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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.

(page 7 of 7)


The starcrossed couple share a close moment at a Hollywood club in September 1957.

 

Taps

In Woodstock mythology, Johnny Stompanato’s funeral features endless lines of black cars, gangs of swarthy mobsters, troops of undercover officers. Contemporary reports indicate an event far quieter than that. Around 75 friends and family, including Johnny’s first wife, Sara, gathered at the small Merwin chapel. The Reverend Cecil C. Urch of the Presbyterian church told the mourners, “Our purpose . . . is not to praise John Stompanato, but to give comfort and consolation to those who remain.” Johnny lay in an open coffin, dressed in a tuxedo and ruffled shirt.

A larger crowd proceeded to Oakland Cemetery, accompanied by Woodstock’s 22-man American Legion color guard. The legionnaires fired three volleys and blew taps. Johnny was buried in the family plot, beside the graves of his mother and father. His stepmother, Verena, stood by bereft. “Johnny was the only child that she had; she didn’t have any children of her own,” says Erlene Wille. “And it was very sad.”

Mickey Cohen had announced that he would pay for Johnny’s funeral, but he couldn’t attend himself because he was on trial in Los Angeles for punching out a waiter. He came to pay his respects about a month later. Art Petacque of the Sun-Times caught up with him in Chicago at the Sands Motel on North Sheridan, where a squad car kept watch outside. Johnny “never did a bad thing in his life,” Cohen said. “Whatever he did for me was legitimate—I was always in legitimate business as well as in the rackets.” Cohen argued that Johnny should be pitied. “He was like a little baby, like a young kid. He got rushed into a falsely glamorous life too fast.”

The next day, Cohen drove his new pink Cadillac to Woodstock. He put flowers on Johnny’s grave and took Carmine and Verena to dinner at the Elks Club. Later, Carmine told Woodstock’s police chief, Tiny Hansman, that the coffin Johnny arrived in from Los Angeles was cheap and too small. The family had to get a new one before they could bury him. Carmine added that he was going to reimburse whoever had bought the cheap casket—the family didn’t want to owe anyone anything.

* * *

Despite the finding of the coroner’s jury, the Stompanato family had trouble believing the accounts given by Lana and Cheryl. “I don’t have any desire to prosecute [Cheryl],” Carmine said at one point. “I just want the truth to come out.” In late April, the family sued Lana for $750,000 on behalf of Johnny’s son. They built their case on the claim that Lana had negligently failed to control her daughter, but in fact they seemed to be searching for information about what happened that night. The suit kicked around the California courts for a few years and at one point the famed lawyer Melvin Belli represented the boy. In 1961, the parties settled with a $20,000 payment.

Just a year after the slaying, Lana scored a Hollywood success in Imitation of Life, playing another mother of a problem teenager. Her career puttered on for several decades beyond that and then she became increasingly reclusive. In 1995, she died of throat cancer at 74.

Cheryl couldn’t escape her unhappy adolescence. Though she was removed only briefly from her family’s custody because of the homicide, later troubles landed her in reform school and an asylum. As a woman, however, she straightened up and found success as a real-estate agent. In her book, she writes of her longtime, loving partnership with another woman, a relationship that continues to this day. (In an e-mail, Cheryl said she had nothing to add to the facts in her book.)

Verena and Carmine Stompanato died years ago, and today the only Stompanato I could find in Woodstock is a retired schoolteacher who was married for a time to Carmine’s son, who is also now dead. The barbershop stayed open into the 1970s, then became the Stompanato Barber Shop Lounge before it finally closed. Today, the space is again a tavern, D. C. Cobb’s. I stopped in last summer, and the genial young man behind the bar had never heard of Johnny Stompanato.

As I gathered information, I wondered whether Johnny’s son, John III, might still be alive. He would be about 60 now, and I knew he had taken the name of his mother’s second husband, Ali Ibrahim, like her a Turkish immigrant. What had the son’s life been like? Had he escaped the notoriety that touched his family? Through an old Woodstock address book and some Internet sleuthing, I found John Ibrahim in California. Out of the blue, I called one day. He was understandably guarded, but as we were about to sign off on our first conversation, he asked me if I knew what day tomorrow was. I fumbled: An obscure religious holiday? The date of a big football game? I stared at my calendar. October 19th. The birthday of the father he had hardly known.

Last January I flew to California to visit John Ibrahim. He and his wife, Lilly, live in a modest over-55 community in a ranch house on a golf course in a flat, desert town east of Los Angeles. He is a handsome man who resembles his father, though he wears his graying hair short and he sports a trim salt-and-pepper beard. As we talk, he describes a productive life, with a close family. Ali Ibrahim adopted young John and raised him as his son. The two were close throughout the adoptive father’s life. Sara, John’s mother, is still alive and lives nearby. John himself has two children and five grandchildren. He served in the air force, then worked for years for the Defense Department, handling electrical systems on airplanes. Today, he is retired on disability, owing to lung damage from a career breathing in chemicals.

Only family and close friends know he is the son of Johnny Stompanato, and yet it’s clear that his natural father has often been in John’s thoughts. Sara sheltered the boy at Johnny’s death and didn’t let him go to the funeral, but John has read the newspaper clippings, the books. He doubts his father was as bad as portrayed. “How much do you believe in what you read?” he asks. Still, he has a theory about Johnny’s character: A baby boy, left motherless in his first years, and a loving family tries to compensate. “He was spoiled,” says John. “His family spoiled him.”

Today, John carries his father’s marine dog tags, and he has seen all of Lana Turner’s movies. He has even visited the house on North Bedford Drive in Beverly Hills. He wants to meet Cheryl. “I would like to sit and talk to her, just to find out, really, what is in the back of her mind . . . is it true or false or whatever?”

When I finally take my leave, walking out on a quiet street under the pale winter sun, the distant mountain peaks serve as a dramatic reminder that I am half a continent away from Woodstock. John Ibrahim, still wary of a reporter, waves goodbye from the driveway.

He had told me he was an emotional man, and at one point as we talked and traded information, he wiped tears from his eyes. Not strictly out of sadness, I think. We invest such hopes in our heroes, our friends, our spouses, our fathers. We make up our stories about them, contend with the facts. In they end, they don’t so much disappoint us as leave us unknowing.

Photograph: Bettman/Corbis


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