Lana Turner became one of the most glamorous, most talked about, most married and most courted stars ever to hit Hollywood. The killing of her then boyfriend, Johnny Stompanato in 1958, by her daughter was one of the most sensational stories of the entire decade. It was the kind of story that fit perfectly into Lana Turner's very colorful and eventful life. Her persona was one of smouldering sex appeal, both on screen and off. But the life and career that exuded so much glamour and fame began quite differently.
It is Hollywood legend how Lana Turner was "discovered" by a talent scout inside Schwab's drugstore in Hollywood in the mid 1930's. As a matter of fact, Schwab's would become synonymous with Turner as a result of the famed fable. Although the legend is similar to the real events that led to Lana Turner's discovery, it was not Schwab's, but the Top Hat Cafe where the future star was sitting that fateful day.
Julia Jean Mildred Frances Turner was born in Wallace, Idaho on February 8, 1921 (although many sources say 1920, Turner in her autobiography claims this is a mistake and she was actually born a year later). Her father was a gambler and sometimes bootlegger. Her mother, practically a child bride. The family moved to San Francisco when little Judy, as she was called, was still very young. In 1930, when she was nine, her father was murdered and robbed after winning big in a crap game. Her mother, Mildred, unable to give her daughter full time care, put her with several foster families. Mildred found work as a hairdresser and she and Judy eventually moved back in together. When Judy was fifteen, mother and daughter moved south to Los Angeles. There the already developed teenager enrolled at Hollywood High School, which was located across the street from the Top Hat Cafe and that was where fate smiled on young Judy Turner.
Cutting a typing class at Hollywood High, the precocious teen was sipping a Coke at the Top Hat soda fountain when she was spotted by Billy Wilkerson, publisher of the Hollywood Reporter, who noted her pretty face and shapely figure. He referred her to comedian cum agent Zeppo Marx (the fourth Marx Brother), which in turn led to a meeting with director Mervyn LeRoy. LeRoy signed Turner to a personal contract and placed his new protege in his upcoming film They Won't Forget (1937). at Warner Brothers. She had the small but pivotal role of Mary Clay, the young victim, who sashays down the street of a small southern town in a tight sweater which showcases her natural endowments. The role earned her the moniker of "The Sweater Girl", a title she kept well into the war years. She and LeRoy decided to change her name to the more glamorous Lana and the legend was born. She was loaned out to Samuel Goldwyn to play an Oriental handmaiden in the epic The Adventures of Marco Polo (1938), starring Gary Cooper. The role required that the starlet's eyebrows be shaved and a higher arch be drawn in by the makeup department. They never grew back and she would have to draw them in for the rest of her life.
When her mentor, LeRoy, moved from Warners to Metro Goldwyn Mayer, Turner followed, signing a contract with the top rate studio in early 1938 for $100 per week. Still a teenager, she joined fellow contract juveniles Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland in Metro's famed Little Red School House where they were tutored on the set. Early on she was given the glamour build up, despite her young age. Even among her contemporaries in her first film at MGM, Love Finds Andy Hardy (1938), it is Lana who is given the role of the glamorous teen aged vamp. Under LeRoy's tutelage she thrived at her new studio. She also thrived socially. Besides Rooney and Garland, her circle included young MGM hopefuls Robert Stack and Ann Rutherford. It also included handsome young men aplenty. Columnist began calling her the "Nightclub Queen". Out late and up early on the set, the underage starlet was burning the candle at both ends. It got to the point that a concerned Louis B. Mayer, head of MGM, called a meeting with Turner and her mother. The meeting climaxed with Mayer shouting, "The only thing you're interested in is....", as he pointed to his crotch.
The whirlwind of men and nightlife would finally culminate in the first of her seven marriages and numerous affairs. On February 8, 1940, her nineteenth birthday, she and bandleader Artie Shaw eloped on their first date. They would divorce four months later.