In this classic Tinseltown tragedy, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios’s glamourous movie starlet Lana Turner – best known for her performance in The Postman Always Rings Twice – finds herself wrapped up in a murder investigation involving her daughter Cheryl Crane and her boyfriend Johnny Stompanato. According to the official record, on April 4, 1958, Cheryl stabbed Stompanato to death to save her mother from further abuse. The case was ruled a justifiable homicide.
But did the fourteen-year-old Cheryl Crane really kill her mother’s boyfriend? Or was she forced to take the fall to save her mother’s film career and reputation? Unsolved Murders: True Crime Stories show hosts Carter Roy and Wenndy Mackenzie consider these and other possibilities.
The sounds of her mother’s cries, muffled shrieks and Johnny Stompanato’s verbal and physical abuse draw Cheryl to the bedroom door. Scared for her mother’s safety, Cheryl knocks and alternately asks Johnny and her mother what he doing to her and if she is alright. In a strained voice, Lana instructs Cheryl to get away, but the girl will not relent despite her fear. Cheryl timidly suggests they come down to the kitchen for a pot of coffee to cool off from all the fighting, but Lana only repeats her command more sternly.
Emboldened by her concern for her mother, Cheryl leaves briefly but quickly returns and begs to be let inside the room. She tells Lana that she doesn’t have to take the abuse, which gets a rise out of Johnny. As he begins complaining to Lana about Cheryl’s lack of obedience, we hear him getting stabbed in the gut. Gasping, he calls out Cheryl’s name before falling to the ground.
In a flashback to 1937, the manager of Top Hat Café introduces a teenage Julia (Lana) Turner to Billy Wilkerson, the founder and publisher of Hollywood Reporter. Julia is hanging out with her friends by the soda fountain when Wilkerson spots her. A beauty even then, Wilkerson asks Julia if she’d like to be in the movies and gives her his card.
With her mother’s blessing, Lana meets Zeppo Marx of the Marx Brothers, who lands her a contract with Warner Brothers in two days. The studio executives, wanting something with a little flash, prompt Julia to change her name. She suggests “Lana” and it sticks. Although she only has a small role in her first film, she leaves an enormous impression on the audience. Within two years, Lana becomes a full-fledged movie star.
But for as hard as Lana works, Lana is quickly dubbed “The Queen of the Nightclubs” and becomes known for the revolving door of men in her life. She eventually marries seven different men, but it’s her union with second husband Stephen Crane that produces Cheryl. Unwilling to trade her glamorous lifestyle for motherhood, Lana allows Cheryl to be raised by a series of nannies and her grandmother.
In another flashback scene, a very young Cheryl, yearning for her mother’s company, asks Lana to apply lipstick to her lips and bring her to the club with her. Lana agrees to the first request but not the second. On her mother’s way out the door, Cheryl initiates a goodnight hug. Lana returns the affection but bids her daughter to mind her hair.
Between the ages 10-13, Cheryl tries to tell Lana that her stepfather Lex Barker is sexually abusing her, but she doesn’t believe it until Cheryl is hurt so badly she needs to be taken to the hospital. Barker is kicked out of the house and divorced.
After Lex Barker, a man calling himself Johnny Steele begins to “woo” Lana in true stalker fashion, but the starlet finds his persistence, attentiveness and charm appealing. Shortly after their relationship goes public, a friend reveals to Lana Johnny’s true identity – Johnny Stompanato, a top enforcer for LA Mob boss Mickey Cohen. Also a blackmailer, extortionist, pimp, robber and point man for Cohen’s illegal abortion parlors, Johnny Stompanato is well known to the LAPD.
Despite her attraction, Lana unsuccessfully tries to keep her criminal boyfriend at arm’s length. He follows her to England when she leaves for the film shoot of Another Time, Another Place. Stompanato, jealous of Lana’s co-star Sean Connery, brandishes a gun on set. Sean Connery knocks him out, and Lana sets his deportation from the UK in motion.
After the film shoot, Lana attempts to vacation alone in Acapulco, Mexico, but her plans are ruined when Johnny and a band of reporters surprise her at her layover in Copenhagen, Denmark. Unsolved Murders: True Crime Stories show hosts Carter and Wenndy wonder how Johnny knew when and where to be, but they are certain he brought along the reporters to keep Lana docile for the sake of her public image.
On their vacation in Mexico, Johnny beats Lana and threatens her with his gun. While they are away, Lana learns that she was nominated for an Academy Award. Her excitement dampens when Johnny mentions needing to get a tux, strongly implying that he would be attending the ceremony as her plus one. However, Lana takes Cheryl instead. Johnny’s rage grows with each passing minute as he watches the Oscars on television. He beats Lana when she returns home.
The next day, Cheryl sees bruises on her mother’s skin and Lana comes clean about Johnny’s abusiveness. Lana turns down Cheryl’s suggestion to involve the police, worrying that kind of publicity would end her career. Cheryl asserts that her mother’s safety is more important than image, but Lana tells her daughter that without her image she can’t provide for them. Not ready to give up, Cheryl proposes saying something to her dad, Stephen Crane, but Lana instructs her not to tell anyone yet and promises to leave Johnny.
When Lana makes good on her promise and announces she’s leaving Johnny, he threatens to cut her face, ruin her career and hurt Lana’s mother and daughter. Cheryl overhears their fight and runs to check on her mother. When Lana tells her to get away from the door, Cheryl fetches a carving knife from the kitchen. Unable to see Johnny fully when her mother finally lets her inside, Cheryl thinks she sees him holding a weapon. When he steps around Lana, Cheryl plunges the knife into his stomach, and he drops an armful of hangers.
Or so the official story goes.
Stay tuned for next week’s episode of Unsolved Murders: True Crime Stories where a high-profile lawyer, notorious mob boss and subsequent inquest lead to Lana Turner’s greatest performance yet.