A PORTRAIT OF ANGUISH
Lana Turner was one of the least impressive celebrities I encountered in Hollywood. Terribly vulnerable, caught up in the phony world filled with flakes and false promises. It was in this world she became involved with hoodlum Johnny Stompanato, a nasty guy with no scruples; one of gangster Mickey Cohen’s henchmen who specialized in strong-arm extortion, and exposed wealthy women to hidden cameras while performing sex acts. Turner became a victim of the Cohen gang and suffered physical beatings at the hands of Stompanato. She was a constant source of money for Cohen.
The first time I saw Lana was in the late forties, sitting at the bar in Billy Berg’s jazz joint on Vine Street. I was free-lancing the night club circuit, wandering around Berg’s club looking for someone to photograph. I noticed a bloated blond seated alone on a stool in the middle of the bar. Every time I walked by she’d glance at my Graphic, then at me with a questioning smile, expecting to be photographed. She looked like a hooker. I ignored her.
Outside, my colleague asked if I shot a picture of Lana Turner. I realized it had to have been the boozed up blond at the bar. Even if I had recognized her, I couldn’t take an unflattering picture of a glamour star in such miserable condition.
About ten years later I was assigned to photograph her for NBC News. It was one tragic night in 1958 when the police reported that Lana hand her longtime boyfriend Stompanato were having a violent argument in her bedroom. Fearing for her mother’s life, her 14 year old daughter Cheryl Crane go a butcher knife from the kitchen and stabbed Stompanato to death. The big, mean street tough, son-of-a-bitch couldn’t defend himself against a frail 14 year old girl, or her drunken mother.
I thought it a flimsy story. At best it’s almost impossible to put a butcher knife through a thick, boneless cut of meat, much less a live person. More than likely it would take two rugged guys just to hold Stompanato in order for another to stab him in the chest. A possibility never investigated. Two females observing such a brutal act would undoubtedly be terrified and threatened into silence.
Horrified by this ordeal, however it happened, Turner first called famed criminal attorney, Jerry Giesler; after that an ambulance. An hour later she informed the Beverly Hills Police Department. Coincidentally, while Stompanato was being stabbed to death, his apartment was being cleaned out by Cohen’s men.
I was limited to silent shots of Turner, her daughter, and lawyers walking in and out of the Beverly Hills Police Station, her Roxbury home, and blood on the bedroom floor as we couldn’t get anyone to give us a statement on film except an occasional police spokesman.
A short time after, the desk would once again assign me to cover Lana Turner during the coroner’s inquest- where I was able to grab a shot of her with my still camera.
Lana Turner sits with attorney Jerry Giesler at the counsel table surrounded by the world press corps at the coroner’s inquest into the stabbing death of her lover, Johnny Stompanato. Accused of justifiable homicide, her daughter served a minimal time in prison for his death. The story still doesn’t ring the truth bell. I felt sorry for Lana Turner, and Cheryl. I still do.