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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 policewoman escorts Cheryl from jail.

At the end of Schulberg’s book, Sammy Glick is still on top, if alone. Johnny’s demise started as the summer of 1957 wore on and Lana began to have doubts about her mysterious boyfriend. In her autobiography, she tells a horrific story of his escalating anger and violence as she tried to curtail and ultimately end their affair. That fall, “an escape hatch seemed to open” when she flew to England to star with Sean Connery in Another Time, Another Place. But then she got lonely in cold, damp London and sent Johnny a ticket. “Our reunion was a joyful one and for a while John showed only his loving, docile side,” she writes. Soon he got bored, however, and insisted on coming to the studio. Their arguments built until one night he choked her so violently she had trouble talking and filming was disrupted. Her friend Del Armstrong was in London and arranged to have him deported.

When the movie wrapped, she left for Acapulco, planning a long rest. Her plane stopped in Copenhagen, and to her astonishment and dismay, she says, he met her at the airport and accompanied her to Mexico. She describes their stay at Villa Vera in Acapulco as a nightmare of tantrums and fights. He would never let her alone. After an iguana invaded her suite, the hotel’s proprietor gave him a gun and he used it to taunt and threaten her. “If you’re not going to be with me, you aren’t going to be with anyone else,” she says he told her.

Another escape hatch opened when she got word that she had been nominated for a best actress Oscar for Peyton Place. They cut short the vacation and flew back to Los Angeles, finding Cheryl, Lana’s mother, and an eager press corps at the airport. Johnny “seemed to be basking in the limelight,” Lana writes.

She refused to take him to the Academy Awards ceremony. He complained bitterly, and late that night when she got back to her bungalow at the Bel Air Hotel (having lost the Oscar to Joanne Woodward in The Three Faces of Eve), he was waiting and beat her viciously. Still, she didn’t try to get away from him or notify the police. Why? She writes that she was afraid. He had made repeated threats—he’d kill her or disfigure her face. He would kill her mother and Cheryl. He would use his mob connections to get the job done. “And then, too, there was the publicity,” Lana admits in the book. The newspapers would go to town if she went to the police, and her career would evaporate. “I was trapped, helpless because of my fear,” she writes.

Around that time, Lana’s mother, Mildred Turner, told the Beverly Hills police chief that her daughter was scared of Johnny and needed protection. Chief Anderson said there was nothing he could do unless Lana herself came to him. That didn’t happen, and a week later, during another bitter fight, Johnny ran into Cheryl’s knife.

In the immediate aftermath, Lana gave the authorities her account of being trapped and threatened. A few days later, Mickey Cohen deflated that bubble by giving the newspapers copies of letters Lana had sent Johnny from Europe. In her book, Lana calls them “too sentimental,” but that hardly describes the gushing endearments she showered on her lover: “Please keep well, because I need you so, and so you’ll always be strong and able to caress me, hold me, tenderly at first then crush me into your very own being,” she wrote in October from London. “[N]o matter what, it must be with me!!!”

Johnny apparently had a gift for gush, too. In another letter, Lana writes, “So many precious things you told me, described to me, each beautiful and intimate detail of our love, our hopes, our dreams, our sex and longings—My God, how you could write and when near me, make most of those dreams come to life and throb with the realness of you and me and us.”

In fairness to Lana, some passages in the later letters suggest that she was trying to pull away from him when she went to Acapulco—or, at least, she wanted to spend time alone to decide what to do. But Lana had been acting since she was 16; her letters and her behavior strongly suggest that she didn’t know what she felt—that she knew little of true passion beyond the romantic gestures, the purple words, the overheated outbursts.

I think a good case can be made that Lana and Johnny had a kind of folie à deux—a mutual delusion that each nourished alone and encouraged in the other. She vacillated between longing and fear. He swung between hope and fury. The lovers were so charged with misguided and misunderstood emotion that together they were almost bound to ignite a tragedy.

A week after the slaying a Los Angeles coroner’s jury held an inquest into the case. From this distance, the proceedings seem ludicrously thin. Among other things, the questioning of Lana was gentle and Cheryl never testified, appearing only through the statement she had given police the night of the killing. The jury quickly came back with a verdict of justifiable homicide. Observers wickedly called Lana’s trembling, weeping testimony her greatest performance ever.

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Photograph: Bettmann/Corbis

 

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