Good Friday, April 4, 1958
Lana Turner could play a mean bad girl on-screen, but she didn’t need MGM’s writers to create a reality that was just as riveting.
Known for her tumultuous love affairs, real and rumored, Lana gave MGM’s publicity department hell while keeping her name in the papers and her box office appeal high…but she was one of the stars MGM cut loose during the studio system’s decline. So when she found out her new love interest, John Steele, was really a gangster named Johnny Stompanato, there was no Eddie Mannix around to fix things for her.
Lana had been enticed into an exciting romance with Stompanato, and even after she found out his true identity, she had trouble leaving him. But she had a fourteen-year-old daughter, Cheryl, and as the relationship between Turner and her thug became increasingly violent, she came to her senses. She tried to leave Johnny multiple times, but he always muscled his way back into her life. From threatening to ruin her career by cutting up her face to stalking her on a vacation to Acapulco, Johnny Stompanato was determined to hang onto his movie star lover.
Lana felt like a prisoner. Turner had been under MGM’s protective wing since the age of sixteen, and she was not equipped to handle this kind of problem alone. At this point in her life, Lana had also suffered from multiple high-profile love affairs gone wrong, and she had an irrational fear of creating yet another scandal in the press.
Lana leased a home in Beverly Hills in the spring of 1958, and she did summon the courage to tell Johnny Stompanato he was not welcome there when he showed up on move-in day. But Stompanato wasn’t used to hearing “No,” and he remained at the house, growing increasingly agitated at Lana’s rejection.
Cheryl had witnessed part of the argument, and was in her room trying to shut out the noise when she heard Johnny’s shouting chilling threats against her mother that she could no longer ignore. Cheryl quietly slipped down to the kitchen and grabbed a knife from one of the moving boxes. Intending to scare Stompanato, she went up to her mother’s room and opened the door.
The story goes like this: The scene that greeted her eyes was terrifying. Johnny’s arm was raised to strike a cowering Lana, but at the sound of the opened door, he turned…and stepped forward straight into Cheryl’s knife. Mother and daughter froze, and Stompanato stumbled away from Cheryl and collapsed on the floor, gasping his last words, “My God, Cheryl, what have you done?”
The first phone call was not to the police but to attorney to the stars, Jerry Giesler. Cheryl ultimately served time as a minor after the killing being ruled as justifiable homicide.
Theories abound to this day that Cheryl took the rap for her mother, although she’s confessed to the killing numerous times, including her own autobiography and a televised interview on 48 hours. With the only two eye witnesses agreeing on their story, the full details will likely never be known (if indeed they are different than the story given by Lana and Cheryl). The facts that remain are this: Johnny Stompanato is still dead…and Turner still retains her place in Hollywood’s pantheon of ultimate glamour girls with a dark side.