By Thom L. Jones for Gangsters Inc.
“For the gangster there is only the city, he must inhibit it in order to personify it….not the real city but that dangerous sad city of the imagination which is so much more important, which is the modern world. And the gangster, though there are real gangsters-is also and primarily, a creature of the imagination. The real city one might say produces only criminals, the imaginary city produces the gangster, he is what we want to be and what we are afraid to become.”
- The Gangster as Tragic Hero. 1948. Robert Warshow.
Maybe he was. Then again, who would really know after all this time? Gangsters and crime, the Mafia and Hollywood make up a heady cocktail.
Ernest Hemingway wrote about men on the margin, the violence and trauma of the contemporary world. He knew about this stuff first hand. Jack “Legs” Diamond, a notorious New York bootlegger, allegedly put a contract on the writer because of a dalliance with his girlfriend.
Sorting through the facts and the fiction takes us only part of the way into the story.
Johnny Stompanato and his place in Southern California gangster noir are perhaps more about the perception of how Tinseltown saw him in the context not of organized crime, but the way he disturbed their sense of order and place. He was an outlier pricking a precious bubble of self-entitlement, coming to Hollywood during the period known as “The Glorious, Glamour Years,” when the major film studios suffocated Southland with their dazzling brightness and filled the world with impossibly beautiful women and men who chased after them.
MGM Studios once boasted that “they had more stars than there were in heaven.”
One of them was Lana Turner. For Johnny Stompanato, she would be a dark star.
Being a gangster might be what he wanted. Being dead was what he got.
John Stompanato was born in October 1925 in a small, bucolic town in Indiana called Woodstock. His father, from Naples, was another John, christened Giovanni, and ran a barbershop, and his mother, Carmela Truppa, was a seamstress. They had both moved from Italy, met in Brooklyn, then traveled west, and were one of a very few Italian families in the area. When she died, a local newspaper called her “the favorite Italian mother of Woodstock.”
The town is famous for another man involved in crime. But of a very different genus. Chester Gould lived here for many years, creating one of the most famous cartoon strips in the world- Dick Tracy- a tough, hard-nosed police detective series, allegedly based on federal agent, Eliot Ness.
Johnny grew up in a big house on Blakely Avenue and had two sisters, Grace and Teresa, and a brother, Carmine, all older than he was. Maybe like Bart Simpson, he was full of good intentions but bad pertinence.
Developing into a somewhat troublesome teenager, his father, who had remarried in 1929, gone into real estate and done well, financially, had his son at age fifteen, enrolled in Kemper Military Academy in Boonville, Missouri. His roommate was a man who would also find fame in Hollywood. An actor and successful television star, we remember as Hugh O’Brian, although his true surname was Krampe.
Degrees of separation developing long before Kevin Bacon was born.
Somehow, Johnny’s father is rumored linked to the Mob, a vague, undefined kind of gossip that followed the son into school. It seems he enjoyed the reputation. Historically and geographically, the Chicago of Al Capone was not that far away.
By 1944, presumably realizing he was going nowhere, academically, volunteering for armed service, he joined the 1st Marine Division and is posted to the Pacific (right) by the spring of that year. He was six feet and 180 lbs, presumably reaching his physical peak, although he’s allocated to a service battalion and spent his military career as an office worker. No doubt, a crackerjack clerk.
His room mate Krampe/O’Brian also joined the Marines and became their youngest drill instructor on record.
In March 1946, Johnny discharged from the military while based in China. In Tientsin, he met a young woman, Sarah Utush, five years his senior, and they married in May. He scored a double here. The first Marine discharged in this Chinese city and the first to marry in it.
After they traveled back to Illinois, they lived in Crystal Lake to the south of Woodstock. She got pregnant; they had a son, another Johnny, and then, after working at a few meaningless jobs, he left them and moved to California in late 1948. If life is a carousel, as the famous song inferred, for him, the ups and downs were a lot more prevalent than the bits that went around.
Johnny Stompanato would call Los Angeles home from then on. He was there to live a life that was not the one he had left behind.
Was he a gangster? As Hamlet said, “Now there’s the rub.”
Flick through the news and gossip mags and you might believe he was one. Dig a little deeper into the epidermis, so to speak, and things shift and swirl. A gangster? A gigolo? Maybe like an ouroboros, he consumed himself in both, finding a wholeness in his brief existence that might explain the way it all ended on a pink carpet in a pink bedroom.
Quietly waiting for him like the figure of death in Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal, was a young, uncertain child, part of the Hollywood hinterland of Beverly Hills chosen people.
Little Cheryl Crane would grow up to be the death of him. Literally.
This was eight years into the future. By 1950, Johnny was working with the big boys of crime. At least one of them.
The man forever linked to Johnny Stompanato and his alleged niche in the criminal underworld of Los Angeles, is Meyer Harris Cohen, known to one and all as “Mickey.”
Born and raised in Brownsville, New York, the veritable home of tough Jews, although its influence on him would be purely genealogical. He was twelve years old when Johnny came into the world. A tough Jew in every sense of the word. His widowed mother moved to Los Angeles when he was a young child, and he grew up in Boyle Heights, a neighborhood just as hard, on the other side of the world from New York.
Although this story is about Johnny Stompanato, Mickey Cohen moves through it, more an eddy than a bow-wave, with enough traction however to shed some light on being a gangster in those long-ago years when all the world was truly a stage, and this one man from the boondocks of America played many parts.
Johnny worked, legitimately, as a car salesman, a florist, jeweler, pet-shop owner, and ran a place called Myrtlewood Gift Shop in Westwood Village, close to UCLA. He met and married two women, both called Helen, both minor movie starlets, and divorced them both. ***The first wife, Sarah, had divorced him in January 1949. He allegedly had affairs with others, including movie star Ava Gardner, who was also being courted by Frank Sinatra.
His reputation as a gigolo grew apparent relative to how many actresses he dated, or chased after. It was big enough for the chief of police of Beverly Hills, Clinton Anderson, to refer to him as one. Meeting wealthy women, he would have affairs, borrow money from them, and disappear into the night. According to the chief.
According to The Tucson Daily Citizen newspaper, he’s also known as “as a member of the underworld on the fringe of Hollywood.”
In early August 1949, the police arrest Johnny (left) in Beverly Hills and he’s charged with vagrancy. The tabloids claim he is Mickey Cohen’s new bodyguard. The last one, Edward “Neddie” Herbert, is shot a month earlier, on July 20, after leaving a restaurant on Sunset Boulevard. He lingered in hospital for a week and died on July 28. Some reports show Johnny was already part of the entourage and was present in the early hours of that morning.
The actual target was Mickey, wounded, along with three others, and the attack was one of many attempts by the Mafia to get rid of an irritation that was turning into an infection. Although assumed to be a mob hit, some sources claim the two or three men who carried out the shooting, hidden across the road near an abandoned building, were in fact, police detectives in the Los Angeles “Gangster Squad” unit in the Robbery Division, formed to fight the LA underworld.
It’s believed a notorious newspaper columnist at the Los Angeles Mirror, Florence Muir, created this rumor.
Herbert was the second bodyguard to go down in less than a year.
Cohen opened an expensive men’s wear store on Sunset Boulevard in 1947 and ran his legal and illegal business ventures from there until 1950. On August 18, 1948, he was in the store with his bodyguard, Harold “Hooky” Rothman, who was killed by a shotgun blast. An informant subsequently identified Frank Bompensiero as the shooter. A capo in the LA Mafia, he was a noted stone-killer and had murdered several men for Jack Dragna, the boss of the family.
Ignazio Jack Dragna arrived in California after 1914, and by the 1930s was heading up the small Italian-American criminal family that had formed at the turn of the century, possibly by Vito Di Giorgio.
Following the murder of East Coast mobster, Benjamin Siegel in 1947, Cohen, his alleged bodyguard, moved to fill the vacuum, taking over the gambling, bookmaking and prostitution rings Siegal had managed. From that point on, Cohen and Dragna were in conflict, with Mickey getting the worst of it over the years to follow.
In his auto-biography, In My Own Words, published in 1975, Cohen claimed Dragna tried to kill him many times by bomb and gun. The only one to corner and lock down the little Jewish gangster was the Inland Revenue, who did an Al Capone on him and sent him away to prison in 1952 for four years.
Where does this leave Johnny Stompanato?
By 1955, he is living in a one-bedroom apartment on Bellagio Road, in Bel Air, where he became known as “the best lay in Hollywood,” and drives a white Ford Thunderbird, which belonged to a couple he knew, a lawyer and his wife, Rosalind George. But how good a gangster is he?
His legitimate front will be the small, inconspicuous shop on Glendon Avenue in Westwood, close to the sprawling UCLA campus that sells wooden ornaments, and other things that seem to find willing customers in the university, and elsewhere. If he was dealing narcotics, it was only one explanation of his income. The boxes he wrapped and sent out might have contained something other than drugs, as was surmised after Stompanato’s death.
There must have been other sources of money. A widow in her mid-forties, Mrs Doris Cornell, gifted him $8000 ($65K by today’s currency) and it seems other girlfriends lent him cash, which he never repaid.
When he started chasing after the movie actress Lana Turner, he showered her with expensive jewelry. When she asked him if he had a money tree, he slyly remarked, “No, only the leaves.”
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She would later claim she knew him as Johnny Steele, although she once wrote him a check in the name of John Stompanato. He had, it seems, many aliases during his time in LA-Johnny Valentine, Tommy Valen, Handsome Harry, Johnny Stomp and John Holliday.
Over her almost 50-year career, Turner became famous as both a pin-up model and a film actress, and also because of her highly publicized personal life. Married eight times to seven different husbands, her only child, Cheryl (right), by a previous husband, Steven Crane, was not quite fourteen, when Stompanato came into their lives in the spring of 1957. She worked for him for a while, in his funny little shop in the village, filled, she remembered, with just a few wooden ornaments, although there was a constant stream of these wrapped boxes leaving the premises each day.
An FBI file referred to him as a notorious pimp in the Los Angeles area, and he was the subject of a White Slave Traffic Act case in 1956, which petered out before causing him too much trouble. A report claimed an informant had advised Stompanato would indulge in sexual activities with men or women, providing the price was right.
Having an FBI file doesn’t mean Stompanato is a gangster, although the bureau suspected him. In a report dated April 7, 1958, it claims “…... reflects that he is a henchman and bodyguard of gambler, Mickey Cohen.”
Mickey claimed he never was. Just a gopher for him and his men, running errands, collecting debts. Loose change in the big picture in the very blurred landscape of L A’s gangland.
Whatever he was, he wooed and won Lana Turner and they became a pair. He was now living at 806 South Robertson Boulevard on the outskirts of Beverly Hills. He told her he was a record producer.
They would spend a tumultuous year together which ended badly, for him, one rainy night in 1958.
The 30th Academy Awards, (Oscars,) are held Wednesday evening March 26 at the RKO Pantages Theatre on Hollywood Boulevard. Lana was a presenter and also in running for a nomination. Lana did not invite Johnny, which made him mad enough to abuse her, physically, at the Bel Air Hotel where she and her daughter stayed the night of the ceremony.
On a rainy Friday evening, Easter 1958, Stompanato drove to Lana’s rented home at 730 North Bedford Drive, in Beverly Hills. About eight, he parked the Thunderbird in the street outside the house. What happened that night is based on Turner’s testimony and that of her young daughter. Johnny left in a hearse so couldn’t contribute much but his presence.
The evening deteriorated as Stompanato and Turner fought with each other, moving through the house to her bedroom. A symphony in pink-flooring, drapes, furniture.
Cheryl Crane says she doesn’t remember grabbing the knife from the kitchen when she heard the last, fatal argument. After the stabbing, she says, “it was like I came out of a dream and everything came apart.”
There is a photograph (right) taken at the crime scene that has endured all these long years. It shows a uniformed-police officer kneeling by the body of Stompanato, looking with a certain disdained interest at the fatal wound. No SOCOs (CSIs) in white bodysuits. In those days, DNA floated around the victims like dust motes in a seedy motel. Investigators often left more clues than the criminals.
The body lies in an unusual position considering the testimony of Cheryl.
She claims as she entered the bedroom her mother was directly in front of her and coming up behind, Stompanato, with his hand raised. It turned out he was trying to slip into his orange wool sweater before presumably leaving.
Thinking her mother was under attack, she stepped forward, holding up the knife, to make him step back, and instead he walked into it. The ten-inch blade slipped into his body on the right-side penetrating the liver, portal vein and aorta, the largest vein in the body, causing a massive hemorrhage. Logically, he would have collapsed in a heap at the entrance to the bedroom. Instead, he somehow moves backwards, at least the length of Turner’s king-size bed, then jiggles to the right along the width of the bed before collapsing between the bed and a lowboy.
The death certificate states time of death as 9.30 pm, although it’s alleged the killing took place at least an hour earlier. The report also misjudged his stay in California. By two years.
A week after his death, a coroner’s court found for Cheryl: justifiable homicide. She was fourteen.
In her autobiography, Turner claimed the last months of her relationship with Stompanato were filled with escalating anger and violence on his part. She had desperately wanted to end the affair, but he had threatened both her mother and daughter. She also guessed the disclosure would probably ruin her career.
Ironically, the first movie she made following the scandal of Stompanato’s killing was the most successful of her career.
Following his death, someone ransacked Johnny’s apartment where he was staying the night of his death at the Del Capri Hotel on Wilshire Boulevard; it appeared, according to the Beverly Hills police chief, that Stompanato had passed over for safekeeping to someone, one of his wooden boxes, which contained explicit images, in negative film, of Lana Turner, and other women linked to him. If this was true, it’s obvious that dabbling in pornography was one of his revenue streams while he lived in Los Angeles.
An FBI report also indicates a packet of letters between Turner and Stompanato had also been removed from the apartment. Cohen was a suspect but nothing linking him to the burglary could be substantiated.
Johnny’s estate at his death was valued at $274. Not a lot to show for ten years of grifting in a city overflowing with opportunities.
Johnny went back to Woodstock for burial in the Oakland Cemetery. As a veteran, he had a guard of 22 men from the Legion of Honor. His first wife, Sarah, was there, along with Verena, his stepmother and his only brother, Carmine. It’s reported another seventy people turned up, which seems an awful lot for a man who had left as a teenager, and then spent most of his time away.
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Cohen couldn’t make the last goodbye. A court appearance over a brawl with a waiter in a restaurant in Los Angeles, months before, kept him in California. He did however, visit the cemetery on May 5, laying flowers on the grave. Mickey died in 1976 and Lana Turner in 1995, both of cancer.
When the service and funeral were over and the mourners had gone all that was left was the big sky, the whisper of voices and the wind bending the trees as the leaves dusted away across the endless plains of Indiana.
Aged seventy-seven, Cheryl Crane lives on, working in real estate in Palm Springs. She is the last piece in a confounding jigsaw that somehow just won’t allow itself to be finished. Did she kill Johnny, or as many believe, was it her mother, and she accepted the blame? Was their target really a gangster or was he an odious, contemptible, slick womanizer who hung around the fringes of the Los Angeles underworld?
Maybe Shakespeare had it right when in his famous play As You Like It, one of his characters says:
‘All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players;
They have their exits and their entrances’
Usually, when we come upon him, he has already made his choice or the choice has been made for him, it doesn’t matter which: we are not permitted to ask whether at some point he could have chosen to be something else than what he is.
The Gangster as Tragic Hero.
*** There are interesting back stories that include Stompanato.
One, involves a man called Sir Charles A Hubbard. Allegedly an heir to a Bahamian plantation fortune, they met, some sources report, in a restaurant in Chicago, and traveled to Los Angeles together. The two would dance a strange tango for the next two years.
Between 1948 and 1950, Hubbard gifted $85000 to Johnny. Almost one million dollars in today’s currency. The IRS believed the money was from some blackmail scheme but could not determine enough evidence to lay charges.
Hubbard would also claim that on Christmas Day 1948 he offered an engagement ring that cost almost $20,000 to Helen Gilbert. She and Johnny were married in Las Vegas on February 9, 1949 and divorced five months later. The local press referred to Stompanato as “an LA ceramics manufacturer.” He was twenty-three, Helen was ten years older.
She claimed at the divorce hearing: “He had no means, I did what I could to support him.”
Although I used many sources for background on this story, I would like to pay particular thanks to Richard Babcock for his article, “American Gigilo,” at Chicago Magazine, published March 28, 2008.
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