Over the course of her nearly fifty-year career, she would achieve fame as both a pin-up model and a serious dramatic actress, as well as for her highly publicized personal life.
The Great Garrick
The Adventures of Marco Polo
Four’s a Crowd
Rich Man, Poor Girl
Calling Dr. Kildare
These Glamour Girls
Two Girls on Broadway
We Who Are Young
Du Barry Was a Lady
Marriage Is a Private Affair
Keep Your Powder Dry
Flame and the Flesh
The Rains of Ranchipur
The Lady Takes a Flyer
Another Time, Another Place
Portrait in Black
By Love Possessed
Bachelor in Paradise
Who’s Got the Action?
Love Has Many Faces
The Big Cube
I planned on having one husband and seven children, but it turned out the other way around. ~ Lana Turner
I planned on having one husband and seven children, but it turned out the other way around. ~ Lana Turner
Lana Turner was born Julia Jean Turner on February 8, 1921 in the small mining town of Wallace, Idaho. She was the only child of John Virgil Turner, a miner from Mt. Pleasant, Tennessee (September 11, 1894 – December 14, 1930), who was 26 years old when Turner was born, and Mildred Frances Cowan from Lamar, Arkansas (February 12, 1904 – February 22, 1982), who was 16 years old when Turner was born.
As a child, Julia Turner was known to family and friends as “Judy”. Turner expressed interest in performance at a young age, performing short routines at her father’s Elks chapter in Wallace.
Hard times forced the family to relocate to San Francisco, California when Turner was six years old, and her parents soon separated. On December 14, 1930, her father won some money at a traveling craps game, stuffed his winnings in his left sock, and headed for home. He was later found murdered on the edge of San Francisco’s Potrero Hill and the Dogpatch District with his left shoe and sock missing. The robbery and homicide were never solved.
Turner was raised Roman Catholic and attended church in Stockton, California, taking the saints’ names “Mildred Frances” as her confirmation name, after her mother. She would later attend the Convent of the Immaculate Conception in San Francisco, hoping to become a nun in her adulthood. In the mid-1930s, Turner’s mother developed respiratory problems and was advised by her doctor to move to a drier climate, upon which the two moved to Los Angeles in 1936. Turner and her mother lived in poverty, and she was sometimes separated from her mother, living with friends or acquaintances so the family could save money. Her mother reportedly worked eighty hours a week as a beautician to support herself and her daughter. After Turner was discovered, her mother became the overseer of her career.
Turner’s discovery in Hollywood is considered by film historians to be a show-business legend, and has been recounted numerous times with slight variations. One version of the story has her discovery occurring at Schwab’s Pharmacy, but according to both Turner and a 1995 Los Angeles Times article, this was a reporting error that began circulating after the publication of articles by columnist Sidney Skolsky. According to Turner, as a junior at Hollywood High School, she skipped a typing class and bought a Coke at the Top Hat Malt Shop located on the southeast corner of Sunset Boulevard and McCadden Place. While in the shop, Turner was spotted by William R. Wilkerson, publisher of The Hollywood Reporter. Wilkerson was attracted by her beauty and physique, and with the permission of her mother, referred her to the actor/comedian/talent agent Zeppo Marx. In December 1936, Turner was introduced by Marx to film director Mervyn LeRoy, who signed her to a fifty-dollar weekly contract with Warner Bros. on February 22, 1937. At the suggestion of LeRoy, she would take the stage name Lana Turner, a name she would come to legally adopt several years later.
Her first picture with Warner Bros. was James Whale’s comedy The Great Garrick (1937) in a supporting part. LeRoy then cast Turner in her second film, They Won’t Forget (1937), a crime drama in which she played a teenage murder victim. Though the part was minor, William Wilkerson wrote in The Hollywood Reporter that Turner’s performance was “worthy of more than a passing note.” Turner earned the nickname “the Sweater Girl” from her form-fitting attire in a scene in They Won’t Forget. According to her daughter, this was a nickname Turner detested throughout her entire career. In late 1937, she signed a contract with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer for $100 a week, and graduated from high school in between filming. The same year, she was loaned to United Artists for a minor role as a maid in The Adventures of Marco Polo.
According to LeRoy, she made the switch thanks to him, for he left Warner Bros. to work at MGM and was advised by studio head Jack L. Warner to take her with him, because Warner believed that she would not “amount to anything.” Her first starring role for MGM was scheduled to be an adaptation of The Sea-Wolf, co-starring Clark Gable, but the project was eventually shelved. Instead, she was assigned opposite teen idol Mickey Rooney in the Andy Hardy film Love Finds Andy Hardy (1938). This appearance, as a flirtatious girl described as “the kissing bug,” convinced Louis B. Mayer that LeRoy’s protégée Turner could be the next Jean Harlow, a sex symbol who had died six months before Turner’s arrival at MGM.
Mayer helped further Turner’s career by giving her the leads in several youth-oriented films in the late 1930s and early 1940s, such as Dramatic School (1938), These Glamour Girls (1939) and Dancing Co-Ed (1939). In early 1940, she was also set to star in a remake of Our Dancing Daughters, but the film was never made. During World War II, Turner became a popular pin-up girl after her appearances in such films such as Ziegfeld Girl (1941), Johnny Eager (1942), and Slightly Dangerous (1943). Following the scrapped The Sea-Wolf project, Turner and Gable were set to star in The Uniform in December 1940. Turner was eventually replaced by Rosalind Russell, and the film was released as They Met in Bombay (1941). The same year, she had a supporting role in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1941), a Freudian-influenced horror film, opposite Spencer Tracy and Ingrid Bergman.
Turner also appeared in four films with Clark Gable between 1941 and 1954, beginning with Honky Tonk (1941). The Turner-Gable films’ successes were heightened by gossip-column rumors about a relationship between the two. In January 1942, she began shooting her second picture with Gable, titled Somewhere I’ll Find You; however, the production was halted for several weeks after the death of Gable’s wife, Carole Lombard, in a plane crash. Meanwhile, the press continued to fuel rumors that Turner and Gable were romantic off-screen, which Turner vehemently denied. Consequently, the publicity generated by this would lead MGM to play up her image as a sex symbol in her following film, a romantic comedy titled Slightly Dangerous (1943). In promotion of Somewhere I’ll Find You, Turner embarked on a nationwide war bond tour, during which she returned to her hometown of Wallace, Idaho with her mother, where she was greeted with a large celebration.
After the war, Turner was cast in a lead part in The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946) opposite John Garfield, a film noir based on James M. Cain’s debut novel of the same name. The now-classic film noir marked a turning point in Turner’s career as her first femme fatale role.
The Postman Always Rings Twice became a major box office success, which prompted the studio to take more risks on Turner, casting her outside of the glamorous sex symbol roles she had come to be known for. In August 1946, it was announced Turner was set to replace Katharine Hepburn in the big-budgeted historical drama Green Dolphin Street (1947), a role for which she darkened her hair and lost 15 pounds. It was Carey Wilson who insisted on casting Turner based on her performance in The Postman Always Rings Twice.
Later that year, Turner headlined Cass Timberlane, a role for which Jennifer Jones, Vivien Leigh, and Virginia Grey were previously considered. As of early 1946, Turner was set for the role, but schedules with Green Dolphin Street almost prohibited her from taking the role, and by late 1946, she was almost recast. Production of Cass Timberlane was very exhausting for Turner, as it was shot in between retakes of Green Dolphin Street. Nevertheless, she took the female lead in Homecoming (1948) in August 1947, only moments after finishing Cass Timberlane. She was the studio’s first choice for the role, but they were reluctant to offer her the part, considering her overbooked schedule. Paired again with Clark Gable in Homecoming, their chemistry projected on the screen was well received by the audience, and they were nicknamed “the team that generates steam.” By this period, Turner was at the zenith of her film career, and was not only MGM’s most popular star, but also one of the 10 best-paid women in the United States.
In 1948, Turner appeared in her first Technicolor film, as Lady de Winter in The Three Musketeers, opposite Gene Kelly, Van Heflin, and June Allyson. In November 1947, she agreed to do the film, thereby giving up an unfinished film project called Bedeviled. However, in January 1948, it was reported that she had withdrawn from the film. Initially, Louis B. Mayer gave her permission for doing so because of her schedule, but she was later that month put on suspension. Eventually, Turner agreed to make the film, but did not start production until March due to having to lose weight.
In 1949, Turner was to headline A Life of Her Own (1950). The project was shelved for several months, and Turner insisted in December 1949 that she had nothing to do with the delay.
During the 1950s, Turner starred in a series of films that garnered low box office sales, a situation MGM attempted to remedy by casting her in musicals. The first, Mr. Imperium (1951), was a flop, while The Merry Widow (1952) was more commercially successful. She also gave a widely praised performance in Vincente Minnelli’s film, The Bad and the Beautiful (1952).
In 1954, she was then cast in the epic The Prodigal (1955), followed by the John Wayne adventure film The Sea Chase (1955), which Turner shot in Hawaii. After starring in the period drama Diane (1956), MGM opted not to renew Turner’s contract. This was a difficult time for Hollywood’s major studios because a recent court decision forced them to divest themselves of their movie theaters. In addition, television had caught on in a big way; the public was staying home. Turner was just one of MGM’s star roster to be let go. Her career recovered briefly after she appeared in the hugely successful big-screen adaptation of Grace Metalious’s best-selling novel, Peyton Place (1957), for which she was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actress. Another few box-office failures followed (Another Time, Another Place, for example) when the 1958 scandal surrounding her daughter’s killing of Johnny Stompanato threatened to derail her career completely.
In the trail of the related negative publicity, Turner accepted the lead role in Ross Hunter’s remake of Imitation of Life (1959) under the direction of Douglas Sirk. Universal Studios capitalized on her new-found notoriety; the result was one of the biggest hits of the year, and the biggest of Turner’s career; she owned 50% of the earnings of the picture and during just the first year of the film’s release she earned $11 million. According to Hunter, the film made an excess of $50 million in box office receipts. Critics and audiences could not help noticing that the plots of Peyton Place and Imitation of Life each seemed to mirror certain parts of Turner’s private life. Specifically, both films depicted the troubled, complicated relationship between a single mother and her teenaged daughter.
She made her last film at MGM starring with Bob Hope in Bachelor in Paradise (1961), which received mostly positive critical reception. Turner’s projects of this era include By Love Possessed (1961), based on the James Gould Cozzens novel. On July 19, 1961, it became the first in-flight movie to be shown on a regular basis on a scheduled airline flight, by Trans World Airlines (TWA) to its first-class passengers. Other highlights of this period include two Hunter productions (for whom she did Imitation of Life), Portrait in Black (1960), a box office success, co-starring Anthony Quinn and Sandra Dee, and Madame X (1966), which proved to be her last major starring role.
Turner suffered from depression for much of her life. In her autobiography, Turner admitted that she had two abortions and also suffered three stillbirths. She said she was also an alcoholic and attempted suicide in September 1951 by slitting her wrists, following the end of her fourth marriage to Bob Topping. Her death was prevented however by her business manager, Benton Cole, who broke down her bathroom door and was able to call emergency medical services, saving Turner’s life. In 1980, Turner had what she referred to as a “religious awakening” and became a devout Roman Catholic.
Turner had a very close relationship with her only daughter, Cheryl (b. 1943). As a teenager, Cheryl came out as a lesbian to her mother and father.
Turner was well known inside Hollywood circles for dating often, for changing partners often, and for never shying away from the topic of how many lovers she’d had in her lifetime
Turner habitually married, marrying eight times to seven different husbands:
- Bandleader Artie Shaw (1940). Married only four months, Turner was 19 when she and Shaw eloped on their first date.
- Actor and restaurateur Joseph Stephen “Steve” Crane (1942–1943, 1943–1944). Turner and Crane’s first marriage in Las Vegas was annulled after she discovered that Crane’s previous divorce had not yet been finalized. After a brief separation, they remarried in order to provide for their newborn daughter, Cheryl. However, their brief second marriage barely lasted a year primarily because the two were simply not compatible.
- Millionaire socialite Henry J. “Bob” Topping Jr. (1948–1952)
- Actor Lex Barker (1953–1957), whom she divorced. In her memoir, Cheryl Crane states that Barker molested and raped her, and that after she informed her mother of this, Turner forced him out of the home at gunpoint, and immediately filed for divorce.
- Rancher Frederick “Fred” May (1960–1962), who was a member of the May department-store family. Married November 27, 1960, Turner and May separated in September 1962, and divorced shortly after.
- Robert P. Eaton (1965–1969); A movie producer
- Nightclub hypnotist Ronald Pellar, also known as Ronald Dante or Dr. Dante (1969–1972). The couple met in 1969 in a Los Angeles discotheque and married that same year. After about six months of marriage, Pellar disappeared a few days after Turner had written a $35,000 check to him in order to help him in an investment; he used the money for other purposes.
In 1946 after her divorce from Steve Crane, Turner briefly dated Howard Hughes, an affair that lasted for twelve weeks. She was also romantically involved with Tyrone Power for several months, and she considered him to be the love of her life. In her 1982 autobiography, Turner claims to have become pregnant with Power’s child in 1948, but she chose to have an abortion. While on a goodwill trip to Europe and South Africa the same year, Power fell in love with Linda Christian in Rome.
A lifelong heavy smoker, Turner was diagnosed with throat cancer in May 1992. At the urging of her daughter, Turner underwent radiation therapy to treat the cancer, and in February 1993, announced that she was in remission. Despite treatment, the cancer returned in July 1994. In September 1994, she made her final public appearance at the San Sebastián International Film Festival in Spain to accept a Lifetime Achievement Award, and was bound to a wheelchair for much of the event. Turner died nine months later at the age of 74 on June 29, 1995, of complications from the cancer at her home in Century City, Los Angeles, California. Her remains were cremated and scattered in Oahu, Hawaii.