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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 134k 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: Employee(s) of NTD, Inc. / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    In 1963, She Made History As The First Mainstream Movie Star Of The Sound Era To Appear Unclothed On Film

    Mansfield began to find work in Hollywood harder and harder to come by, and Fox dropped her contract for good after Marilyn Monroe passed in 1962. Realizing her star was fading, Mansfield decided that causing even more controversy was her only way back into the spotlight.

    In 1963, the actress starred in Promises! Promises! and gave mainstream movie audiences something new: her fully unclothed figure. Although Mansfield had appeared in nothing but a towel in Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? and experienced numerous public "wardrobe malfunctions," her performance in the film became the first time an American actress appeared fully unclothed in a major sound-era motion picture.

    While the decision did bring Mansfield more attention, it did nothing to revive her career.

  • Photo: ABC Television / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Near The End Of Her Life, Mansfield Was Acting In Local-Level Dinner Theater

    By the mid-1960s, audiences stopped buying tickets to Mansfield's films, and her offers slowly faded away. However, the actress remained in the headlines of gossip magazines, as people retained their interest in her for different reasons.

    According to a Canadian journalist:

    [Mansfield] can sell newspapers and magazines, attract millions of television viewers and draw crowds everywhere she goes, but at the movies, she's a big bust... It could be that the public got so much of Jayne Mansfield for free that paying for the same privilege was too much.

    Mansfield turned to television and local dinner theater to continue working, and reportedly began drinking more and more. Although she was still financially successful, Mansfield could no longer escape the shadow of her own self-created image.

    Not even her attempt to create a television pilot in 1965 worked out. Although she wanted to tell the story of an actress who ends up playing a sexy celebrity instead of working with more intellectual material like Shakespeare, no one was interested.

  • Photo: Metro News Service, Chicago / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    In 1967, Mansfield Perished In A Tragic Car Collision At Age 34

    Mansfield and second husband Mickey Hargitay divorced in 1964 after having three children together (including Mariska Hargitay, who became an actress herself). She married one of her previous directors, Matt Cimber, that same year, although she had reportedly not yet officially divorced Hargitay.

    That marriage also failed to last, and Mansfield became involved with her divorce attorney, Sam Brody. Allegedly, Brody was physically harmful to Mansfield, and she began drinking more while her career declined.

    As the two traveled together with three of Mansfield's children and their driver on June 29, 1967, tragedy struck. On her way from a stage performance in Biloxi, Mississippi, to New Orleans for a television appearance, the car carrying Mansfield reportedly drove into a cloud of pesticide spray that affected the driver's vision. Unable to see clearly, the driver steered the car into the back of a trailer truck. The driver, Mansfield, and Brody, all lost their lives. The children, asleep in the backseat at the time, were hurt but survived.

    Numerous rumors persist about Mansfield's demise, including the gruesome yet untrue legend that her head was separated from her body. Rumors also spread that Mansfield's passing was the result of a curse placed by Church of Satan founder Anton LaVey, who had a short relationship with Mansfield and was allegedly jealous of Brody.

    Although these stories are fictional, it is true that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration created a law after the collision that required all truck trailers to feature a rear under guard. This safety feature is often referred to as "the Mansfield bar."

  • Some Argue That Changing Ideas Around Female Beauty Precipitated Mansfield’s Fall From The Public Eye

    Despite the fact Mansfield was at one time more popular than Marilyn Monroe, Monroe was the one who became enshrined in the public's memory. Some believe this is partly due to the fact that Monroe presented herself as appealing yet unattainable, while Mansfield gave audiences too much, too fast, and left them with nothing more to want.

    Others feel Mansfield's failure to maintain her career was due to the changes happening in the world at the time, specifically those involving the image of women and ideas of beauty. When Mansfield became popular in the late 1950s, her flirtatious nature, curvy figure, and large chest were considered ideal traits for women. Her ability to exploit this was what helped make her a star. During the 1960s, however, female ideals changed from voluptuous pinups to women with less extravagant measurements.

    Feminism was on the rise, as well as anger and unrest over the Vietnam War, the civil rights movement, and the slaying of John F. Kennedy. With so much real-world drama going on, real women became more popular than unattainable fantasy figures like Mansfield. Perhaps because she decided not to change her brand to fit the rapidly changing times, Mansfield was left behind.