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American Gigolo

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.

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A cop examines Stompanato’s corpse.

 

The Pink Bedroom 

Though the slaying of Johnny Stompanato follows a rich tradition of Hollywood mayhem, it continues to intrigue because of the persistent speculation that Lana killed Johnny and, to save her career, arranged for Cheryl to take the blame. In fact, the homicide bristled with the sorts of anomalies that stoke the American love of conspiracy. To begin with, How could Johnny let it happen? He was an ex-marine with a résumé that, by some accounts, placed him as a bodyguard to Mickey Cohen; Cheryl was barely out of children’s clothes. Given a delay by Lana in calling the authorities and a strangely feckless coroner’s inquest, it’s hardly a wonder that the Stompanato family always thought there was more to the story than came out.

Still, only three people witnessed what happened in the pink bedroom on that Good Friday night, and the two who survived stayed basically consistent in their stories, from the immediate aftermath through their autobiographies decades later. And by everyone’s account, the whole evening’s tableau of happenstance, rage, violence, and tragedy has the messy illogic of real life, trampled by hysteria.

Johnny and Lana had been lovers for months, though afterwards Lana maintained that he had grown increasingly possessive and threatening and that she had been trying to break off the affair. Lana had just moved into a new, furnished house in Beverly Hills, and on the day of the killing, Cheryl, her troubled only child, was home for the holiday from her private school up the coast. Lana’s friend and makeup man, Del Armstrong, had dropped in for a visit and brought with him C. William Brooks II, a Hawaii businessman. In an odd coincidence, Brooks had known Johnny 17 years before when they were cadets at Kemper Military School, in Boonville, Missouri. Johnny hardly seemed eager for the mini reunion and left quickly.

“He had a great fear of me talking to her,” Brooks says today. It’s little wonder. Johnny had told Lana he was 43. Here was Brooks, 34, who revealed to Lana that he had been a year ahead of Johnny in school.

For an actress who, at 38, was already self-conscious about her age, the thought of being squired by a younger man was terrifying. After the guests left and Johnny returned, Lana berated him for lying about his age. She insisted that the affair was over, and he had to leave. He yelled at her for drinking too much and refused to go.

The argument drifted upstairs, where Johnny followed Lana into Cheryl’s room. In her 1988 autobiography, Detour (written with help from the veteran entertainment reporter Cliff Jahr), Cheryl says that now, for the first time, she saw Johnny’s rage: “[H]is neck veins stood out and he breathed from one side of his mouth. He hunched his shoulders as though he were going to pull out a pair of six-shooters, while the hands at his sides clenched and writhed like a snake’s tail in death.”

The fight moved to Lana’s bedroom. According to Lana’s testimony at the inquest, Johnny shook her violently and told her he would never let her go, that “I would have to do any and everything he told me, or he would cut my face or cripple me and if it went beyond that he would kill me and my daughter and my mother.”

Cheryl heard the terrible threats. She knew of her mother’s aversion to calling the police—bad publicity, of course. In a panic, she says, she ran downstairs. In the kitchen, she seized a knife with an eight-inch blade and dashed back upstairs, intending, she says, to scare Johnny. More screaming in the bedroom. Cheryl pounded on the door. It opened suddenly. “Mother stood there, her hand on the knob,” Cheryl says in Detour. “He was coming at her from behind, his arm raised to strike. I took a step forward and lifted the weapon. He ran on the blade. It went in. In! For three ghastly heartbeats our bodies fused. He looked straight at me, unblinking. ‘My God, Cheryl, what have you done?’”

In her testimony, Lana said the whole thing happened so fast, “I truthfully thought she had hit him in the stomach with her fist.” Johnny staggered and fell onto the pink carpet, “making dreadful sounds in his throat, gasping, terrible sounds,” Lana said. He hadn’t been about to hit her—his arm was raised because he was carrying a jacket and shirt on a hanger.

Lana got a towel for the wound and then phoned her mother, who lived nearby and who called a doctor. Lana summoned the lawyer Jerry Geisler, a famous Hollywood Mr. Fixit. They tried to resuscitate Johnny and the doctor gave him a shot of adrenaline. The Stompanato family later questioned why it took Lana and her people so long—at least 30 minutes—to summon the police. But the authorities said it wouldn’t have made any difference. Johnny Stompanato died within five minutes. On his wrist, he wore a silver bracelet inscribed in Spanish: “Papa Johnny, sweet love of mine, when you use this remember it is a piece of my heart that will always be with you. . . . With all my love, Lanita.”

Mickey Cohen identified the body at the morgue and called Woodstock with the details. Carmine Stompanato, a 45-year-old barber in the family shop, flew out to Los Angeles to bring his younger brother home.

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Photograph: Los Angeles Times/AP


 

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