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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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“Like a kid brother": Stompanato (left) with his mobster mentor, Mickey Cohen, 1950.


Mickey’s Boy

Johnny Stompanato had been thinking about Hollywood since before he left his wife and child behind. He spoke vaguely of knowing some marines from Los Angeles, and at one point he urged an old schoolmate to join him on a foray there. The schoolmate turned him down, but Johnny found a traveling companion well outside the Woodstock norm—Charles A. Hubbard, a titled heir to an English fortune with whom Johnny danced an odd minuet for several years.

Like so much else about Johnny’s West Coast years, details are sketchy. By one account, Johnny met Sir Charles at a Chicago restaurant. Hubbard was headed cross-country, and Johnny went along. The two may have roomed together for a time in L.A. Over several years, Johnny later told the Internal Revenue Service, he “borrowed” $65,000 from Hubbard. The sum apparently was never paid back, and this led to unconfirmed suggestions that Johnny held something over his British companion.

Johnny soon fell in with the man who would color and shape the last decade of his life. Mickey Cohen had been a thug and likely a killer in his younger days, but by the late 1940s he was running gambling operations and vice rackets out of his clothing store on Santa Monica Boulevard. By various accounts, East Coast mobsters had instructed him to keep an eye on West Coast business, which meant, principally, the activities of Bugsy Siegel, a Hollywood figure who had helped pioneer casinos in Las Vegas. A sniper assassinated Siegel at his girlfriend’s home in 1947, leaving Cohen as the mob kingpin on his side of the country. The Siegel murder has never been solved.

Mickey Cohen made other mobsters anxious. A puggish ex-boxer, he had grown into a peacock who hung out with reporters. Whether his flamboyance provoked his colleagues or he simply got tangled in the usual underworld disputes, he was targeted for several shootings and two home bombings in the late 1940s and early ’50s in the so-called Sunset Strip War.

It’s not clear how Johnny hooked up with Cohen—by one account, they met at Cohen’s haberdashery; by another, Johnny took a job as a bouncer at a Cohen club. But by July 1949 (according to Hollywood’s Celebrity Gangster, a Cohen bio by Brad Lewis), when gunmen ambushed Cohen and his cronies as they left a Sunset Strip nightspot, Johnny was in the entourage—and escaped unharmed.

The newspapers and cops insisted on referring to Johnny as Cohen’s bodyguard, but that seems to overstate the case. Cohen scoffs at the notion in his 1975 autobiography, Mickey Cohen: In My Own Words. “There was no get-up about Johnny being a bodyguard at all,” Cohen says. “He didn’t have the kind of vicious makeup whatsoever for those kind of things. In fact, although he was a marine hero, when it come to violence or gun activities outside a war situation, Johnny would shy away completely.”

Cohen recounts how his crew terrorized Johnny during the Sunset Strip violence by putting black handprints on his garage door, supposedly an ancient sign that he had been marked for death. The henchmen were teasing and testing Johnny, and Cohen had to tell them to lay off.

In fact, Cohen genuinely seemed to enjoy the handsome younger man. “He was like a kid brother,” Cohen writes. Johnny hung out at Cohen’s house, and he often served as Cohen’s driver. Occasionally, the two traveled cross-country together. Because of Cohen’s notoriety, they were chased away by cops in cities along the way, including Chicago. “We don’t want your scar tissue scattered around our city,” deputy chief of detectives John T. O’Malley told Cohen. Perhaps on that same trip, Johnny dropped Cohen somewhere and drove the mobster’s big black car to Woodstock. The town’s hugely fat police chief, Emery “Tiny” Hansman, ordered Johnny to get the thing off the streets—Woodstock didn’t want any trouble, either.

Johnny’s police record and FBI file suggest he was a lackey for Cohen—running errands, handling cash, making purchases, perhaps operating small businesses used to launder money. Johnny carried a gun at least occasionally, and confidential informants told the FBI that he collected protection money from spots that had jukeboxes ($1 per week) and picked up proceeds from the numbers racket. In that period, he sometimes used an alias (Johnny Valentine, Thommie Valen) and he was arrested six times, usually for vagrancy (part of a police effort to “dehoodlumize” the strip, as the authorities put it). None of the charges stuck.

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By far the darkest aspect of Johnny’s dealings with Cohen—one that is featured in rumor and allegations—involves sex and blackmail. Stories circulated that Cohen ran an extortion operation that preyed on Hollywood stars, acquiring tapes and photos of compromising encounters. When Johnny appeared on the scene, the stories go, he became Cohen’s magnet for aspiring actresses and established stars. “This was a guy who Cohen had seduce targeted women—anyone who was on her way up or down,” says Ted Schwarz, the author of Hollywood Confidential: How the Studios Beat the Mob at Their Own Game. Schwarz says his chief source for the blackmail charge is an ex-cop turned investigator named Fred Otash, whose credibility suffers somewhat from his association in that era with Confidential magazine, a notorious scandal sheet.

The authorities certainly believed that Johnny had used his charms to take advantage of women. Immediately after his death, Beverly Hills police chief Clinton H. Anderson called him “a gigolo type character,” and the newspapers quoted a Los Angeles police report that accused him of preying on rich women (the report apparently contained no details). Johnny’s old roommate Hugh O’Brian, who ran into him occasionally in Hollywood, says he heard various accounts that suggested the accusations were true. “He carried a date book and always had 8 to 15 women in it, all of them married,” O’Brian says. “He would see them at a club and somehow get their phone number. Then he would call—’I saw you last night at Ciro’s. I got your number because I think you’re the most beautiful woman in the world.’ They’d ask, ‘Who’s this?’ And he’d tell them he can’t say. Then he’d hang up. He’d do it two or three times and lure them in.”

Eventually, Johnny and his target would meet and the encounters often led to sex, O’Brian continues. After a few trysts, Johnny would tell his victim he needed a small loan, $150 or so. She would give it to him. Soon enough, he would ask for big money—"$5,000 or so,” O’Brian says. “They’d say, ‘That’s too much.’ He’d say, ‘If I don’t get this money, your husband will get pictures.’ Usually, the women came through.”

A loose piece of evidence that turned up after Johnny’s death supports O’Brian’s account: Chief Anderson said he had found incriminating negatives in a little wood box that Johnny owned. “The pictures would have been a gold mine for a blackmailer,” said Anderson. He added that the “picture collection verified information we already had.” The chief said he destroyed the film, and that was that.

According to Johnny’s FBI file, the Los Angeles Police Department long suspected him of being a pimp. Despite investigations, however, the LAPD never charged him. The file is thin on specifics, but one anonymous source provides a secondhand account from a woman who claimed Johnny had lured her into prostitution. The woman said he charmed her and she became infatuated. Then he borrowed money, which he didn’t repay. When he wanted more money, he suggested she quit her job and work as a call girl. She did, and Johnny arranged for another man to send her dates, at a minimum of $20 per. She estimated that she gave Johnny at least $5,000 of her earnings before quitting the game.

The shady financial manipulations echo a style of Johnny’s operation that is undisputed. After his death, authorities turned up a number of troubled transactions. A woman described by the papers as a “pretty, red-haired Mar Vista widow” acknowledged she had loaned him $8,150 to start a gift shop, a loan that was never repaid. “He needed the money to buy it and he came to me because he said he felt I was the only one he could talk to,” Doris Jean Cornell told reporters. “He was nothing but a gentleman toward me and there was no romantic interest whatsoever.”

Johnny’s effects also included several bankbooks and documents that seemed to indicate he had been married to a Rosemary Trimble, “the beautiful blond wife of a West Los Angeles physician,” as the Los Angeles Times put it. Mrs. Trimble said she and her husband knew Johnny while he was married to his third wife. “We played cards with them,” she said. “He seemed to be a very nice man at the time, but as far as being married to him—oh, no!”

In all, Johnny left a thick portfolio of unpaid obligations and other financial shenanigans, the sort of record that would have appalled his enterprising immigrant father. (For all the money that passed through Johnny’s hands, his estate totaled $274 at his death.) Erlene Wille thinks the family didn’t realize he was hanging out with the notorious Mickey Cohen until a picture of the two of them together appeared in Life magazine. She recalls that another barber in town ran down to the news depot and bought up all the copies to save the Stompanatos further embarrassment.

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Photograph: AP

 

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