From Bombshell Bigger Than Marilyn To A Tragic End At 34, The Rise And Fall Of Jayne Mansfield
Almost everyone has heard of Marilyn Monroe, but fewer people are familiar with the ambitious actress who once beat her in popularity polls. Jayne Mansfield left a lasting mark on the celebrity sphere, and used techniques to gain publicity that are still practiced by today's reality and social media stars.
Born in 1933 as Vera Jayne Palmer, Mansfield grew up in Texas and was reportedly extremely intelligent. Stories claim she learned several languages as a child, took lessons in dancing and singing, and enjoyed playing the violin for strangers. As an actress and model, Mansfield oozed sexiness during a time when pinups were all the rage and curvaceous women were idolized. Over the course of her career, she leaned into the role of "blonde bombshell" like no other.
A solid rival for Monroe, Mansfield turned herself into a brand and continually sought out ways to capture the world's attention before perishing in a terrible accident in 1967.
- Photo: Unknown / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain
A 1955 'Wardrobe Malfunction' In A Swimming Pool Was Mansfield’s Ticket To Stardom
Vera Jayne Palmer married Paul Mansfield in 1950 when she was 16, and went on to study drama in college. After appearing in several local plays, Mansfield decided she wanted to become a star, and convinced her husband to move to Los Angeles in 1954.
After arriving in LA, Mansfield accepted a job at a movie theater concession stand and did modeling work on the side. Even then, her look was controversial. A photographer for General Electric once cropped her out of a picture because "she looked too sexy for 1954 viewers."
By 1955, Mansfield's marriage had ended, and she was more determined than ever to break into the Hollywood scene. She received her chance that year when she was invited to a press party celebrating the premiere of Underwater. In his Hollywood Reporter profile, Erik Mansfield frolicked in the pool wearing a red lamé bikini swimsuit while photographers looked on. In what could be called history's first "wardrobe malfunction," Mansfield and her top suddenly parted ways. As one reporter recalled, the model "had the genius to permit her bathing suit to split open."
Not only did the sudden reveal earn Mansfield attention, but it also allowed her to begin building her brand as a woman who was not shy about her figure. Years later, she played the event off, telling a reporter, "I don't remember the incident."
By 1957, The 'Working Man’s Marilyn Monroe' Was Beating Monroe Herself In Popularity Polls
Mansfield signed a contract with Warner Bros. in 1955, not long after her topless pool mishap. But the studio didn't hire Mansfield based on her acting ability, leading her to appear in only a handful of films. Bette Davis was frank in her description of the actress: "Dramatic art in her opinion is knowing how to fill a sweater."
Warner Bros. dyed Mansfield's hair blonde and marketed her as a "working man's Marilyn Monroe." The studio believed she could pose a serious threat to the popularity of one of the most famous women in the world. By 1957, that proved to be true, as Mansfield overtook Monroe in popularity polls.
According to a 1956 issue of Life magazine:
[Mansfield] has the same come-hither-you-brute sort of voice and look as Marilyn Monroe. But the comparison, which a more seasoned actress would at least pretend to love, does not seem to please Miss Mansfield at all. "Marilyn is very attractive and all that," she has said, "but she and I are entirely different. I can dye my hair and play a serious part."
- Photo: Ben van Meerendonk / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 2.0
Mansfield Engineered Publicity Stunts For Attention, And Earned A Famous Side-Eye From Sophia Loren
Despite the fact Mansfield allegedly had an IQ of 163, she knew people preferred her looks to her brain. "They're more interested in 40-21-35," she said. Mansfield used this knowledge to grow her publicity, doing everything she could to stay in the spotlight.
According to biographer Ray Strait, Mansfield "would open a cracker box if she thought it would get the press there." For Mansfield, staying in the spotlight meant physically revealing herself in a variety of ways, whether it meant appearing in Playboy, showing off a mink bikini at the 1955 Venice Film Festival, or "accidentally" exposing herself.
"Wardrobe malfunctions" happened to Mansfield so often that one journalist claimed her endless "on-stage strap and zipper mishaps" constituted "for her, a professional hazard."
One of Mansfield's most famous "accidents" occurred at a 1957 studio party for Sophia Loren, to which Mansfield showed up wearing an extremely low-cut dress. While she claimed to have not intended for one of her nipples to slip out of her dress, many believed the incident was planned. Robert Wagner said he saw Mansfield stopped at a red light on her way to the party applying rouge to the very body parts that were later exposed.
Although Mansfield certainly gained more attention because of the incident, the party also provided a series of pictures of Mansfield and Loren together, and one which famously shows Loren giving Mansfield's cleavage some side-eye.
As Loren recalled:
She came right for my table. She knew everyone was watching. She sat down... Look at the picture. Where are my eyes? I'm staring at her nipples because I am afraid they are about to come onto my plate. In my face you can see the fear. I'm so frightened that everything in her dress is going to blow - BOOM! - and spill all over the table.
- Photo: IISG / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 2.0
Mansfield Became Such A Tabloid Fixture That One Mag Announced It Was Taking A Break From Images Of Her
Mansfield's self-engineered publicity stunts and a 1955 photoshoot for Playboy reportedly disturbed Warner Bros. so greatly that they ended her contract. Other stories claim the actress was unhappy with the work the studio offered, and she quit on her own.
After leaving Warner Bros., Mansfield returned to the stage and appeared on Broadway in the comedy, Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? The production ran for almost 450 shows, causing Mansfield's co-star Orson Bean to remember, "It became a hit because of Mansfield and all the publicity. She is the only performer who was on the cover of Life magazine twice in one year!"
A 1956 issue of the magazine described Mansfield as an actress who "currently seems to be getting her name and photograph into more Broadway columns and movie magazines than any other actress alive."
It wasn't only Life that gave Mansfield attention. Many other publications printed headlines like "Marilyn Monroe Is Due for Surprise?" which contributed to even more publicity for the actress. During a nine-month period, Mansfield allegedly appeared in newspaper photographs 2,500 times.
- Photo: Robert S.Sweeney / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 2.5
At The Height Of Her Popularity, Mansfield Toured With Bob Hope's USO Show To Entertain Troops
As Mansfield's popularity eclipsed that of Marilyn Monroe in 1957, Fox estimated she was worth about $40 million, or around $350 million today. With some major films under her belt, Mansfield was a rising star and a popular addition to Bob Hope's Far East USO show.
"I reminded the boys that Jayne was wearing a special dress for the occasion, made of 200 yards of barbed wire," Hope recalled.
The troops were reportedly so happy to see her that 100,000 men gave her a standing ovation. Perhaps they were applauding what she was wearing, since Neile Adams, one of Mansfield's co-stars, remembered the actress appearing on stage in a bikini despite the fact that she was performing in Alaska and it was minus 20 degrees outside.
- Photo: J.D. Noske/Anefo / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain
20th Century Fox Signed Mansfield In Order To Spite Marilyn Monroe
After leaving Warner Bros. and starring on Broadway, Mansfield caught the attention of 20th Century Fox, home studio to Marilyn Monroe. At the time, Monroe was in conflict with the studio since she wanted more financial and creative control over her work, and Fox signed Mansfield to spite her.
Mansfield's films for the studio became the most significant of her career, and she won a 1956 Golden Globe for The Girl Can't Help It.
Fox ended up being unhappy with Mansfield's antics, especially her 1957 appearance and her infamous "wardrobe malfunction" at the party for Sophia Loren. The studio was also reportedly unhappy about her marriage to Mr. Universe Mickey Hargitay in 1958, and her pregnancy with her fifth child.
Fox preferred that audiences see Mansfield only on screen - without knowing all about her personal life. Although the studio didn't end her contract, they loaned Mansfield to foreign studios and diminished her roles.