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From Bombshell Bigger Than Marilyn To A Tragic End At 34, The Rise And Fall Of Jayne Mansfield

Updated April 20, 2020 133.7k views12 items

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:
  • 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.

  • Photo: Unknown (Keystone New York) / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Mansfield Created A Specific Brand For Herself That Included A Pink Mansion

    Mansfield allegedly told reporters, "If you're going to be a movie star, you should live like one," and she certainly did.

    Setting a precedent for modern reality stars, Mansfield adopted a number of tiny dogs, drove fancy cars, and married Mickey Hargitay, a muscular former Mr. Universe. When she and Hargitay married in 1958, they threw a lavish wedding and invited many newspaper reporters. Mansfield also publicly revealed the location of their ceremony, causing around 8,000 spectators to show up.

    She purchased a mansion on Sunset Boulevard and, with Hargitay's help, turned it into yet another part of her brand. Complete with sparkling pink quartz embedded in the walls, champagne-filled bathtubs, and a heart-shaped swimming pool reportedly built by Hargitay, Mansfield called her home "the Pink Palace" and adopted the color as hers.

    From cars to furs, Mansfield collected everything pink in order to make her instantly recognizable to the public. "Now I had a gimmick," she said.

  • She Continued To Capitalize On Her Fame By Appearing In Las Vegas And Accepting A Series Of Commercial Titles

    As Fox grew tired of her antics, Mansfield decided to take her career into her own hands and accepted a headlining act in Las Vegas, becoming one of the first women to do so. She appeared nightly at the Tropicana for several weeks, earning $25,000 a week to entertain the audience with dances, jokes, and songs.

    Mansfield also leveraged her popularity by making public appearances in exchange for home furnishings, food, money, and even pets. She attended ribbon-cutting ceremonies for a fee of $10,000 and accepted a variety of titles, including Miss Geiger Counter, Miss Nylon Sweater, and Miss Fire Prevention.

    This kind of self-promotion was unheard of at the time, and a 1961 newspaper claimed, "[Mansfield] has found a way to capitalize on fame which may create an entirely new kind of star. There's not much to the part, but the pay is spectacular."