A Hollywood Story

By Cheryl Crane with Cliff Jahr

Arbor House. 334 pp. $18.95

"How does it feel," Frank Sinatra asked, presenting a gold-and-diamond St. Christopher's medal to Cheryl Crane on her birthday, "to be a twenty-one-year-old broad?"

Having survived the notoriety of being Lana Turner's "wayward" daughter from a bigamous marriage, the killer of one of Turner's lovers, and the victim of extremely violent sexual abuse by one of Turner's seven husbands -- plus two reformatories; a mental institution; a suicide attempt; life on the lam in the gay underside of Los Angeles; seven schools; six governesses; 14 homes; and five stepparents -- Cheryl Crane really felt like "an old broad."

And no wonder. "Detour: A Hollywood Story" is a story of horror and healing -- a tale so preposterous that it borders on farce. But Crane tells her dense and complex story so straightforwardly -- and without a trace of self-pity -- that the vicissitudes reverberate into arias of emotion. Crane gets into so many dark areas, is so brutally honest, that the reader squirms with discomfort -- especially in the section in which she describes her continual molestation as a child at the hands of Lex Barker, the movies' 200-pound Tarzan. This is strong stuff: atavistic,heartbreaking and even, in these cynical times, inspirational.

Crane and her talented coauthor Cliff Jahr don't pull any punches; they begin on Oscar night, 1958 -- the pinnacle of Lana Turner's success. L.T. (as she is known throughout much of the book) has lost the Academy Award for her work in "Peyton Place" to Joanne Woodward. Turner was beaten up that night -- like so many other times -- by Johnny Stompanato, Turner's boyfriend, who had links with organized crime. In the days that followed, after many ugly scenes and uglier threats -- as Crane cupped her own ears with her hands, mouthing the silent mantra "Go-to-sleep, go-to-sleep, go-to-sleep" -- L.T. turned to Crane for assistance: "Baby, what am I going to do? You've got to help me. Please ... will you?"

Crane writes: "She had played the lingering close-up well -- now cut, that's a print. I swallowed hard because I believed she was in danger, but something inside me said that eighty percent of what she was doing at this moment was playacting. Screen art blurred into life. She was in a jam, it was clear to see, but at some level in her mind, she was already beginning to self-dramatize in order to manipulate an escape. She was -- incredibly -- reaching out for help from me, a fourteen-year-old."

If you got through Turner's 1983 autobiography, "Lana: The Lady, the Legend, the Truth," this is so right-on-target you just burst out laughing. Turner is a contradiction in terms: She (over-) played the victim, but continually invited trouble. Even when hung over, she made her own bed every morning, caressing it as if it were a sacred object. Yet at night, she was ravaged by lover after lover in the bed that no maid was allowed to touch. She was a look-but-don't-touch mother ("Cheryl, my hair, my makeup"), yet was irrationally jealous of Crane's close relationship with her grandmother. (Of Turner's maternal instincts Crane says simply, "Life had miscast her in the role.") If all the world is a stage, Turner was desperately under-rehearsed: She cried wolf once too often.

Good Friday, 1958: Overhearing a particularly violent argument between Turner and Stompanato ("I'll cut you good, Baby. You'll never work again. And don't think I won't also get your mother and your kid"), Crane ran downstairs and picked up a butcher knife. As she returned, Turner's bedroom door flew open and Crane saw Stompanato with a clothes hanger ready to strike her mother. Crane took a step forward and Stompanato "ran on the blade." The verdict: justifiable homicide. But Crane's problems were just beginning. After stints in reformatories, private schools and a mental hospital, she became antisocial, rebellious, self-destructive. By age 21, she was spent.

Afterward, Crane had minor successes, major setbacks and a series of unsatisfying homosexual affairs. (Crane relates her mother's response when she told her that she had known since age 6 that she, Crane, was gay: " 'You mean it wasn't my fault? It was nothing I did? It wasn't ...' She paused dramatically. '... environmental?' ")

In 1970, Crane met model Joyce LeRoy and fell in love. One night, Crane gulped and started lying about the Stompanato incident. LeRoy stopped her, saying softly, "Cheryl, I think it was a very brave and noble thing to go to your mother's defense." Crane was astonished: No one -- not a shrink, a friend, a family member -- had ever said that to her. At that moment Crane's life changed, and 18 years later she is still with LeRoy.

A couple years ago, after Turner had given up drinking, pills and destructive affairs, Crane was in for another surprise: "Gone was the archness of L.T., the sternness of Mother. There were no deep-breathing Peyton Place stares, no dramatic pauses as if she were shooting a close-up. This nice lady, Mom, displayed the bounce she had shown the world at nineteen in 'Love Finds Andy Hardy.' " They began to talk turkey, over turkey, on Thanksgiving, 1986. Incredibly, they had never spoken about the Stompanato incident during all those years, always euphemistically referring to it as "the paragraph." The cobwebs and the ghosts of the past began to dissipate.

After a 21-year detour, Cinderella had finally made it to the ball, and she's dancing well past midnight.

The reviewer is the author of "The Soap Opera Encyclopedia" and "Guiding Light: A 50th Anniversary Celebration."