A Murder in Hollywood: The Untold Story of Tinseltown's Most Shocking Crime

Image of A Murder in Hollywood: The Untold Story of Tinseltown's Most Shocking Crime
Release Date: 
February 13, 2024
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“A Murder in Hollywood shines a bright light into the dark crevices of Hollywood at a time when #MeToo wasn’t even something that was dreamed about, much less uttered and taken up as a rallying cry.”

Lana Turner’s life was a lot like an old 45 rpm record, with an A side and a B side. The A side was a fantasy, set in motion when Judy Turner, as she was then known, was discovered in a Hollywood ice cream parlor by the publisher of The Hollywood Reporter. It was a fantasy on a trajectory that would see Turner displace Joan Crawford as Tinseltown’s leading lady.

The B side was a tragedy, littered with failed and abusive relationships, both physically and sexually. Some ended in marriages—which themselves ended—and some simply ended in disappointment and exploitation. Maybe the most tragic of her relationships ended with a sadistic mobster, the latest of her abusers, lying dead on her bedroom floor and her 14-year-old daughter charged with killing him.

In A Murder in Hollywood: The Untold Story of Tinseltown’s Most Shocking Crime, author Casey Sherman takes readers along for the rise and fall of one of the movie industry’s most glamorous stars and how it led to that fatal night. Her multiple tragic relationships would, ironically, prepare her for perhaps one of her most famous roles, in The Postman Always Rings Twice, with John Garfield as her co-star. As author Sherman writes, “Like her character, Cora, she knew what it was like to be young, beautiful, and trapped in a loveless marriage. It was a role that she had lived and was born to play.”

Sherman presents a Lana Turner not many will recognize, though many know of her discovery at Currie’s Ice Cream Parlor by Billy Wilkerson of The Hollywood Reporter, though it was not nearly as serendipitous a happenstance as legend would have us believe. Wilkerson did not just “happen” to be there. Rather, he typically spent half an hour out of each work day in places like Currie’s and Top Hat Café for the express purpose to “ogle pretty teenagers from Hollywood High.” In other words, he was a man on the prowl and Lana had the good fortune—or bad, depending on how you view it—to stumble into his hunting ground.

From that encounter, Wilkerson introduced Lana to talent agent Zeppo Marx, lesser known to his more popular brothers, Groucho, Harpo, and Chico. She was 15 at the time, but Zeppo added three years to that to make her more marketable. “As far as this industry goes,” he told her, “you’re eighteen.” And, just like that, he “had stolen what remained of Judy Turner’s childhood.” Zeppo never was one of the funny Marx brothers.

Paralleling the rise of, now, Lana Turner through the ranks of Hollywood was the rise in mobsterhood of Mickey Cohen, who worked his way east from Brooklyn to Cleveland via Chicago (“the ultimate finishing school for organized crime”), and on to Los Angeles, where he would later supplant Bugsy Siegel after his violent death. This was a time when the “cross-pollination between Hollywood glamour and gangsterism was becoming more commonplace in Los Angeles,” and Mickey knew how to work the system.

But sadly for Lana, a wagon hitched to Mickey’s star was that of a hood named Johnny Stompanato, sometimes known as Johnny Steele. Together, the two thugs perfected an almost fool-proof scheme tying together the movie and organized crime industries: luring stars into sexually compromising situations, surreptitiously photographing and filming them, and following up with extortion.

This was particularly effective with stars who had morality clauses in their contracts and whose studios feared adverse publicity. Turner was in their crosshairs. “The two gangsters reverse engineered the classic honey trap scheme, using Stompanato as bait to lure Lana into bed.” They had both heard rumors that Lana was bisexual and hoped to capture “some raunchy ménage à trois” to hang “over the actress’s head while siphoning off loads of cash from her bulging bank account.”

But Stompanato went beyond mere extortion, extending his physical and psychological control over the movie star through a disastrous romantic relationship. It ended badly for all involved when Stompanato delivered what would be his final beating of Turner while her 14-year-old daughter Cheryl was in the house to hear her mother’s screams. When Stompanato breathed his last breath, a knife to the abdomen—ostensibly wielded by Cheryl—the instrument of death, Lana’s physician, whom she had summoned, gave her the same instruction many in the movie business heard when confronted with scandal: “Call Jerry Giesler.”

Giesler, the attorney—or fixer—to the stars, had cut his lawyering teeth under the tutelage of flamboyant Los Angeles defense attorney Earl Rogers, who had defended the great Clarence Darrow on charges of jury bribery in 1912. Giesler knew that “Mickey Cohen would be hell-bent on revenge and out for Lana’s blood.” So the fixer did what fixers do: doctored the crime scene and provided his legal services to Cheryl. What followed was a blur of confusion and courtrooms, which are sometimes one and the same.

A Murder in Hollywood shines a bright light into the dark crevices of Hollywood at a time when #MeToo wasn’t even something that was dreamed about, much less uttered and taken up as a rallying cry. It’s enough to leave awed fans wondering whether Lana Turners’ fame and fortune were worth the heartache that accompanied the ride. Her story also suggests that, out of the entire stable of business managers that shepherd a movie star’s career, a lawyer just might be the most important, especially one for whom expediency trumps ethics.

Side A of Lana Turners’ life was the fantasy, side B the tragedy. The coda will have to wait for another book.