Another respectful nod to a star of the Silver Screen. Today we remember Jayne Mansfield, who died in a car accident today in 1967 at the age of just 34.
She was twenty two when she made her film debut. By that time she had already been married for six years and had a five-year-old daughter.
Born into a comfortable life in 1933, Vera Jayne Palmer's father was a high profile and successful lawyer. He died suddenly of a heart attack, aged just 32 when Vera was three years old.
Three years later, Jayne’s mother, her new husband and the young Vera moved to Dallas for a fresh start.
A bright and generous child, Vera took a trip to Hollywood aged 13. Already obsessed with stardom, she saw an actress signing autographs in a coffee shop. She turned to her mother and said “One day Momma, young girls will be asking me for my autograph.”
She fell in love at sixteen and married Paul Mansfield in January 1949. She dropped the Vera and became simply Jayne Mansfield. Ten months after the wedding, and still in High School, she gave birth to the first of her five children, Jayne Mansfield Jr. Paul hoped motherhood would dilute her Hollywood ambitions. It didn’t.
In 1950, Paul was called up at the start of the Korean War. Jayne carried on performing. Her first role of substance was in a production of Arthur Millar’s Death of a Salesman, and when Paul returned, she had grown in confidence and was still determined to become a star.
Paul agreed to move to California where Jayne could get noticed. Her stunning looks and genuine talent helped her, but the producers were only really interested in dumb blond roles.
Sensing an opportunity, Jayne decided to embrace the perception and concentrated on becoming a bigger, bolder and brasher Marilyn Monroe.
In January 1955 she attended a press event in Florida for ‘Underwater’, a Howard Hughes film starring the A-list star Jane Russell. Jayne had an un-credited part in the film as ‘girl in bikini by the pool’, and at the press screening, ‘accidentally’ lost her bikini top in the swimming pool.
Her stunt worked. Paul, however, did not, and after only four months he moved back to Texas. The same day she filed for divorce, she signed a seven-year deal with Warner Brothers, and Jayne Mansfield became a star.
Just one month later she appeared in Playboy as a Playmate and centrefold, the first of five centrefolds and thirty appearances overall.
Her first major screen role was in the film ‘Illegal’ starring Edward. C. Robinson. After a couple of films in 1955 with limited box office success, Jayne had her Warner Brothers contract canceled, and she moved to New York, to star in the comic play ‘Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?’ It was on Broadway that she was to meet her second husband, Mickey Hargitay, an actor and former Mr. Universe.
Returning to Hollywood, she was signed by 20th Century Fox, who cancelled the Broadway show, and made a film version of the play. Jayne played the role she had played on Broadway 444 times to huge acclaim.
Her Hollywood star shone brightly and briefly. In addition to two films released in 1955, there were three in '56 and four in '57. She is credited in total with 31 films, but none achieved the attention of the1956 and 1957 ones.
At the 1957 Golden Globes, she was awarded Best Newcomer for her role in the comedy musical ‘The Girl Can’t Help It’. A hit film, starring Eddie Cochran, Fats Domino and Little Richard singing hits of the day, it's worth looking at if only to get a feel of the 50’s before Rock ‘n’ Roll exploded. You can buy a copy here.
A Golden Globe that year was a particular achievement given that it was the year that Giant, staring James Dean, Bus Stop with Marilyn Monroe, and The King and I were all nominated.
Jayne was a highly accomplished and capable actress, coupling a natural beauty with an impressive intellect. While she was waiting to receive the call for her next big role, which never really came, she travelled with her children making appearances on TV quiz shows in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s.
Her marriage to Mickey Hargitay failed quite publicly and acrimoniously in the early 1960’s, and Jayne married a third time, to Italian film director Matt Cimber. This marriage also ended in divorce after two years. By the end of 1966, she had five children from three marriages, and while her persona divided public opinion, she was clearly devoted to her children. In an interview she once said “I don’t believe in having them and then leaving them to someone else to bring up.”
In addition to her screen and theatre work, she hosted some early cabaret style evenings where she would sing, dance and share stories of her Hollywood lifestyle. These became hugely popular, and throughout the 1960’s she would appear across the country.
It was after one such appearance that she died. In the early hours of June 29th, she was being driven to New Orleans for a TV appearance when the car she was in hit a stationary tractor trailer at nearly 80 miles an hour in Slidell, Louisiana. The three passengers in the front died almost instantaneously, and the rear passengers, three of Jayne’s five children, were lucky to escape with only minor injuries, surviving otherwise unhurt.
Jayne Mansfield was 34 when she died. As a consequence of her car accident, all trailers in the USA were fitted with a DOT bar, or a ‘Mansfield bar’, preventing cars from going under a trailer in the same way. These bars are similar to the bike bars introduced to the sides of UK lorries in September 2015.
Her fame lives on through her fourth child’s television career. Mariska Hargitay, who was three years old and in the car on the night of the accident plays Olivia Benson in the NBC drama, Law & Order: Special Victims Unit.
It is often said that stars who die young, die too soon. Jayne Mansfield did. Although she died fifty years ago and would have celebrated her 85th birthday in 2018 had she survived, Jayne Mansfield is still a star pin-up, and the perfect example of a bold 50’s screen siren who left us too soon.
Thanks for reading.