Imitation of Life: Lana Turner’s Mysterious Origins

By Blake Allmendinger

Blake Allmendinger is a professor at UCLA who specializes in western American literature.  He is the author of seven books, including The Cambridge History of California Literature and The Melon Capital of the World:  A Memoir.  His current book-in-progress is entitled Tongues of Settlement:  Where the World Becomes Basque.  He also has an article in the forthcoming issue of BOGA:  A Basque Consortium Journal called “One Can Only Say What a Basque Is Not.”

From the 1920s through the 1950s, Hollywood studios converted ordinary young men and women into “stars.”  Teaching them to sing and dance, giving them deportment and elocution lessons, and altering the manner in which they dressed, studios changed the names and identities of such aspiring actors as Marion Morrison (John Wayne) and Lucille LeSueur (Joan Crawford).  Like her contemporaries, Julia Jean Turner was transformed into a movie star by MGM in 1936.  Given the new first name Lana, Turner was presented as a light-skinned platinum blonde and paired with such male co-stars as John Garfield, Clark Gable, and Spencer Tracey.

In fact, Turner was a swarthy, dark-haired country girl, born in Burke, Idaho to a miner named John and his wife Mildred.  Biographical sources state that Turner’s mother was of English, Scottish, and Irish descent.  However, certain clues indicate that she may have been Basque, and that this part of her identity was possibly hidden from movie-goers at a time when Basques, despite being Caucasians, were referred to as “dirty Basques” because of their reputation for working outdoors, herding sheep, and living in sometimes unsanitary rural locations.  If so, Turner wouldn’t have been the only aspiring actress whose ethnicity was whitewashed by studios in order to appeal to mainstream audiences.  Merle Oberon was a Eurasian born in Sri Lanka and Rita Hayworth’s father was a Romani from Spain.  Despite Hollywood’s best efforts, Hayworth still “read” as vaguely ethic on film.  She became wildly popular in the Basque Country after the noir classic Gilda was released in 1946.  To this day, there is a pintxo named the Gilda that can be purchased in many bars and restaurants in the Spanish Basque provinces.

Figure 1. Lana Turner in Wallace, Idaho circa 1925. Photo from Wikipedia.

Several pieces of circumstantial evidence suggest that Turner’s mother may have been Basque.  In Detour, a memoir by Lana’s daughter, Cheryl Crane, the author notes that both her grandmother and her mother had Rh negative blood.  One of the world’s rarest blood types, it appeared most frequently in the central European Basque population, and among immigrants from the Old World, most of whom settled in California, Nevada, and Idaho.  When a Basque woman became pregnant by a man with Rh positive blood, her body identified the fetus as an antibody, or malignant tumor, and attacked the fetus, causing a spontaneous miscarriage.  Crane notes that her grandmother nearly bled to death during childbirth—most likely because the small rural hospital didn’t have a backup supply of Rh negative blood.  (My grandmother experienced the same life-threatening situation when she gave birth to my father in rural Colorado in the late 1930s.)  Crane also notes that her mother had the same problem delivering Cheryl.

The fact that Turner wore a beret when she first appeared onscreen in the 1937 film They Won’t Forget may be merely a coincidence.  Berets were also worn by fashionable non-Basques in France and Spain, and throughout Europe, starting in the 1920s.  Ernest Hemingway and Greta Garbo both wore them when posing for publicity photographs and studio marketing campaigns.  But Turner also became known for wearing another fashion accessory in the 1952 musical adaptation of The Merry Widow.  The one-piece foundation garment with a cinched waist, removable bra straps, and a plunging neckline was called a Basque.

Figure 2. Lana Turner wearing a Basque in The Merry Widow. Image from bridgemanimages.

No one has provided a theory to explain why the garment was called this.  Furthermore, why would the studio call attention to Turner’s possible Basque heritage at the same time that it was lightening her hair and her skin to appeal to American filmgoers?  By the early 1950s Hollywood was beginning to hire “exotic” actresses to play women who were on a color spectrum, giving them racier roles to play.  In the early 1940s, MGM stopped casting the teenage Turner as the fair-haired girl next door and began featuring her in more adult-themed movies with scandalous storylines, such as Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Honky Tonk, and The Postman Always Rings Twice.  Her later films—and many would argue her greatest ones—featured Turner playing roles normally associated with “dark” heroines, such as the adulterous housewife living in a small New England town in Peyton Place and the conspiring white employee whose black maid’s light-skinned daughter passes as white in Imitation of Life.  When she did appear in musicals and romantic comedies, such as Latin Lovers and The Merry Widow, Turner’s co-stars were suave and sophisticated leading men, such as Ricardo Montalbán and Fernando Lamas—actors who were in the more “acceptable” middle-range of the color spectrum, unlike Harry Belafonte and Sidney Poitier.

In this essay I refer to Turner’s origins as a mystery that has never been solved.  Perhaps readers on this website already know about the actress’s possible Basque heritage or have additional information to share with readers.  If so, like Sherlock Holmes, put on your deerstalker hat (or your Basque beret) and help me in solving this mystery!           

2 thoughts on “Imitation of Life: Lana Turner’s Mysterious Origins”

  1. Greetings,
    What is a basque? according to my Larousse Menager, a basque is a part of clothing, starting from the waist all the way down to cover the hips. it can be flat or pleated/folded. It can be fixed to the garment or added, thus removable. The origin of the word basque is Provencal–basta . basta means to sew a piece of fabric in order to make pleats or folds. Provencal was spoken in the Basque regions.
    To take it a bit further, my “Diccionario Historical Textil ( sorry, I do not know how to insert accents with email) Acetania y Alto Gallego” by Dabi Latas Alegre ” saya y basquina (tilde on n) pliegue, ” Prenda de vestir o parte del vestido de mujer que cae desde la cintura.” My other book,” Indumentaria Tradicional Aragonesa: Apuntes para una Historia” by Elena Guarc Sancho y Dabi Latas Alegre–very well inllustrated–uses the name “Justillos y Jubones”. It was an outside garment–over a blouse or dress–like an ornament. Men wore something similar–more like a waistcoat.
    This is what the Diccionario wrote” Al finales del siglo XIX desaparecen las aletas y el justllo comienza a converstise en una prenda interior, transformandose en el novedoso “corse” (accent on e)o apretador, que como prenda intima que es no
    se lucira nunca en publico.” Corse means corset in French.
    I remember, 4-5 years ago, a basque or corse-corset was posted on this site.

  2. People say her race is possibly Basque or Spainish in other words. But neither Basque or Spain are races. Spain has many Black people. I think the analysis is too narrow. I know many Black women who remind me of Lana Turner.

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