One of the classic blonde bombshells, Jayne Mansfield's life was one of contrasts. Born to professional parents, she was a highly intelligent, learned young woman less interested in education than the bright lights of the silver screen. An accomplished musician and actress, her talents as a performer were often obscured behind her pretty face and a buxom body. Jayne's lust for fame and her obvious sex appeal determined the direction of her life, bringing her everything she desired, yet leaving much of her genuine talent obscured and unrecognized behind the shadow of a glamorous sex symbol persona. In the end, all her unrecognized talent and good looks weren't enough to protect Jayne from a terrible fate that would snatch her away from her family and the world at large far too soon.
Born Vera Jayne Palmer on April 19th, 1933 in Bryn Mawr Pennsylvania, she was the only child of Herbert William and Vera Jeffery Palmer, both practicing attorneys in the area. After Jayne's father died of a heart attack when she was 3, her mother remarried to a salesman and moved to Dallas, Texas. It was at this time that Jayne became fascinated with the notion of becoming a Hollywood star, idolizing child stars like Shirley Temple who were huge at the time. Though she was a modest student, Jayne learned to play piano, violin and the viola, as well as learning both German and Spanish before graduating high school in 1950. She later became fluent in 5 different languages, including French and Italian. Jayne claimed to have an IQ in the 160s was said to be Hollywood's "smartest dumb blonde." Clearly intelligent, Jayne came to understand relatively soon in her career that brains were not what the public cared about, later saying of her fans "they're more interested in 40-21-25." Still, as a young girl, with her whole life ahead of her, the future was bright. Yet, like so many famous stars of classic Hollywood before her, Jayne's life was sidetracked quite early. At only 17, she became pregnant and ended up marrying her baby's father, Paul James Mansfield. With a child and new husband in tow, Jayne did her best to continue to follow her dreams.
Enrolling in various colleges from Texas to California, Jayne primarily studied acting. Financially strapped and unable to afford daycare, she was forced to carry her young daughter around campus with her, taking a number of odd jobs to make ends meet. Among these were such diverse pursuits as art modelling for her fellow students, door-to-door sales, teaching dance, photographing guests at nightclubs, and so on. She studied acting under the tutelage of Baruch Lumet for a time, father of famed director Sidney Lumet. He was particularly taken with the abilities of young Jayne and offered her private lessons at his now defunct Dallas Institute of Performing Arts. All indications pointed to a bright future for the aspiring young talent with eyes still firmly fixed on Hollywood bright lights. Still, in yet another mirror to the standard screen starlet story, it was her pretty face that ultimately ended up opening all the right doors for Jayne.
Apart from odd jobs, Jayne also earned money by winning a number of beauty contests which bestowed upon her several unlikely titles, such as Miss Photoflash, Miss Magnesium Lamp, Miss United Dairies, Miss Fire Prevention Week, Gas Station Queen, Miss Analgesic, Miss July Fourth, Best Dressed Woman of Theater, Miss Third Platoon, Miss Blue Bonnet of Austin, Miss Electric Switch, Miss Fill-er-up, Miss Negligee, Miss One for the Road, Miss Freeway, Hot Dog Ambassador, Miss Electric Switch, Nylon Sweater Queen, Miss Geiger Counter, Miss Direct Mail, Cherry Blossom Queen, Miss Texas Tomato, Miss Standard Foods, Miss Orchid, Miss Potato Soup, Miss Lobster, Miss 100% Pure Maple Syrup and Miss Chihuahua Show. While perhaps not the most prestigious of titles, they were enough to get her cast in her first B-movie at the age of 17, 1950's PREHISTORIC WOMEN. Jayne and her husband were also regular participants in modest Dallas theater productions. Her first major stage performance came while her husband was at war in Korea, via a 1953 adaptation of Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman, headed up by her mentor Baruch Lumet.
Jayne moved to Los Angeles in 1954, where more beauty contests and more strange titles were bestowed on her. A contract with the Blue Book Model Agency (the same agency to which Marilyn Monroe was contracted before her discovery) launched Jayne on her first professional acting assignment in a General Electric advertising campaign in 1954. Unfortunately for her, the assignment was cut short, due to the company's issue with the size of her breasts. Jayne went on to audition for both Paramount and Warner Bros. studios, but failed to impress. A small part on TV was about the most significant thing to happen with Jayne's career that year, although big things were coming in 1955.
Understanding the power of the press, Jayne set out to become a media sensation. Securing a publicist, she and a team of lawyers, managers and agents began their quest to get Jayne known by the entire world. Her first big break came in 1955 thanks to the first of many scandalous public appearances. Showing up at a press junket for the 1955 film UNDERWATER!, she dove into a pool for the assembled photographers wearing a bikini far too small for her, which promptly came off to the delight of all assembled. This event and others like it sparked a wave of interest in the relatively unknown buxom beauty, resulting in the first of her many spreads in what was, at the time, a relatively obscure gentleman's magazine called Playboy. She quickly became one of the magazines first breakout stars, alongside fellow bombshells like Marilyn Monroe and Bettie Page. Jayne remained a regular fixture in Playboy for years to come, continually hailed as one of its most beloved centerfolds. This was only the beginning of her media onslaught. Numerous public appearances followed, where her clothes seemed to always have a way of falling off her. Such antics were quite successful in garnering her attention from the press, as well interest from Hollywood and Broadway alike. However, the lurid nature of her burgeoning fame ultimately lead to the end of her marriage from Mansfield, who did not approve of it at all. A 3-year divorce and custody battle between Jayne and her ex ensued, which did little to stop her publicity juggernaut.
Her antics behind the scenes eventually earned her a ticket to the big time via a lead role in the Broadway musical Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? in 1955. She returned to LA a success, but in need of film work. Her first big screen break came thanks to a six-year contract with 20th Century Fox in 1956, which signed her as a replacement for their other blonde bombshell Marilyn Monroe, who had a falling out with the studio some time earlier. Jayne's first major movie role in 1956's THE GIRL CAN'T HELP IT was the first rock and roll movie musical, starring many of the big names in rock of the day. Though she was still doing Broadway shows at this time, Fox bought out Jayne's theater contract and begin to aggressively promote their new sex symbol with titles like "Marilyn Monroe, king-sized." Her next film, 1957's THE WAYWARD BUS was Jayne's attempt to really flex her acting muscles and a successful attempt at that. Her performance won her a Golden Globe as 1957's New Star of the Year and is generally considered her best performance. Jayne remarried in 1958 to bodybuilder Mickey Hargitay, just days after her divorce from her first husband was finalized. Though successful at both love and life, her controversial media exploits showed no sign of slowing. Little did she know how badly these would backfire for her in years to come.
More highly publicized media appearances followed, including one particularly famous stunt in 1957 when Jayne showed up at a dinner party honoring Italian star Sophia Loren, where her massive mammaries literally stole the show and deflected most attention away from the intended recipient. More "accidental" wardrobe malfunctions ensued at events across the globe, eventually earning Jayne a reputation as a greedy media hound, willing to do anything for attention. The media began to grumble at her exploits, saying at one point of her antics "she confuses publicity and notoriety with stardom and celebrity and the result is very distasteful to the public." In this sense Jayne was perhaps the first Kardashian, making a name for herself through literal media exposure rather than any inherent talent she may have possessed.
1957 saw her reprise her role in the film adaptation of WILL SUCCESS SPOIL ROCK HUNTER? which Fox promoted with a 40-day, 16-country publicity tour. The film did well, but ultimately became the last successful film in Jayne's career. Films like KISS THEM FOR ME with Cary Grant and THE SHERIFF OF FRACTURED JAW were failures at the box office. Repeated pregnancies often kept her out of contention for juicy roles, as did her increasingly infamous reputation around tinsel town. Only low budget films with names like PLAYGIRL AFTER DARK and IT HAPPENED IN ATHENS followed during her time at Fox, all doing very little business. By the early 1960s, Jayne's only movie roles consisted of low budget foreign films to which Fox loaned her out, though none made any waves or earned much profit. These failures ultimately led the studio to drop her contract completely. In 1963, she attempted to garner publicity by becoming the first mainstream American actress to do a nude scene in the film PROMISES! PROMISES! Nude photos of Jayne on set were published in Playboy and raised enough controversy to get the film banned in various cities. Still, all the publicity was enough to get her included in a list of the top 10 biggest box-office attractions in 1963, though this proved to be her final success as a movie star.
By 1964, Jayne's film career and marriage to Hargitay were virtually dead. She married a third time to director Matt Cimber in 1964, though the two divorced only a few years later. She also began to drink heavily at this time, which only worsened her reputation, both in her private life and her career. Though she did manage to get the occasional minor role in forgettable films, by 1965 her film career was almost completely on the rocks. Despite this, Jayne remained a noteworthy figure on television, where she was fond of showing off her musical abilities with violin and piano performances. She was also a regular on several talk and variety shows of the day, her demand in this capacity earning her several thousand dollars for a single TV appearance during the height of her fame. As her movie career began to sink, Jayne also found success as a nightclub performer in Las Vegas, doing various burlesque shows on the Vegas strip starting in the early 1960s. She earned several hundred thousand for these shows, the best earnings of her career. Jayne never let her failure as a movie star stop her from achieving success, yet by a cruel twist of fate, her determination to remain successful indirectly lead to her tragic end.
In June of 1967, Jayne was in Biloxi, Mississippi doing one of her burlesque shows. After the evening show had concluded, Jayne, her boyfriend and 3 of her children set out on a dark highway leading from Biloxi to New Orleans, where she was set to do a TV interview. Midway along their route, the group encountered a semi truck that had slowed behind another truck spraying for mosquitoes. Unable to stop in time, their car crashed into the rear of the semi at full speed, forcing the car under the trailer and sheering off the roof almost entirely, killing Jayne and her boyfriend instantly. Rumors spread for years that Jayne was decapitated in the crash. Though she did suffer severe cranial trauma in the accident, these rumors proved unfounded. Jayne was laid to rest back home in Pennsylvania on July 3rd, 1967. She was only 34 years old. Subsequent investigations into the accident lead to new safety standards for tractor trailers, including the installation of underride guards which, had they existed at the time of Jayne's crash, may very well have saved her life. These bars soon earned the nickname "Mansfield Bars."
Though her end was tragic, Janye's 3 children in the car with her that night survived the crash. One of them, her daughter Mariska, eventually went on to follow in her mother's footsteps, playing a police detective on the long-running crime show Law and Order: SVU. Following in her mother's stead both as an actress and a hottie, Mariska is one of 5 children Jayne left behind, not to mention an estate worth millions. Though Jayne's career was plagued with controversy, often by her own design, little if any of that negativity has survived to the present day. What does remain is her lasting reputation as one of the classic blonde bombshells, taken from this world before her time by the sad circumstances of fateful tragedy.