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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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Her finest performance: A week after the slaying, a distraught Turner testifies at the coroner’s inquest looking into Stompanato’s death. The jury would deliverate for less than half and hour before delivering its verdict.

 

Farm Town 

When Johnny Stompanato was growing up in Woodstock in the 1920s and ’30s, the Stompanatos were one of the few Italian families in the town of 6,000 or so. Johnny’s parents, John Sr. and Carmela, were born in Italy, but met and married in Brooklyn. They moved in 1916 to Woodstock, where John took a job in a barbershop and Carmela worked as a seamstress. John founded a beauty and barbershop in 1929, and in 1949 he opened a real-estate business under the same roof. Outside of town, he had a small farm with dairy cattle.

Before Johnny, the Stompanatos had three children, Grace, Teresa, and Carmine, and the family lived in a big house on Blakeley Avenue a few blocks southwest of the high school. Though the town had a flourishing Catholic church, the family belonged to the Presbyterian Church.

The girls were in high school and Carmine was 12 when Carmela delivered John Jr. by cesarean section on October 19, 1925. Six days later, she died of peritonitis in the Woodstock hospital. Both local dailies ran front-page articles. The American described her as the “favorite Italian mother of Woodstock.” The Sentinel called the death “very very sad.”

Though there’s no way to know the impact on the infant of the absence of his mother, in later life Johnny showed a remarkably consistent inclination to attach himself to older women. In any case, four years later, John Sr. took a new wife, a Wisconsin woman named Verena Frietag, and she and young Johnny enjoyed a warm relationship. Years later, Erlene Wille recalls, “he said, ‘I used to get confused, whether she was my real mother and [my father] was my stepfather, or vice versa.’”

Woodstock kids in those days had the run of the pretty little town. Johnny played marbles in front of the courthouse, games in the leafy square. Casimer Polizzi, a younger schoolmate from another Italian family in town, says Johnny had a bit of a swagger early on. “He was my protector—nobody fooled around with me as long as I was with Jack. He was tough, but he liked people.” This was less than a decade after Al Capone ruled Chicago, and given Johnny’s Italian name, dark complexion, and curly black hair, Polizzi recalls, kids used to say he was connected to the Mafia. 

Johnny may have been happy to encourage the notion, but people who knew the Woodstock Stompanatos say it was utterly false. Wille, who worked in the barbershop for six or seven years in the late 1940s and early ’50s, never saw or heard a hint of anything to do with the mob. “They were nice, good people,” she says.

Johnny’s peers remember a boy who was rambunctious, but not a serious troublemaker. “Jack was a devil—he got away with everything,” recalls Alice Nulle, who knew him from church. By the time Johnny hit his teens, however, he had become a handful at home. He put in a year at Woodstock Community High School, and then in 1941 his parents enrolled him at Kemper. The institution (closed since 2002) had a reputation as one of the outstanding military schools in the country.

Johnny’s grades put him in the bottom half of the class, and teachers complained he didn’t work to capacity. “Better than average intelligence and a quick learner when he wishes, but interested in little but salacious literature and women,” says a note on his record. (Kemper’s records are at the Western Historical Manuscript Collection at the University of Missouri at Columbia.)

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By then Johnny was six feet tall, 180 pounds, with dark wavy hair. He tooted saxophone in the band and wrestled and swam to little distinction. His interests lay elsewhere. “He was a good-looking scamp and he liked his fun,” recalls Richard Heisler, who also came from Woodstock and knew Johnny at Kemper. “The girls all went for him.”

Johnny’s roommate one year was a former New Trier High School student named Hugh Krampe, who went on to fame as the actor Hugh O’Brian, star of the 1950s TV show The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp. “He was a pretty amazing person in many ways,” O’Brian says of Johnny today. “Unfortunately, not all of it was put to use in the right direction.”

O’Brian recalls that Kemper occasionally ordered up surprise five- to ten-mile marches early in the morning. It seemed as if Johnny had always checked into the infirmary those mornings and hence avoided the hikes. The other boys suspected that he was having an affair with a nurse, who would alert him to the surprise drills.

Like kids in Woodstock, the Kemper boys gossiped that Johnny’s family had links to the mob. Many were “country club boys,” as the widow of one classmate puts it, and gave Johnny a wide berth. “He kinda liked that reputation,” Bill Brooks recalls.

In his second and final year, Johnny seemed to make a little academic progress and teachers began to cite his college potential. By then, though, the United States was well into the war.  Johnny enlisted as a private in the marines, joining the 1st Marine Division, one of the military’s legendary fighting units.

By the spring of 1944 he was in the Pacific, moving from island to island as a clerk in a service battalion. During the war, the Sentinel sent copies of the paper to local boys overseas and asked them to send letters back. On August 10, 1944, the paper printed a note from Johnny written on a Japanese post card. “We have a wonderful bunch of fellows in our outfit and everything is pretty much O.K. Of course we would rather be home but that is besides the point . . . ,” he wrote. “But when the outfit isn’t in a combat zone we have movies most every night. It is a grand thing, the motion picture industry is doing by seending [sic] the movies over here to us.”

Five weeks later, the 1st Marine Division invaded Peleliu, a tiny island held by the Japanese. “Peleliu was a horribly costly battle,” says Len Hayes, a retired marine colonel who is executive director of the 1st Marine Division Association and who examined Johnny’s military records. “[Stompanato] was in a service unit, but he would have seen action, artillery fire and mortar fire. At Peleliu, everybody came under fire.”

The next April, Johnny participated in the capture of Okinawa. By the time the island had been subdued, however, he was up to trouble—sneaking into the officers’ mess wearing someone else’s lieutenant’s stripes. “That’s just the kind of guy he was,” says Alice Nulle, whose late sister, a nurse, was on Okinawa with Johnny. “Nobody was going to tell him what to do.”

* * *

Johnny took his discharge in March 1946 in the Far East. He claimed later on that he ran a string of nightclubs in China, though it’s likely he was just polishing his résumé for his cronies in Hollywood. By another account, he was working as a civilian for the U.S. government. In any case, one day the handsome ex-marine wandered into a dress shop in Tientsin and met a petite, pretty saleswoman named Sara Utush, who had grown up in China with her immigrant Turkish parents. The attraction was immediate. Johnny converted to Islam to marry Sara that May. Not long afterwards, he brought her back to Woodstock. She told Erlene Wille that she didn’t realize until they were filling out papers for the return that he was only 20, five years her junior. She said she knew that wasn’t good, but by then they were married.

After marine combat and China, Johnny grew restless in Woodstock, where he drove a bread truck and worked in an auto-parts factory. Sara got pregnant, but Johnny left for California not long after the baby, John III, was born. Sara had to work nights, sewing in a factory. Charla Johansen Pierce, whose mother baby-sat the child, remembers that Sara sang to the little boy to put him to sleep. “And then she had to go to work,” Pierce says.

Later, after Johnny’s death, Sara spoke graciously of her ex-husband. “He had a good heart, you know,” she told a reporter, “but he just never grew up.”

* * *

Photograph: Bettmann/Corbis


 

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