Thursday, April 4, 2013

Small Town Boy—Big Time Scandal

Johnny Stompanato and Lana Turner out on the town.

Johnny Stompanato was a Woodstock, Illinois boy, but not quite the fair haired village lad you might stereotypically expect.  On April 4, 1958 he found himself in big trouble.  The worst—dying on the floor of his meal ticket’s bedroom. 
His folks were Sicilian immigrants who married in Brooklyn, New York and moved to the small town in 1916 where his dad set up a barber shop. 
Johnny was the youngest of four children when he was born in 1925.  Five days later his mother died of complications from his birth.  His father quickly remarried a local girl, Verena Freitag, who Johnny grew up resenting.
He grew into a large, handsome boy, but wild and always getting into trouble.  After barely escaping being thrown out of Woodstock High School as a bully, his dad sent him to a military school in Missouri.
He graduated in 1943 and promptly enlisted in the Marine Corps.  He saw action in the South Pacific on Peleliu and Okinawa.  At war’s end he was stationed in China where he met an exotic young Turkish beauty, Sarah Utish.  He arranged to be discharge in China where he courted the girl, converted to Islam for her, and married her in 1946.
The young couple returned to Woodstock where his wife gave birth to Johnny’s only child, John III.  He went to work as a bread salesman and hated every moment of dull Midwestern drudgery and family life.  He was soon romancing other women at local taverns and getting into fights with outraged husbands and boy fiends.
In 1948 the couple was divorced and Johnny packed his bags for an exciting new life in California.  What was he looking for?  Work in the movies?  Whatever it was, it didn’t take long for him to hook up with Los Angeles’s biggest Gangster, the infamous Mickey Cohen.  He started out as a driver and bodyguard but soon showed such potential as a hoodlum that he was promoted to a bag man and an enforcer specializing in the collection of gambling debts.
By the early 50’s he had struck out on his own.  He operated a seedy Westwood gift shop that probably served as a cover for a bookmaking operation.  He also became a gigolo specializing in bored, wealthy married women up for a fling with a handsome lug.  He brought his victims to a room outfitted with hidden cameras and filmed the trysts, making an excellent living by blackmail.
But he lived high, spending money as fast as he could extort it and running up big gambling markers to his old employer.
Lana Turner was still a reigning queen of in the movies.  The former sweater girl had matured into tear jerking parts in women’s movies, melodramas that were still big box office.  She was an unhappy woman with a bad history with men, both husbands and lovers.  After her latest marriage to B movie actor Lex Barker broke up in 1957, Turner was perfect pray for Stompanato’s charms.
He called her out of the blue and wrangled a date, at first introducing himself as Johnny Steele.  His charm worked better than ever on the lonely actress and he was soon living with her in her palatial Beverly Hills home along with her pubescent teenage daughter Cheryl Crane by Lana’s second—and third—husband  restaurateur Joseph Stephen Crane.
Johnny charmed the daughter as well as the mother, playing a “big brother role” to the girl who would later claim to have been molested by Barker.  For a short while it seemed like a perfect arrangement for all concerned.  But Johnny became insistent on repeated loans to pay off his gambling debts and flew into jealous rages. 
In England with Turner while she shot Another Time, Another Place, he became increasingly belligerent after she refused to give him $50,000 to clear up his IOUs with Cohen.  He choked her leaving marks on her throat that shut down production for three weeks.  Banned from the set, he stormed in one day waving a gun at co-star Sean Connery.  A bad choice since the Scott was much tougher than the gigolo.  Connery decked him with one blow and disarmed him.
Stompanato was deported for violating strict British gun laws and Turner vowed to be done with him.  But after a few weeks back home, she called him up and resumed the affair.
But the petty gangster was becoming more unstable and violent.  He flew into a rage after Turner told him he could not accompany her to the Academy Awards where she was up for an Oscar for Peyton Place.  Accusing her of being ashamed of him, he threatened to end her career by slashing her beautiful face.  It soon became his standard threat in their increasingly physical altercations.
On April 4, 1958 Johnny once again demanded a huge “loan” to pay off Cohn, who had been sending hoods around to remind his former enforcer of his obligations.  Turner flatly refused.  He struck her and repeated his threats of mutilation and also threatened her daughter and mother.  The altercation went on for some time until Cheryl came home and found them screaming at each other.  Turner ordered her daughter not to listen and leave.  Johnny grabbed a heavy coat hanger and began to try to beat the actress.  She screamed again, the couple tumbled through a door where Cheryl stabbed him with a large kitchen knife she had retrieved.  He quickly bled to death on Lana’s bedroom floor.
The case, naturally, became a sensation.  Cheryl quickly confessed after Turner reportedly tried to take the blame herself.  The girl was jailed and eventually charged with man slaughter.  The press had a field day.  Some hinted that Turner was using her daughter as a cover for her own guilt.  Many highlighted her long, sad history with men and excoriated her as a bad parent for exposing her daughter to such a lurid life style.  The cruelest hinted that Cheryl and Johnny were lovers.
The trial was a circus.  Both mother and daughter tearfully testified.  Some called it the greatest performance of Turner’s career.  Cheryl was acquitted on the grounds that the killing was a justifiable defense of her mortally imperiled mother.  The public rallied to the support of mother and daughter.
Cheryl was removed from her mother’s custody and placed with Turner’s mother, who could never deal with her.  She was a repeated runaway and was at least once remaindered to juvenile detention.  She remained close to her mother, but had a troubled life.  After some affairs with men, she settled into a long term committed lesbian relationship and later wrote a memoir about the case.
Turner’s career was probably boosted by the publicity.  Her next several pictures were hits.  Her star finally began to dim only with inevitable ageing in the mid-1960s after which she appeared mostly in guest roles on television.  She married unhappily three more times.
Lana died of throat cancer at the age of 74 on June 29, 1995. 
As for Stompanato, his remains were shipped back to Woodstock where he was laid to rest between his mother and father in a family plot in Oakland Cemetery.  You can visit his grave if you are in town.
And while you are here if you are hungry, you can stop in at a D.C. Cobbs, a popular local bar and grill on the Main Street site of the family barbershop, view a poster with pictures telling Johnny’s tale, and order a burger named for him.

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