Today is the birthday of the High Priestess of Camp, Jayne Mansfield (Vera Jayne Palmer, 1933-1967). I’d like to take a moment and express my concern about the circumstances of the photo above. Does that basement look like a clean place to eat cotton candy to you? I certainly hope she’s wearing her slippers. At any rate…
As I learn more and more about her, the more my esteem for this lady goes through the roof. The natural ranking of the ’50s Blonde Bombshells in the public’s mind has always been 1) Marilyn Monroe; 2) Jayne Mansfield; 3) Mamie Van Doren. This because Monroe had the most extensive track record in mainstream films, including genres as diverse as musical comedy and straight-up drama. And Van Doren’s track record was mostly in low-budget, exploitation etc. And Mansfield was somewhere in the middle, with a foot in both. But really, I have to say that I esteem Mansfield the most highly, ahead of Monroe. Her work speaks to me the most. I love all three of them, don’t get me wrong. All three are wonderful. But Mansfield’s career, with its vaudeville/burlesque cartoonism, hits my sweet spot.
Her background is most surprising. For some reason, I thought her origins were in poverty, but they prove to me quite different from Marilyn’s. She was born in tony Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania, then moved to Phillipsburg, New Jersey as a baby. He father was an important attorney, whose law partner, Robert B. Meyner went on to be N.J. Governor. Her mother also came from an affluent background. When her maternal grandparents died, Jayne inherited close to $150,000. Her dad died when she was 3. Her mother remarried, and the family moved to Dallas, Texas.
It’s impossible to know how much of this was made up for public relations, but it makes a good story: it’s always been given out that Mansfield had an I.Q. of 163. She studied German, Spanish, French and Italian, took piano and violin lessons. Studied dance and drama as a teenager. At age 17, she married her sweetheart, Paul Mansfield, three years her senior. Over the next four years she studied drama at Southern Methodist University, the University of Texas at Austin, UCLA, and in classes with Baruch Lumet, father of Sidney Lumet and founder of the Dallas Institute of Performing Arts. Lumet directed her in a 1953 Dallas production of Death of a Salesman, one of her first professional credits. During these early years she worked at a wide variety of odd jobs, including some semi-professional ones. She taught dance, worked concessions in movie theatres, and did modelling, nude and otherwise. While still in Texas, she won several beauty pageants. For a year she lived in Georgia, while her husband did his Korean War service.
The couple moved out to L.A. in 1954, and things began to move rapidly for her. Her first tv credit was a bit part on Lux Video Theatre. Her first verified film credit was in Jack Webb’s Pete Kelly’s Blues (1955), although it has been asserted that she had earlier appeared in the low-budget Prehistoric Women (1950), which was shot in Dallas. In February 1955, she was Playboy’s Playmate of the Month. (We’ve taken for granted you already knew how legendarily busty she was. Well, she was.) All the pin-up attention was too much strain for her marriage, and she and Mansfield parted ways.
She had several bit parts in films through 1955, and then in October of that year, the turning point in her career. She played Rita Marlowe in the Broadway production of George Axelrod’s Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? and this put her on the map. By the time she returned to Hollywood at the end of the run in 1956 she was a hot property. This was around the same time that Monroe was developing a reputation for being difficult to work with, and this too aided Mansfield’s career. In 1956 she starred in the rock and roll classic The Girl Can’t Help It, directed by Frank Tashlin, who also directed her in the film version of Will Success Soil Rock Hunter? the following year. She also starred in four less remembered films in this initial burst of stardom: The Wayward Bus (1957), The Burglar (1957), Kiss Them for Me (1957), and The Sheriff of Fractured Jaw (1958). She was also sought for two other major pictures in 1958 (Bell, Book and Candle and Rally ‘Round the Flag, Boys) and it’s a damn shame she didn’t do them, for her appearance would have made both of these lackluster films far more interesting and entertaining. (She turned down the former film due to her pregnancy; her part went to Kim Novak. She was maneuvered out of the second film by stars Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward, who wanted, and got, Joan Collins for the sexpot role).
Producers wanted Mansfield because she sold tickets; the Newmans of course didn’t want her because they thought she’d turn the movie into a carnival. For Mansfield loved attention, and she didn’t care how she got it. In 1957, for example, she caused a sensation when this photograph hit the press:
And the pregnancy we mentioned was by her second husband, Hungarian muscle-man/ body-builder Mickey Hargitay, whom she’d met in 1956 when he was appeared in the chorus of Mae West’s nightclub act at the Latin Quarter in Manhattan. The two were married in 1958, and became quite the public couple, on television and in live appearances.
In 1958, Mansfield launched her striptease burlesque revue at the Tropicana in Las Vegas — undoubtedly modeled on Mae’s show. In 1960 she launched another one, The House of Love, at the Dunes. She toured with these nightclub acts throughout the country for the remainder of her career.
The nightclub show resulted in a 1962 record: Jayne Mansfield Busts Up Las Vegas.
She continued to make films throughout the years, although now usually, they were either foreign made, or she had small parts in cameos. Her most famous one of the early ’60s was Tommy Noonan’s interesting comedy Promises! Promises!, notorious for being the first American film to feature a major mainstream actress in the nude. (Russ Meyer had shown nudity prior to this, but the performers were not famous).
In 1964 Billy Wilder wanted her for Kiss Me, Stupid — which again would have made the film far better. She was pregnant at the time, and the role went, again to Kim Novak. She also reportedly turned down the role of Ginger Grant on Gilligan’s Island, supposedly because she wanted to live down her reputation. For a time it seems like she was trying to be more serious. In 1964 she appeared in stage versions of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and Bus Stop, taking the Monroe part in both plays. She also released a record album that year: Jayne Mansfield: Shakespeare, Tchaikovsky, and Me, in which she recited poetry over a classical music background.
Meantime, she had divorced Harigtay and married director Matt Cimber, who directed her in two plays in 1965: Rabbit Habit, presented at the Latin Quarter in New York, and Champagne Complex at the Pabst Theatre in Milwaukee. In 1966 he directed her in the film Single Room Furnished. She also appeared in a couple of other low budget films that year.
One of them, the musical surf comedy The Fat Spy, co-starring Jack E. Leonard, Phyllis Diller and Brian Dunlevy is one of my favorite movies in the world. I kid you not, I love this movie so much I have seen it about twenty times. Also, she appeared in the country western cheapie Las Vegas Hillbillys, the predecessor to the now more notorious Hillbillys in a Haunted House, which was made after she died. Mamie Van Doren also appears in Las Vegas Hillbillys, although Mansfield requested that she not be forced to act in any scenes with her rival.
In 1966, Mansfield and Cimber parted ways and she moved on to her new squeeze, lawyer and manager Sam Brody. The sad story begins to draw to a close here. Mansfield’s last movie role was a cameo in the major film A Guide for the Married Man, which was released in 1967. Ten days before she died, she read a poem on The Joey Bishop Show, Robert Herrick’s “To the Virgins, To Make Much of Time”, which is about early death. In June, 1967, she was touring with her nightclub act, travelling between Biloxi and New Orleans when her speeding car rear-ended a truck. In the front seat, Mansfield, Brody and their chauffeur were all killed instantly. Mansfield’s three young children, all in the back seat, sustained only minor injuries, including, I’m sure, one bad, bad memory.
Mansfield, 34, left behind five children, the most famous of whom are Mariska Hargitay, star of Law and Order: SVU; Tony Cimber, a producer of the Glamour Ladies of Wrestling; and Jayne Marie Mansfield, the first Playboy Playmate to be a daughter of a previous Playboy Playmate.
At any rate — this is an astounding amount of activity crammed into a career of just over a dozen years. Consider that she had five children on top of that! Plus the partying etc etc etc.
There have been several movies about her life and death. My guilty favorite is the 1980 tv movie The Jayne Mansfield Story, starring Loni Anderson, with Arnold Schwartzenegger as Mickey Hargitay. That has to rank with some of the best stunt casting ever.