When Lana Turner Came for Joan Crawford's Crown as Queen of Hollywood

In this excerpt from the new true crime book ‘A Murder in Hollywood,’ rising star Lana Turner has a confrontation with veteran actress Joan Crawford—and gangster Mickey Cohen takes on American Nazis.

Turner and Crawford once went head-to-head.
Turner and Crawford once went head-to-head. / Adam Smigielski/E+/Getty Images (projector), Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures/Sunset Boulevard/Corbis via Getty Images (Turner), Warner Bros. Pictures/Sunset Boulevard/Corbis via Getty Images (Crawford)

Glamour girl Lana Turner and gangster Mickey Cohen were both young and hungry. Each wanted to take over the Hollywood movie studios and the crime ridden streets of Los Angeles, but Lana and Mickey had two major obstacles standing in their way. In this excerpt from Casey Sherman’s A Murder in Hollywood: The Untold Story of Tinseltown’s Most Shocking Crime, we find Turner, a rising star, breathing down the neck of reigning MGM queen Joan Crawford, who would not give up her throne without a fight. Aspiring mob boss Mickey Cohen had his own monumental challenge: competing with the charismatic killer named Benjamin "Bugsy" Siegel. 

At seventeen, Lana Turner was unfamiliar with famed attorney Jerry Giesler, as her attention was focused on another lawyer, twenty-seven-year-old Greg Bautzer, who was handling business affairs at MGM. 

Unlike the nebbish Giesler, the younger Bautzer was fit and tanned, and he smiled for the paparazzi with sparkling white teeth. He was handsome enough to be a leading man, but Bautzer wielded more power behind the scenes. He took Lana dancing at Ciro’s and drinking at the Trocadero. Lana had not given up the nightlife despite Louis B. Mayer’s warning. Bautzer also made love to her at the home she shared with her mother. This time, there was nothing rough or forced about the sex. Lana was a willing participant, although she didn’t know what to do. 

“The act itself hurt like hell, and I must confess that I didn’t enjoy it at all,” she wrote in her memoir later. “I didn’t even know what an orgasm was, but I loved being next to Greg and holding him.” 

Actress Lana Turner at Waterfront
Lana Turner circa 1937. / John Springer Collection/GettyImages

Lana played the role of an adult in bed with Bautzer, but she was still a minor in the eyes of the law. The attorney, who was a decade older, did not seem to care about the age difference and even paraded his young paramour in front of his more seasoned dating partners, including Joan Crawford. Bautzer once escorted Lana to a party at Crawford’s fifteen-room mansion on Bristol Avenue in the Brentwood section of Los Angeles. Like Mayer’s office at MGM, Crawford’s living room had all-white decor. After cocktails, guests were herded into a projection room to watch movies, including Crawford’s own. Lana found a seat next to Bautzer and snuggled up to his shoulder while Crawford watched them with suppressed scorn from her perch in the corner of the room. 

While Crawford had a growing animosity toward the young actress, Lana had great admiration for her. The two screen sirens had found a similar niche in Hollywood: playing the bad girl. With eyes like teacup saucers, thick brows, chiseled cheekbones, and pouty lips, Crawford had melted male moviegoers in the 1920s when she first shot to stardom in the silent film Our Dancing Daughters, playing a flirtatious flapper named Dangerous Diana

Her performance even won praise from legendary novelist and author of The Great Gatsby F. Scott Fitzgerald, who wrote, “Joan Crawford is doubtless the best example of the flapper. The girl you see in smart night clubs, gowned to the apex of sophistication, toying iced glasses with a remote, faintly bitter expression, dancing deliciously, laughing a great deal, with wide, hurt eyes. Young things with a talent for living.” 

Joan Crawford was no homespun innocent. “If you want to see the girl next door, go next door,” she often told the press. Crawford was the undisputed queen of MGM and would burn to the ground any perceived threat to her status. 

After the dinner party, she summoned Lana back to her home alone, without Bautzer. “I’d like to talk to you about something very important,” Crawford said over the telephone. 

Lana was intimidated, even scared, but still, she drove her red Chrysler out to Brentwood for a meeting with the movie star. 

Joan Crawford Posing
Joan Crawford. / George Rinhart/GettyImages

“Now, darling, you know I’m a bit older than you, and so I may know some things you haven’t learned yet,” Crawford said with a forced smile. At the time, Crawford was close to forty years old, but she had never given anyone her true birth date, so her true age was left up to speculation. 

Lana could see under Crawford’s makeup to the lines engraved in her forehead and the crow’s-feet digging into the edges of her familiar eyes. “Like what?” Lana replied innocently. 

“Well, dear, when you’re young, you see things a certain way, but that’s not really how they are. As you get older, you realize that life can be very complex,” Crawford explained. 

Lana began to squirm in her chair. Crawford was talking around the issue and was not being direct. It was a well-rehearsed interrogation. “Joan, what are you trying to tell me?” 

Crawford leaned forward and her eyes grew wide. She stared at Lana with the same terrifying expression that she would later give her daughter, the one she forced to call her “Mommie Dearest.” 

“Well, darling, it’s only right to tell you that Greg doesn’t love you anymore,” Crawford said. “He hasn’t for a long time. It’s me that he truly loves, but he hasn’t figured out a way to get rid of you.” 

“Get rid of me? Trash is something you get rid of. I am not something you get rid of!” Lana shouted back. 

Crawford reached for a cigarette and lit it. She took a long drag and waited as Lana continued her tirade. 

“Don’t you dare say that to me. You are lying about Greg. I know it isn’t true!” 

Crawford smiled through the haze of gray smoke, relishing in the teenager’s petulant tirade. 

“So, Lana dear, why don’t you be a good little girl and tell him you’re finished—that you know the truth now and that it’s over.” Crawford stuck the knife in even deeper. “Make it easier on yourself. He doesn’t want to hurt you.” 

Lana did not know how to respond. She could only mutter a soft “Thank you” to her older adversary. She drove back to her house in Laurel Canyon, wiping away tears from her eyes.

As a young star, Lana may not have realized that Crawford had just taught her a valuable lesson, more important than anything she would learn at the Little Red Schoolhouse on the MGM lot. Joan Crawford, in her trademark nasty, condescending way, educated Lana on the idea that love was transactional in Hollywood and that most romances lasted just long enough for the ink to dry in the gossip rags. The encounter in Brentwood also sparked a fire under Lana, as she would now commit herself to dethroning Crawford as queen of MGM. 

Lana Turner
A prop man cleans Turner’s shoes between takes during the filming of ‘These Glamour Girls.’ / Hulton Archive/GettyImages

She screen-tested for the iconic role of Scarlett O’Hara in Gone with the Wind but lost it to Vivien Leigh. Lana had read the Margaret Mitchell bestseller and knew that she did not have the acting chops or a credible southern accent to pull it off. Unfazed, she plowed ahead in a role more suited to her abilities in the film These Glamour Girls, where she shared top billing with actor Lew Ayres, who would later come under fire by the media as a conscientious objector during WWII. In the movie, which was promoted as an exposé of college life that “blazes across the screen with all of its flaming truth,” Lana leads a team of beautiful young women in a plot to turn the tables on a group of privileged young men wearing pedigree polo shirts. The movie also allowed Lana to flex her muscles with the studio. In a Crawford-like move, she demanded her own dressing room—and got it. MGM publicist Emily Torchia opined, “If there was ever a point at which the studio recognized her as an important star, that might be it.” 

Soon after, Lana was awarded with her own dish on the studio commissary menu called the Lana Allure Salad. 

While Lana was beginning to push her weight around at MGM, Mickey Cohen was rolling up wire services across Southern California for his new boss, Bugsy Siegel. 

Just as Al Capone had before him, Siegel recognized Cohen’s special qualities, particularly that he was smart and would not take shit from anyone. Street thugs were common in Los Angeles, but Cohen was a rare breed of gangster. 

Mickey Cohen
Mickey Cohen. / National Archives/GettyImages

“You’re a gutty kid, but you need some finesse and polish,” Siegel told him. “Or you’re gonna wind up being on the heavy for the rest of your life. You got the ability that if used in a proper way would put you [at] a different scale.” 

Cohen’s lucrative heist of the Continental Press showed Siegel how much money could be made in race wire services. Naturally, Siegel’s next move was to muscle in on the racket and force the Continental Press out of business. He ordered Cohen to embark on a pistol-whipping tour of wire joints, where he smacked around and bludgeoned any operator who refused to sign up with Siegel’s new Trans America wire service. Cohen’s terror campaign turned hundreds of LA bookies into eager subscribers of Siegel’s telegraph services. 

With streams of cash now flooding the pockets of Siegel, Cohen, and the Syndicate, Siegel left Cohen in charge of the Sunset Strip while he set sail for Italy for a meeting with dictator Benito Mussolini. Europe was now on a war footing, and Siegel was looking for a way to cash in. He traveled to Rome with Dorothy di Frasso, a Hollywood socialite and wife of an Italian count. Together, they got Mussolini to pay $40,000 for the access to and development of a new explosive called atomite, which Siegel promised was a powerful smokeless, flashless, and colorless gunpowder. But atomite proved to be a dud, and Mussolini demanded his money back. Siegel was not going to pay the money back and seemed nonplussed over the idea of having the supreme commander of the Italian army breathing down his neck. He was more concerned by the presence of Hermann Goering and Joseph Goebbels, who showed up as guests at the Italian villa owned by Count Carlo di Frasso. Germany had just invaded Czechoslovakia, and the persecution of Jews, with more than four hundred decrees that restricted all aspects of their lives, had been ongoing inside the Reich since Adolf Hitler’s rise to power in 1933. Siegel, a proud Jew, voiced his anger to Countess di Frasso.

“Look, Dottie,” he told her. “I saw you talking to that fat bastard Goering. I’m going to kill him, and that dirty Goebbels too. It’s an easy setup the way they’re walking around here.” For Siegel, it was no greater challenge than shooting a man in a bustling New York City restaurant or out on a Los Angeles street, but the countess begged him to reconsider the executions, as she knew they would never escape Italy with their lives. Siegel reached Meyer Lansky back in the States for permission to assassinate the Nazi leaders. 

“Permission granted,” Lansky told him. “But you’ll be operating independently and you cannot contact any local Mafia gangs.” Siegel would have to go it alone and contemplated what would likely be a suicide mission. 

Meyer Lansky
Meyer Lansky. / Buyenlarge/GettyImages

It was Warner Bros. studio head Jack Warner who finally convinced Siegel to give up the plot. Warner was visiting Italy to promote the studio’s newest film, The Life of Emile Zola. He echoed Countess di Frasso’s fear that everyone connected to Siegel would be arrested and hanged. “I talked him out of it on the grounds [that] we couldn’t fix the local harness bulls [Italian police] if we got caught.” 

Months later, on November 9, 1938, more than one hundred Jews would be killed by Nazi brutes across Germany and Austria during Kristallnacht, the Night of Broken Glass. 

But Siegel, Cohen, and Lansky would continue to fight Nazis on the home front. Lansky focused his efforts on disrupting German Bund rallies in New York City. He mobilized a small commando unit of Jewish gangsters to attack several gatherings of American Nazis. “We got there in the evening and found several hundred people dressed in their brown shirts,” Lansky remembered years later. “The stage was decorated with a swastika and pictures of Hitler. The speakers started ranting and there were only fifteen of us, but we went into action.” Lansky’s crew grabbed, punched, and kicked every brown shirt they could, tossing some of them out the window to the pavement below. Those Nazis who fled the rally were met outside by members of Lansky’s welcoming committee, wielding baseball bats and pool cues. “We chased them and beat them up and some of them were out of action for months,” he recalled proudly. “We wanted to show them that Jews would not always sit back and accept insults.” 

Cohen confronted a popular Nazi Bundist named Robert Noble while both were spending the night in jail on separate charges. Cohen recognized Noble immediately. He had been forced to listen to and read about Noble’s “anti-Jew, rabble rousing sentiment” on the radio and in newspapers. Cohen paid off a guard, who allowed him to share a cell with the American Nazi. Noble had been arrested with another Bundist, but that did not seem to concern Cohen, who stepped into their cell. After the jail guard locked the door behind him, Cohen pounced on the Nazis immediately. “I started bouncing their heads together,” he remembered. “With the two of them, you’d think they’d put up a fight, but they didn’t do nothing.” 

Cohen fought with everything he had learned inside the boxing ring and out on the streets. Battered and dazed, the two Nazis climbed up the iron bars of the cell and screamed for the guards. Finally, the warden made his way to the jail cell and found the Nazis in a bloodied heap while Cohen sat on his bunk, calmly reading the evening newspaper. 

“Them two guys got in a fight with each other,” he tried to convince the warden. 

“I don’t know what happened.” 

The warden gazed over at the bloodied Nazis and he knew that Cohen was lying. 

“Why did you throw us in with an animal, a crazy man?” Noble asked the warden. 

The cover of ‘A Murder in Hollywood.’
‘A Murder in Hollywood.’ / Sourcebooks (cover), Gokcemim/DigitalVision Vectors/Getty Images (background)

Excerpted from A Murder in Hollywood: The Untold Story of Tinseltown’s Most Shocking Crime by Casey Sherman. © 2024 by Casey Sherman. Used with permission of the publisher, Sourcebooks, LLC. All rights reserved.