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Lana Turner, Glamorous Star of 50 Films, Dies at 75 : Hollywood: 'Sweater Girl' was a favorite GI pinup. Tragedy and seven marriages marred her private life.

June 30, 1995|From a Times Staff Writer

Lana Turner, whose icy elegance and poise made her one of Hollywood's top box-office attractions in more than 50 films and whose "Sweater Girl" pictures became favorite pinups of GIs around the globe during World War II, died of natural causes Thursday night after years of treatment for throat cancer.

Los Angeles Police Department spokeswoman Ramona Beaty confirmed that Turner, 75, died at her Century City home. Her daughter, Cheryl Crane, was by her side.

"She was doing fine. This was a total shock," Crane told Daily Variety, a trade newspaper. "She had completed seven weeks of radiation a short while ago, and it looked like she was fine. She just took a breath and she was gone."

Although Miss Turner was known as a versatile and hard-working actress who made several films each year and who was once nominated for an Academy Award ("Peyton Place" in 1957), she gained equal notoriety because of her private life, which was marred by personal tragedy and seven unsuccessful marriages.

In her film successes, Miss Turner's roles ranged from the Hollywood star in "The Bad and the Beautiful" to the tragic chorine in "Ziegfeld Girl," from the self-sacrificing mother in "Madame X" to the two-timing housewife in "The Postman Always Rings Twice" and the attractive widow in "Peyton Place."


Born Julia Jean Mildred Frances Turner in Wallace, Ida., Miss Turner moved to San Francisco as a girl with her mother after her father, Virgil, was murdered after a purported gambling deal and robbery.

Even as a toddler, she seemed destined for the limelight.

At age 3 she made her "theatrical debut" at a charity fashion show for which her mother was one of the models. Before anyone could stop her, young Julia rushed onto the stage and did an impromptu dance in front of the audience, her mother recalled in an interview. She was the highlight of the show.

Later, Miss Turner performed short routines for her father's chapter of the Elks. Once, she performed barefoot for the Elks and while dancing seemed to have problems with her feet. After she had completed the routine, her concerned mother looked at the soles of her daughter's feet, which were covered with splinters. Even at age 5 she seemed to know the show must go on.

Although she loved dancing, the future actress set her sights on becoming a nun while she was enrolled at the Convent of the Immaculate Conception in San Francisco. She quickly changed her career ambitions when she found out she would have to cut her hair.

In 1936, six years after Virgil Turner's death, mother and daughter moved to Los Angeles, where the daughter's real-life rise to stardom became the classic Hollywood dream.

Her discovery has become part of Hollywood folklore, although some dispute the story.

One February afternoon Miss Turner supposedly was sipping a soda at the counter of Schwab's drugstore, instead of attending her typing class at Hollywood High School, when talent agent William R. Wilkerson spotted her and asked her to be in the movies.

In her 1982 autobiography, "The Lady, the Legend, the Truth--Lana," she described the scene:

The drugstore manager, a friend of hers, told her that Wilkerson wanted to meet her and that he could be trusted. Wilkerson, publisher of the Hollywood Reporter, simply asked Miss Turner, "Would you like to be in the movies?"

"He didn't seem to want to pick me up," Turner wrote, "because he didn't make idle chatter."

She told Wilkerson that she had to check with her mother and left the drugstore in time for her next class. Miss Turner's mother was not interested in pursuing the matter, but a family friend talked her into it, and two days later, Miss Turner signed a contract with Warner Bros.

According to Miss Turner, the meeting did not occur at Schwab's. She said the myth began when an unknown woman walked into Schwab's years later and asked Hollywood columnist Sidney Skolsky which stool had been Lana Turner's. Skolsky pointed to a random stool, an action that made Schwab's "mecca to thousands of would-be movie stars." The soda fountain where the actual encounter took place, Miss Turner said, was at the Top Hat Cafe.

In her first role when she was 17, Miss Turner went unnoticed as an extra in the much-heralded 1937 version of "A Star Is Born" with Janet Gaynor.

She was dubbed the "Sweater Girl" the same year, after playing a small part in "They Won't Forget," in which she walked down the street in a tight skirt and sweater.

The audience cheered so much during Miss Turner's brief scene that the actress, who first watched the movie with her mother, was shocked and embarrassed, she said in her autobiography.

Miss Turner always objected to the "Sweater Girl" moniker, though it catapulted her to stardom.

One movie reviewer wrote that although she did not look like the average high school girl, "she looked like what the average high school boy wished the average high school girl looked like."

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