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 (1921-1995), 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 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’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.
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