September 15, 2008
Yet another one for the “there’s always a San Francisco angle” files …
Years before the discovery of the platinum haired Lana Turner at a Hollywood cafe propelled her into a life of glamour and super-stardom, her lifeline intersected San Francisco — and with tragedy.
I suppose we could begin the tale in Oklahoma, 1920.
Lana’s parents meet cute
Well … sort of.
“… my father was just out of the army. He was heading westward, working in the mines and I guess that’s how he got to Pitcher (Oklahoma). After a night of dancing, he and my mother fell in love.
He was twenty-four, but she was only fifteen. When he began to court her, my grandfather put his foot down. So, what could they do? They eloped.”
Right — eloped to the romantic environs of Wallace, a small mining town in Idaho. Not long afterwards (February 8, 1921), “Julia Jean Mildred Frances Turner ” was born to child-bride Mildred and John “Virgil” Turner. (They called her Judy, and though she wouldn’t become “Lana” until hitting the silver screen, let’s keep it simple.)
Though Lana would later reminisce nostalgically about the good ol’ days — mom and pop dancing to the Victrola by candlelight — all was not well in the Turner household.
Virgil worked a series of rough and low-paying jobs in the silver mines. And though making barely enough to support his tiny family, he soon began to squander those meagre earnings on the dancing, gambling and hooch that are part and parcel of mining town life.
His debts mounted, so Virgil turned to bootlegging his own corn liquor — but when the Feds started sniffing around, the Turners packed up the household overnight and high-tailed it for — where else? — San Francisco.
They pulled into the City at the Edge of the World sometime in 1927, when Lana was just six years old. Something about life in San Francisco, who knows, perhaps something in the city’s inherently unstable nature, provoked a separation between the parents.
Mildred found suitably noiresque work as a nightclub entertainer, and after a murky period in which the young girl was shuttled off to live in a series of abusive foster homes, moved her into a cramped apartment at 760 Geary Street.
Papa Virgil moved into a rough hotel at 4th and Mission, finding work as a stevedore at the Pacific Coast Steamship Company. The job suited him, and as for his taste for drinking and gambling? San Francisco nights were the perfect fit.
And this is where the tale takes a darker turn.
“Taken for a ride”
Virgil spends the early morning hours of December 10th, 1930, in an all-night downtown poker game. The cards are turning his way, and as his diamond stickpin sparkles in the electric lights, he brags loudly that he’s going to buy his little girl a bicycle with his winnings.
He leaves the basement game close to dawn, but his big talk had not gone unnoticed, and he was followed. As the San Francisco Chronicle later put it, Virgil was picked up and “taken for a ride” out to the Potrero District. It was the gambler’s last deal.
When the sun came up, Virgil’s corpse was discovered slumped in an alley at Mariposa and Minnesota, out behind the Southern Pacific roundhouse. He’d been bludgeoned to death. The diamond stickpin was gone, as was his watch — but most importantly, so was his left sock, in which he’d kept his bankroll.
The police figured out that gambling was involved, and there was some speculation about gangsters … but the papers were full of such things in the ’30s — I mean, c’mon, Dashiell Hammett himself was probably up writing the Maltese Falcon over at 891 Post Street as the murder took place — and Virgil Turner’s killer was never caught.
Lana was profoundly shaken by her father’s death. And somehow, the nine-year-old girl had known what had happened before the body was discovered:
“…How long I had been asleep I don’t know, but suddenly I was sitting up straight in the darkness. Before me was a vision so intense that it seemed to be alive. I saw a huge medallion of shining gold, and on it was embossed the face of God, a shimmering countenance, comforting, benign. A voice said, “Your father is dead.” I was filled with awe but also with a strange sense of peace as I closed my eyes and went back to sleep.
When I awoke in the morning, my mother and Julia Hislop (a family friend) were whispering in a corner. They didn’t have to tell me why. I already knew that my father was dead. And when the feeling of peace wore off, the surprise at having known intensified my sense of loss and sorrow. Although I was only nine, I could imagine what death meant. I knew he was gone forever.”
In 1935, Mildred Turner, on her doctors’ advice, moved with her daughter to the drier climate of Los Angeles. Six weeks later the now mostly-grown-up Lana was discovered, and the rest is, as they say, history.
San Francisco history, that is
Though Lana Turner passes out of San Francisco’s story and into Hollywood legend, her private life — seven marriages, a gazillion affairs, alcoholism, a gangster lover murdered by her own daughter — seems to somehow have been claimed by our city. In an undoubtedly way-too-romantic way, I’ll think of Lana Turner now as forever marked by San Francisco noir…
Thanks to Ron Filion at SFGenealogy.com for the tip — someone had asked him to “confirm” that Lana Turner was a Bay Area high school graduate. Turned out that she wasn’t, of course, but as he poked around, discovered the inevitable San Francisco angle. He thought I might be interested … and I was.