Glamourous, ambitious, and utterly irresistible. Each term aptly describes Jayne Mansfield, a singular Hollywood star who, not unlike Marilyn Monroe, purely created her image, and made it her own.
Born Vera Jayne Palmer, in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania, on April 19, 1933, this young lady knew exactly what she wanted from life, and what she had to do to get it. Married at age 17, on May 6, 1950, to Paul Mansfield, and a mother at 17, she attended drama classes at the University of Texas, and later transferred to UCLA, always with a tunnel vision: she wanted to be a movie star. She entered, and won, several beauty contests, which rewarded her with several walk-ons on television programs. She was part of a major publicity drive for Underwater, a 1955 Howard Hughes/Jane Russell collaboration, and later that year made her screen debut, as a bit player, in Pete Kelly’s Blues (1955).
Stardom, on her terms, came on October 13, 1955, on the Broadway stage, where, donning only a Turkish towel, she rose to answer the telephone, and revealed her under-towel talents, in the opening of George Axelrod’s play, “Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?” She would reprise that role in the 1957 film version, costarring Tony Randall. That breathless, well-endowed, prototypical ditzy blonde would be the defining, and mildly stereotyped, role she would revisit throughout the balance of her career, and her life.
On May 3, 1956, Jayne signed a long-term contract with 20th Century Fox. Her marriage to Mansfield faltered when she began a romance with Mr. Universe, Mickey Hargitay, who was then in a nightclub act. The show’s headliner, Mae West, angrily (and with a tinge of jealousy) held a press conference on June 6, 1956, to announce Hargitay’s dismissal from the act. However, when Hargitay showed up early, to quit prior to being fired, he tussled with another of the act’s strong men, who gave Hargitay a black eye. Mansfield and Hargitay would marry, on January 13, 1958, the same day her divorce from Paul Mansfield became final.
On November 4, 1957, Jayne Mansfield met Queen Elizabeth. “You are so beautiful,” said Jayne to the Queen. “So are you,” answered Her Majesty. Despite the monumental publicity the sexpot life garnished, and however fun that might have seemed, it eventually grew tiresome, and Mansfield’s career was actually in a steep decline by the mid-1960s, when she appeared in chiefly low-budget productions (mostly European-made), often opposite Hargitay (their daughter, Mariska Hargitay, has made a strong career of her own, acting first in ingenue roles – TV’s Falcon Crest in the 1980s – and ultimately in confident professional parts, such as Law and Order). Mansfield’s films, and their titles, are obvious in their subjects: Too Hot to Handle (UK, 1960); Promises! Promises! (1963), and Las Vegas Hillbillies (1966). Jayne was never given, or never sought, meatier roles – and she found that European audiences were not altogether without quirk – on July 26, 1962, while in Rome accepting an award, Jayne was kicked, scratched, and wrestled to the floor by a deranged woman at the ceremony.
Jayne’s marriage to Hargitay ended on April 30, 1963. On September 24, 1964, she married director Matt Cimber, who took over as her manager during their brief marriage (which ended in 1966).
On June 10, 1967, while on her way to a television engagement, Jayne Mansfield was killed in a car accident, near New Orleans. She was only 34 years old. Her children, who were sleeping in the back seat, were unharmed. There is a cenotaph memorializing her at Hollywood Forever which was installed by her fan club. She is buried at her family plot in Pen Argyl, Pennsylvania. The Jayne Mansfield brand of stardom, which earned her a star of Hollywood’s Walk of Fame, on 6328 Hollywood Boulevard, will shine on. Hers is a story which has a most definitive moral – hard work, perseverance, and determination, will, for better or worse, inch one closer and closer to one’s dream. However, with that knowledge, one must always choose one’s dream with care.