To some, she was a blonde bombshell and the ultimate sexpot fantasy. To others, she was an actress of limited talent who gained fame mostly through self-promotional antics. Today, her actress daughter is probably more famous. But to residents of the tiny town of Pen Argyl PA, Jayne Mansfield is a hometown girl who made the bigtime.
Vera Jayne Palmer (named after her mother) was born in the town of Bryn Mawr, a suburb of Philadelphia, in April 1933, in the midst of the Great Depression. Her father was a lawyer who moved the family to Phillipsburg NJ just after Vera’s birth, then died of a heart attack in 1936. To support herself and her young daughter, the widowed Vera became a schoolteacher before marrying a local salesman named Harry Peers, who moved the family to Dallas TX. Young Vera, at age 7, began taking violin, piano and dance lessons, and according to her later publicity handouts she would often perform for the neighbors while standing in the driveway of their house. According to another publicity release, while on a trip to Hollywood at age 13, she met a radio star in a restaurant, got his autograph, and told her mother that one day people would be asking for her autograph too.
In May 1950, the 17-year old Vera married a budding actor named Paul Mansfield; their daughter, Jayne Marie, was born six months later. For the next few years, Paul and Vera moved between Dallas and Austin to study acting. During the last year of the Korean War, Paul served in the Army Reserve in Georgia, and when he got out in 1954, the family moved to Los Angeles, where they both planned to pursue acting careers.
During this time, Vera began to use the professional name “Jayne Mansfield”. With her platinum blonde hair and her striking good looks, she won a long string of local beauty contests in Texas and California, from “Miss July Fourth” to “Miss Magnesium Lamp”, which led to some modeling jobs. In 1950, she got a bit part in a B-movie that was briefly released under the titles “Prehistoric Women” and “The Virgin Goddess”, and also began appearing in local theater productions. She was signed on to do photo ads for General Electric, but was then released after GE execs found her bosomy figure “too provocative”. In 1954, she auditioned unsuccessfully for bit parts in “The Seven Year Itch” and “Joan of Arc”, then landed a small role in an episode of CBS TV’s “Lux Video Theater”.
Disappointed with the bit parts she was getting, Jayne Mansfield decided to utilize what were her most bankable assets, and became an instant master at self-promotion. In February 1955 she modeled for the new Playboy Magazine, then posed for the calendar. A week after the magazine appeared, she pulled off what would become her signature publicity stunt, by “accidentally” losing her bikini top in the pool at a press gathering in Florida for the release of the Jane Russell film “Underwater!”
It worked. Warner Brothers signed her to a seven-year contract, and gave her small roles in minor films. Unsatisfied, Mansfield hired a lawyer to get her out of the deal. During this time, moreover, her marriage was collapsing. Paul Mansfield was upset by the Playboy shoots, and filed for divorce.
In 1956, Jayne Manfield finally got her big break, appearing in the Broadway stage production of “Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?” Twentieth-Century Fox signed her to a six-year contract, and she got her first headlining role in “The Girl Can’t Help It”, a movie about the rock’n’roll/blues music scene that starred Fats Domino and Little Richard. A year later, Mansfield won a Golden Globe as New Star of the Year (for her performance in “The Wayward Bus”), then starred in the film version of “Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?” Her next several films flopped, however, and Twentieth-Century soon stopped promoting her and began loaning her out to smaller film studios for B movies.
During this time, Mansfield married professional bodybuilder and “Mister Universe” Mickey Hargitay. They would have two sons, Miklos and Zoltan, and a daughter, Mariska. (Her pregnancies interfered with Twentieth-Century’s film schedules, which was one reason why the studio abandoned her.) In 1958, Mansfield’s grandfather and grandmother died. Elmer and Alice Palmer had lived in the little Pennsylvania mountain town of Pen Argyl, where they become successful in the slate-mining industry. In total, Jayne Mansfield inherited over $125,000 (almost $1 million in 2015 dollars). Mansfield used the money to live a lavish lifestyle, including a pink Cadillac and a Hollywood mansion (with a pink champagne fountain) that she named “The Pink Palace”.
As her movie roles dried up, Manfield had to depend on carefully staged publicity stunts to stay in the limelight. Her “wardrobe malfunctions” at public events were frequent. She posed each year for a new Playboy layout, and in 1963 became the first prominent American actress to appear nude in a studio movie, “Promises! Promises!” She also released a photobook of pinup-style shots titled “Jayne Mansfield for President: The White House or Bust”. Simultaneously, she complained that nobody took her seriously as an actor. Pointing out that she had an IQ of 165, she declared “nobody cares about that–they’re more interested in 40-21-35.”
In 1964, she was offered the role of Ginger in the new TV show “Gilligan’s Island” (the character had been written for her) but she turned it down. Her last Hollywood film role was a small part in 1967’s “A Guide for the Married Man”. She continued to do personal appearances, including a Las Vegas stage show. She also had a string of extramarital affairs, reportedly including everyone from Hollywood producers to Church of Satan founder Anton LeVay to both John and Robert Kennedy. After divorcing Mickey Hargitay in 1964, she married Italian director Matt Climber, divorced him two years later, and began a relationship with her (married) attorney, Sam Brody.
On June 29, 1967, Mansfield had finished a show at a dinner club in Biloxi MS and was being driven to a scheduled TV appearance in New Orleans. In the front seats were Mansfield, Brody, and driver Ronald Harrison; in the back seats were the three Hargitay children, eight-year old Miklos, six-year old Zoltan and three-year old Mariska. At about 2:30am, as they sped along Highway 90, they encountered an 18-wheeler truck that had slowed down for a mosquito-fogger vehicle. Mansfield’s car plowed into the back of the truck, embedding the entire front half of the Buick underneath the trailer. Mansfield, Brody and Harrison died instantly. The three children sleeping in the back seat were injured but survived.
Jayne Mansfield was buried in the little Fairview Cemetery in Pen Argyl PA, in the Palmer family plot next to the grave of her father. Her grave marker is a pink granite heart, engraved “We Live to Love You More Each Day”.
Mariska Hargitay, Mansfield’s daughter who was in the back seat of the car when it crashed, went on to become an actress, and would star in the long-running TV series “Law and Order: Special Victims Unit”.