February 8, 1921 – Lana Turner
At the conclusion of the opening episode of the second season of Mad Men, the show’s protagonist, Don Draper, buys a book of poetry after being told by a hipster in a Greenwich Village bar that he is incapable of appreciating the writer’s work. The book is Meditations In An Emergency (1957) by gay poet Frank O’Hara (1926 – 1966). The second season ends with Draper’s mailing the book to a yet undisclosed recipient upon returning home from a brief separation from his wife after sending a letter to her while watching news of the Cuban Missile Crisis from his hotel room. Discovering the poem led me to discovering O’Hara, and now it’s tough for me to read his poem Lana Turner Has Collapsed! without thinking of O’Hara first.
Lana Turner, whose icy elegance made her one of Hollywood’s top box-office attractions with 54 film credits over five decades and whose “Sweater Girl” pinups were pinned near the bunks of GIs around the globe during World War II, gets my vote for Gay Icon.
Turner was a versatile and hard-working actor who made several films each year and who was nominated for an Academy Award for Peyton Place in 1957. She gained equal notoriety because of her private life, which was marred by personal tragedy and seven, count ’em seven, disastrous marriages.
Turner’s roles ranged from the Hollywood star in the marvelous melodrama The Bad And The Beautiful (1952) to the tragic chorus girl in the musical Ziegfeld Girl (1941), from the self-sacrificing mother in Madame X (1966) to the two-timing wife in The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946).
Born Julia Jean Mildred Frances Turner in the mining town of Wallace, Idaho, Turner moved to San Francisco as a kid with her mother after her father was murdered after a gambling deal gone bad and robbery.
Although she loved dancing, the young Turner considered becoming a nun while she attended school at the Convent of the Immaculate Conception in San Francisco. She changed her career plans when she found out she would have to cut her hair.
In 1936, Turner and her mother moved to Los Angeles, where Turner’s rise to stardom became the template for the classic Hollywood dream.
Her “discovery” has become a Hollywood legend: One February afternoon in 1937, 16-year-old Turner was sipping a Coke at the counter of Schwab’s Drugstore at 8024 Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood, a popular hangout for movie actors and industry types, when director Mervyn Le Roy, happened to be seated at the counter. He couldn’t help noticing the attractive young lady wearing a tight sweater but what really got the director’s attention was her wholesome beauty. The director introduced himself and offered her a screen test, after which the studio offered her a contract on the spot. She changed her name from Judy to Lana and, after making a few films, she became Lana Turner, one of the biggest stars in Hollywood.
Except it is not true. Well, she did go by the name Judy, she was 16-years-old, and she was discovered in 1937 at a soda fountain while ditching a typing class at Hollywood High School. But the fountain was not at Schwab’s. It was at the Top Hat Café, one block from Hollywood High.
The gentleman who discovered her there wasn’t Le Roy, it was William Wilkerson, publisher of the showbiz paper Hollywood Reporter, which had offices a block from the Top Hat. Wilkerson discovered Turner at the Top Hat, and Turner confirmed the story for Wilkerson’s son, who wrote about it in the Los Angeles Times in 1995. In her memoir Lana: The Lady, The Legend, The Truth (1982), she writes:
The drugstore manager, a friend, told me that Wilkerson wanted to meet me and that he could be trusted. Wilkerson, publisher of the Hollywood Reporter, simply asked: Would you like to be in the movies? He didn’t seem to want to pick me up, because he didn’t make idle chatter.
She told Wilkerson that she had to check with her mother and left in time for her next class. Turner’s mother was not interested in pursuing the offer, but a family friend talked her into it, and two days later, Turner signed a contract with Warner Bros.
Turner 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, who was the first journalist to use the nickname “Oscar” for the Academy Award in print, pointed to a random stool, an action that made Schwab’s mecca for would-be movie stars. I know; I tried to get some attention there in the 1970s.
She was 17-years-old when she got her first job, a tiny role in the 1937 version of A Star Is Born with Janet Gaynor. She was dubbed the “Sweater Girl” the same year, after playing a small role in They Won’t Forget, where she walks down the street in a tight skirt and sweater. Turner first watched the film with her mother, and she was shocked and embarrassed when the audience stomped and whistled during her brief scene.
She always objected to the “Sweater Girl” moniker. A 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“.
Turner won critical acclaim for Ziegfeld Girl, a turning point in her career because it was the first time she was taken seriously in a role. After the movie was released, MGM, recognizing her as a real actor, began casting her opposite the studio’s best leading men, including: Spencer Tracy, Clark Gable and Robert Taylor. She became one of Hollywood’s most popular romantic leads and MGM’s most publicized star.
Turner’s roles personified the paradoxes in her personality. She was described as a cool, submissive beauty whose poise cloaked a wild, passionate soul. Not quite the lady, but never cheap; warm and friendly but unattainable; she held a fascination for both men and women.
Turner left MGM in 1956 and dared to venture out on her own without the protection of a major studio, finding work in Peyton Place for 20th Century Fox, Imitation Of Life (1959) and Madame X at Universal. She was applauded by her fans and the Hollywood community for her performances in her more mature roles.
Turner’s sudden marriage to band leader Artie Shaw stunned her fans when they eloped to Las Vegas in 1940, a marriage that lasted less than five months.
Her second marriage, to actor and restaurateur Stephan Crane III, resulted in Turner’s only child, Cheryl Crane, who will always be known for that night in 1958 when she stabbed and killed her mother’s boyfriend, gangster Johnny Stompanato, with a 10-inch kitchen knife. Cheryl said she was trying to protect her mother after violent threats by Stompanato. Crane was just 14-years-old at the time of the stabbing. She told cops that Stompanato had threatened to slash and kill her mother because Turner had tried to break off the relationship.
Because of Turner’s fame and the fact that the killing involved her teenage daughter, the case became a media sensation. Over one hundred reporters and journalists attended the inquest. The jury deemed the killing a justifiable homicide.
Despite the negative publicity, Turner was offered the lead role in gay producer Ross Hunter‘s remake of Imitation Of Life (1959) directed by the great Douglas Sirk. It was a tough shoot for Turner. She suffered a panic attack on the first day of filming. Her co-star Juanita Moore said that Turner cried for three days after filming a scene in which Moore’s character dies. When she returned to the set, her face was so swollen, she couldn’t work.
Imitation Of Life was one of the biggest hits of the year, and the biggest of Turner’s career: she owned 50% of the $50 million in box-office gross. Critics and fans could not help noticing that the plots of Peyton Place and Imitation Of Life reflected Turner’s private life. Both films depicted the troubled, complicated relationship between a single mother and her teenaged daughter. During this time, Cheryl came out as a lesbian to her mother and father, who were both supportive of her.
Not all her relationships were as stormy, but they were reported with great interest. Turner was linked romantically with billionaire Howard Hughes and movie star Tyrone Power, and she married a millionaire with the brilliant name Bob Topping and actor Lex Barker. Her other three husbands are mostly forgotten now.
Turner was a regular drinker and smoker for most of her life. She was taken by throat cancer in 1994 at her home with Cheryl by her side. She was 74-years-old.
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.
Lana Turner as Gay Icon brings me back to the poem Lana Turner Has Collapsed!
Lana Turner has collapsed!
I was trotting along and suddenly
it started raining and snowing
and you said it was hailing
but hailing hits you on the head
hard so it was really snowing and
raining and I was in such a hurry
to meet you but the traffic
was acting exactly like the sky
and suddenly I see a headline
LANA TURNER HAS COLLAPSED!
there is no snow in Hollywood
there is no rain in California
I have been to lots of parties
and acted perfectly disgraceful
but I never actually collapsed
oh Lana Turner we love you get up