A Murder in Hollywood
December 7, 2023

Book Review

A Murder in Hollywood

Lana Turner was an American actress whose five-decade career spanned the 1930s to the 1980s. Among other things, Turner’s body of work includes classic films like ‘The Postman Always Rings Twice’ (1946), ‘Peyton Place’ (1957), ‘Imitation of Life’ (1959), and ‘Madame X’ (1966), as well as television shows like ‘The Survivors’ and ‘Falcon Crest.’ Turner is also famous for her romance with gangster Johnny Stompanato, who was killed in Lana’s Beverly Hills home on the evening of April 4, 1958.

In this book, author Casey Sherman discusses Turner’s life and career as well as the mobsters who infiltrated Los Angeles in the 1900s, especially Mickey Cohen, boss of the Cohen crime family. At one point Cohen hired Johnny Stompanato to be his bodyguard, and the two men became good friends and partners in crime.

Lana Turner, born in Idaho in 1921, was named Julia Jean (and called Judy) by her parents Mildred and Virgil Turner. The Turners were estranged when Virgil was murdered in 1929, a tragedy that haunted Lana forever. Years later, after Lana experienced much drama in her life, she wrote “The shock I suffered then may be a valid excuse for me now. I know that my father’s sweetness and gaiety, his warmth and his tragedy have never been that far from me; that, and a sense of loss and of growing up too fast.”

Judy and her mother moved to Los Angeles in 1936, and beautiful teenage Judy was discovered in a soda shop by Billy Wilkerson, publisher of the ‘Hollywood Reporter.’ Before long Judy was renamed Lana and getting small parts in movies, which eventually became major roles. Sherman writes a good bit about the toxic Hollywood culture, and bigwigs like producer David O. Selznick, who had a casting couch for young actresses. Powerful men in the industry seemed to consider this behavior to be commonplace, and their due. Swashbuckling actor Errol Flynn, who seduced underage Lana, wrote in his memoir, “You saw a young lady you fancied and you’d say, ‘star’s perks!’

Turner – who was always looking for love – was easily enamored, had numerous affairs, and married one man after another. Lana was wed to bandleader Artie Shaw; restaurateur Steve Crane; millionaire socialite Henry J. Topping Jr.; and Tarzan actor Lex Barker. Lana had her daughter Cheryl with Steve Crane, and young Cheryl was sexually molested by Lex Barker when the actor was married to Lana. It seems that, though Turner was incredibly successful in her career, she was dismally unlucky in her private life.

The bad luck came to a head with handsome mobster Johnny Stompanato, who made it his business to meet Turner in 1957. Crime boss Mickey Cohen and his henchman Stompanato had a plan to extort Lana, who had amassed a fortune from her film roles. Sherman writes, “The two gangsters reverse engineered the classic honey trap scheme, using Stompanato as bait to lure Lana into bed. They would need to stage a threesome of some kind while Cohen’s men surreptitiously filmed the sex act.” Cohen and Stompanato believed Lana would pay any amount to safeguard her reputation and maintain her career. According to Sherman, the two hoodlums regularly perpetrated this scheme, and their victims included superstars such as Fred Astaire, Lucille Ball, Cary Grant, Rock Hudson, and Spencer Tracy.

In any case, Stompanato fell in love with Turner while trying to execute the blackmail plan, and he decided to become a movie producer. So the hoodlum made it his business to become Lana’s REAL boyfriend. Unfortunately for Lana, Stompanato was a controlling abusive man who shouted at the star, threatened her, hit her, and made her life miserable. Lana’s teenage daughter Cheryl would sometimes hear the loud arguments between Lana and Stompanato, and become concerned for her mother.

All this came to a head on the evening of April 4, 1958, when Turner and Stompanato were in Lana’s bedroom, and the actress tried to break it off with the mobster. Cheryl heard the resultant shouting and cursing and ran into her mother’s room. Subsequently, Stompanato was stabbed with a newly purchased, sharp, eight-inch kitchen knife. Sherman writes, “With one thrust, the blade penetrated his abdomen, slicing into one of his kidneys, striking a vertebra, and puncturing his aorta. He stepped away from the knife, a plume of blood now expanding from where the weapon had entered his body. Johnny Stompanato, gangster, conman, and abuser, was dead.”

The author goes on to discuss who stabbed Stompanato, the aftermath of the incident, and the continuing angst in Turner’s life. Sherman includes his own speculations about the homicide, as well as a bibliography of works he used to research the book. Will the whole truth ever be known? Time will tell.

This is a well-written, engaging book about Lana Turner, Hollywood, and American gangsters. Highly recommended to true crime aficionados.

Thanks to Netgalley, Casey Sherman, and Sourcebooks for a copy of the book.

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