Lana Turner was born as Julia Jean Mildred Francis Turner on 8 February 1921, into a financially strained family, living in the rural area of Wallace, Idaho, where her father, John Virgil Turner, opened a dry cleaning service and worked in the local silver mines. However, as the family struggled financially, they moved to San Francisco, when she was six years old. Soon after that, when her parents separated in 1928, she moved with her mother and was placed for a period to live with a family in Modesto, California, who abused her and treated her like a maid. She was reunited with her mother, when her father was killed and plundered after winning a high-stakes craps game in 1930.
Turner and her mother remained in San Francisco for three years before moving to Los Angeles in 1933, where her mother had to work 80 hours per week as a beautician to support herself and her growing daughter. Though it was really tough for a single parent to make a living during the Great Depression, Turner’s mother made her daughter attend school instead of taking a job. However, during those hard days, suddenly a miracle happened, when the golden-haired young Turner was discovered by Hollywood at the age of 16, which changed the course of her life.
There are different versions of the story, but according to her own account, the incident occurred when she was a junior at Hollywood High School. On that particular day, she skipped a typing class and bought a Coca cola at the Top Hat Malt. While in the shop, she was spotted by William Wilkerson, publisher of the Hollywood Reporter, who was attracted by her wholesome beauty and gait. Soon she was introduced to Mervyn LeRoy, film director of Warner Brothers, who in turn decided to cast her in his upcoming film They Won’t Forget and suggested she drop her nickname, Judy, for something more glamorous Lana, which she readily agreed. Within a few days, from a poor high school student Turner became a starlet earning $50 per week, which was considered as a handsome sum at the time.
Turner's first appearance on the silver screen was as a little-noticed extra in A Star is Born (1937), but her second performance in They Won’t Forget (1937) produced an electrifying effect, in which she played the role of an oversexed school girl and appeared on the screen wearing a tight fitting sweater. Her breasts bounced under the sweater as she walked and her buttocks bounced under a tight skirt as she moved sinsuously. Her undulation incited a strong audience reaction, which prompted the studio publicists to promote her as the ‘Sweater Girl.’ He sexy photographs became the craze of the day and even the American servicemen later made her one of their favourite pin ups during the WW II.
In the late 1937, when LeRoy was hired as an executive at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM), he took Turner with him, where she signed a contract with MGM for $100 a week, which marked the beginning of her stay with them for the next 20 years. In the same year, she was loaned to United Artists for the minor role of a maid in The Adventure of Marco Polo (1938) and also assigned in Love Finds Andy Hardy (1938) for MGM, which was a box-office success. Apart from that, her appearance in the film as a flirtatious high school student convinced Louis Mayer, the co-founder of MGM that she could be ideally projected as a sex symbol to replace Jean Harlow, who unfortunately died six months before Turner's arrival at MGM. As a result, she bagged her role in several youth-oriented films like Rich Man, Poor Girl (1938), in which she played the sister of a poor woman romanced by a wealthy man and Dramatic School (1938), in which she portrayed the role of a troubled drama student. During the filming, Turner completed her studies with an educational social worker, allowing her to graduate high school that year. Next year she was cast in Calling Dr Kildare (1939), followed by These Glamour Girls (1939), in which her onscreen sex appeal was highly appreciated. In her next film, Dancing Co-Ed (1939) she was given the first billing, portraying a professional dancer who enters a college as part of a rigged national talent contest, which led to her appearing on the cover of ‘Look’ magazine.
In February 1940, Turner garnered significant publicity when she eloped to Las Vegas with Artie Shaw, the most popular big band leader of the era, her co-star in Dancing Co-Ed and a man 11 years her senior. They married, started fighting and divorced within four months. After the two had divorced, Turner discovered that she was pregnant and had an abortion. During that period, she starred in We Who Are Young (1940), in which she played a woman who marries her coworker against their employer's policy.
Next year she had a lead role in Ziegfeld Girl (1941), opposite James Stewart and Judy Garland, in which she played the role of an alcoholic aspiring actress. Later, she claimed it was the first role that got her interested in acting. As the film fared well at the box-office, MGM gave her a weekly salary raise to $1,500 as well as a personal makeup artist and trailer. After that, Turner took a supporting role in the Freudian- influenced horror film Dr Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1941), opposite Spencer Tracy and Ingrid Bergman and was then cast in the Honky Tonk (1941), the first of four films in which she would star opposite Clark Gable. However, the success of the films, starring Turner and Gable was often heightened by the press, who highlighted rumours about their off screen romance, which was baseless and only a creation of the press and publicity department.
Nevertheless, the social life of Turner was actually very active. She reportedly dated many notable figures as actor Robert Stack, bandleader Tommy Dorsey, apart from the movie producer, aviation pioneer and oilman Howard Hughes. However, though she was involved in those highly publicized relationships, Turner's second marriage was to the relatively unknown Stephen Crane, a restaurateur from Indiana. Like her first marriage, she again married the man on impulse on17 July 1942, which was annulled four months later, when she discovered that Crane's previous divorce had not yet been finalized. However, after she discovered her pregnancy in November, she remarried Crane in Tijuana in March 1943, for the sake of the unborn baby. This baby, Cheryl Crane, would play a vital role in her mother’s life after more than a decade.
Meanwhile, the publicity over Turner's remarriage to Crane led MGM to play up her image as a sex symbol in Slightly Dangerous (1943), in which she portrayed a woman who appears in New York City and poses as the long-lost daughter of a millionaire. The film was financially successful, but received mixed reviews. Immediately after that, Turner divorced Crane in August 1944, citing his gambling and unemployment as primary reasons. In 1946, Turner convinced the studio to cast her as the femme fatale in The Postman Always Rings Twice. In the film she portrayed Cora, an ambitious woman married to the older owner of a roadside diner, who falls in love with a drifter and their desire to be together motivated them to murder her husband. The classic film noir marked a turning point in the career of Turner, which The New York Times termed as the ‘role of her career’.
Over the next decade, Turner married and divorced several times and dated dozens of high profiled men in between. It was considered by many that she had the image of a good girl like Grace Kelly and like Grace, she truly loved sex. As one MGM executive explained, if she saw a muscular stage hand with tight pants, she would like him and invite him into her dressing room. Her involvement with actor Tyrone Power was widely followed by the popular press, as was her association with legendary singer Frank Sinatra. She openly declared Tyrone as the love of her life, though he was married during their involvement. He divorced his wife in 1948 and married someone else.
Turner was cast as Lady de Winter in The Three Musketeers, her first Technicolour film, in 1947. Around this time, she began dating Henry J ‘Bob’ Topping Jr., a millionaire socialite, who proposed her by dropping a diamond ring into her martini, at the 21 Club in New York City. They married in April 1948, but the marriage was not a happy ending of the episode, as Turner gave birth to a stillborn baby boy, sued Topping for divorce alleging his alcoholism and excessive gambling and eventually got it on 12 December 1952.
The Three Musketeers (1948) became a box-office success, but due to the poor reception of her next film A Life of Her Own (1950), MGM attempted to rebrand Turner by casting her in musicals. But, her next film Mr. Imperium (1951) also flopped and earned her adverse reviews. Around that period Turner was suffering from chronic depression, as she became very much concerned about her career and was deeply worried about her acute financial crisis. Eventually, it led to her attempted suicide in September 1951, when she had slit her wrist in her locked bathroom and was timely saved by her business manager, Benton Cole, who called emergency medical services, after breaking the door.
The following year, she began filming The Merry Widow (1952), her second musical and during the shoot, began an affair with her co-star Fernando Lamas, which ended when Lamas physically assaulted her and consequently, lost his MGM contract upon the production's completion. In her next project The Bad and the Beautiful (1952), opposite to Kirk Douglas, she portrayed an alcoholic movie star. The film was both a critical and commercial success and earned her favorable reviews. In the spring of 1953, Turner relocated to Europe for 18 months to make two films, Flame and the Flesh (1954) and Betrayed (1954), under a tax credit for American productions shot abroad. Betrayed, an espionage thriller set in the Nazi-occupied Netherlands, marked Turner's fourth and final film appearance opposite Clark Gable.
She married actor Lex ‘Tarzan’ Barker on 8 September 1953, who sexually abused Turner's ten-year-old daughter, Cheryl Crane. When Turner discovered Barker's crime, she immediately divorced him on 22 July 1957. Later, it was disclosed by Cheryl that Turner held a loaded gun to his head as he slept, before deciding that his life was not worth her incarceration.
The Prodigal (1955), a Biblical epic, was Turner’s first Cinema Scope film, in which she appeared as a pagan temptress. Initially, she was reluctant to accept the role, because of the scanty costume and stupid lines of the character. The film, which was deemed to be a big-scale spectacle, resulted only as a fair entertainment. However, her next project, The Sea Chase (1955), in which she portrayed a femme fatale spy aboard a ship, released one month after The Prodigal, proved to be a commercial success. Turner was loaned to 20th Century Fox for The Rains of Ranchipur (1955), to portray the wife of an aristocrat in the British India, opposite Richard Burton. As the film was a box-office flop, despite elaborate marketing, MGM opted not to renew her contract, though at that time, Turner's films had earned the studio more than $50 million. However, Turner took it as a boon, as she became free nearly after 20 years at MGM.
She began filming 20th Century Fox's Peyton Place (1957), in which she played the role of a New England mother struggling to maintain a relationship with her teenage daughter. It was a major blockbuster hit that worked in her favour, as she had agreed to take a percentage of the film's overall earnings instead of a salary. She was critically acclaimed for her performance in the film and for the first and only time, she was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actress. Later, Turner remarked that it was one of her better roles.
In the meantime, small-time mobster Johnny Stompanato started to send her various expensive gifts. Turner was thoroughly intrigued and after a friend informed her all about the man, she confronted him and tried to break off the affair. However, Stompanato was not easily deterred and over the course of the following year, they carried on a relationship filled with violent arguments and physical abuse. To make a long story short, Stompanato arrived at Turner's rented home at 730 North Bedford Drive in Beverly Hills at around 8 pm on 4 April 1958 and threatened to cut Turner's face with a coat hanger. Fearing that her mother's life was in danger, Cheryl, who had been watching television in an adjacent room, grabbed a kitchen knife, ran to Turner's defense and stabbed the man to death. The stabbing was eventually ruled a justifiable homicide but, the entire affair, including Turner's testimony at the coroner's inquest, was highly publicized.
In the trail of negative publicity related to Stompanato's death, Turner accepted the lead role in Imitation of Life (1959), which was among the year's biggest hits and the biggest of Turner's career. Other highlights of this era include Portrait in Black (1960), By Love Possessed (1961) and Madame X (1966), which proved to be her last major starring role. She spent most of the 1970s and early 1980s in semi-retirement, only working occasionally, which includes her guest role in the television series Falcon Crest (1982).
Lana Turner was a long-time heavy smoker and unfortunately, she was diagnosed with throat cancer in May 1992. Despite treatment, the cancer returned in July 1994. She made her final public appearance at the San Sebastian International Film Festival in Spain in September 1994, to accept a Lifetime Achievement Award, where she was confined to a wheelchair for much of the event. She died nine months later, at the age of 74 on 29 June 1995 at her home in Century City, Los Angeles.