Here’s a tale of two actresses who responded very differently to the blandishments of one Johnny Stompanato (pictured in mug shots above.)
Who he? Please read on.
Hello, everybody. Joe Morella and Frank Segers, your classic movie guys, marveling at how close were the links between the movie studios in the Forties and Fifties and organized crime.
The big studios today are run as faceless corporate entities by interchangeable bureaucrats operationally on another planet from the Bugsy Siegels and Mickey Cohens of Hollywood lore. But back then, gangsters were required by studio bigwigs for all manner of purposes — both business and personal — and it was not uncommon for mobsters to date actresses.
In 1950, Janet Leigh was a young, aspiring star still living at home with her parents. She was perplexed by the bouquets of flowers accompanied by Billy Eckstine records that arrived daily with a card simply signed, ‘Johnny.’ Finally, a phone call.
‘No — you don’t know me . But I know and admire you and would like to take you out.’ In her 1984 memoir There Really Was A Hollywood, Leigh told the deep masculine voice on the line that while she couldn’t date a total stranger, he was welcome to come to meet Janet — accompanied by her parents. Janet thought the offer would end the discussion, but she was wrong.
At 6 p.m. sharp in walked a tall, powerfully built, dark-haired, extremely handsome man who had just parked a Cadillac in the driveway. ‘I’m Johnny,’ he announced before settling in for a pleasant round of conversation with Janet’s parents during which he described himself as a ‘businessman.’
Fast forward to the couple’s first date with Stompanato taking Janet to a private club near the Pacific Coast Highway south of Malibu. Over coffee, no less, he tendered a proposal. ‘Janet, I am going to tell you something now — something about me — that is highly confidential. I must trust you with this, because I want you to be ‘my girl.’
‘I am a syndicate man, a member of the mob. This lounge is frequented only by those on the inside who are in the know and in good standing. When one of us takes a girl, he has to be sure of her loyalty…my name is Johnny Stompanato.
Flabbergasted at what he just said, Janet registered surprise, quickly turning to panic. Assuring that their conversation was indeed confidential, she blurted out that she just couldn’t handle your profession. Johnny offered to take her home. He did, and that was the last Leigh ever heard from him.
Born in 1925 in Woodstock, Illinois, Stompanato went to a military high school before joining the Marines in 1943, and seeing combat in the Pacific. After a failed marriage, he arrived at 22 in Hollywood in 1948, and quickly connected with Cohen, according to the author Tere Tereba’s newly-published biography of the gangster, Mickey Cohen: The Life and Crimes of L.A.’s Notorious Mobster.
Johnny’s FBI file describes him as a procurer of girls for Mickey Cohen’s out-of-town contacts. The LAPD blunt characterization: a notorious pimp. Cohen described him as lacking a ‘vicious nature,’ a lover, not a fighter. His bedroom prowess quickly became legendary, writes Tereba. Oscar, his nickname, referred to the Academy Award-winning size of his phallus.
Enter Lana Turner. Stompanato, using the pseudonym of John Steele and presenting himself as a record producer, began courting the 35-year-old star in the mid-Fifties when her career was in a funk. Flowers, jewelry, flattery was in his arsenal and soon Lana was hooked, calling him as many as five times hourly. Stompanato also paid attention to Turner’s adolescent daughter, Cheryl.
But there were also threats and reports of physical abuse.
The end of the affair came on a rainy Good Friday night, April 4, 1958, with the information that Stompanato’s dead body could be found on the floor of the pink bedroom of Lana’s Bedford Drive residence. And eight-inch kitchen knife had been shoved into his solar plexis, piercing his aorta and kidney. Cheryl Crane was found to have committed justifiable homocide in trying to defend her mother, writes Tereba.
The saga of the star and Stompanato is one of Hollywood most enduring scandals. Many articles and books have been written over the years about the end of oh-so gentlemanly ‘Oscar.’