When a Life Pivots

Robert Frost’s, The Road Not Taken, enchants with a musing walk on the pathway of pivotal decisions. Curious about the interplay of choice, luck, and opportunity after a directional commitment, I peered into the life of Hollywood’s film goddess Lana Turner. Looking at openings, momentum, lucky breaks, pitfalls, and reflections.

A 15 year old Lana attending Hollywood High decided to skip her typing class one day. She dashed across the street to the Top Hat Café for a coke and quite by chance a well-known reporter sat watching her, approached, and asked if she wanted to be in the movies. She smartly replied, “I need to ask my mother.” The year was 1936, the country mired in the great depression, her mother widowed and barely able to support her daughter on her beautician’s salary. The choice was easy for both mother and daughter. Lifting her out of a life of foster homes and scraping by with her mom, her first film, prophetically entitled, They Won’t Forget, offered her $50 a week. The money was twice her mother’s weekly earnings and thereafter Lana supported them both.

An overnight success, her first picture led to another and another and so on. Dazzling and alluring, she held thousands of people rapt as they watched her films and devoured her scandals when they inevitably surfaced between the 1930’s and 1960’s.

Film stars were notorious for multiple marriages, but even by most standards Lana’s seven nuptial vows were scandalous, just one short of ElizabethTaylor. Lana joked later in life, perhaps with a sigh, that as a young woman she had wanted to get married and have seven children but instead had seven husbands and one child. Her childbearing was limited to one daughter by fate because she inherited Rh negative blood.

In spite of the lack of time to be a nurturing mother, miscarriages, abortions (when they were still illegal), marriages, infamous love affairs, a suicide attempt, and both bad and good cinema results, once Lana stepped onto Hollywood boulevard all subsequent decisions aligned to that trajectory. As an MGM rising star, the Studio groomed her looks, walk, wardrobe, hair, and sex appeal. Golden within the light and gifted as she grew, her acting career spanned 33 years, 47 motion pictures and included a nomination for best actress for her role in the 1957 Peyton Place, (although by her own admission, not her best). In 1945 she earned $4,000 a week making her Hollywood’s highest paid actress at the time. In 1957, she gambled on an arrangement with producer Ross Hunter by taking a reduced salary in exchange for one-half the net profits on Imitation of Life, and with luck again on her side she collected $2 million.

Before that windfall came along, however, Lana’s real life had oozed into a bog. It’s hard to say if she was wild, vulnerable, or just vain, given her propensity for recklessly taking up with adoring men. Using a pseudonym, mobster Johnny Stompanato flamboyantly courted her. She yielded to his persuasive ways, became entangled, lost good judgment, and even after learning the truth continued to seek his company.

Then her field of choices began collapsing as Stompanato wrenched control from her, abused her physically and mentally, held her at gunpoint, and threatened to kidnap her mother and daughter if she didn’t yield to his demands. Shaken by his violence, frightened for her loved ones, and afraid of bad publicity, she held off reporting him to the police. Instead, she poured herself another drink to allay the anxiety.

Shortly after Lana had celebrated the Oscars with her daughter and mother, for her nomination in Peyton Place, Stompanato, using his key, showed up one night in her bedroom. When Lana insisted he leave, he flew into a violent tirade. Lana’s daughter Cheryl, then age 15, overheard the abuse, became afraid for her mother, rushed into the room with a knife and blindly stabbed Stompanato, which surprisingly resulted in his death.

Cheryl’s defense of her mother led to a justifiable homicide acquittal, although she still spent time in jail and other restrictive environments. Predictably, the tragedy spawned an outbreak of ravaging publicity and plagued both mother and daughter for years. While both Cheryl and her mother experienced life-altering pivots at age 15, Cheryl’s direction cast her onto a very different road.

With Cheryl still under court custody, Lana reluctantly agreed to star in Imitation of Life, because she was broke. Ironically, in the film, she portrays an ambitious actress as a single mother and as ensuing fame leaves her little time for her daughter, it essentially echoed her relationship with Cheryl. Juxtaposed to Lana’s white platinum role as Lora, the movie cast Juanita Moore, an African American woman, as Annie, a single mother of a bi-racial daughter. The four of them form a type of family unit with the girls growing up together under Annie’s supervision, who as Lora’s success increases takes on an equally eminent role overseeing the running of their household. The drama ignites with Annie’s daughter insisting on ‘passing’ as white and rejecting her mother outright. At the threshold of Civil Rights and Women’s Movements, the film invited its audience to ponder issues related to racism, sexism, single motherhood, women’s ambitions, and mother-daughter relations.

Despite critics panning the movie for its sentimentality, moviegoers loved it. Lana gained a fortune, a renewed fan base, and once again demonstrated forward motion. Juanita Moore won nominations for Best Supporting Actress from both the Academy Awards and Golden Globes for her groundbreaking portrayal of Annie.

Throughout the production, Lana and Juanita affectionately supported one another – Lana with her experienced stylized camera work and Juanita with her more spontaneous stage training. Both products of their time and as the stardust settled – offers for Juanita just dried up while offers for Lana came pouring in, showing for real the racial divide the movie attempted to grapple with. As Juanita told the Los Angeles Times in 1967, “the Oscar prestige was fine, but I worked more before I was nominated.” Hollywood had no substantive scripts for black women and no producer wanted to pay her an inflated salary for carrying in a food tray.

After years of hard work and garnered glory, Lana began having health problems in her 50’s. Her doctor encouraged her to stop drinking. In response, she claims a light came straight down through her head as God’s saving grace and she quit alcohol. Afterwards she became more at ease with herself and others, including her daughter.

In later interviews Lana expressed her belief in pre-ordination, saying that, “you don’t know at the time, only in retrospect.” Lana died June 29, 1995 and it’s unclear if she felt that even “choices” are pre-ordained, or whether she simply believed as Frost’s poem suggests – a type of ordination inherent in the selected road as it unfolds.



  • Cheryl Crane, Detour, Arbor House/William Morrow, 1988.
  • Robert Frost, “The Road Not Taken”, In Risking Everything, Ed. Roger Housden. Harmony Books, 2003.
  • Lana Turner, Lana – The Lady, The Legend, The Truth, New York Dutton, 1982


  • Imitation of Life, Screenplay by Eleanor Griffin, Allan Scott, based on novel by Fannie Hurst. Dir. Douglas Sirk. Prod. Ross Hunter. Universal, 1959.
  • Peyton Place, Screenplay by Grace Metallious, John Michael Hayes. Dir. Mark Robson. Prod. Jerry Wald. 20th Century Fox, 1957.
  • The Postman Always Rings Twice, Screenplay by Harry Rushkin and Niven Busch, based on novel by James M. Cain. Dir. Tay Garnett. MGM, 1946.

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7 thoughts on “When a Life Pivots”

  1. emjay says:

    love this!

  2. Really interesting post, Justine. The eternal question of predestination vs free will — so much good and bad fortune in one life. Did she make both good and bad choices? Was she lucky? Unlucky? Both?

    1. justinedurrell says:

      Yes, there is much in her life that would appear extraordinarily lucky and yet she never had the relationship with a man that she had spent so much time searching for. Whereas, Juanita Moore married her second husband for 20 or more years. Thanks for your comments.

  3. jesse says:

    interesting and surprising topic.

    1. justinedurrell says:

      Yes, there’s a bit of a back story to the topic – I’ll have to tell you sometime.

  4. Sarah Gorman says:

    I so enjoy your writing. You’re able to pack so much exciting information into each paragraph succinctly and beautifully. This topic makes for endless conversations too, thinking about which event sent one on a specific trajectory.

    1. justinedurrell says:

      Thank you Sarah for your supportive comments. Would be interesting to talk with you about what choices you made that changed the course of your life.

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