Star of the Month: Lana Turner
February 7, 2020 | by Shannon
As I mentioned last week, Macarons and Mimi is going rogue this month! Every February, TCM forgoes naming a Star of the Month, and instead more broadly focuses on Oscar winning films in celebration of the annual Academy Awards that take place each February.
Well, as I was choosing which films from TCM’s monthly schedule, I noticed a certain favorite star of mine, Miss Lana Turner, had quite a few films being featured! I didn’t have to think twice before deciding that this was the perfect excuse to name Lana my February Star of the Month. So this month it’s all about Lana! I am absolutely thrilled to write about this fabulous woman, during her birthday month no less!
The Definition of Movie Star
Few stars of the 1940s and 1950s were as glamorous as Lana Turner. And in my humble opinion, Lana, hands down, topped the list of Hollywood glamour queens. Lana was always camera ready, always fashionable, usually decked out in jewels, and with that perfect platinum mane of hair impeccably coifed, she truly was the definition of movie star.
Lana Turner’s life was the stuff of Hollywood legend. But there was a thoughtful, funny, generous, hard-working woman beneath the movie star image. Here are some of my favorite facts about both the public and private Lana Turner that may surprise you:
Her Father's Murder is Still Unsolved
Julia Jean Turner (Lana’s birth name! Isn’t it cute?!) was born in Wallace, Idaho, February 8, 1921. Julia’s young mother, Mildred Frances, was only 16 years older than her daughter. This fairly small difference in ages led to a very special and close relationship between mother and daughter.
The rare bond between Lana and her mother was undoubtedly strengthened by their shared pain over the murder of Lana’s father. Young Julia, or Judy, as she was known, was only nine years old when she lost her dad. Virgil Turner was headed home one evening after a very lucky night of shooting craps. As was his habit, Virgil carried his earnings in his left sock. He planned to spend the extra income on a bicycle for his little girl.
But Virgil didn’t make it home that night, and when his body was found in a back alley, guess what was missing? Yep, his left sock.
The murder remains unsolved today.
Grief-stricken Mildred and Judy were officially on their own in a time when there weren’t very many career women. But the Turner women were survivors, and Mildred worked hard to provide for her little girl. By the time Julia Jean was fifteen, she and her mother were living in Los Angeles.
She Wasn’t Discovered at Schwab’s with a Milkshake or a Malted
Legend has it that Lana was discovered sipping a milkshake or a malted at Schwab’s drugstore in Hollywood. (Over the years, this fable led to countless young teens flooding Schwab’s, ordering milkshakes, and sitting at the counter hoping to catch their big breaks, just like Lana Turner!)
But according to Lana in her page-turning autobiography [aff. link], that’s not exactly how it happened.
Fifteen year-old Judy Turner, a student at Hollywood High, was discovered after deciding to cut typing class for a soda:
“Not a strawberry soda or a chocolate malted, the way the story goes. It was only a Coke, because Coke cost a nickel, and that was all the money I had. The place was the Top Hat Café. As I sipped the Coke, a man at the fountain kept staring at me.”
That man, as it turned out, was W.R. “Billy” Wilkerson, publisher of the Hollywood Reporter. And when he asked young Julia Jean if she’d like to be in the movies, her innocent response was
“I don’t know. I’d have to ask my mother.”
Well, Julia Jean’s mother said it’d be ok if her daughter was in the movies, and as we all know, the rest is history!
Don’t Mispronounce the Name!
Not long after being “discovered,” Judy Turner scored her first film role in 1937’s They Won’t Forget, but the studio (Warner Bros., although Lana Turner would spend the majority of her career at MGM) decided that her name sounded too ordinary, and needed to be changed. “Turner” was a good, American sounding name, but Judy’s first name had to go! Young Judy herself thought up her new name, “Lana,” and felt almost divinely inspired when it came to her,
“Out of nowhere, a name came into my head—clearly as though God had decided to speak to me…
I’d heard it in my head as ‘Lah-nah,’ and I don’t like hearing it pronounced any other way.”
Lana’s daughter, Cheryl Crane, shares in Lana: The Memories, the Myths, the Movies [aff. link], that,
“Her name was Lana, ‘as in La-di-dah,’ she would say while correcting people. It offended her ears to hear it pronounced any other way and it’s still jarring for me to hear it pronounced with a flat A, as in ‘land.’”
So there you go! Now we’ve got no excuse to mispronounce Lana’s name!
She Loved Hot Sauce
Would you have guessed that Lana Turner was a fan of hot sauce? Yes! According to her daughter Cheryl, Lana absolutely adored the stuff:
“She carried hot sauce in her purse and added it to virtually everything. She believed chili peppers cleansed the toxins out of the body.”
How fun is it to picture the perfectly dressed and coiffed Lana, out at a ritzy nightclub or restaurant, suddenly pulling a little bottle of hot sauce out of her purse before a meal?!!!
She Was A Fabulous Dancer
Though she didn’t have any formal training, Lana Turner was a natural dancer. If you remember from my Two Girls on Broadway post, Lana had a chance to show just was a beautiful dancer she was in a few of her films.
Lana was also known to really cut it up on the dance floor when out on the town at the various nightclubs that were so in vogue in the 1940s and 1950s, such at Ciro’s (her favorite), the Mocambo, or the Cocoanut Grove. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, if MGM had decided to use Lana’s talents differently, I think she could have been one of the dancing greats of her generation.
She Was Funny!
Now this is a facet of Lana that she really didn’t get a chance to show all that often in her films. According to Lana in her autobiography [aff. link],
“The press has never had any sense of who I am, they’ve even missed my humor…Even when times were tough, as they so often were, my friends knew that I could come up with a funny story, acting out all the parts, with voices for each of the players. Humor has been the balm of my life, but it’s been reserved for those close to me, not part of the public Lana.”
Lana’s daughter Cheryl seconds this observation, and says in her lovely book on her mother [aff. link] that Lana was
“…human and incredibly fun. My mother possessed an extraordinary sense of humor which, I believe, is what saved her from becoming a Hollywood tragedy. She was, above all, a survivor, and she loved to laugh more than anything in the world.”
She Was Married Seven Times
Yep, Lana Turner had seven husbands. (That’s the same as Liz Taylor! Remember, Liz was married eight times, but two of those marriages were to Richard Burton.) Here’s a rundown of Lana’s seven loves:
1. Artie Shaw (married 1940-1940)
This rather pompous, pedantic bandleader had a penchant for marrying glamorous women and breaking their self-esteem. (Ava Gardner was another of Shaw’s wives he tried this with!) Artie caught Lana on the rebound from the heartbreak of her first love, and the two eloped in Las Vegas. Lana was only nineteen! Artie was such a creep, the marriage only lasted four months. (You can read more about the Shaw/Turner marriage in this post!)
2. Stephen Crane (married 1942-1943 (annulled); married again 1943-1944)
Lana fell for Crane fast, only to find out after they were married that…he was already married!!! Somehow Stephen failed to mention that little detail. So Lana, pregnant with their daughter Cheryl by this point in the marriage, was nearly charged with bigamy. The marriage to Crane was annulled, but for the sake of soon-to-be-born Cheryl, Lana and Stephen married again once his divorce was final. But the damage had been done: Lana couldn’t trust her husband (he also spent all her money faster than she could make it…). And that spelled the end of the Turner/Crane marriage.
3. Bob Topping (married 1948-1952)
Henry J. Topping, Jr. was born to wealth. His family money came from steel, railroads, and tinplate. Lana was attracted to Topping in part because he had his own money—she felt secure in the knowledge that Bob wasn’t after her money. Also, Bob Topping was constantly surprising Lana with diamonds and beautiful gifts, which appealed to her romantic side.
I love the extravagant anecdote Lana shares in her book [aff. link] about how Bob proposed to her: by dropping a fifteen-carat marquise diamond ring into her martini glass one night! Can you imagine?!!! The marriage eventually ended because Topping’s drinking just got out of control. And he too, came to rely on Lana for his income. Irony of ironies.
4. Lex Barker (married 1953-1957)
Lex Barker was definitely the scummiest of Lana’s husbands. Best known as one of the many movie Tarzans, Lex sexually abused Lana’s daughter Cheryl. When Lana found out, it was goodbye Lex.
5. Fred May (married 1960-1962)
Awwwww I LOVE Fred May! If I may play psychoanalyst for a moment, I think Lana was at her happiest with Fred May, and totally should have stayed with the man. A successful real estate agent (and future mayor of Malibu!), Lana herself said Fred May was the only one of her husbands who was a giver, not a taker, and didn’t try to use her.
Lana and Fred remained good friends after their divorce, and neither Lana nor her daughter Cheryl could come up with a solid reason why the marriage didn’t work.
Again playing psychoanalyst, I would go so far as to say that perhaps by the time Lana and sweet Fred got together, Lana was so accustomed to being used by her husbands, she didn’t know what to do when Fred, a super nice guy, didn’t exhibit any scummy traits. So she divorced him out of habit…??? So too bad!
6. Robert Eaton (married 1965-1969)
NOT a nice fellow! He married Lana, lived off her income, then partied and cheated on her in their own bedroom when Lana was out of town making the movies that supported his extravagant and cheating lifestyle. DIVORCE!!!
7. Ronald Dante (married 1969-1972)
A hypnotist by trade, friends said Dante must have hypnotized Lana into marrying him! One evening after a night on the town together, Dante excused himself, ostensibly to go pick up some sandwiches for a late snack…and never came back!
Of course, just before deserting his wife, Dante got Lana to write him a check for $35,000 for a “business investment.” Don’t worry, Lana was able to stop payment on the check, but that was obviously the end of the Turner/Dante marriage. (And if you’re looking for an entertaining way to spend a few minutes, Google this guy to see what other frauds he’s committed over the years!)
Keeping Her Sense of Humor
Despite all the heartache, Lana was able to keep her sense of humor about her seven husbands:
“Somebody asked me recently if I have ever sat down and added up what my husbands cost me in hard, cold cash…I know that the figure must come to tens of thousands of dollars. With the exception of dear Fred May, who is still my good friend, all my husbands have taken, and I was always giving…
One thing I have to say about my husbands—all of them were able to make me laugh—at least at the beginning. I couldn’t have married them otherwise.”
It’s that attitude and humor that must have helped Lana survive seven marriages without becoming bitter at the world!
She Was A Hard Worker
From the time she was seventeen, Lana supported herself and her mother. Once Lana became a star, Mildred never had to work again, which had been Lana’s goal from the beginning. Pretty sweet!
Lana was known for her professionalism: she never came to her film sets unprepared, and was always letter-perfect with her lines. And while other glamour queens watched their careers fade away with age, Lana moved with the times. Without losing the core-Lana Turner-glamorous image, she successfully re-branded herself with the changing times, and remained in demand as an actress. Lana, rightly so, was proud of her work ethic, and once said:
“Everything I had, the kind of life I loved, had come through my own efforts, from hard, continual work under pressure…”
For lack of more sophisticated verbage, YOU GO GIRL!
She Wanted A Big Family
Lana once famously said that
“My plan was to have one husband and seven children, but it turned out the other way.”
Lana’s blood was rh negative, which made it extremely difficult—and dangerous—for her to have children. Her beautiful daughter Cheryl was the only pregnancy Lana was able to carry to term, and even this birth was nothing short of a miracle: Cheryl ended up needing a complete blood transfusion immediately after her birth.
That’s right a complete blood transfusion.
Lana was very open about her disappointment at not being able to have more children:
“It’s one of life’s bitter ironies that I, who wanted a big family, could bear only one child. Eventually I lost three babies, two boys and a girl. Today most mothers are tested for the rh factor, and science has learned to control its damaging effect. But in my day it almost took a miracle just to save my baby’s life.”
She Was a Fashion Plate
Lana’s habit of always appearing “camera ready” went hand in hand with her love of clothes and fashion.
Once she was a star, Lana had the income to finally own the clothes she always dreamed of. According to her daughter Cheryl,
“Mother had many closets, of course, but the grandest of them all was at the big house we had in the ‘50’s on Mapleton Drive in Holmby Hills. It was the length of half the house. It started as an outdoor porch but she had it closed in and remodeled. French doors on either side of her bed led into the dressing room. There were windows at the far end and long panels of mirrors by the two-and-a-half foot-high platform where she had her fittings…
You could spend days looking at all of her clothes and shoes. Mother’s affinity for footwear amounted to a passion. When she liked a style, she bought the pair in every available color. At one time she accumulated 698 pairs.”
Ok, now this closet sounds like my dream come true! I would absolutely love to have seen Lana’s closet!
Lana’s personal style was so gorgeous that at times she wore her own jewelry and/or clothes in her films. In The Sea Chase (1955) with John Wayne, Lana actually wore all her own jewelry, and all but one dress she wore in the film was from her own closet!
Now that’s a stylish lady!
Next Week: Peyton Place (1957)!
I’ll wrap up this post now, but be sure to check back next week when I review Lana’s Oscar nomination-worthy performance in Peyton Place (1957). I’ll also cover the turbulent years of Lana’s life just before, during, and after filming: the events of this time would add a touch of notoriety to the Turner name for quite some time, and ultimately strengthen the bond between Lana and her heroic daughter Cheryl.
Don’t miss Peyton Place when it plays on Tuesday!
What’s your favorite Lana Turner film?