Born Julia Jean Mildred Frances Turner…
When I think of the genesis of some of the most glamorous movie queens, I think of Lana Turner sipping a Coke at the Top Hat Cafe. Though the story of her discovery is Hollywood legend, it is worth noting that she, too, pounded the pavement like so many other Hollywood hopefuls before being projected on screens all over the world. Turner was discovered at about the age of fifteen, and her life is widely publicized from that point on. However, I’d like to point you to the Lana that just a handful of people knew, before she ordered that legendary Coke.
First off, Lana wasn’t even, well, Lana. Born Julia Jean Mildred Frances Turner, or just “Judy,” Lana’s uneventful birth was a relief. Her grandmother had died in childbirth due to Rh factor complications, and there was a slight possibility that Mildred, Lana’s mother, would exhibit the same condition. Mildred was spared, although Lana inherited the disorder. While Lana one day gave birth to a daughter, she was unable to have a large family because of health complications.
John and Mildred Turner lived in the small town of Wallace, Idaho. John worked as a miner, and was 18 years old when his daughter was born. Mildred was 16 at the time of Lana’s birth.
Lana fondly recalled nights, after dinner, spent dancing and listening to records with her parents. In later years, she credited her love for music and dance to those evenings. Her father was also a terrific card player–a skill that came in handy to support his family through rough times. However, after a big win at a card came one night, he was robbed and murdered. John had bragged about using his monetary winnings to buy his daughter the tricycle for which she had begged him. Lana was heartbroken. John’s murder was never solved.
In addition to enjoying music and dance, Lana loved going to the movies. Every weekday, she would save a nickel of her lunch money to put toward the twenty-five cent Saturday matinee. Her appreciation for the elaborate costumes of actresses Kay Frances and Norma Shearer carried over into her own career, and earned her a reputation of wearing some of the most beautiful costumes in film history. In fact, if she had not pursued an acting career, Lana always said she would have become a fashion designer.
In search of greater job opportunities, Lana and her mother moved out to California. One school day, shortly after their arrival,sixteen-year-old Lana went in for a Coke. Despite the legend, she wasn’t at Schwab’s Drugstore, but The Top Hat Café–a shop across the street from Hollywood High, her alma mater. When W.R. Wilkerson, publisher of the Hollywood Reporter, happened to be quenching his thirst at the same time, he caught sight of Lana. He introduced himself, gave her his card, and asked her to call newly operating talent agent Zeppo Marx. This, in addition to a letter Wilkerson personally wrote, helped team her with director Mervyn LeRoy.
Leroy felt her nickname, Judy, was too plain. Julia Jean was also vetoed, so the two had a brainstorming session. LeRoy suggested Leonore, but it didn’t seem to fit. “What about Lana?” she suggested. She spelled it for LeRoy and waited while he said it several times and then finally nodded. “That’s it,” Leroy told her. “You’re Lana Turner.”
The LA Times notes: “The Top Hat’s owner placed a metal plaque on the seat Lana had occupied on the magical morning of her discovery. Soon, his soda fountain was swarming with girls eager to meet the mysterious man who had discovered Lana Turner.”
Lana could relate to the role of schoolgirl Mary Clay in They Won’t Forget, and found it easy to play. Though the part was relatively small, when the film was released she was immediately noticed. The Hollywood Reporter noted, “Short on playing time is the role of the murdered school girl. But as played by Lana Turner it is worthy of more than passing note. This young lady has vivid beauty, personality and charm.” After the film, Lana found herself tagged as “The Sweater Girl,” thanks to a tight blue wool sweater she wore in the film.
Despite the praise, Lana still didn’t think she would become an actress. “I made my first movie without ever considering that my walk-on would be anything more than a one-time job,” she said. “If I could have foreseen everything that was going to happen to me, all the headlines my life would make, all the people who would pass through my days, I wouldn’t have believed a syllable of it!” But LeRoy cast her in his next film, The Great Garrick, and when it was finished he loaned her to Samuel Goldwyn for The Adventures of Marco Polo. During the filming of Marco Polo, Goldwyn insisted that Lana’s eyebrows be shaved off and replaced with straight, fake black ones. They never grew back, and from then on she had to either paste or draw her eyebrows.
When LeRoy left Warner Bros for MGM, he took Lana with him. Her salary doubled from $50 to $100 a week. Lana was ecstatic. The first thing she did was buy a house for she and her mother to live in. From that point on, Lana’s fame and salary continued to increase. After a year with MGM, it rose to $250, and, by the time she was twenty, Lana was earning $1,500 a week. She enjoyed the fresh atmosphere at MGM, and would often spend time with other young Hollywood newcomers. “We had youth, we had beauty, we had money, we had doors open to us,” she recalled. If someone recognized her while they were out, she would laugh and say, “Oh, no, no. I’ve been told I look like her.”
When the United States entered WWII, Lana spent time traveling with railroad tours that sold war bonds. She wrote her own speeches and promised “a sweet kiss” to any man who purchased a bond worth $50,000 or more. “And I kept that promise-hundreds of times,” she said. “I’m told I increased the defense budget by several million dollars.”
New contract negotiations with MGM in 1945 netted Lana $4,000 a week. In addition, the studio finally obtained a censor-approved script for The Postman Always Rings Twice. She was ecstatic. “Finally the part I had been hoping for did come my way.” Lana obtained the part, and Postman’s author, James M. Cain, was delighted that she would be playing Cora. It was a perfect fit. Even today, some of her scenes as the adulterous femme fatale are considered among the most seductive and sensuous ever made.
In 1948 Lana filmed The Three Musketeers, her first Technicolor picture. Cast as Lady de Winter, she especially enjoyed the test of playing opposite Vincent Price’s Cardinal Richelieu. “I studied him, and it challenged me, and I began to try things I never knew I could do,” she said. “I found my own little touches-a certain sly look, the flap of a glove, a tilt of the head.” She was allowed to improvise and create moments that weren’t originally in the script. The artistic freedom and exquisite costumes made it one of her favorite performances. “Turner was covered with jewels and costumed exquisitely,” recalled on review. “The drama of her first appearance on screen is heightened by the effect of having her sit in a darkened carriage… When Turner finally does lean slowly forward into the light-and the Technicolor-audiences are not jerked out of their mood and back to earth. She is unreal. A proper goddess.”
Lana’s already celebrated career was furthered when she co-starred with Kirk Douglas in The Bad and The Beautiful. The film went on to win 5 Academy Awards, including best screenplay and best costumes. “It is superb theater, one of the greatest moments of despair shown in cinematic terms, and a prime example of the coordination of actress, director and cameraman which can create a perfect visual moment of dramatic poetry on the screen.” Unfortunately, it was also during this time that she began receiving telephone calls and flowers from a man named John Steele.
Steele’s romantic gifts and surprises eventually swept Lana off her feet. When she found out he was actually dangerous mob associate Johnny Stompanato, the two had dated for several months. Lana fought to end the relationship and regain a normal life, but Stompanato became abusive, vowing she would never leave him and live. During one such violent argument, daughter Cheryl walked in and feared Stompanato would kill her mother. In an effort to protect Lana, she attacked and fatally stabbed him with a kitchen knife. The death was ruled a justifiable homicide, and Cheryl was not incarcerated.
Despite her recent Oscar nomination for Best Actress in Peyton Place, Lana was aware that “the happening,” as she would later refer to it, could very well cripple her career. She fought back, dealt with reporters head on and accepted the lead role of Lora Meredith in Imitation of Life. Lana gambled both her career and finances the film. She accepted a meager salary and instead agreed to work for half the profits. Lana’s innate and learned acting ability, combined with pent up emotions from the tumultuous year, resulted in one of the finest performances of her career. Movie theaters reported that, during the closing scene, “even strong men are crying.”
When Lana turned fifty she tackled yet another challenge: the theater. Though apprehensive, Lana couldn’t pass up the role of Ann Stanley, a glamorous forty-year-old divorcee, in Forty Carats. As usual, the show and Lana, were a hit. Forty Carats played in numerous cities, including Philadelphia, Chicago and Baltimore. “Ironically,” she said, “live theater, the medium I had so dreaded, became the new backbone of my working life.”
On October 25, 1981 the National Film Society presented Lana with an Artistry in Cinema award. Also busy with a reoccurring role as Jacqueline Perrault on TV’s Falcon’s Crest, she found herself immersed in almost all entertainment facets.
Lana’s active lifestyle continued until 1995. On June 29th, with Cheryl by her side, Lana Turner yielded to throat cancer.
Lana’s hometown of Wallace, Idaho, is still a very small town in the Panhandle region of Idaho. According to the 2010 Census, the town holds a population of 784. Since Lana and her mother moved away from Wallace when Lana was very young, there are few places in Wallace that are tied closely to her time in Idaho. However, thanks to the Historic Wallace Preservation Society Inc., I was made aware of several points of interest regarding Lana’s life.
The foundation of the house she lived in from birth to age 4 in Burke (7 miles away) is also a place people go see. The Burke address is a location now–no actual house exists, and Burke itself does not technically exist anymore. Most think the former home in question is the foundation with the metal fence, but others think it is the one right before. Since no one has a picture showing how the building was laid out, it is hard to know if these are two different houses or just one.
The house Lana grew up in still stands, though the downstairs was a butcher shop and grocery store at 217 Bank Street. They, of course, lived upstairs. A representative from the Historic Wallace Preservation Society notes: “I think the person who owns it [the home] is the one who put up the Halloween decorations. I have never seen any lights on. The front porch is also missing its floor, so I don’t think anyone lives there right now. Anyway, easy to find when you come through Wallace.” It is indeed strange to think of one of Hollywood’s iconic actresses living in what is now a small, run-down building.
The old Liberty Theater that Lana once tap danced in (at age 5 or 6) is now a bar called The Day Rock and it’s still there (as a bar).
As I mentioned before, Lana’s time in Idaho was brief, so I’d like to point you to two more locations in California.
Like so many other locations important to classic Hollywood history, the Top Hat Cafe no longer exists. It was once housed on the far side of this strip mall.
Finally, Hollywood High School is alive and well today. Proud of their link to educating some of classic cinema’s greatest stars, they are the “Home of the Sheiks,” with a terrific mural to boot!
Lana’s image is on their mural from the 1990s.
Whether you find yourself in the mountainous geography of Idaho or lounging in sunny California, I encourage you to take a moment and delve into the history of the town you are visiting. Classic Hollywood history is all around us!
–Annette Bochenek for Classic Movie Hub
Annette Bochenek is an independent scholar of Hollywood’s Golden Age and Travel Writer for Classic Movie Hub. You can read more about Annette’s Classic Movie Travels at Hometowns to Hollywood