In a 1958 inquest, killing of Lana Turner’s boyfriend was detailed
On the night that Beverly Hills police were called to the home on North Bedford Drive, cinema femme fatale Lana Turner was already on her way to becoming a Hollywood legend.
The sultry blond, famously “discovered” in a Hollywood soda bar, had played the unfulfilled murderous wife in “The Postman Always Rings Twice” and gained a best actress Oscar nomination for her role as the repressed shop owner in “Peyton Place.”
But that night, April 4, 1958, her status as a Noir icon was sealed in blood.
On the floor of her upstairs bedroom lay the lifeless body of Johnny Stompanato, her handsome tough-guy beau and reputed associate of mobster Mickey Cohen.
Stompanato had been stabbed in the abdomen with a butcher knife. Before the night was out, Turner’s 14-year-old daughter confessed to delivering the fatal wounds.
Cheryl Crane, whose father was restaurateur Stephen Crane, said she stabbed Stompanato to protect her mother from what she thought was Stompanato’s homicidal rage.
The killing led to what was surely the most titillating in L.A.’s history of colorful coroner’s inquests.
Seven days later, Turner delivered what was described as the most important performance of her life, an hourlong recitation of the escalating argument that climaxed in the sudden and unexpected knife thrust that killed Stompanato.
The first witness was Cohen, identified in news accounts as “the celebrated onetime mobster.”
Called to relate his identification of Stompanato as the deceased, Cohen was as obdurate as he had been nine years earlier at the inquest into the death of his alleged henchman Edward “Neddie” Herbert.
“I refused to identify him as John Stompanato Jr. on the grounds that I may be accused of this murder,” Cohen testified before being dismissed.
As detailed by Times newsman Jack Jones, Turner arrived in a gray coat and gray silk, tweed-type dress and worked her way to the sweltering Hall of Records hearing room through a mob of reporters, news camera crews and curious onlookers.
Taking the stand, “she took one white glove off to expose silvered fingernails. She trembled, put her hands to her face from time to time and fought to control tears that threatened to overcome her,” The Times reported.
While answering questions, “she stared down at her twisting hands or out over the heads of the spectators — as though mumbling the details of an incredible nightmare.”
Turner characterized her boyfriend as hyper-possessive and prone to fits of violent rage.
She described a running argument going back to their recent trip to London for a filming engagement. In their hotel, she said, Stompanato held a razor to her face and threatened to disfigure her.
She recalled him saying he would “‘cut you just a little now to give you a taste of it.’”
On the day of the fatal confrontation, she testified, she tried to prepare her daughter for a stormy night.
“I’m going to end it with him tonight, Baby. It’s going to be a rough night. Are you prepared for it?”
When she told Stompanato it was over, “He grabbed me by the arms and started shaking me and cursing me very badly, and saying … that if he said jump, I would jump; if he said hop, I would hop, and I would have to do anything and everything he told me or he’d cut my face or cripple me.
“And if … when it went beyond that, he would kill me and my daughter and my mother.”
Turner said she was unable to shield her daughter from the ugly scene.
“I broke away from his holding my … holding me … and I turned around to face the door, and my daughter was standing there, and I said: ‘Please, Cheryl, please don’t listen to any of this. Please go back to your own room.’”
Cheryl returned to her room, but, Turner testified, she could still hear the raised voices as Turner told Stompanato: “Don’t … ever touch me again. I am … I am absolutely finished. This is the end. And I want you to get out.”
“I was walking toward the bedroom door and he was right behind me, and I opened it and my daughter came in. I swear it was so fast, I … I truthfully thought she had hit him in the stomach. The best I can remember, they came together and they parted. I still never saw a blade.”
After hearing Turner’s testimony, a 12-member coroner’s jury quickly reached a unanimous verdict of justifiable homicide.
Turner, who had returned home, reportedly murmured, “Thank God” on learning the result.
“She was put to bed immediately and given sedatives,” The Times reported.
But not all parties were satisfied with the decision.
Outside the courtroom, a friend of Stompanato made a scene in the hearing room, saying he had wanted to testify.
“It’s a lie,” the man said. “The girl was in love with him. There was jealousy between her and her mother. He was a gentleman. That’s more than the rest of you Hollywood people are.”
Another theory, proposed in a civil lawsuit filed on behalf of Stompanato’s son, was that Turner had stabbed Stompanato and her daughter take the blame.
After years of silence, Crane, who had remained in juvenile hall during the inquest and did not testify, seemed to settle the question in her 1988 autobiography, “Detour: A Hollywood Story.” She said she stabbed Stompanato but alleged he was sexually abusing her, as had one of Turner’s previous husbands.
Stephen Crane continued to operate restaurants and eventually brought his daughter in as his second in command.
Cheryl Crane had followed a hard path leading to two suicide attempts. A few days after the inquest she was made a ward of the court and placed — at her request — in the custody of Turner’s mother. She ran away, was put in boarding school and ran away again. After being released from her wardship, she pursued a life of drinking and pills, she told People magazine in a 1988 interview on the release of her autobiography.
By then Crane had formed a lifetime partnership with female model Josh LeRoy and moved to Hawaii, where she became a real estate agent.
In the years after Stompanato’s death, Turner continued to work in Hollywood. In the 1980s, she took on a recurring guest role in the television soap opera “Falcon Crest.” When she died in 1995, she had been married seven times.
But her epitaph inevitably still bears the stain of the editorial printed by The Times the day after the coroner’s jury found Cheryl’s fatal blow justified. The Times found Cheryl blameless, but took her mother to task as a hedonist whose narrative showed “the lack of almost any reference to moral sensitivity in the presence of a child.”
“Cheryl isn’t the juvenile delinquent,” it said. “Lana is.”
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