By Andrea Chambers
February 15, 1988 12:00 PM

In a Beverly Hills mansion, a little girl with waist-length ringlets was tucked into bed at 6 p.m. by her Scottish nanny. Staring at the hand-painted cherubs smiling at her from the ceiling, she longed for a goodnight kiss from Mommy. But Mommy was glamorous Lana Turner, the ultimate blond sweater girl of the ’40s, who had little time for her only child, Cheryl Crane.

Feeling shy and gawky, the dark-haired daughter would sometimes sneak into her mother’s closet “to inhale her essence,” as she puts it now. Whenever she reached out to hug or kiss her perfectly coiffed mom, her arms would be pushed away. “Sweetheart, the hair,” Turner would say. “The lipstick.”

As Turner moved through a succession of movies and husbands, Crane felt powerless to win her love. Not until Good Friday, 1958, was 14-year-old Cheryl finally, and fatally, able to prove her devotion. When Lana’s lover of the moment, a small-time hood named Johnny Stompanato, threatened to kill Lana during an argument, Cheryl grabbed a kitchen knife and waited outside her mother’s bedroom door. Suddenly the door opened. Stompanato came forward as Cheryl rushed in. The blade punctured his abdomen, kidney and aorta. Though the death was ruled a justifiable homicide, the ordeal launched Cheryl on a ruinous slide from defiant behavior to reform school and a mental institution.

The sad, scandalous tale has been written about and filmed a dozen times over the years, with and without fictional camouflage. Even Woody Allen in his new film, September, has created a troubled mother and daughter haunted by a Stompanato-like scenario. For years Crane, 44, refused to comment on the grisly past that nearly destroyed her. But now, in her best-selling autobiography, Detour, she is speaking out. Written with the help of journalist Cliff Jahr, Crane’s book provides a graphic account of the Stompanato killing. It also contains the shocking revelation that between the ages of 10½ and 13, Cheryl was repeatedly raped by her stepfather, movie Tarzan Lex Barker.

Crane was finally moved to tell her story in 1985, when she read My Mother’s Keeper, by B.D. Hyman, Bette Davis’ daughter. Hyman had dredged up a persistent rumor that Stompanato and Cheryl were lovers. This time Crane was ready to put the rumor to rest. Encouraged by her longtime lover, Joyce “Josh” LeRoy, Crane had come to believe the past should be confronted, not buried. When LeRoy told her one evening over drinks, “I think it was a very brave and noble thing to go to your mother’s defense,” Crane was astounded. “No one had ever said that what I had done could have been anything but monstrous,” Crane wrote. “My life changed.”

Sitting in the elegant San Francisco penthouse apartment she has shared with LeRoy for three years, Crane shows none of her past angst. The awkward teenager has matured into an attractive, self-assured businesswoman. Crane says she was aware of her preference for women even in childhood: “It’s something you’re born with, like blue or brown eyes.” She denies that Barker’s assaults helped shape her sexuality. Furthermore she says she has always been open about her relationship with Josh. “Maybe I’ve been blessed, but I’ve never had any bad reaction to that,” she says. “Listen, I have had so much said about me that this was a minor, I mean minor, point in my life.”

Crane is the child of Turner’s brief second marriage to restaurateur Stephen Crane. By the time Cheryl was 10, Turner was on her fourth husband, Barker, who one day lured Cheryl into the sauna, told her it was up to every little girl’s father to teach her about men and exposed himself. Barker then began visiting Cheryl’s room at night, raping her so violently that a doctor said later that she should have had stitches. Finally, when Cheryl grew older and once attempted to fight back, Barker tried to suffocate her with a pillow. Cheryl told her maternal grandmother, who called Turner. Crane chillingly relates how Turner said she held a gun to Barker’s head while he slept, then thought, “Is this bastard worth the rest of my life in prison? The end of my career? Everyone’s life ruined?” When Barker awoke in the morning, Turner ordered him out of the house. They were divorced, but to avoid a scandal, Cheryl says, no criminal action was taken against Barker.

Then came the Stompanato melodrama, which was preceded by months of feuding between Lana and the gangster. On a movie set in England, Stompanato had threatened Turner, prompting Sean Connery to deck him. A few days before the killing, Turner, sharing a rare confidence, pleaded with her daughter, “I’m afraid of him…you’ve got to help me.” Crane says she doesn’t remember grabbing the knife from the kitchen when she heard the fatal argument. After the stabbing, she says, “it was like I came out of a dream and everything came apart.”

During the nightmare that followed, Crane spent three weeks in Juvenile Hall before being made a ward of the court and was released in her grandmother’s custody, as she herself requested. Rebelling, Crane began hanging out at nightclubs and running up speeding tickets. “I wanted everything and I wanted it now,” she says. After 11 months in reform school she returned home to her grandmother only to run away twice. Following the second incident, she was sent to the Institute of Living, an elite sanitarium in Hartford, Conn. Told by her mother—falsely, as it turned out—that the court had extended her wardship by a year, she attempted suicide by smashing her fists through a window. Sedated for weeks afterward, she credits the humor and encouragement of a fellow patient, comic Jonathan Winters, with helping her regain her will to live.

In April 1962, eight months after her 18th birthday, Crane was finally released. She settled in Los Angeles, where she began to mix heavy drinking and sleeping pills. One night she again tried suicide. A friend found her comatose and rushed her to the hospital. “That woke me up,” she says. “That was the end of the detour.”

Determined to change her life, Crane went to work for her father as a hostess at his Los Angeles restaurant, the Luau. After a few years, including one spent studying at Cornell University’s School of Hotel Administration, Crane rose to become her father’s second-in-command.

In 1968, at a party at actor Wally Cox’s house, Cheryl met model Josh LeRoy. “She took my breath away,” says Crane. Two years later the pair began living together. In 1979 they moved to Hawaii, where they began fixing up houses and eventually prospered in real estate.

Returning to California in 1985, Crane decided to tell her story. When she asked her mother’s opinion, Turner, who was divorced from her seventh husband and had completed a stint on Falcon Crest, seemed concerned that she might find herself on the receiving end of another Mommie Dearest. No problem, said Crane. “Mom wasn’t around that much in my life for a Mommie Dearest,” she explains. “She qualifies perhaps for a lonnnng cameo role.”

Despite her fears, Turner spent hours with Crane sharing her memories. When Cheryl opened up about her childhood, Lana was amazed. “Why did no one tell me about the loneliness you felt?” she asked. Talking it through, says Crane, mother and daughter became good friends. Though Turner is often portrayed in the book as a spoiled star, indifferent to her daughter’s needs, she told Cheryl when she saw the book, “I’m very proud of you and I think you’re one gutsy lady.”

Crane is aware that after years of relative obscurity she may find herself once more an object of public curiosity—especially since rights to Detour have been bought by a Hollywood production company. But she draws strength from the two most important relationships in her life—with LeRoy and, finally, with her mother. “We always had a bond,” Crane says. “It got stretched pretty tight there for a few years, but it never broke.”

—Written by Andrea Chambers, reported by Dianna Waggoner