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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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“John Steele”


Turner in 1937, at the beginning of her career

With Cohen and his cronies, or on his own, Johnny gravitated to the nightspots along Sunset Strip, places that brought together money, glamour, and beauty. Hollywood offered Johnny a lush environment to flaunt his looks and charm. He “was running around with every broad in the movie industry,” Cohen writes. (In Detour, Cheryl recounts the gossip that Johnny was nicknamed “Oscar” because the size of his penis recalled the Academy Award statuette.)

In 1948, Johnny married the actress Helen Gilbert, whose slight career was shifting from movies to television. She was ten years older than he, and the marriage lasted just three months. Later, she reportedly testified, “Johnny had no means. I did what I could to support him.”

He had his eye on the stars. Chasing after Ava Gardner, Johnny apparently never got much beyond sharing drinks, but it was enough to infuriate her other suitor of the time, Frank Sinatra. In his book, Cohen reports that Sinatra asked him to get Johnny to stay away. Cohen says he told the singer: “I don’t mix in with no guys and their broads, Frank.”

Around 1950, Stompanato began surreptitiously courting the actress Janet Leigh, sending her flowers and records with a card signed “Johnny.” The two finally met and even visited together on a few occasions, but when Johnny finally revealed who he was and described his connections to the mob, Leigh sent him packing.

In 1953, Johnny broke his pattern and married a younger woman, Helene Stanley, an actress best known for playing Davy Crockett’s wife in the Disney TV show. The year before, in Woodstock for his father’s funeral, Johnny had invited Erlene Wille and her then husband to drop in if they ever vacationed in Los Angeles. In 1954, they did and looked Johnny up—just knocked on the door, as she tells it today. “He came to the door and said, ‘Oh, hi!’ as if we were his long-lost friends. I mean, he was so happy to see us.”

He was living with Helene Stanley and her parents, and he was raising parakeets in back. The Woodstock couple stayed at a nearby motel and joined Johnny and his wife at a lively party that night. At one point, Johnny confided to Wille that he wanted his young son, who was living with his mother in Indiana, to come out for a visit in the summer. “And I said I didn’t think it was a good idea—’He doesn’t even know you,’” Wille recalls. “And, oh, well, he didn’t see why not. He was his father!”

Wille befriended Helene Stanley and kept in touch by mail. A year or so later, Stanley revealed that the marriage was breaking up. “I wrote and I said, ‘I thought Johnny really loved you,’” Wille says, “and she wrote back and said, ‘He doesn’t; all he really cares about is what he can get out of me.’” They divorced in 1955.

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Over the years, Johnny held down a series of legitimate jobs—or, at least, he claimed to: jeweler, car salesman, florist, pet shop owner. His last occupation was running the Myrtlewood Gift Shop, the place that had been generously funded by Doris Jean Cornell. Cheryl Crane worked one summer in the shop, and in her book she recalls it as a “puzzling operation,” with “some inexpensive pieces of crude pottery and wood carvings displayed as if they were art.” Johnny spent most of his time in the back on the phone, and part of Cheryl’s job was to “run to the post office with brown packages eight inches square. Judging by their size and weight, they probably weren’t pottery.”

He was spending less time with Cohen (who served time for tax evasion in the early 1950s), and Johnny occasionally left hints that he wanted to break away from the mob. Wille recalls that he came through Woodstock one time and told his family he was going to escape by leaving the country. He got as far as New York, and something or somebody turned him back. At home in California, he told Wille’s husband that he wasn’t “involved” at that point, but he carried a gun because, as she recalls, “there were always the little guys that were trying to make a name for themselves that were ready to shoot somebody like him who already had a name.”

By the time he met Lana Turner in the spring of 1957, Johnny increasingly entertained hopes of getting into the movie business. “[H]is dream was to become a motion picture producer,” writes Taylor Pero, who worked as the actress’s personal manager in the 1970s and later co-wrote the book Always Lana. Other accounts say Johnny even had a story in mind that he unsuccessfully urged Lana to option.

At 37, Lana’s Hollywood image as a ripe Sweater Girl was starting to fray, and her prospects of staying a bankable star seemed uncertain. She and her mother had moved to Los Angeles after her father, a gambling man, had been bludgeoned to death in San Francisco. As a teenager, Lana had been discovered at a soda shop, and throughout the 1940s and early 1950s she starred in 20 or so movies, notably as a sexually charged small-town wife in The Postman Always Rings Twice and a scorned and embittered movie actress in The Bad and the Beautiful. The summer after she met Johnny, she started work on Peyton Place, playing the mother of a troubled teenager. Her personal life was messy: She had already been through four husbands.

Johnny first courted her just the way he had approached Janet Leigh: with an outpouring of flowers and record albums, accompanied by a card signed, “John Steele.” In her autobiography, Lana says she raged at him when she finally learned, after they had started their affair, that he was really Johnny Stompanato, a Mickey Cohen associate. She hesitated to appear in public with him, fearing bad publicity. Still, she stayed with him as he lavished jewelry and a blanketing attention on her. He telephoned constantly, broke into her apartment and bedroom, told her she would never get away from him. Still, Lana admits she was hooked: “His consuming passion was strangely exciting,” she writes. But it wasn’t just the sex, which she calls “nothing special.” He could be thoughtful and caring, and she was weak and lonely.

Through the summer and fall of 1957, Johnny insinuated himself into Lana’s life. He gave Cheryl her summer job and bought the teenager a horse (Cohen later claimed to have paid for it). Some days, Cheryl and Johnny would go riding together in the hills above Los Angeles. “[There] were times I saw more of him than [my mother] did,” Cheryl writes in Detour. Cheryl was the daughter of Lana’s second husband, Stephen Crane. The girl had endured what she calls an “appalling” childhood—scrambling for her mother’s attention and suffering sexual abuse at the hands of her mother’s fourth husband, the actor Lex Barker. She had become hard to handle, and Lana worried about the crowd she hung out with. Johnny came up with the idea of sending her to live with his stepmother in quiet little Woodstock, and with Lana’s approval broached the idea. Verena Stompanato eventually said no—she thought she was too old to take in a troubled teenager, Wille recalls.

In her book, Cheryl remembers her outings with Johnny as “halcyon” and calls him her “sidekick.” Though people later speculated that Johnny, too, had abused her, Cheryl says no—"[H]e took pains to stay at arm’s length,” perhaps aware of her previous torment.

It’s tempting to think of Johnny at about this time as a kind of pernicious Jay Gatsby, almost within reach of the alluring green light at the end of the pier—life with a genuine star, a place for himself in the movie business, a path carrying him beyond the tawdry fame of being one of Mickey Cohen’s boys. But a better literary parallel probably comes from Budd Schulberg’s 1941 Hollywood novel, What Makes Sammy Run? Another ambitious son of earnest immigrants, Sammy Glick scammed and wormed his way to success in the movie business, shamelessly using and discarding people as he went.

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Photograph: AP Photo/Stewart

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