really happened. So let’s give the suspects a chance to speak.
Join author and artist Jonathan Santlofer as he re-imagines this lurid tale of glamor and mayhem, with vivid illustrations penned by the author himself!
You want me to tell you what happened? I’ll tell you what happened. Official. And otherwise. The name’s Stompanato, Johnny. “Handsome Harry” they called me. I could’ve been a movie star with my looks. Thick wavy hair, hooded eyes. Great physique. And the way I dressed, I always looked like a million bucks, draped gabardine slacks, skinny leather belts with silver buckles, alligator shoes. When you’re from a two-bit town like Woodstock, Illinois, you gotta make up for it. And I did. And you gotta get out. And I did that too. Joined the Merchant Marines. After that, Hollywood, CA. It was 1947, just after the war, and the town was hot. I had a little money saved, not much, but enough to open a shop, trinkets and what not. The place did okay because of me. The dames, they liked me. The older ones especially, I could see they had a hunger for a guy like me, handsome, hung, they could smell it on me. Later, one of my exes told the press that whenever I needed money I’d go hang out in expensive nightspots to meet rich dames. Since when is that a crime? She was just trying to cash in on all the publicity around me. Like everyone else. The newspapers described me as a small-time hood and a gigolo, always trying to bring a man down, even a dead man.
Why, you ask, would someone like me take up with a two-bit hustler like Johnny? I don’t know. Strike that. I know. It was a bad time. MGM had just dropped me after three flops, the bastards. I’d made a fortune for them. “The Bad and the Beautiful” made God’s know how much and “The Postman Always Rings Twice” even more, and I was a contract player. The studio used me up and tossed me away. If I’d known I was going to have a comeback I never would have gone with John. But do we ever think getting back on top is possible when everything looks so bad, career in the toilet, fourth marriage finished? And John pursued me. Made me feel like a starlet. Look, I’m no good with men. Never was. You grow up dirt poor in a mining town like Wallace, Idaho, to a teenage mother and a miner gambler father who got himself murdered, you heard me, murdered, what do you expect. But I showed them. I became somebody. A star. Goodbye Julia Jean. Hello Lana. The name suited me, as if it had been waiting for me. Lana. Like an embrace. The day I was discovered by a Hollywood agent I was playing hooky, sixteen-years-old hanging out at the Top Hat Café. Not at Schwab’s soda fountain, like the legend says. Nothing’s ever as good as the legend. Rita Hayworth used to say, the men go home with Gilda—that was her biggest sexiest role—but they wake up with me. The men I met—some I was stupid enough to marry—always thought they were going home with Cora, from “Postman,” but they’d wake up with Julia Jean, the insecure nobody from nowhere. Truth? If I were more like cold-hearted Cora I’d have done a lot better.
When I started working for Mickey Cohen it all changed. Mickey trusted me. I became his bodyguard. His enforcer. The press referred to Mickey’s operation as the “Mickey Mouse Mafia” but they was wrong. Mickey Cohen was tough and strong and he had the police department in his pocket, so fuck them. Working for Mickey gave me… what’s the word? Prestige. I was moving up in the world. And I could’ve been big, a player, if it hadn’t been for her. I curse the day I met her.
So there I was, thirty-six, four marriages behind me, film career stalled, and along comes John, strutting his big-dick macho strut, and he chased me till I fell. And I did, hard. For a while. But he lied to me from the start, told me his name was John Steele, and I bought it. I didn’t know he was a hood working for Mickey Cohen till later and then, what was I supposed to do?
I told her my name was Steele. John Steele. Sounds good, right? Hard. Classy. A movie star name. I didn’t know how she’d feel about the kind of work I was doing, though she found out soon enough and no matter what she said, no matter what she later told the press, she liked hanging out with me.
It’s also true I pursued her. Sent her flowers and candy. Mickey bankrolled me, thought it would be good to have a movie star around. Add some class. Not that she had much. Some say Mickey was planning to blackmail her about her affair with me. I don’t know about that but he did publish our love letters, later, after it happened, so maybe they was right.
Lanita, I called her. She thought she was hot shit and I guess she was, big movie star and all. But her star was falling fast. Thirty-six and Metro had just fired her aging ass. She still looked okay but she was no “sweater girl” anymore, like they used to call her. Not like me, thirty-three and on top of my game. But I liked her enough. And she liked having me in her bed. We was going strong then all of a sudden she says she wants to put the breaks on. She needs to “breathe” or some such shit. I tell her, No way, baby. Not till I say so.
The guy scared me. Got rough more than once, with me and with Cheryl. Last time anyone touched Cheryl, I threw him out. I swear I did. That sick bastard, my fourth ex, Lex Barker, America’s Tarzan, what a laugh. I can’t tell you what he was doing with Cheryl, can’t bring myself to say the words. Though later, Cheryl told the world. I understand why she had to write about it—to get rid of the poison—but still, the shame of it. I know I should have been there for her. And I was, later, when she really needed me. I lost the Oscar that year but my best performance was on the stand, for her, my baby girl.
Baby girl? Was I ever her baby girl? She couldn’t wait to get me into boarding school. I wish I’d never come home. It didn’t surprise me that she’d taken up with that illiterate thug with his silk shirts and shiny shoes. They were like stars in their own B movie. I wasn’t even a co-star. I was a cameo. A fourteen-year-old kid. But Johnny liked me, I can tell you that. Though I won’t tell you any more. I’m not going to fuel the fire about what really happened. Facts are for ordinary people and we were never ordinary. Never. I mean, that night I’d been to the Oscars. The Oscars! I wore this amazing dress, green taffeta, not satin, and if you don’t know the difference I’m not going to tell you. I felt like a princess, not that anyone noticed me. It was all about Lana in her white lace gown. White. Like she was a bride, a virgin. Ha! But the Oscars were something. There’s a picture of me and Lana with Cary Grant. Can you imagine? I remember thinking, Wait till the girls back at school see this!
Lana said I roughed her up, and maybe I did, a little, but I didn’t beat her up that night and I never threatened to cut her face so her career would be finished, so it’s my word against hers, against theirs, the two of them, mother and daughter, what a pair they were. I could tell you stories. I could tell my side of things. Except that dead men don’t tell no tales. All I can tell you is this: Lanita comes home from the awards and she’s all teary about losing. I say, Baby, suck it up, and she gets all pissed, starts telling me to get out, Miss Big Deal Movie Star. Miss Big Deal old movie star. She was pissed that she’d lost the award though later she says I was pissed that she lost, and that’s why we argued. Does that make sense to you? What do I care if she wins a fucking Academy Award or not? But I’ll tell what I did care about: that she wouldn’t take me to the awards with her. Said she was afraid of hurting her reputation. Her reputation? Now there’s a laugh. Four marriages and God’s knows how many other men. Everyone knew she was a slut.
Lana went to the after-Oscar party and put me in a car and sent me home. Johnny was waiting. He’d watched the show on television, made a crack about Lana not winning the minute I walked in the door. It was as if someone had stuck a pin into my fairy tale balloon. I didn’t care that she lost, maybe even liked it a little, but the night had been like a dream and here I was Cinderella and the clock had struck midnight and it was over—and Johnny was there, waiting. I can’t, I won’t tell you what happened after that but I can tell you it was a quite a while before Lana got home.
So Lana’s crying, I lost, I lost. I say, Boo hoo. She tells me to get out. But that wasn’t the reason. I can’t tell you the reason. Let’s just say her Little Girl Cheryl, who was no little girl, was still up and that did not make my Lanita happy. After that it all happened fast. We had a fight and I’d had enough. I was getting ready to leave. Next thing I know, I got a knife shoved into my gut. It feels hot and cold all at once. I fall to the floor and Lanita is over me and she’s saying something but it’s starting to sound far away and I’m freezing, my whole body shaking and the room going gray and I see them, Lanita and Cheryl, like shadows, like ghosts, and I’m joining them.
Lana never called it what it was, murder. She referred to it as “the Happening.” Like what the fuck does that mean? I can tell you what it means. It means a whitewash. It means she wouldn’t ever tell the true story.
True story? John never told the truth a day in his life! I’m happy to tell you what I said. It’s all public record. I testified on the stand and it was televised, for Christ’s sake. Funny you know, how back then the movies were desperate to get people away from their TV sets, scared to death TV was going to kill the movies and there I was, a larger than life movie star sending all the little people directly to the small screen. I told the court—all of America!—that John said “You’ll never leave me home again!” and how he berated me and made fun of me losing the Oscar, and said I was a drunk and slapped my face! Oh, it was something. I was something. Dressed conservatively in my gray silk suit, understated makeup, white gloves—a lady always wore gloves back then—and I never made eye contact with anyone, not the judge, not the jurors. I played to the TV cameras. I took off my gloves and twisted one and dabbed at the real tears in my eyes and told the whole world how John hit me again and again, how he’d knock me down then pull me up and start hitting me with his fists and how I went flying across the room into the bar, glasses falling and shattering all around me and how he’d pick me up again and shout at me and how—I cried here—I felt such shame about it all, about my predicament and about myself, how I’d let him dupe me and how I’d been such a fool. I told them how Cheryl had heard the fight and came to the door and I screamed, “Cheryl, get away from the door! Go back to your room,” but Cheryl wouldn’t leave, not until she went downstairs and got the knife.
They said I was in a daze when I got the knife. Well, actually, I said that. And I was. Really. The whole thing was so crazy. I’m saving it all for later, for the book I intend to write years from now. The facts are the facts. Read the inquest report. It says I accidentally stabbed Johnny while protecting my mother, Lana. End of story.
I was nervous, I can tell you that. I had to testify on the stand and there were reporters everywhere, inside and out of the Beverly Hills Hall of Records. They’d reserved the largest courtroom for the inquest. 160 seats. 120 just for reporters. And it was being broadcast—live—radio and television. There were cameras from CBS and ABC in the courtroom. My palms were sweating and my mouth was dry. Later, my wife told me I kept licking my lips when I explained how the weapon was a stainless steel kitchen knife, eight inches long, and how a whole team of doctors couldn’t have saved that man’s life—how the knife had sliced a kidney, struck a vertebra and then twisted upward, puncturing his aorta, no ordinary stab. But here’s what I didn’t say, what the police didn’t say either—there were no fingerprints on the knife. It was wiped clean. And there was no blood in the bedroom, which was all neat and tidy. And so was Lana Turner, who had no blood on her clothes, which, if it’s true that she was right there when Johnny Stompanato’s aorta got slashed she’d have been sprayed with blood. Same thing for her daughter, Cheryl, but her clothes were clean too. So, it’s clear they changed. But no one ever testified about any of these things.
After the verdict was read, a man in the courtroom jumped up and started shouting “Lies! All lies! This mother and daughter were both in love with Stompanato! Johnny was a gentlemen!” I doubt Johnny was a gentleman, but it’s odd that this man—who was quickly escorted from the room—was never identified and never heard from again. Maybe he was one of Mickey Cohen’s henchmen and it was a set up. I don’t know. But from a coroner’s point of view plenty of things about that case didn’t add up, just weren’t right.
Lana called me right away. Before she called the police. Before Stompanato’s body was cold. And it was a smart move. She’d been trained by the studio: you get in trouble, you call Jerry Geisler. I’m the lawyer everyone called back then. I defended Charlie Chaplin and Errol Flynn against rape charges, and won. Marilyn called me to handle her divorce when she left Joe DiMaggio. We scripted the event. You can see film of Marilyn on my arm, looking distraught, and it’s quite a performance. Who said Marilyn couldn’t act? I said to her, Marilyn, you have to look like it’s the end of the world, like Joe left you. In fact, it was the other way around. She was leaving one of America’s great heroes and we didn’t think that would play well for her image.
The minute Lana called me I went over to her house on Bedford Drive. I was there long before the Beverly Hills PD, long before they even knew anything had happened. Lana and Cheryl and me had a nice long talk. Then I called the police. We couldn’t wait too long, I knew about body temperatures and all. When the police arrived I let them do a little questioning, but I didn’t let Lana and Cheryl say much, only what we’d rehearsed. I made the cops wait to take their formal statements, which we worked on a little more while Lana and Cheryl rode with me, in my limo, to the police station. I know some people think I helped hide the facts. But my job was to defend people and that’s what I did. And these were not just people. These were movie stars. And they paid me well. And the studios paid me too. And I was worth every dime.
I identified Johnny’s body at the morgue. Who else was there? I still can’t believe it, the way they crucified Johnny in the press, and in court. It was easy. He was a hoodlum, right? He worked for me. Easy to paint him black. It took that jury less than a half hour to decide his death was justifiable homicide—that the kid, Cheryl, was just defending her poor defenseless mom against a big bad gangster. But I ask you, where were the witnesses? Hell, they were each other’s witness, mother and daughter That was it. No one else saw what happened. You want to believe it, fine. But it was a crock. I went straight to the press and I’m proud of what I said. I said, “It’s the first time in my life I’ve ever seen a dead man convicted of his own murder. As far as the jury’s concerned, Johnny just walked too close to that knife.” Fucking unbelievable. I know one day I’ll get the same kind of justice.
I felt good that Mickey stood up for me. He was the only one. Thirty-three years-old and my life was over and nobody cared. My family brought a wrongful death suit against Lana and Cheryl’s father, Stephen Crane. Suddenly I had a family that cared? They settled out of court, so I don’t know how much money they made off of me. Biggest event of the year, in every paper, on radio and television and everyone’s making money but poor dead Johnny. It was even a boost for Lana’s sagging career. She got herself another movie right away and had a hit, the public wanted to see her because of what happened, because of me. You gotta hand it to Lanita, she knew an opportunity when she saw one. Cheryl wrote about it later, published what do you call it, a memoir, but from what I hear she just told the same old story. Me, I took the truth to my grave.
Look, the official verdict supported my story: I heard them fighting, went to the kitchen and got a knife—I swear I don’t remember picking it up. I went back upstairs in a kind of trance and when Johnny opened the bedroom door he walked right into it. So, it was kind of his own fault. I was just a scared kid, right? Scared for my life and scared for my mom’s life. And the jurors agreed. So it’s official: Justifiable Homicide.
Lana’s lawyer, Mr. Geisler, was really great. He never let me take the stand to testify. He was worried I might mess up. And Lana did an amazing job on her own. I mean, she may have lost the Oscar that night but she should have gotten one for her performance on the stand. Not that it wasn’t true, it was, honest, but if you’d seen her—and millions of people tuned in to do just that—she was really something.
It was a terrible time but it all worked out in the end. Thank God for Jerry Geisler. He was brilliant. And believe me, I did my part. You want to know the truth about “the happening?” Well you’re not going to hear it from me. Truth is overrated. Look, I was a Hollywood fantasy, the “sweater girl,” a glamorous pin up and an actress and I worked for everything I ever got and that’s all the truth you need to know. After losing the Oscar for “Peyton Place,” I was cast in a remake of “Imitation of Life,” an old Universal Pictures weepie, another mother/daughter story. I played the mom and must say I did a damn good job. No Academy Award nomination but it was the highest grossing film of my career. There were a half dozen movies after that, some hit, like “Madame X,” in 1966, some didn’t. Then there were a few long-running parts on television, you know where older actresses go to die, but hell, it paid the rent. There were a few more husbands too, but none of them worked out. I was never lucky with men. It’s funny, you know, my goal was to have one husband and seven children, but it turned out to be the other way around.
After the trial, I became a “ward of the state.” They sent me to an all girl boarding school. I escaped in 1960, but they caught me and sent me back. I finally got out in April 1962. I was eighteen. I went to live with my grandmother, but it was a rough time. I was drinking and smoking pot. I mean, my mother had had seven husbands, one who had started molesting me when I was ten and then I killed her boyfriend when I was fourteen, so I had a lot of thinking to do, a lot to sort out. I even tried suicide, but I survived, and that was my wake up call. Eventually I wrote the book about my life and about Lana. I came out as a lesbian too, and met this terrific woman, Jocelyn, and she moved in and we’ve been together ever since. Oh, and I sell real estate, so if you’re looking for a home in Beverly Hills call me.
In the end, the two-pack-a-day habit got me. Throat cancer. I was seventy-four, not so old but I felt like I’d already lived five or six lives. Some people, especially Cheryl, thought it was wrong that I left the bulk of my estate to my maid, Carmen (from what I heard Cheryl even contested it) but Carmen was with me for forty-five years, longer than any of my husbands, longer than anyone. She stood by me and took care of me. Look, I helped Cheryl write her book about us, which helped her enough.
I may be gone but you can see me anytime you’d like, glittering on the screen, platinum and gorgeous and alive. It’s all that matters. Everything else—Johnny and me, the seven husbands, my teenage mother and murderer father—none of that matters.
If I’m honest with myself I’m not sure I’d have been remembered. Maybe if I’d gotten as big as Mickey Cohen but that was unlikely. So maybe, in the end, I owe something to Lana and Cheryl: a short life but immortality. Anyone who sees Lana on the screen, there’s a ghost up there with her. And that ghost is me.
Feature photo: Wikimedia commons; Mugshot of Stompanato: Wikimedia Commons; Photo of Lana Turner: Keystone / Stringer; Mugshot of Mickey Cohen: Wikimedia Commons; Photo of Lana Turner: Murderpedia; All illustrations by Jonathan Santlofer