Family & Companions
Possessed by an unquenchable thirst for fame and blessed with a voluptuous figure, actress Jayne Mansfield was one of more successful heirs to the throne of Marilyn Monroe, although a dearth of quality roles would quickly remove her from the A-list, and a tragic early death would end her brief career all too soon. A canny media manipulator, Mansfield first made headlines with a nude pictorial in Playboy and a highly publicized run on Broadway in "Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?" in 1955. Early hit films such as "The Girl Can't Help It" (1956) and the film version of "Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?" (1957), combined with relentless - and revealing - publicity stunts by a shameless Mansfield made her a household name and bona fide movie star. The meteoric rise ended as fast as it had begun, however, with the failure of her next film "Kiss Them for Me" (1957) and 20th Century Fox's subsequent lack of effort to find Mansfield suitable material. As her stardom fizzled, she engaged in a series of stormy, ill-fated relationships and marriages, most notably to bodybuilder Mickey Hargitay, with who she had three children, including future actress Mariska Hargitay. Following nearly a decade of appearing in low-budget films the actress was killed in a horrendous car accident in Louisiana at the age of 34. Although referred to by some as "the poor man's Marilyn," the actress would be better remembered for her unabashed spirit and vivaciousness, and mourned for the future opportunities, both professional and personal, denied her by such an early demise.
Born Vera Jayne Palmer on April 19, 1933 in Bryn Mawr, PA, she was the daughter of Vera and Herbert, an attorney who died of a heart attack when Mansfield was just three years old. Her mother, who later worked as a school teacher, remarried in 1939 and the family moved to Dallas, TX. Highly intelligent as well as pretty, Mansfield set her sights on stardom early after winning a beauty pageant and studying drama at the University of Dallas, having enrolled there after only completing her junior year in high school. When she became pregnant at the age of 16 and married the father, Paul Mansfield, a year later in 1950, it seemed as if her plans might have to change. However, her first stage performance in a 1953 university production of "Death of a Salesman" directed by Baruch Lumet, father of future film director Sidney Lumet, reignited her artistic aspirations. Moving to Austin with her husband and daughter, Mansfield juggled motherhood with drama classes at the University of Texas at Austin. Wins in several small beauty pageants kept her dreams alive, and in 1954 she convinced a reluctant Paul to move to Los Angeles so that she might pursue an acting career in earnest.
Newly arrived in Hollywood, Mansfield quickly enrolled in drama courses at UCLA and worked several odd jobs as she looked for that big break. For better or worse, that break came in the form of Hugh Hefner and Playboy magazine when she was featured as the Playmate of the Month for the February 1955 issue. Mansfield's nude pictorial simultaneously increased the magazine's circulation and launched her career, setting a precedent in which she unashamedly exploited both her body and the press in the pursuit of fame. Even before the publication of her nude layout, she was hired for her feature film debut opposite tough guy Lawrence Tierney in the B-movie noir "Female Jungle" (1955). Recently signed with Warner Bros., she followed with a brief appearance in actor-director Jack Webb's "Pete Kelly's Blues" (1955), and a supporting turn in the courtroom thriller "Illegal" (1955), starring Edward G. Robinson. Having fulfilled her six-month contract with Warner, Mansfield next picked up an uncredited role in the Alan Ladd crime drama "Hell on Frisco Bay" (1955). Soon realizing that his wife's dreams of stardom were no passing fancy, a thoroughly fed up Paul Mansfield returned to Dallas, alone, within months of their arrival in Hollywood.
Although she initially resisted, in the fall of 1955 Mansfield was convinced to go to New York City where she enjoyed a wildly successful run on Broadway in the well-regarded production of George Axelrod's comedy "Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?" A Faustian satire of the film industry, it starred Orson Bean and Walter Matthau, with Mansfield cast as sex goddess Rita Marlowe, a character inspired by Marilyn Monroe, the original blonde bombshell under whose shadow Mansfield would spend her entire career. Returning victorious to Hollywood the following spring, the actress was signed to an extended contract with 20th Century Fox, the home studio of Monroe at the time. Industry wisdom had it that Fox wanted Mansfield as a "back up" to Marilyn, a massive star who they were finding increasingly difficult to control. Mansfield's first picture in the long-term deal was "The Girl Can't Help It" (1956), a musical comedy starring Tom Ewell and Edmond O'Brien. Intended as a star-making vehicle for Mansfield, as well as a satire of the recent teenage fascination with the upstart musical genre of rock-and-roll, it succeeded in both.
In an attempt to distance herself from the "dumb blonde" image that she knew she was being identified with, Mansfield made a bold move by accepting an against-type role as a shamed exotic dancer in "The Wayward Bus" (1957). A gritty ensemble drama based on the novel by John Steinbeck, it co-starred Joan Collins and veteran actor Dan Daily. It also earned Mansfield some much desired critical respect when she won a Golden Globe for New Star of the Year in 1957. In the years that followed, it would be widely considered to be one of her best film performances. Mansfield's movie career reached its commercial zenith when she reprised the role of Rita Marlowe in the filmed adaptation of "Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?" (1957). The comedy co-starred Tony Randall in the title role, but other than Mansfield's character, bore little resemblance to the original stage play. Regardless, it became a substantial hit and earned Randall a Golden Globe nomination. It would later be selected for preservation by the U.S. Library of Congress' National Film Registry.
Another impressive dramatic performance by Mansfield came with the release of the little-seen "The Burglar" (1957). Actually filmed in 1955, just prior to her stint on Broadway, the highly-stylized film noir was based on a novel by pulp author David Goodis - who also wrote the screenplay - and co-starred noir veteran Dan Duryea. A low-budget effort, it was only released after Mansfield had become a major star. Attempting to recoup their investment in their new starlet - but seemingly unsure of how to best utilize her - Fox next gave her top billing alongside screen idol Cary Grant in the romantic comedy "Kiss Them for Me" (1957). Despite her high placement in the credits, Mansfield was little more than voluptuous window dressing in the film about four combat fatigued pilots looking for fun and frolic while on shore leave in San Francisco. Unfortunately, the movie was critically panned, performed dismally at the box-office, and would become her last mainstream Hollywood motion picture. After the failure of "Kiss Them for Me" - and their coming to terms with Monroe - Fox dialed back attempts to place her in major films, and began loaning out Mansfield's talents to smaller studios, at home and in Europe.
Regardless of the fact that her recent film had sunk unceremoniously at theaters, Mansfield kept her personal publicity machine at full throttle with almost weekly mentions in the press and shameless publicity stunts that became the stuff of Hollywood legend. One notorious incident came in 1957, when she attempted to upstage cinema beauty Sophia Loren while attending an event being held in the Italian star's honor. In photographs printed in newspapers all around the world in the days that followed, Loren could be seen gazing with obvious disapproval at Mansfield's unavoidable breasts, literally bursting out of her low cut dress. Similar later incidents, some of which exposed even more of the busty sex symbol, became so prevalent that a backlash of negative public perception soon followed. A casualty of the precarious nature of her career and accompanying lifestyle hit home when her divorce from Paul Mansfield became official in early 1958. Within months she married Mickey Hargitay, a body builder, former Mr. Universe, and aspiring actor. A secret to no one, Hargitay and Mansfield had been involved in a passionate romance ever since they first met during her time in the Broadway production of "Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter" nearly three years earlier.
Hesitant to put her in a more high-profile project, Fox placed Mansfield alongside Kenneth More in the low-budget comedy-Western "The Sheriff of Fractured Jaw" (1958), helmed by veteran director Raoul Walsh. Filmed in Italy - one of the first Westerns to do so - the little seen film would not be released in the U.S. for another year. Offscreen the platinum-haired star continued to garner more press for her outlandish lifestyle, as in the case of her lavishly appointed and eponymously painted Hollywood mansion "The Pink Palace." At a loss as to what to do with their once hot property, Fox next lent Mansfield out for a series of films shot in Europe, beginning with a pair of independently produced British crime thrillers: "The Challenge" (1960), starring Anthony Quayle, and "Too Hot to Handle" (1960), featuring Hammer horror mainstay, Christopher Lee. From there it was off to Italy for the sword and sandal fantasy "The Loves of Hercules" (1961), starring Hargitay as the titular strongman. Mansfield next gratefully accepted a job back in Hollywood with a supporting role in the biopic "The George Raft Story" (1961).
Much to her displeasure, Mansfield would soon return to Italy to film "It Happened in Athens" (1962), an Olympics-themed comedy in which she received top-billing, despite only appearing in a supporting role. When the picture flopped at the box office, Fox declined to renew her six-year contract, which had just come to an end. After a string of low budget European productions, Mansfield made her biggest headlines in years when she agreed to appear in the nude in the independent feature "Promises! Promises!" (1963), starring Tommy Noonan. When leaked photos from the set appeared in Playboy, Mansfield was once again responsible for boosting the magazine's sales and generating much needed publicity for herself. It also landed Hefner in hot water with the city of Chicago, which filed obscenity charges against the publisher as a result of the pictorial. Although the movie was banned in Cleveland, it did enjoy considerable success around the country, so much so that Mansfield made the list of Top 10 Box Office Attractions compiled by an American theater owners association that same year.
Unfortunately, Mansfield's personal life had fallen into a state of chaos and uncertainty that rivaled her struggling film career. During their turbulent time as husband and wife, she and Hargitay had three children. The youngest, Mariska, was born after the couple's acrimonious divorce in Juarez, Mexico in 1963, although for the sake of appearances, Mansfield insisted the marriage was still legally valid until after Mariska's birth in 1964. However, with the birth of her daughter, Mansfield made an about-face, claimed that the Mexican divorce was in fact legally binding, and promptly married director Matt Cimber, who had directed Mansfield - and Hargitay - in a stage production of "Bus Stop" mere months earlier. For all of the drama of her early years, Mariska Hargitay herself would go on to become a successful actress in her own right, known primarily for her role on the long running series "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit" (NBC, 1999- ).
With her career a mere shadow of its former glory, Mansfield kept herself employed anyway she could, juggling night club appearances with whatever film roles came her way. Two examples of the latter included "The Fat Spy" (1966), a cheap beach party knock-off starring Phyllis Diller, and "The Las Vegas Hillbillys" (1966), which co-starred her blonde bombshell nemesis Mamie Van Doren and was produced by "Z-movie" moguls the Woolner Brothers. She also made a brief cameo appearance in the Walter Matthau comedy "A Guide for the Married Man" (1967), which would constitute her final film performance. Filmed earlier and unfinished at the time of Mansfield's death, was Cimber's film directing debut "Single Room Furnished" (1968), a gritty drama about a young woman's descent from loving wife to emotionally detached prostitute. Ironically, the role later gained a reputation as one of Mansfield's best. She would never live to read any such accolades, however, when she, her boyfriend at the time, attorney Sam Brody, and their driver were killed instantly when the car they were in smashed into the back of a slow-moving truck in June of 1967. On their way to an engagement in New Orleans with their mother, Mariska, Zoltán and Miklós Hartigay were all asleep in the back seat of the vehicle and miraculously survived with minor injuries. Posthumous rumors would abound that the actress was beheaded at the scene based on photos of the crash. What was assumed to be the actress' head resting on the hood of the car was, in fact, one of her wigs. Jayne Mansfield, one of the last of the Hollywood blonde bombshells, was 34 years old.
Cast (Feature Film)
Worked as a candy vendor when first arrived in Hollywood (date approximate)
Broadway debut, "Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?"
Film debut, "Female Jungle" (bit part)
Achieved star status in "The Girl Can't Help It"
Went to England to appear in "The Challenge"
Acted in last film, "Single Room Furnished" (released 1968)
Appeared in "documentary", "The Wild, Wild World of Jayne Mansfield"