In an era in which Marilyn Monroe ruled as the bombshell next door, any girl who strived for international fame became instantly burdened with the insurmountable task of appearing larger-than-life just to get noticed. Lucky for us, Jayne Mansfield was no fool.
When the actress and singer muscled her way into Hollywood she arrived fully formed as an exaggerated version of the mid-century pin-up doll: blonder, agreeable and somehow shockingly curvier than the reigning queen of motion pictures, all with a perfectly convincing schoolgirl giggle that few seemed to notice meant business. As if her cartoonish 40-21-35 proportions weren’t attention-grabbing enough, Mansfield devised an up-for-anything aura that may have read dingbat to the public but served as strategically-built weaponry to keep her in the public eye.
The persona of Jayne Mansfield began to take shape when she was better known as Vera Jayne Palmer, the daughter of an attorney and teacher. Born in Pennsylvania, she began to study voice, dance and violin as a young child after her family moved to Dallas. After a trip to Los Angeles at the age of 13, Palmer became stricken with the idea of celebrity. And though she married as a teen and conceived a child while still in high school, the newly minted Vera Jayne Mansfield didn’t stray from performing or chasing her Hollywood dream. She studied drama at Southern Methodist University in Dallas and gained roles in local theater productions. After her husband returned from serving in the Korean War in 1954, Mansfield convinced him to move the family to Los Angeles where she could pursue superstardom.
When early auditions in Los Angeles lead to nothing more than a gig shilling snacks at a movie theater, Mansfield took matters into her own hands. In January 1955 she crashed a press junket in Florida for Underwater, a massive Howard Hughes film that took three years and $3 million dollars to make and starred a swimsuit-clad Jane Russell, a voluptuous screen siren with her feet firmly planted on the A-list. With dozens of photographers and reporters from Los Angeles and New York in plain view, Mansfield stole the limelight by way of a perfectly-planned nip slip. Forget the star of the film. Suddenly, the papers were reporting on a “Hollywood unknown named Jayne Mansfield …a blonde who fits into a bikini like a sausage skin and with bumps where they should be the mostest,” who “accidentally” lost her top in the pool. “How she got on the junket from LA, nobody knows but she proved her weight in cheesecake to the affair,” read one newspaper report.
The stunt worked wonders. That month Mansfield made headlines by signing a seven-year deal with Warner Brothers Studios and filing for divorce on the same day. Just one month later she appeared in Playboy as a February Playmate and centerfold–a role she reprised in February of 1956, 1957, 1958 and 1960. She soon starred on Broadway and in film adaptations of Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? and in films such as, Kiss Them For Me (1957) and It Takes a Thief (1960).
Despite being featured in Broadway and on film, it was Mansfield’s savvy play of the fame game that made her a press darling and household name. Between September 1956 and May 1957 Mansfield appeared in some 2,500 newspaper photos. In 1960 more words were written about Jayne Mansfield than any other public figure.
A tabloid sensation who reveled in signing every autograph for her doting public–with a heart over the “i,” no less–Mansfield maintained global celebrity even though her film career faded as quickly as it came. She received critical acclaim for her role on Broadway in Bus Stop but was better known for marrying perhaps the only contemporary who could match her in extreme physicality, Mr. Universe Mickey Hargitay.
In 1963 she captivated headlines again for her role in Promises! Promises! alongside her husband. But it wasn’t her acting that sent tongues wagging. It was the fact that she appeared in the film nude, a first for American women in a big studio film. Mansfield’s accompanying Playboy pictorial to promote the film boasted a cover line that teased, “The Nudest Mansfield Yet.” The issue sparked major controversy and prompted Chicago police to arrest Playboy publisher Hugh Hefner for publishing the nude photos.
Mansfield fought to stay in the limelight. But she also valued her role as a mother and had three more children with Hargitay. The youngest, Mariska Hargitay, grew up to become an award-winning television actress. Even Mansfield’s picture of domestic bliss was built for Life magazine. Her so-called “Pink Palace,” a 40-room pink mansion complete with a heart-shaped pool, bed and fireplaces, was regularly featured in film and print. Mansfield continued her career by headlining in Las Vegas and, later, amid declining offers, touring as a nightclub performer.
It was when driving on a Mississippi road after a nightclub performance that Mansfield’s glittering life came to an end on June 29, 1967. Just as in life, the headlines created a sensational myth around Mansfield’s sudden death, as rumors that she was violently decapitated in the crash reached papers around the globe.
Mansfield was just 34 when she died, but her knack for stealing the spotlight remains a strong part of her legacy. She continues to be one of the most published stars in Playboy and has appeared in seven commemorative issues since her passing, including the Remember Jayne pictorial in Playboy January 1994 issue.