Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Lana Turner and Johnny Stompanato - Hollywood Homicide

Curse of the 'It Girl'

Attaining the status of female sex symbol has always been fraught with peril. While starlets who portrayed the virginal characters seemed to escape scandal, the women who were known as vamps more or less attracted trouble. The first three women who were known especially for their ability to play the vamp, Clara Bow, Jean Harlow and Lana Turner, each struggled with adversity. Their individual troubles and the public's reaction to them is indicative of how standards and values change over time.

Clara Bow
Clara Bow
A little bit of luck, a lot of talent and drive to succeed put Clara Bow, Hollywoods first sex symbol, on top. Dubbed the It Girl because of her natural beauty, sensuality and screen charm, Clara was best known for playing flappers. Her voluptuous body, heavy-lidded eyes and pouting, kissable lips made men desire her and women want to be her. It, of course, is a polite way of referring to sex appeal, and the name came from her 1927 breakthrough film.

Clara enjoyed several successful years but was brought down by scandal in 1930 when an ex-secretary revealed that Bow was a nymphomaniac who spent her huge salary on no-good gigolos. Her film career faltered as the public was unwilling to allow its sex symbols to emulate their screen roles in real life.

Jean Harlow (AP)
Jean Harlow (AP)
Mae West filled the comedic need for a sexually confident woman and studio executives tapped Jean Harlow to be the next sex symbol. Harlow was the first Blonde Bombshell whose on-screen personality was a toned-down Mae West and a stepped-up Clara Bow. She reigned supreme in Hollywood for nearly a decade.

The year 1932 was a busy one for Harlow. She married Paul Bern, starred with Clark Gable and almost immediately began an affair with him. Her marriage to Bern was an affectionate one, despite her infidelity. She and Paul genuinely loved each other, but their intimacy was adversely affected by Berns still-close relationship with a possessive former girlfriend. Bern ended up committing suicide, and his farewell note to Jean hinted that he killed himself because he was impotent. Harlows affair, Berns suicide and the events surrounding his last night alive (the fact that the couple incorporated sex toys in their lovemaking leaked out and was scandalous at the time), seriously damaged Harlows career. Jean made several films after Berns death, but she was struck down by kidney failure and died in 1937.

Lana Turner, 1952 (AP)
Lana Turner, 1952 (AP)
With Harlow gone, Hollywood executives began looking for the next sex symbol. A newspaper editor spotted the perfect girl while she was playing hooky from Hollywood High. He risked a slap in the face when he approached Julia Jean Mildred Frances Turner and asked if she would like to be in motion pictures. Hollywood would never be the same after it found the "Sweater Girl."

Legend has it that Turner was spotted by an agent in Schwab's Drug Store on Sunset Boulevard and vaulted to stardom. In reality, the 15-year-old Turner, who was given the name Lana by Warner Brothers studio execs, was discovered by Hollywood Reporter Editor Billy Wilkerson in a soda fountain across from Schwab's. Wilkerson gave Turner his card and introduced her to an agent who managed to get the attractive and well-put-together teen a walk-on part in a low-budget film called They Won't Forget. The rest of the film was forgettable, but audiences and studio executives alike noticed the fresh young girl in the tight sweater. Publicity agents dubbed Lana "The Sweater Girl," a nickname she hated the first time she heard it. Lana thought it detracted from her skill as a serious actress.

She made three more films in 1937, and the next year was working steadily, moving her way up the marquee to stardom across from Lew Ayers in These Glamour Girls (1939). By that time, she was well established and living a glamorous lifestyle. The curse of the It Girl was still years away, but it was coming.


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