From the Archives: Lana Turner, Glamorous Star of 50 Films, Dies at 75
Lana Turner, whose icy elegance and poise made her one of Hollywood's top box-office attractions in more than 50 films and whose "Sweater Girl" pictures became favorite pinups of GIs around the globe during World War II, died of natural causes Thursday night after years of treatment for throat cancer.
Los Angeles Police Department spokeswoman Ramona Beaty confirmed that Turner, 75, died at her Century City home. Her daughter, Cheryl Crane, was by her side.
"She was doing fine. This was a total shock," Crane told Daily Variety, a trade newspaper. "She had completed seven weeks of radiation a short while ago, and it looked like she was fine. She just took a breath and she was gone."
Although Miss Turner was known as a versatile and hard-working actress who made several films each year and who was once nominated for an Academy Award ("Peyton Place" in 1957), she gained equal notoriety because of her private life, which was marred by personal tragedy and seven unsuccessful marriages.
In her film successes, Miss Turner's roles ranged from the Hollywood star in "The Bad and the Beautiful" to the tragic chorine in "Ziegfeld Girl," from the self-sacrificing mother in "Madame X" to the two-timing housewife in "The Postman Always Rings Twice" and the attractive widow in "Peyton Place."
Born Julia Jean Mildred Frances Turner in Wallace, Ida., Miss Turner moved to San Francisco as a girl with her mother after her father, Virgil, was murdered after a purported gambling deal and robbery.
Even as a toddler, she seemed destined for the limelight.
At age 3 she made her "theatrical debut" at a charity fashion show for which her mother was one of the models. Before anyone could stop her, young Julia rushed onto the stage and did an impromptu dance in front of the audience, her mother recalled in an interview. She was the highlight of the show.
Later, Miss Turner performed short routines for her father's chapter of the Elks. Once, she performed barefoot for the Elks and while dancing seemed to have problems with her feet. After she had completed the routine, her concerned mother looked at the soles of her daughter's feet, which were covered with splinters. Even at age 5 she seemed to know the show must go on.
Although she loved dancing, the future actress set her sights on becoming a nun while she was enrolled at the Convent of the Immaculate Conception in San Francisco. She quickly changed her career ambitions when she found out she would have to cut her hair.
In 1936, six years after Virgil Turner's death, mother and daughter moved to Los Angeles, where the daughter's real-life rise to stardom became the classic Hollywood dream.
Her discovery has become part of Hollywood folklore, although some dispute the story.
One February afternoon Miss Turner supposedly was sipping a soda at the counter of Schwab's drugstore, instead of attending her typing class at Hollywood High School, when talent agent William R. Wilkerson spotted her and asked her to be in the movies.
In her 1982 autobiography, "Lana: The Lady, the Legend, the Truth," she described the scene:
The drugstore manager, a friend of hers, told her that Wilkerson wanted to meet her and that he could be trusted. Wilkerson, publisher of the Hollywood Reporter, simply asked Miss Turner, "Would you like to be in the movies?"
"He didn't seem to want to pick me up," Turner wrote, "because he didn't make idle chatter."
She told Wilkerson that she had to check with her mother and left the drugstore in time for her next class. Miss Turner's mother was not interested in pursuing the matter, but a family friend talked her into it, and two days later, Miss Turner signed a contract with Warner Bros.
According to Miss Turner, the meeting did not occur at Schwab's. She said the myth began when an unknown woman walked into Schwab's years later and asked Hollywood columnist Sidney Skolsky which stool had been Lana Turner's. Skolsky pointed to a random stool, an action that made Schwab's "mecca to thousands of would-be movie stars." The soda fountain where the actual encounter took place, Miss Turner said, was at the Top Hat Cafe.
In her first role when she was 17, Miss Turner went unnoticed as an extra in the much-heralded 1937 version of "A Star Is Born" with Janet Gaynor.
She was dubbed the "Sweater Girl" the same year, after playing a small part in "They Won't Forget," in which she walked down the street in a tight skirt and sweater.
The audience cheered so much during Miss Turner's brief scene that the actress, who first watched the movie with her mother, was shocked and embarrassed, she said in her autobiography.
Miss Turner always objected to the "Sweater Girl" moniker, though it catapulted her to stardom.
One movie reviewer wrote that although she did not look like the average high school girl, "she looked like what the average high school boy wished the average high school girl looked like."
Miss Turner won critical acclaim for "Ziegfeld Girl" in 1941, a milestone in her career because it was the first time she was taken seriously in a role. After the movie, MGM, recognizing her as a serious actress, began casting her opposite three legendary Hollywood leading men: Spencer Tracy, Clark Gable and Robert Taylor. She became one of Hollywood's most popular romantic heroines and MGM's most publicized star.
Miss Turner's roles personified paradoxes in the human personality. She was described as a cool, submissive beauty whose poise cloaked a wild, passionate interior.
"Never quite the lady, but never cheap; warm and friendly but unattainable; she held a fascination for both men and women," author Lou Valentino wrote about her characters.
Daring to venture out on her own without the protection of a major studio, Miss Turner left MGM in 1956 and acted in "Peyton Place," "Imitation of Life" and "Madame X." She was applauded by her fans and her peers for her performances in her more mature roles.
Miss Turner's sudden marriage to band leader Artie Shaw stunned her fans when they eloped to Las Vegas in 1940 for a union that lasted less than five months.
Her second marriage, to Stephan Crane III, produced Miss Turner's only child, Cheryl, who gained notoriety April 4, 1958, when she stabbed her mother's then-boyfriend, John Stompanato, in the abdomen with a 10-inch kitchen knife. Cheryl said she was trying to protect her mother after violent threats by Stompanato.
Cheryl, who was 14 at the time of the stabbing, told police that Stompanato had threatened to disfigure and kill mother and daughter that night because Miss Turner had tried to break off the relationship. A judge ruled the incident justifiable homicide.
Interestingly, the unpleasant publicity did not affect Miss Turner's career.
Not all her relationships were as stormy, but they were reported almost as widely.
Among others, Miss Turner was linked romantically with elusive billionaire Howard Hughes and film star Tyrone Power, and married to millionaire Bob Topping and screen star Lex (Tarzan) Barker. Her other three husbands were less well-known.
Miss Turner's most recent television stint was a recurring role in 1988 on "Falcon Crest." Until recently, she had been performing at dinner theaters across the country.
At the peak of her career, Turner said she wanted to be remembered as a sensitive woman who tried to do her job.
"I would like to think that in some small way I have helped preserve the glamour and beauty and mystery of the movie industry."
Times staff writer John M. Glionna contributed to this story.
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