Tears ran down Lana Turner’s face that April 11, 1958, but by some miracle her makeup never smeared as she recounted on the witness stand what had happened a week earlier on Good Friday: Lana’s 14-year-old daughter, Cheryl Crane, killed Lana’s lover, low-grade gangster Johnny Stompanato, by running a knife through his chest. While the public lapped up the torrid Lana-Johnny love letters leaked to the press, Turner’s every word at the coroner’s inquest was faithfully captured by reporters. A four-time divorcée, the 37-year-old actress wasn’t known for her selective taste in men, and her testimony provided the anticipated titillation.
For over an hour Lana retold the whole sordid episode: She had taken Johnny to task for lying about his age — he had told her he was 43 but was in fact 11 years younger — and during the fight he had threatened to rearrange her face with a coat hanger. Cheryl heard the argument, grabbed a knife in the kitchen, met Johnny at the door of Lana’s all-pink boudoir, and stabbed him.
The court ruled that was justifiable homicide, but the drama wasn’t over. Rumors began to circulate that it was Lana who had stabbed her lover. At any rate, Turner received a career catapult. Her next film, 1959’s Imitation of Life — about a troubled mother-daughter relationship — was a blockbuster. Cheryl didn’t fare as well. She became a ward of the state, spending most of her adolescence in a reform school while Turner and Cheryl’s father, restaurateur Stephen Crane, fought for custody. Lana finally won just before Cheryl turned 18.
Mother (now 71 and living in Los Angeles) and daughter (now in San Francisco and author of the 1988 autobiography Detour: A Hollywood Story) say they never really discussed the killing until 1986. Since every news story about them contained a few sentences about the incident, they euphemistically referred to it as ”the paragraph.” And that’s a paragraph that Hollywood historians will never forget.
Time Capsule: April 11, 1958
The Champs topped the pop charts with the intoxicating ”Tequila”. Gunsmoke sat tall in the TV ratings. The Long, Hot Summer made box office heat. And the killer best-seller was Anatomy of a Murder by Robert Traver.