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Mansfield, Jayne (1933-1967)

Mansfield, Jayne (1933-1967)

Although many people have never seen her movies, Jayne Mansfield remains, long after her death, one of the most recognizable icons of 1950s celebrity culture. More so than for her acting ability, Mansfield is remembered as a glamorous, big-busted sex kitten in competition with Hollywood rivals such as Marilyn Monroe and Mamie Van Doren. Because of her hour-glass figure, newspapers in the 1950s routinely published her body measurements, which led evangelist Billy Graham to once exclaim, "This country knows more about Jayne Mansfield's statistics than the Second Commandment."

The peculiar aspect of Mansfield's life is that although she symbolized sex appeal, perhaps more than any other American actress in the 1950s, she was never a major box office attraction. Still, she kept in the limelight because she was skilled at the art of publicity. Mansfield knew the importance of name and face recognition in the development of stardom. She strived to keep the public interested in her life, and she generated daily publicity to keep her name and pictures in the news. Mansfield's movie career was so brief that she would not have obtained cult status had it not been for the countless number of photos and news stories she generated during her lifetime.

Mansfield was born on April 19, 1933, in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania. Her parents, Herbert and Vera Palmer, named her Vera Jayne. The family moved to Phillipsburg, New Jersey, where her father practiced law and her mother was a school teacher who retired to raise a family. When Jayne was three, her father died of a heart attack at age thirty. Upon the father's death, her mother returned to teaching to support the family. When Jayne's mother remarried in 1939, the family moved to Dallas. Throughout her childhood, Jayne was fascinated with movie stars, with Shirley Temple being one of her favorites. She avidly collected Hollywood fan magazines and dreamed of being a film star. As she matured, her idol became Marilyn Monroe.

At age seventeen, on May 6, 1950, Jayne married twenty-one-year-old Paul Mansfield in Fort Worth, Texas. In June of that year, Jayne graduated from Highland Park High School, and in November she gave birth to a daughter, Jayne Marie. Paul Mansfield served in the Army during the Korean War, and at various times during the early 1950s, both Jayne and her husband acted in little theater productions in Dallas. By 1954, the couple moved to Hollywood so Jayne could have a chance at being the movie star she always dreamed of becoming. She initially did a bevy of screen tests, but no studio would sign her. In the meantime, Jayne sold candy in a Los Angeles theater and worked as a part-time model for the agency where Marilyn Monroe got her start.

Jayne Mansfield's first successful acting assignment occurred on October 21, 1954, when she appeared on television in the Lux Theater production of "An Angel Went A.W.O.L." This appearance led her to her first film role in The Female Jungle. After her first taste of stardom, Mansfield began cranking up her publicity machine, adopting the color pink as her trademark. She decorated her house in pink, drove pink cars, and wore pink clothes for the publicity she received from the color. In January 1955, Mansfield appeared at a Silver Springs, Florida, press junket promoting the film Underwater, which starred Jane Russell and Mansfield. Because Mansfield purposely wore a swimsuit that was too small, her top fell off before an astonished press corps, upstaging Russell's appearance at the junket. This burst of publicity led Warner Brothers to place Mansfield under contract. During this time, Mansfield's marriage fell apart, with the couple separating and then divorcing in 1956. In 1955, Warner Brothers paraded Mansfield through a series of small roles in films such as Illegal, Pete Kelly's Blues, and Hell on Frisco Bay. And although it was rumored that Mansfield would appear with James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause, that breakthrough vanished when Warner Brothers abruptly dropped her contract.

Mansfield rebounded that same year by landing a larger role in the independent film, The Burglar. Her agent also insisted that she test for the lead in the Broadway play Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? which she landed when the play's director liked her exaggerated portrayal of a dumb blond movie star. Mansfield proved to be a Broadway sensation, and won awards in 1956 for her work. Because America became infatuated with the sex kitten persona she developed in the play, Mansfield appeared in about 2,500 newspaper photographs between September 1956 and May 1957, and had about 122,000 lines of newspaper copy written about her during this time. Because of the successful media blitz, Jayne Mansfield was a household name even though few people had seen her perform. While performing in the play, Mansfield also appeared on such New York-based television shows as What's My Line?, Person to Person, and Sunday Spectacular.

By 1957, Twentieth Century-Fox had signed Mansfield in hopes of her becoming a new Marilyn Monroe, who, at the time, was refusing to make movies unless the studio gave her more money and treated her with respect. Mansfield appeared in two comedy roles for Twentieth Century-Fox as a dumb blond—The Girl Can't Help It and the film version of Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? The studio then cast Mansfield in a dramatic role for the movie version of the John Steinbeck novel The Wayward Bus. In the spring of 1957, she received a number of "most-promising" awards for her acting on Broadway and on the screen, and in that year, she continued to be a focal point for the press and appeared on a number of television variety shows.

Mansfield married former Mr. Universe Mickey Hargitay in Palos Verdes, California, on January 13, 1958. The marriage displeased Twentieth Century-Fox because the studio preferred their sex kittens to be unmarried. However, the marriage proved to be a boost for the careers of both Mansfield and Hargitay, with the couple appearing in Las Vegas together on stage. Mansfield and Hargitay became a famous publicity and performing team, with many people watching their performance just to see this pair together. They appeared in nightclub acts from 1958 to 1961, featuring the busty Mansfield and the muscular Hargitay in skimpy costumes.

Although she was a master publicist, Mansfield received her first negative publicity between April and September 1958 when she and Mickey Hargitay said they were too poor to pay child support payments being requested by Hargitay's first wife. The press had a field day reporting that the couple had just purchased a $76,000 mansion and spent $75,000 to remodel it and were far from being broke. As of 1959, Twentieth Century-Fox no longer considered Mansfield star material and instead loaned her out for low-budget English and Italian movies. Despite being rejected by American movie studios, Mansfield was still a welcomed guest on television, appearing in dramatic parts and on game shows and talk shows.

From 1962 to 1964, Mansfield continued to receive bad press because of ongoing marital problems and a messy divorce with Hargitay, as well as public fights with her third husband, Matt Cimber. And by 1965, her career had hit its lowest level, with two movies announced for Mansfield that were never made and her performing in two plays that were critically panned. In 1966, she starred in two low-budget American films, The Fat Spy and The Las Vegas Hillbillys, and that same year she performed in her last major nightclub appearance at the Latin Quarter. She also spent much of the year touring in small-town productions of the play Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.

In 1967, Mansfield's last year, her career descended into lesser nightclub appearances and TV talk shows. She also spent two months touring South Vietnam and entertaining the troops. Her personal life that year was reported to be a living hell, with her fourth marriage to attorney Sam Brody involving physical abuse and a stream of lawsuits. At 2:25 a.m. on June 29, 1967, Mansfield's turbulent life came to an end when she, Brody, and driver Ronnie Harrison were killed instantly in a freak car accident thirty miles outside of New Orleans. Mansfield was decapitated when the car slammed into the rear of a semi-truck in a white cloud of fog produced by City of New Orleans mosquito spraying equipment.

Despite the fact that Jayne Mansfield was never a major boxoffice draw, she remains a pop-culture icon because of the massive amounts of publicity she generated, her image as a well-endowed Hollywood sex kitten, and the public's fascination with her gruesome and untimely death. She married four times, had five children, and although her work was rarely lauded by the critics, Mansfield did fulfill her childhood dream of achieving fame.

—Dennis Russell

Further Reading:

Faris, Jocelyn. Jayne Mansfield: A Bio-Bibliography. Westport, Connecticut, Greenwood Press, 1994.

Mann, May. Jayne Mansfield: A Biography. New York, Drake Publishers, 1973.

Saxton, Martha. Jayne Mansfield and the American Fifties. Boston, Houghton Mifflin, 1975.

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