She's Not Just Lana's Daughter Anymore

Children of stars do the best imitations. Lucie Arnaz can do Lucy Ricardo almost as well as the original. And Cheryl Crane can do her mother Lana Turner, and she knows it. "Our facial gestures and hand movements are alike," said the most notorious Hollywood child of the 1950s, before giving a demonstration. The tall, cool blonde bent over a coffee table in her Pacific Heights penthouse and stretched her long arms--reaching for something. "This was mother reaching for the sink, coming home late, determined to take off her make-up no matter what. "

There was Hollywood wisdom here, gleaned from five decades of on-and-off stardom: "Never go to sleep with makeup on!" Cheryl Crane's tremulous voice got husky as she said the line, adding, "It worked. You should see her skin today!"

It was early last New Year's Eve, and Cheryl Crane was on the brink of a three-week media tour for her memoir, "Detour" (Arbor House/William Morrow, written with Cliff Jahr, $18.95). Prominent among San Francisco society, Crane and longtime (18 years) lover Josh--formerly Joyce--LeRoy decided not to give this year's requisite "little New Year's Eve dinner," after all. "We're going to sit by the TV, and watch Guy Lombardo drop those little balls," said Crane.

"Cheryl--Guy Lombardo is dead," said LeRoy, a bright brunette who herself could almost double for a darker, younger Lana Turner.

Dead, too, is Johnny Stompanato, Lana Turner's lover, and once a bodyguard of gangster Mickey Cohen. ("Sometimes mother called him five times in a half hour," recalled Crane during the interview). Stompanato is the man that then 14-year-old Cheryl Crane stabbed in her mother's pink bedroom on Bedford Drive in Beverly Hills on Good Friday 1958. Louella Parsons called it the "greatest Hollywood tragedy of all."

Also dead is the I-hate-Mommy genre of star-daughter books epitomized by Christina Crawford's "Mommie Dearest," and finished off in 1985 by "My Mother's Keeper," by Bette Davis' daughter B.D. Hyman. In the late '80s, the celebrity books that sell--"Detour" enters the Los Angeles Times nonfiction list today at No. 5--feature more life-threatening elements than Joan Crawford's wire hangers. What's in demand now is the "survival" celebrity book: Suzanne Somers as a daughter-of-alcoholism ("Keeping Secrets"), Jill Ireland's mastectomy ("Life Wish"), Vivien Leigh as manic-depressive ("Vivien Leigh"). And now there's "Detour," the inevitable four-course feast of nostalgia and nightmare. Its features: Justifiable Homicide. Reform school. Rape. Suicide Attempt. Mental Hospital. Black Years in Leather Pants and Motorcycles. A mother who married eight times; a father who married six times. And now, full disclosure: "Larry King Live," "The Today Show," "Hour Magazine." And last week, Creative Artists agent Bill Haber was negotiating with CBS for a two-part miniseries for next season, to be produced by Allan Carr and Richard Cohen. (Lana Turner, who's read "Detour," but refuses interviews, through a spokeswoman called the book, "a powerful and devastating story.")

The Interview

On the first ring of the doorbell to her apartment--in a building shared by the psychoanalytic Jung Institute--Cheryl Crane answered. Right up close the grooming shows; after 40 it's about good posture and real jewelry, and Crane has both. The penthouse is reached by a long stairway, and it is motion-picture-perfect; orchids and bromeliads vie for attention with a city view that's right out of Turner's 1960 Ross Hunter glamour-thriller "Portrait in Black." But there's no darkness here, and that's important to know: Cheryl Crane, blonded and wearing white angora, has sorted everything out. She's cleared away the victim-demons so she can talk about them; if the answers are repetitive, then so are the questions. If she sounds rehearsed, possibly she was. If you are going to discuss homicide and rape on radio call-in shows in Baltimore and Detroit, you better be ready.

The pop psychiatry Freud conclusions have already been drawn--that Cheryl Crane covered-up for her mother, that she became a lesbian because of mistreatment by men, that her mother's endless parade of lovers/studs/husbands turned the houses on Bedford and Mapleton into such unseemly homes that finally even Crane's grandmother moved out. Cheryl Crane has heard it all.

"Anytime my name was mentioned in print, it always finished with the paragraph, 'In 1958 . . . .' Finally, we got to calling it 'The Paragraph.' Once mother called me and said, 'I just read your name and--my God!--they left out the Paragraph! . . . So many people pretend to know my mother and me . . . there are so many misconceptions. Like about Stompanato."

She says the name Stompanato like it was a disease. Pronouncing it, she reminds you of Tuesday Weld in "Pretty Poison," whereas on first meeting Cheryl's more Sandra Dee "Summer Place." OK, so Lana Turner liked men, Crane seems to say, then she cringes: "How cold do they think this human being was?" she asks rhetorically about her mother. "They say I took the fall. How could any mother put her child through something like that? People also think I was having an affair with him." Her look tells you not to even suggest it.

Two years ago Crane was "sitting by a pool reading B.D. Hyman's book, when I saw my name mentioned, and I got mad. B.D. wrote about her mother filming a twist on my mother's story in 'Where Love Has Gone.' I don't even know B.D. Hyman. (The reference was: "Cheryl Crane killed her mother's lover whom she also, unbeknownst to her mother, was having an affair with.") I thought 'What am I doing in somebody else's book?' So I called my mother, who said, 'That's what you get for reading that book.' "

Crane considered calling an attorney, but let it go. Then, in 1985, she was reading a magazine article on Hedda Hopper and Louella Parsons when she again read her name, and it triggered something: "It was erroneous information, again, and I thought 'What more do they want?' They always want a little something more . . . it's like the Enquirer pursuing you. It's like, 'Let's get a look at her.' "

Dealing With It

Cheryl Crane has, of course, faced the press all her life; her savvy about journalists may be a secret weapon, a reward for all the years of being expurgated and unexpurgated. Wind her up on the subject of gossip columnists, and Cheryl Crane becomes as animated as her childhood best friend (and next door neighbor) Liza Minnelli.

"I developed antennae to hear across a room," Crane said calmly. "I could walk down corridors and focus straight ahead and not see people. Because in Juvenile Hall I was never allowed to talk. I also learned through knowing Louella (Parsons) that anything you said could end up in print. I learned real young to just curtsy to Louella. She was royalty, along with Hedda. If they wanted to know something, I'd say"--here Crane went into a baby voice--" 'Gee, I guess I have to ask my nanny.' "

In other words, "You learned early how to conduct yourself, and you learned it at home. Because Louella would be at the dinner table. Not Hedda, though. In our community it was one or the other. So I just shook hands with Miss Hopper for years. The warmth went to Louella. She and my mother were very close, and yet I remember my mother talking on the phone to Louella, and trembling. As close as they were. The power was awesome. As a teen-ager I remember I had this theory."

Crane leaned close to the visitor, as if conspiratorially sharing a teen-age secret: "My theory was that maybe the studio set the columnists up with all that power so they could keep naughty actors in line. And actors played along to stay out of hot water. I always felt they were writing what the studios wanted them to write."

Until the Stompanato killing. "Oh, well, that just broke the bounds of any studio control. It was too big to contain. Anyway, mother wasn't under contract to the studio then." The studio. Crane makes it sound like an all-powerful country club-cum-monastery, of which she was a prominent junior leaguer. But she grew up before the days of second-generation stars; Jane Fonda and Mia Farrow (Farrow plays a kind of fictionalized Cheryl Crane in Woody Allen's "September") were still children in the '50s.

"But whatever came up, the studio would take care of it," Crane said. "I think I admired my mother more because I saw her lose that link, that studio connection." (In 1956 Lana Turner left MGM after 17 years at, or near, the top. She was the only ranking blonde bombshell-actress to bridge Jean Harlow and Marilyn Monroe.)

"I lived in Fantasyland, and so did mother (whom Crane calls L.T.) . . . that gives you a protective coloring. It makes you a child of unreality." Asked to elaborate, Crane went into a stream-of-consciousness: "Endless birthday parties at the L.A. Country Club with tents and clowns and animals . . . me dressed like a little doll every minute . . . clothes that matched my mother's, right down to the lace pegnoirs. . . . Then my realizing that nuns in Ireland went blind doing that lace . . . for a kid the most important thing is to be like others--and I wasn't. Ever."

Then she spoke an ultimate Hollywood truth: "Everyone knows you and you don't know anyone." Like mother, like daughter, in a sense? "Yes, exactly," agreed Crane. "I watched mother pull a facade from inside herself to take away anxiety. That type of behavior tends to destroy people. Because it's giving people what they think they know about you. Not what is real. Look, we were dirt-poor until L.T.'s overnight success. . . three weeks--not even three months!--after mother got to Hollywood she was discovered. My grandmother was doing hair in a beauty shop."

Looking good was what counted, always, every minute. "To mother, nothing mattered more." (Oscar-winning costume designer Bill Thomas--who first met Turner on "Green Dolphin Street" and attended Cheryl's 16th birthday party--remembers Lana Turner as being "The most clothes-conscious star I ever worked with. She knew fabric and color, and what worked for her, like nobody I ever met.") "Every minute, every day, it's 'God, there's Lana Turner--and everything that goes with it,' and I took that on myself," revealed Crane.

A daughter by-mother-love-possessed? Crane doesn't dispute that it was a case of heroine-worship (and never a case of abuse, a la "Mommie Dearest." Though Turner called her daughter "Baby" until she was 14.) Lana (Spanish for wool) had true mystique--and a real past: At 9, her own father was mysteriously killed by thugs. "I used to watch her gird her loins and take a deep breath and this mask would just drop down. At that point--say at a premiere--she wouldn't see any one person. She told me it was like looking through a fog at shapes and bodies. But not really connecting. I don't think I myself ever saw individual people until I went to Beverly Hills High--I'd fought for public school--but this was right after Stompanato."

Crane waited for the visitor's expected response. And when it came, she added, "Great timing, huh?" (Actually, it wasn't: In 1960, Cheryl went from Beverly Hills High School to a reform school, from which she ran away.)

The Roots

Cheryl Crane was certainly the curiosity of her time. So much so that "I named Cher after her," remembered Cher's mother Georgia Holt. If you think about how Hollywood transcends reality, you can see why. If Lana Turner epitomized glamour, so did Cheryl's father, restaurateur Steve Crane, once husband to Martine Carol, and founder of Beverly Hills' legendary long-gone Luau restaurant. Crane was the second (and third) of Turner's eight husbands; they wed two times. It was Crane whom Cheryl called after the stabbing; it was the only call she made. The actual stabbing takes longer to retell than it took to happen, as Crane has already told TV viewers and readers of "Detour." And by now she's probably tired of retelling it. And the details blur. On "The Today's Show" she said, "I don't really remember getting the knife." Two days later on "Larry King Live," she said, "I raced downstairs into the kitchen and not even looking for anything . . . but there was a knife on the counter, and I picked it up."

Amateur sleuths, or professionals even, could obviously have a field day. One local criminologist remembers studying the case in 1958, and deciding "Cheryl could easily have gone any one of three ways--she could have killed herself, her mother, or Stompanato. It becomes irrational at that moment of fear." What is on the record is a justifiable homicide. Not in dispute is the report that within five minutes of hearing her mother sound frightened Cheryl took action. The kitchen knife went into Stompanato's chest, he died quickly, there was a coroner's inquest, at which Crane did not testify. But there was, most of all, a media circus.

There is also another hot chapter in "Detour"--in case publishers or readers are tired of Johnny Stompanato. The late Lex Barker ("Tarzan" from 1949 to 1953) was Lana Turner's fourth husband. Cheryl was flower girl at their 1953 marriage. From the ages of 10 1/2 to 12, Cheryl claims in "Detour" that Barker sexually molested and abused her a dozen times--but she was too afraid to tell L.T. When her mother found out (through grandma, who heard from Cheryl), Lex Barker was sent packing. "It was a kind of a double whammy," remembered Cheryl. "Mother finding her daughter abused--and her husband being the abuser. We were both victims." (Curiously, this incident is missing from Turner's own book, "Lana: The Lady, the Legend, the Truth," published in 1982. Wags call it the least revealing star autobiography since Joan Fontaine's 1978 "No Bed of Roses," dubbed by one Fontaine ex-husband "No Shred of Truth.")

What Crane did was open up worm cans, with Barker and other subjects, that obviously her mother would prefer remain closed. When Crane talks about Barker she is dispassionate. She talks about statistics on abuse, about research on the subject, about the guilt the survivors feel, etc. Clearly Lex Barker, like Johnny Stompanato, is not a name she wants to dwell on. "Mother's first five husbands I don't really remember because I hadn't started kindergarten yet," Crane said dryly, perhaps not realizing how absurdly funny, how macabre , some of the exaggerations are.

"I identified my mother more through my nose than anything," Crane went on, quite seriously. "She left an incredible perfume behind her. It was Tuberose, and the effect lasted half-an-hour. I identified her with that scent, and it made me long to be with her. She was such an exotic creature."

The Early Years

L.T. as mother would veer from being "very cuddly with me to being away for months on location, or in Acapulco." Crane, an only child, understandably got tired biking alone around the tennis court in Holmby Hills. Her mother forbade playmates for many years. Cheryl was 14 before she rode on a bus. Her mother kept her baby-fied, dignified, antisocial--and in 24-hour care of a nanny. "Mother lost three babies after I was born, you know, and she never talked about it again. So I invented make-believe playmates. By then I'd stopped investing my feelings in mother's men. Or her friends. I began learning who was going to stay around."

Primarily Mildred Turner, Cheryl's grandmother, who was protective. "In 1936, when mother got discovered, Gran quit her beautician's job. From then on she devoted her whole life to mother." For better or worse. "Mother would be out late on a date--she was already twice divorced--and Gran would be sitting there in the dark, waiting. Once she said to Mother, 'Fine time for you to be coming in.' The next day I remember Mother saying, 'That's it. She gets her own apartment next week.' "

The next scene is obviously the lonely child heading for the sound stage to watch mother work. "Oh sure. At 3 I already knew the MGM laws. If the red light was on I knew not to open the door. Mother would send for me, not as often as I'd like, but . . . I cried to go many more times than she let me. The trade-off was, I got pretty things."

She writes in the book that she got to see (years later) the late Fernando Lamas, her mother's lover, swim nude, but his skinny dipping hardly threw her. She went to parties at Marlon Brando's first Hollywood house. She worked as a carhop at a drive-in and got to come home and hear her admittedly self-centered mother make happy endings out of everything--and glow like a peach, even when wearing terry bathrobes around the house. All of which left Cheryl out in the cold. (Now Turner--whose last performances were in the TV soaper "Falcon Crest"--visits Crane in San Francisco for Napa Valley weekends where they and Josh LeRoy wear sweatsuits, Reeboks and pearls.)

Eventually, Cheryl Crane was going to be--assuming she survived--if not an actress, then a model. And at 20 she did send her portfolio to agent Eileen Ford in New York. But instead, at 21, she took an offer from her father, and became a seater at the Luau. (The question of the week in certain circles: Will the Luau make a comeback?)

"It took the restaurant business to get me out of my shyness," Crane admitted. Sometimes her voice rises to the pitch of a serious Madeline Kahn, and at other times she sounds eerily like her mother. "To realize I could greet people in the Luau and they wouldn't bite me. A restaurant is make-believe too, you know. It's always opening night. Allan Carr says when he saw that the urinals in the Luau were shaped like clamshells, he knew he belonged in Hollywood."

By 1979 the Luau was history, and so were Crane's days as a fixture on the fast-track of fringe Hollywood. She moved to Honolulu and was living with Josh LeRoy, whom she met in 1970 at Marlon Brando's. On Oahu the couple socialized with neighbors Clare Boothe Luce and Allan Carr (who had two of the best houses on Diamond Head Road). Crane and LeRoy had become sought after real estate specialists dealing in ocean-front million-dollar houses--and fixer-uppers. Seven years later they moved to San Francisco.

"Even in Hawaii," Cheryl said, "I wasn't exactly hounded, but. . . . Once at dinner with clients we heard a conversation amongst attorneys one banquette away. About Stompanato and Cheryl Crane. You try to pretend you didn't hear it. Finally Josh said, 'You might be interested to know Ms. Crane is sitting one table away.' They were too embarrassed to say anything more. . . . For years at parties it was as if people were always talking about me. Except you know what? You think people are talking about you, but in fact they are talking about themselves."

The Gay Life

When the talk turns to lesbianism, Crane doesn't tense up or become defensive. If the 18-year Crane-LeRoy partnership has outlasted her mother's (and father's) marriages, that's major trivia, sure. But the couple is also considered by many in the gay community as a steady, adjusted role model. In San Francisco, their friends are both straight and gay, and on, say, the opening night of the opera or ballet, they are always well-seated. And accepted. The acceptance of the sexuality began at home. It was an exception to all the tumult. Both Lana Turner and Steve Crane were permissive about themselves, and the liberal bent was extended to their daughter. After Cheryl's running away--from school, from home, from life itself--both father and mother were simply glad their daughter was "happy."

"I couldn't figure out how not to tell the truth," Crane said simply. Her reply about sexual preference is standard: "I knew from the age of 6." Though her friends always told Crane she'd "outgrow" the gay life, she never really wanted to: Dates with handsome bachelors at the Luau were not hard to find. For one thing, she was her father's heir. She claims her mother's multiple marriages were not an example one way or the other.

"Mother was young at a time when women married the man they were involved with. She knows now she could have saved a lot of wear and tear on her pocketbook and on her emotions, by not marrying so often. . . . My own emotional needs were met by being with a woman, and I was always comfortable with that."

But was her mother comfortable, really? "Well, for years she'd never mention it to anyone. Her friends knew that she knew, but that was it. With this book, we bit into it. Mother said to Josh and me, 'Don't you realize what you are letting yourselves in for?' Then she understood this was my book not her book. One day we were on this subject (homosexuality) and she asked me, 'You mean it wasn't something I did? It wasn't environmental?' And when I said 'No,' I saw a huge weight being lifted from her."

Much of the credit for the mother/daughter reunion and openness goes to Josh LeRoy, the former model and realtor, who's also Crane's business partner. "Josh, who's a realist, told us both, 'What we don't look at eats away at us.' So mother and I began to really talk, to clarify things. Emotional things were rarely discussed in our family. And sometimes childhood memories take on larger proportions."

For years she'd said no to publishers. But five years ago, Crane met in Hawaii with her friend, the late William Morris agent Stan Kamen, who was supportive. "Stan said, 'Yes, there's a book here.' Then I had some deep talks with (columnist and friend) Liz Smith who, as a favor to me, sat on my story for over a year. Liz said, 'Only do (the book) if you can be honest. Otherwise don't waste your time.' "

Originally, Crane wanted Brooke Hayward ("Haywire") to write her story--but a suggestion was made that somebody "not from that Hollywood era" should write the book. Crane went with her own instincts about magazine writer Cliff Jahr. "I think because he wouldn't take 'I can't remember' for an answer. He makes you go into the back of your head, and some days it was worse than psychiatry. Other days it flowed trippingly." With a steely look, Crane added, "None of us is a quitter. We worked like little dogs to condense, to balance. . . . My only regret is the 400 pages that had to be cut--the glamour, the nightclub memories. My mother never getting over Tyrone Power and my Dad never getting over my mother. And then there was teen-age me. I call that my James Bond period. But it's another book."

For now there's "Detour," and it will become a TV movie. Names already bandied about in the press--to play Cheryl--include Madonna, Melissa Gilbert, Justine Bateman. And to play Lana? Madonna, again, also Kathleen Turner and Glenn Close and Dyan Cannon and Candy Bergen. "I asked Allan (Carr), 'Can't it be a musical?' " A "Grease"-gone-wrong? "Uh-huh," Crane nodded, " 'Rebel With a Cause' with musical numbers, was my fantasy . . . I was so late in maturing, after the court got a hold of me. I was living too fast when I met Josh. At that point something had to give, and it probably would have been me."

Josh LeRoy and Cheryl Crane stared at each other, then both began laughing. The midwinter cross-country book tour was on their minds. All the anecdotes, all the questions. And LeRoy shook her head, in mock frustration. "If I have to hear this life story one more time. . . ."

Cheryl Crane shot back a look that wasn't an imitation of anybody. Not even her mother.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
60°