Happy Birthday, Lana Turner

You can open up George Eliot’s Middlemarch and find a gem of language on every page. Not an exaggeration. It’s almost overwhelming, you want her to slow down … because her genius is just too much, I am just a mere mortal, George, let me catch up! One of the things I like to do is just flip open Middlemarch to any page and read the first sentence that I see. It’s amazing how often it’s a really good one.

Well. Lana. the Lady, the Legend, the Truth, Lana Turner’s autobiography, is the same way.

Is this the first time in the history of the planet that Lana Turner was compared to George Eliot? I hope so, because it’s about time.

You literally cannot open this book without finding an awesome sentence. I’m not being sarcastic. Why I think this book is so awesome is its complete and utter lack of irony, not to mention its open-faced assumption that we will care about every detail. Of course we do, Lana! You’re Lana Turner! Give us the dish!

I suppose if you only looked at this book thru a cynical lens, you’d find it irritating and self-involved.

Your loss, cynics, your loss.

It IS self-involved. That is the REASON it is so good. Also, I have to ask: Why are you reading the autobiography of a famous film star and looking for calm reasonable detachment? That’s YOUR problem.

She appears to remember every outfit she has ever worn, first of all, in head-to-toe detail. She is open about her foolishness in love – and every date she has ever been on is accompanied by the memory of what she was wearing. She cared about being a good actress and improving at her craft. She knew she was lucky to be “discovered” – she was the original “sweater girl”.

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She knew she needed to continue to get better if she would have a long career (and boy did she ever). She couldn’t seem to stay out of trouble, though. You want to shout at the pages, “LANA, TRY BEING SINGLE FOR, LIKE, ONE SECOND. JUST TRY.” But no, not Lana. She is all about love. And her clothes.

Again, if you’re reading my words and assuming I’m making fun of all of this, you’ve totally got me wrong.

I love this book. I love every single word. There are plenty of “great” books out there that DON’T have an awesome sentence on each page, but this one does. Lana Turner and George Eliot, man, holding hands across the centuries.

Let’s do an experiment. I will let the book fall open five times -and I will type the first thing I see each time. Sentence, paragraph, whatevs.

No cheating allowed. I promise to play by the rules.

Ready? Let’s go.

Viewers of The Merry Widow may have noticed that all during the picture I wore long gloves or a very wide bracelet, or I carried a fur piece on my wrist. Filming of the picture began only a few days after my suicide attempt, and my slashed wrist remained bandaged for most of the shooting. No one at MGM seemed to doubt that my injury was an accident. I was bouncing back quickly, partly because of my natural resiliency. But I also had help. His name was Fernando Lamas.

That is an absolutely PERFECT paragraph. Beginning writers should study it.

Next.

I wore a full-length white fox coat and a silky white lace dress over a nude-colored slip. Before the ball a limousine drove us to the White House, and we filed into the room where Roosevelt delivered his Fireside Chats to the nation. The President sat behind a desk and greeted each person in turn. Fascinated, I studied his lined, handsome face and the marvelous grin I knew from the newsreels. As I approached I saw a look of recongition in his eyes. He didn’t wait for an aide’s introduction. He just extended his hand and said, “You are Miss Lana Turner.” All I could say was, “Yes, Mr. President.” He gave me a long look that seemed to take in everything.

Of course he did, Lana. I adore you.

Next:

Poor Liza (Minnelli) got twenty-one stitches in her leg, and her face was badly scraped from hitting the cement. The messy situation got worse when Sid Luft came home. He wanted to sue me, but Judy well knew that Liza had been sternly warned about the wall and the dog. As for Lex, he was so attached to Pulco that he refused to give him up, and in all fairness, he did have good reasons for wanting Pulco at the house. I’d been receiving some strange threatening letters, some of them worrisome enough to report to the police. And there had been that kidnap threat against Cheryl some years back. I no longer went out publicly as much as I had before, and when I did it would be to someone’s home. Seclusion became important to me and Lex, and Acapulco appealed to us more and more.

Look, little Liza, Lana warned you about the wall and the dog, mkay?

Next:

Artie wasn’t always surly. Sometimes he actually enjoyed life. One night there was an MGM bash at Earl Carroll’s, a nightclub on Sunset Boulevard. Artie played the clarinet in the show, and I performed a dance number from Two Girls on Broadway. Phil Silvers did a comedy turn, and since he had no date, he tagged along with us after the show. At Artie’s insistence, we headed home. I made drinks and went off to change. When I came back, Artie and Phil were smoking what they called “reefers”. I’d heard of marijuana, of course, but I’d never seen it before. It was associated mainly with jazz musicians. Artie and Phil offered me some, and I said no.

Good for you, Lana. Good for you.

Next and last:

Our next stop was Rio, where we planned to arrive at Carnival time. I wasn’t sorry to leave Buenos Aires. Argentina was torn by political strift. It was election time, and there were rough political rallies right in the plaza under our balcony. The Peronista guards would sweep into the crowd with their sabers drawn. It terrified and sickened me to see their battered victims, with blood streaming down their heads. Once, at three in the morning, someone threw a bomb into a service entrance of our hotel. The blast almost shook me and Sara out of our beds. For the rest of the night we sat up, terrified and shaking, in the living room of our suite. In Rio social life was far more pleasant. I had acquaintances there, who invited me to several posh parties. During Carnival the whole city throbbed with the seductive samba beat. We danced long and late. One night someone said, “Let’s go into the streets!” Out there we were simply swept off into the crowds. Now it’s forbidden, but at that time the men put a little perfumed ether on their handkerchiefs, which would be vaporized by the heat of their bodies. The air was sweet with intoxicating ether fumes. With that and the blaring wild music you just seemed to float on and on. In a seductive black satin halter dress, with flowers in my hair, I danced until dawn.

Of course you did, Lana. I wish I was there.

You know, I thought Don Delillo’s supposed masterpiece Underworld was about 400 pages too long but I wish Lana’s book was 400 MORE pages long.

It’s the lack of irony, like I mentioned which gives it such a great zesty and ridiculous voice and also the lack of self-consciousness. She does not come across as a dingbat, but she does paint herself in this way where you really can see her in all her self-dramatizing chaotic glory. It’s self-serving, as all such books are, but again, if she had laid down irony on top of her defensiveness, or even a sense of detachment or self-awareness, it would have been a terrible book. Here she is, and at times, it seems like she’s putting her hands out up to heaven, shrugging at the reader, like, “How on earth can so much happen to one person?” (to paraphrase Cary Grant in Bringing Up Baby) And I, the reader, looking on, feel like saying to her, “Lana, the reason so much happens to you is because you have atrocious taste in men and you leap right into intimacy without thinking: ‘ Hmmmm … before I commit myself to this gentleman, let me ponder the ultimate question: will my daughter one day stab this man to death?’ Just HOLD BACK a bit before you fall in love again, I beg of you Lana, please!!” But if she held back, she wouldn’t be Lana, yo, so you just have to sit back and keep your mouth shut, shaking your head with fondness and yet also a bit of judgment. “Oh, Lana, Lana, there you go again …”

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I haven’t even talked about her acting yet! Let me send you over to Alex’s wonderful tribute piece – Lana Turner is one of her favorite actresses, and that’s a wonderful post about why. Here is another insightful post about Lana Turner – a career deep and strange enough that it certainly deserves a second look. Her breakdown in the car in The Bad and the Beautiful is a high watermark for me. She is brilliant. She could be brilliant.

Her star has faded a bit – she is now seen as a symbol of other things – that whole murder trial, etc. – but I’ve got to believe that someone whose career lasted that long had a hell of a lot of moxie, ambition, and survival skills. She started out as the “It Girl” because of how she looked in a sweater. “It Girls” are a dime a dozen. If you want to last beyond your big season of being the “It Girl”, you need to have more going on than just looks, or luck. Will we ever have a Sienna Miller Blog-a-Thon day? Time will tell.

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Turner is a great example of a woman who is now remembered for her tempestuous personal life as opposed to her acting. I love it when people whine about how out of control celebrities are today. Seriously? TODAY they’re out of control? Oh, really? Do you have any sense of history? Do you have any grasp on FACTS? TODAY they’re out of hand? You need to go back and look at what was happening during the golden age of tabloids before you start pontificating. Do you realize how much the studios controlled the publicity of their stars, so most of the really bad stuff was kept from the public? But also, gotta ask: it was better at WHAT point in history? The purer sweeter time of, oh, Fatty Arbuckle? The well-behaved proper time of, uhm, Lana Turner? Like THOSE times?

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Seeing Lindsay Lohan’s DUI as the harbinger of the Rapture is ridiculous. Go back and look at Lana Turner’s life. Poor Lindsay is just a damaged soul blowing off some steam compared to Miss Lana.

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Lana Turner led one of the most exhausting public lives I can think of. I want to plead, Good GOD, woman, lie down!

Or, you could give her the opposite advice as the wonderful Frank O’Hara does in his poem about her.

Lana Turner has collapsed!
I was trotting along and suddenly
it started raining and snowing
and you said it was hailing
but hailing hits you on the head
hard so it was really snowing and
raining and I was in such a hurry
to meet you but the traffic
was acting exactly like the sky
and suddenly I see a headline
LANA TURNER HAS COLLAPSED!
there is no snow in Hollywood
there is no rain in California
I have been to lots of parties
and acted perfectly disgraceful
but I never actually collapsed
oh Lana Turner we love you get up

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Great book. Compulsively readable, far better than many serious works of literature I know, and also a book you can keep going back to, over and over again. I first read it when I was 14 (and I was WAY too young for the salacious nature of much of it!) and have read it probably 6 or 7 times ever since.

So: lie down, Lana, or get up, Lana, either way, we love you.

Here’s an excerpt. I basically just let the book fall open and decided to excerpt whatever I saw first, because it was just too hard to choose.

I just love how she defends herself here, and then starts a new paragraph with ‘But I did go out a lot.” I’m not making fun of her. I am truly delighted at how, in every moment, she appears to be truthful. Even if the truth of one moment totally contradicts the truth of the moment before. But then, after a paragraph about her going beyond the velvet rope to her table, blowing kisses to people, etc. – she takes the edge off of us thinking she takes herself too seriously by writing, “Silly, I guess, but fun.”

Yes, Lana, it IS silly, but fun!

LOVE YOU, LANA, PLEASE GET UP.

Put down Don DeLillo and pick up Lana. DeLillo will be waiting for you when you’re done. Lana’s book is a must-read.

EXCERPT FROM Lana: The Lady, the Legend, the Truth, by Lana Turner

On New Year’s Day, 1945, I became one of the most highly paid actresses in the world. My new contract paid me $4,000 a week, and by Hollywood ritual that meant it was time to buy a new home. I looked for a place in Bel-Air, a gracious section with handsome estates enclosed by Spanish-style adobe walls or ornate wrought-iron fences and sculptured hedges, and I found a lovely house hidden in the woods overlooking the ninth green of the Bel-Air Country Club. Sometimes golf balls smacked the windows or flew into the pool. Whenever I retrieved one I would fine the player a quarter for going out of bounds. It gives me a chuckle to remember those startled faces.

Now I was dating again. First it was Turhan Bey, an exotically handsome Turkish-Viennese actor. But when things turned serious, he introduced me to his mother, who seemed to dislike me on sight.

Once when I was dancing with Turhan at a party in Beverly Hills, Stephan appeared and tried to cut in. When I glanced at Turhan meaningfully he gallantly stepped aside to let Stephan take his place. I still wore Stephan’s engagement ring, a three-carat diamond, which I’d had reset to my taste. Now Stephan told me he wanted it back.

“But it’s been reset,” I protested.

“I don’t care. Give it back!”

He snatched my hand and yanked off the ring, then strode quickly away.

When Turhan saw me standing there, he asked me what had happened. I told him, then excused myself to recover. When I got back from the ladies’ room, Turhan wasn’t there, but everyone was rushing to the garden.

In the center of a knot of people were Turhan and Stephan, scuffling on the ground. the other guests pulled them apart before they could hurt each other. Thank goodness! But Stephan had dropped the ring and was searching frantically through the shrubbery.

The next day Anita May, who had given the party, called to say that her gardener had found the ring. I recovered it, but the story made the papers. The gossips inflated my connection with Turhan to the level of a grand passion. Those same busybodies linked my name to Rory Calhoun, Robert Hutton, and Frank Sinatra – the mention of Frank’s name in this connection showed how little the gossips really knew about any of us. Yes, Frank had been a good friend for years, and I was close to his wife, Nancy. But the closest things to dates Frank and I enjoyed were a few box lunches at MGM. Despite our later differences of opinion about his relationship with Ava Gardner, I always found him warm and especially kind to me.

But I did go out a lot. The war had just ended, and the city was booming again. Affluence was in the air. Developers had bought up acres of land and dotted them with row upon row of small, brightly colored tract homes for returning servicemen. Almost overnight the orange groves and open spaces disappeared under the spreading blanket of suburbs, and the city got its first whiff of smog. But in Beverly Hills, Brentwood, Bel-Air, Holmby Hills set high in the Santa Monica Mountains, prewar glamour and opulence were reborn, with a modern flair. The magnificent homes were palaces of glass that let the light stream in, not the tile-floored haciendas or Tudor manors of the past. Light – that’s my strongest impression of that postwar time. After th elong years of blackouts and conservation, the city was adazzle with blazing bulbs, brilliant and glittering and fun.

And the men were home. They seemed to catch your eye everywhere you went, like the first greening after a thaw. How I’d love to dress up and go dancing with a handsome dark man. Ciro’s was a favorite haunt. I’d walk up the steps and through the glass door, and pass the velvet rope that barred the less-fortunates. And the headwaiter would spring forward – “Ah, Miss Turner …” and escort me in.

I had a special table right by the stairs so I could watch the comings and goings. I’d head straight there, never glancing right or left. And then, when I was seated, I’d give the room a long casing, bowing to this one or blowing that one a kiss. Silly, I guess, but fun.

Ciro’s was designed for dramatic entrances and exits because a long flight of stairs led down to the tables and dance floor. And at the top of the stairs – that’s where the stars stopped, to let everyone see them come in. It was all part of the game. Everyone would stare, and you knew you were making an Entrance.

I’d usually be dressed in something clingy, black or white, sometimes gold, occasionally red. I’d wear diamonds and a fur of some kind draped over one shoulder. Often white fur, my favorite. Maybe ermine or silver fox, the fashionable furs at that time. Or sable. I had beautiful sables. I’d have jewels in my hair, or flowers, and every hair in place.

But talk about an Entrance! Hedy Lamarr holds the record for that. One Entrance she made at Ciro’s is a vision I’ll never forget.

Hedy was at the height of her beauty, with thick, wavy, jet-black hair. With that stunning widow’s peak, her face was magnificent. We all looked up and there she was at the top of those stairs. She wore a cape of some kind up to her chin, and it swept down to the floor. I can’t even remember the color of the cape, because all I saw was that incredible face, that magnificent hair – and a huge diamond. The most fabulous solitaire diamond on her forehead, just at the tip of her widow’s peak. She was enough to make strong men faint.

How the hell did she keep that diamond on her forehead? Was it pasted on? You couldn’t tell. Later, Sidney Guilaroff told me that he had taken jet-black wire, very fine, and woven it into Hedy’s hair. He anchored it with a little spot of glue. But that diamond was absolutely real. It was breathtaking.

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13 Responses to Happy Birthday, Lana Turner

  1. Irv O. Neil says:

    Great piece, Sheila! Lana should at least have lived a century. I know what you mean about how the sincerity is so important–and how it makes her enduringly interesting and sexy.

    The scene where she convinces John Garfield to go ahead with the murder in Postman is hotter than a thousand porn films.

    Her total belief in the passion of the moment–her conviction to stay a success–her professionalism to back up her conviction–they all go into the mix into making her compelling to watch…and extremely, viscerally sexy. Like somebody you must talk to at a party and you’re going to get through that damn crowd to buy her a drink.

    I also believe she is a BIG influence–as big as Bettie Page, say–on the retro-styled femmes fatale of our day, such as burlesque dancers and dominatrixes.

    Happy birthday, Miss Turner!

    • sheila says:

      I think she is a huge influence, too.

      Her first entrance in Postman – with the rolling lipstick – is one of the most absurd and HOT entrances in cinematic history. And she plays it to the hilt.

  2. mutecypher says:

    If “Underworld” were as short as “Brokeback Mountain,” it would deserve most of the praise it receives (not to troll for a response, or anything).

  3. mutecypher says:

    And, there’s Lana’s scene in LA Confidential:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rf2dq3cIfj8

  4. sheila says:

    Mutecypher – oh, certainly not as short as Brokeback Mountain! That opening scene at the baseball game runs 52 pages long and is a masterpiece. There’s plenty that’s wonderful about the book. But it didn’t need to be 800 pages long. 400 would suffice.

    • mutecypher says:

      I did love the baseball game, but it wasn’t much longer before I began to tire. I have to put DeLillo into the same category as Cormac McCarthy – their high reputations are either an indication that I have no discernment, or …

  5. Bybee says:

    I love Lana in Postman and also, Peyton Place.
    Do you know if she dictated this book? Reading the excerpts, it seems so beautifully and breezily conversational.
    I’m on page 72 of Underworld. Yikes.

  6. Brendan O'Malley says:

    Okay, the random excerpts made me laugh out loud…each and every one. That would be a great stand up act. Just randomly reading from that book. HILARIOUS.

    Will have to read someday!

  7. milt says:

    I edited and wrote headlines for the front page of the Binghamton Sun, a morning newspaper in Binghamton, New York, which was a weak competitor to a Gannett evening newspaper, at the time of the Stompanato trial. Because we were an evening paper, we got the break on the trial story, with each session ending about three or four o’clock. I had great fun writing headlines for the story and placing it on top of the front page above the masthead. After two days, I received a note from the circulation department, telling me to keep giving the trial such prominent play, because our circulation took a big jump up. Everybidy loves scandals!

  8. sheila says:

    Milt – wow, I bet circulation jumped!! Just what an insane story, huh??

  9. Jen W. says:

    Ah, the second excerpt! The wall, the dog? What happened? Now I have to go buy this book.

  10. Maureen says:

    I am late to comment on this post, but just wanted to say thank you! As soon as I read it, I headed over to my library and they had a copy of this. What a great read.

  11. Damecia Jackson says:

    Wow, I think we may long lost soul twins lol. Like you I also read Lana’s autobiography the first time when I was 14. I agree 14 is too young of an age to read this because one doesn’t yet fully understamd what makes the book so great. I just knew that Lana was gorgeous, had alot of fun and boyfriends, but she always had her fair share of bad times too. Now that I’m 22 I’m still reafing her book – this would be my 7th time lol. I find myself still intrigued as though it were my first time reading it. I also still finding myself laughing out loud when Lana professes she never really enjoyed sex or when she describes a meeting with Mayer pointing to his crotch and telling her that’s what is getting her trouble lol. Like Sheila said every page is a delightful treat. The book that Cheryl recently wrote about Lana is also a treat for those who would like to know Lana’s beauty regime and all little fun facts like that.

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