“I planned on having one husband and seven children, but it turned out the other way around.” –Lana Turner
When I think of the genesis of some of the most glamorous actresses in the motion picture industry, I often recall the story of Lana Turner sipping a Coke at Schwab’s Drugstore, soon to be discovered as the next top studio star. Though that particular tale is purely Hollywood legend, it is worth noting that Lana, like so many other Hollywood hopefuls, came from a hard-working environment, long before the projection of her image on screens all over the world. While Lana was discovered at about the age of fifteen and her life is widely publicized from that point on, I would like to point you to the Lana that only a handful of people knew.
Lana’s parents, John and Mildred Turner, met when John had finished service as an infantry platoon sergeant during World War I. He and Mildred met at a dance and fell in love, though Mildred’s family disapproved of their age difference; John was 24 and Mildred was 15. Nonetheless, they eloped and moved to the small town of Wallace, Idaho.
John worked primarily as a miner and briefly operated a dry-cleaning business in town. One year later, the birth of Julia Jean Turner, or just “Judy,” at Providence Hospital was a relief to her parents; Mildred’s grandmother had died in childbirth due to Rh factor complications, and there was a slight possibility that Mildred would experience the same condition. Thankfully, Mildred was spared, though Lana would unfortunately suffer from the complication later in life.
Overall, Lana had a happy childhood with much love and support from her parents, living in the towns of Burke and Wallace. Lana fondly recalled nights, after dinner, spent dancing and listening to records with her parents. In later years, she credited her love for music and dance to those evenings when her father taught her how to dance. When he was not working in the mines, he could be seen singing and dancing in Elks Club shows. Mildred would model clothes at the Elks Club fashion shows, with young Lana donning a fur and imitating her mother to the delight of the audience. In addition, Lana occasionally tap danced at the nearby Liberty Theater. Lana’s father was also a terrific card player, a skill on which he relied when his family faced financial hardship. Tragically, after winning a card came one night, he was robbed and murdered. Lana was heartbroken and his murder was never solved.
In addition to enjoying music and dance, Lana was a frequent moviegoer. Every weekday, she would save a nickel of her lunch money to put toward the twenty-five cent Saturday matinee in town. Her appreciation for the elaborate costumes of actresses Kay Frances and Norma Shearer carried over into her own career, and earned her a reputation of wearing some of the most beautiful costumes in film history. In fact, if she had not pursued an acting career, Lana said she would have aimed to pursue a career in fashion design.
In search of greater job opportunities, Lana and her mother moved out to California. One school day, shortly after their arrival, sixteen-year-old Lana went in for a Coke. Despite the legend, she was not at Schwab’s Drugstore, but The Top Hat Café–a shop across the street from Hollywood High School, her alma mater. When W.R. Wilkerson, publisher of the Hollywood Reporter, happened to be quenching his thirst at the same time, he caught sight of Lana and decided to introduce himself. He gave her his card and asked her to call a new talent agent named Zeppo Marx. This, in addition to a letter Wilkerson wrote, helped team her with director Mervyn LeRoy. After her discovery, the LA Times noted, “The Top Hat’s owner placed a metal plaque on the seat Lana had occupied on the magical morning of her discovery. Soon, his soda fountain was swarming with girls eager to meet the mysterious man who had discovered Lana Turner.”
LeRoy felt her nickname, Judy, was too plain. The alternative, Julia Jean, nixed by LeRoy. LeRoy suggested Leonore, but it did not seem to harmonize with Lana’s image. Lana came up with the name film fans know her by today—Lana—and Mervyn LeRoy agreed that she would now be Lana Turner.
Lana related to the role of schoolgirl Mary Clay in They Won’t Forget (1937), and found it easy to play. Though the part was relatively small, she was immediately noticed upon the release of the film. The Hollywood Reporter noted, “Short on playing time is the role of the murdered school girl. But as played by Lana Turner it is worthy of more than passing note. This young lady has vivid beauty, personality and charm.” After the film, Lana found herself tagged as “The Sweater Girl,” thanks to the tight blue wool sweater she wore in the film.
Despite the praise, Lana still did not think she would become an actress. “I made my first movie without ever considering that my walk-on would be anything more than a one-time job,” she said. “If I could have foreseen everything that was going to happen to me, all the headlines my life would make, all the people who would pass through my days, I wouldn’t have believed a syllable of it!” Nevertheless, LeRoy cast her in his next film, The Great Garrick (1937), and when it was finished he loaned her to Samuel Goldwyn for The Adventures of Marco Polo (1938). During the filming of Marco Polo, Goldwyn insisted that Lana’s eyebrows be shaved off and replaced with straight, fake black ones. They never grew back, and from then on she had to either paste or draw her eyebrows.
When LeRoy left Warner Bros for MGM, he took Lana with him. Her salary doubled from $50 to $100 a week. Lana was ecstatic. The first thing she did was buy a house for she and her mother to live in. From that point on, Lana’s fame and salary continued to increase. After a year with MGM, it rose to $250, and, by the time she was twenty, Lana was earning $1,500 a week. She enjoyed the fresh atmosphere at MGM, and would often spend time with other young Hollywood newcomers.
At MGM, Lana was cast in Love Finds Andy Hardy (1938), which convinced Louis B. Mayer that Lana could be the next Jean Harlow. In response, he began starring her in more youth-oriented films, such as Dramatic School (1938), These Glamour Girls (1939), and Dancing Co-Ed (1939). She also became a popular pin-up girl following her appearances in Ziegfeld Girl (1941), Johnny Eager (1942), and Slightly Dangerous (1943).
When the United States entered WWII, Lana spent time traveling with railroad tours that sold war bonds. She wrote her own speeches and promised a kiss to any man who purchased a bond worth $50,000 or more. The studio arranged for Lana to include her hometown as one of her war bond tour stops. As Lana and her mother arrived in Wallace, they learned that the Mayor had declared a holiday in honor of Lana, while several other townspeople claimed to have known Lana before she became a screen star and clamored to reunite with her.
New contract negotiations with MGM in 1945 netted Lana $4,000 a week. In addition, the studio finally obtained a censor-approved script for The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946). Lana received the part, and Postman’s author, James M. Cain, was thrilled that she would be playing Cora. It was a perfect fit. Even today, some of her scenes as the adulterous femme fatale are considered among the most seductive and sensuous ever made.
Later, Lana would appear in her first Technicolor film, The Three Musketeers (1948). Cast as Lady de Winter, she especially enjoyed the test of playing opposite Vincent Price’s Cardinal Richelieu. Moreover, she was allowed to improvise and create moments that were not originally in the script. The artistic freedom and exquisite costumes made it one of her favorite performances. Lana’s already celebrated career was furthered when she co-starred with Kirk Douglas in The Bad and The Beautiful (1952). The film went on to win five Academy Awards, including best screenplay and best costumes.
Unfortunately, it was also during this time that she began receiving telephone calls and flowers from a man named John Steele. Steele’s romantic gifts and surprises eventually swept Lana off her feet. When she found out he was actually dangerous mob associate Johnny Stompanato, the two had already been dating for several months. Lana fought to end the relationship and regain a normal life, but Stompanato became abusive, vowing she would never leave him and live. During one such violent argument, daughter Cheryl walked in and feared Stompanato would kill her mother. In an effort to protect Lana, she attacked and fatally stabbed him with a kitchen knife. The death was ruled a justifiable homicide, and Cheryl was not incarcerated.
Despite her recent Oscar nomination for Best Actress in Peyton Place (1957), Lana was aware that the events taking place in her private life could very well damage her career and image. She fought back, responded to reporters directly, and accepted the lead role of Lora Meredith in Imitation of Life (1959). Lana gambled both her career and finances the film, accepting a meager salary and agreeing to work for half the profits. Her acting ability combined with pent up emotions from her difficult personal life resulted in one of the finest performances of her career.
When Lana turned 50, she tackled yet another challenge: the theater. She took on the role of Ann Stanley, a glamorous forty-year-old divorcee, in a production of Forty Carats. As usual, the show and Lana, were a hit. Forty Carats played in numerous cities, including Philadelphia, Chicago and Baltimore.
In 1981, the National Film Society presented Lana with an Artistry in Cinema award, while Lana was also carrying out a reoccurring role as Jacqueline Perrault on TV’s Falcon’s Crest. Lana’s active lifestyle continued until 1995. On June 29th, with Cheryl by her side, Lana Turner passed away from throat cancer.
Lana’s hometown of Wallace, Idaho, is still a small town with a population of 784. Because Lana and her mother left Wallace when Lana was very young, there are few places in Wallace that the Historic Wallace Preservation Society, Inc., holds as relevant to Lana.
The foundation of the house in which she lived in from birth to age four in Burke, seven miles away from Wallace, is one such location. No actual house exists at the Burke address and Burke itself is presently a ghost town.
The house in which Lana grew up still stands at 217 Bank Street. The lower level of the home was once used as a butcher shop and grocery store, while Lana and her family lived upstairs.
The old Liberty Theater in which Lana once tap-danced as a child is now a bar called The Day Rock.
Lana is also commemorated in California, though her plaque at the Top Hat Café no longer exists. The strip mall in which the Top Hat Café was located has long since replaced the former café with other businesses. However, Lana’s alma mater, Hollywood High School, is alive and well today. Proud of their link to educating some of classic cinema’s greatest stars, they are the “Home of the Sheiks,” with a mural depicting its notable students. Lana’s image is included.
Former site of the Top Hat Cafe.
Though Lana is best remembered for many memorable film roles, her legacy lives on in the various locations she graced before becoming an iconic Hollywood star.