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The fatal triangle: Returning from a nightmarish Acapulco vacation in March 1958, Lana Turner and Johnny Stompanato arrive in Los Angeles, where they are met by Turner’s daughter, Cheryl Crane.
Fifty years ago this April, a young man from Woodstock, Illinois, named Johnny Stompanato was stabbed to death in the bedroom of his lover, the movie goddess Lana Turner. Stompanato was a minor hoodlum and notorious lothario, and news accounts eviscerated his character in the media frenzy after his death. Now a writer, also from Woodstock, follows a fading trail to find how a small-town Midwesterner landed at the heart of one of Hollywood’s most enduring scandals.
A gracious mapled square dominates the center of Woodstock, Illinois, the former farm town in the flat landscape about 60 miles northwest of Chicago. Though strip malls in the area have eaten into businesses in the heart of town, and residential development has gobbled the circling cornfields, the square itself retains its 19th-century charm, with a bandstand, a filigreed spring house, and a sturdy monument to Civil War soldiers.
An 1889 opera house, a charming relic of another civic age, holds down the square’s south side. As a teenager, Orson Welles, who had been deposited by his father in the excellent (now long gone) Todd School for Boys in Woodstock, put on shows at the opera house that helped launch his lifelong passion. On the square’s west side stands an antique courthouse and jail where the union activist Eugene Debs was held in 1895—far from the riotous city—for his role in the Pullman Strike. Today, the jail has been turned into a lively restaurant, and the neighboring courthouse contains galleries, shops, and the Dick Tracy museum, an attraction (slated to close in June) honoring the late Chester Gould, the comic strip’s creator and a longtime Woodstock resident.
Welles, Debs, Gould. Those names shine with as much luster as Woodstock has offered the world over the years, though if you go north from the square about a hundred yards on Main Street and look up at a fading pinkish storefront on the east side, you can see the ghostly outlines of another, more infamous name associated with the town: Stompanato.
Fifty years ago on an April Good Friday, Johnny Stompanato, the on-and-off lover of the movie star Lana Turner, was stabbed to death in her Beverly Hills bedroom by Turner’s 14-year-old daughter, Cheryl Crane. The slaying set off a worldwide sensation, and it remains one of Hollywood’s most notorious scandals.
I grew up in Woodstock, 20 years or so behind Johnny Stompanato, whose parents owned a barbershop and beauty salon on Main Street. On the Monday after his death, I remember seeing the famous photo on the front page of the Woodstock Daily Sentinel. (The caption began: “Woodstock got into the news plenty over the weekend. . . .") The three principals in the scandal had greeted photographers just weeks earlier—Lana, platinum and taut; handsome Johnny, his silk shirt unbuttoned to reveal a large medal dangling in a field of dark chest hair; and Cheryl, looking hopelessly plain and gawky against the glowing human specimens beside her. To an 11-year-old heartlander, the picture offered a perfect expression of the imagined Hollywood nuclear family, shortly before detonation.
At the time, Woodstock was still largely rural, still basically disconnected from Chicago. I wondered even then where this son of the small-town Midwest had come up with the ambition that would land him in Hollywood in the arms of a goddess. Over the years, even as I’ve come to realize that Hollywood is a repository of small-town refugees, I’ve tried to imagine what ignited Johnny—or Jack, as he was known in Woodstock.
His story, as it came out after his death, got told in a toxic confluence of tabloid reporting, police assertions, and spinning by the Hollywood establishment. The portrait appalled: hoodlum, blackmailer, bully, gigolo. But the reports were largely uncorroborated and many of them quoted each other in a kind of echo-chamber effect. I remained curious over the years, so recently I went back looking for a true picture of my fellow son of Woodstock. I suppose I secretly hoped to find evidence that an aggressive but basically decent man had been terribly libeled.
That doesn’t turn out to be the case. From this distance, it’s almost impossible to sort the facts, but in particular the accounts—largely unconfirmed but consistent—of his mistreatment of women are ugly and disheartening. Johnny could certainly charm, but he belongs to the predatory genus of that familiar archetype, the American dreamer. As Erlene Wille, who worked in his father’s shop and knew Johnny’s pleasing side, says in her gentle way, “I liked John, but I also don’t know that he was a man that you could trust.”
Still, for a villainous footnote in pop culture history, the Johnny Stompanato who emerges from a bit of research led an exotic, even mysterious life, certainly given his small-town roots and early death at 32. He served under fire as a marine in the Pacific theatre, hung out at Hollywood’s swankiest lounges, befriended the flamboyant West Coast mobster Mickey Cohen. Not even counting the affair with Lana, Johnny passed through a rich and beautiful assortment of women, including three wives. Indeed, it’s hard to separate Johnny’s ambition from his romantic escapades. Early on, he developed that passion that stirs some small-town folks to get out, move on, move up. And women were his way.
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