Lana Turner's discovery is one of the foundation legends of Hollywood. The story goes that she was buying a soda at Schwab's Drug Store* when she was spotted by the publisher of the Hollywood Reporter. He was taken with the 16 year old girl's beauty (she was skipping classes at Hollywood High School) and referred her to Zeppo Marx, who at this point was a major agent. Zeppo hooked her up with Mervyn LeRoy and history was made.
Known as "The Sweater Girl" because of the tight sweaters that hugged her physique, Turner became a major star and a beloved pin-up. She had a B-17 Flying Fortress named after her in WWII. But it wasn't until 1946, with The Postman Always Rings Twice, that it became clear that Turner was a real, true, major talent and not just a sweater-stuffer.
The good times didn't last; after some flops and underperformers, Turner found her contract with MGM terminated in 1956. As Hollywood struggled with the advent of television and the Supreme Court ruling that forced Hollywood studios to drop their ownership of theater chains. The whole system was changing, never to be the same, and for Lana Turner it looked like the end of her career had come.
With her life in such a shaky position, Turner met a handsome, rough-edged man who possibly seemed tough enough to help her through the bad times. She knew him as John Steele, but he was really Johnny Stompanato, a notorious Los Angeles underworld figure. Johnny Stomp had been a bodyguard and enforcer for Mickey Cohen, a low born violent thug with a thing for Hollywood beauties. Frank Sinatra once begged Cohen to make Stompanato leave Ava Gardner alone; Cohen told the Chairman of the Board that he never got mixed up in the affairs of his men and his broads.
The relationship between Stompanato and Turner was stormy. They would have big fights. Sometimes they would get physical. Like most insecure brutes, Stompanato was incredibly jealous, and when he heard rumors that Turner was having an affair with young Sean Connery, who was her co-star in Another Time, Another Place, he flew to England to confront her. And confront her he did, on set, with a gun, which he pointed at Connery.
Legend has it that Stompanato pulled the gun on Connery, who grabbed the gangster's wrist, twisted it until the piece dropped out and then decked the man. All the while, the story goes, the cameras were running - I wonder where that footage is. At any rate, Connery reported Stompanato to the police, and he was deported for breaking England's gun laws.
Stompanato and Turner
Back in America Stompanato and Turner spent some time together in Mexico. Her career, which had been on the skids, seemed to be coming back. She was nominated for a Best Actress Oscar for Peyton Place, but she infuriated Stompanato when she told him that she would be taking her mother and her 14 year old daughter, Cheryl Crane, to the ceremony and not him. Turner knew that if she was going to keep her career she would have to break things off with this mob palooka, but as you can imagine Stompanato wasn't taking it kindly.
On April 4th, 1958 Stompanato came to Turner's home in Beverly Hills. Cheryl, who went to a boarding school, was there that night. She heard her mother and the gangster arguing. Stompanato threatened to cut Turner's face, to end her career. He threatened Turner's mother and Cheryl. Frightened, Cheryl got a knife from the kitchen and approached her mother's bedroom, where the fight was happening. She was afraid that Johnny Stomp was going to kill her mom, and then her.
Cheryl stood in front of the door, holding the knife, when Johnny Stompanato opened it. What happened next can never be exactly known. Cheryl says that Johnny essentially walked into her and the knife. Some at the time thought that Cheryl was jealous and loved Johnny herself, and she killed him in a rage (considering that Cheryl is a lesbian who lives with her partner of almost 40 years, this seems hugely unlikely). Others think that the young girl had a moment of absolute bravery and took this man down. Whatever the case, Johnny Stompanato was soon laying in a pool of his own blood, dying.
As Cheryl was put in custody before her trial, Sean Connery went into hiding. It seemed that Mickey Cohen and others were spreading the word that Stomp's killing was related to Connery's supposed Turner affair, and that the mobster wanted anybody involved in the murder offed. As the actor worried about his life he also worried if the eternally squeaky-clean Walt Disney would fire him off of Darby O'Gill and the Little People as his rumored role in the tragedy hit the scandal sheets. Walt didn't seem to mind, though, and Connery kept the job. Apparently that's the film which brought him to the attention of Cubby Broccoli, who cast him as James Bond. At one point Connery's hairdresser claimed he confessed to the killing, saying he pinned it on young Cheryl because he knew she'd get off. To be fair, that does sound like a huge helping of horse shit.
The killing was ruled justifiable homicide, and Cheryl was a ward of the state until 1961. She's now a real estate agent and novelist. The scandal didn't hurt Lana Turner's next movie, Imitation of Life, which was released almost exactly a year later and was her biggest hit. It was also her last major film. Mickey Cohen bought a cheap coffin for the Stompanatao funeral and then sold his Lana Turner love letters to the press.
* This is apparently the only false part of the legend. She was actually at the Top Hat Cafe.