What to make of Jayne Mansfield?
How does the #MeToo era that focuses on the exposure of sexual abuse against women by powerful figures in movies, business and other walks of life deal with the Rat Pack Don Draper era of the early 1960s, where the exploitation of women as sex objects was not only practiced but glorified?
It was only later in the late 60s that readers of Playboy magazine, where Mansfield often appeared as a pin-up would say, half embarrassed, "I get it for the fiction."
Was Mansfield a willing participant in or simply a victim of that time? Or was she perhaps both?
All of these questions are difficult to answer and, since she died over 50 years ago in an automobile accident that is itself the subject of lurid legend, will never be fully known. But that she was among the paramount sex symbols in the time in which she lived cannot be denied.
Even Mansfield’s birthplace is the subject of some dispute.
Many sources claim she was born in Bryn Mawr, Montgomery County. Others give Philipsburg, N.J., as the spot. Either way, she was born on April 19, 1933, under the name Vera Jayne Palmer.
Her father was Herbert Wilmer Palmer, a prominent attorney who had a law firm with New Jersey’s future governor Robert B. Meyner. When she was a child, her father died of a heart attack. Her mother, a school teacher with family in Pen Argyl, remarried, and the family relocated from Phillipsburg to Dallas, Texas.
She did well in high school and showed an aptitude for mathematics. But Mansfield was stage struck at an early age. On graduating from high school, she attended acting school with her husband, Paul Mansfield, at the Southern Methodist School of Acting. Mansfield moved with her husband and daughter, Jayne Marie Mansfield, to Austin, Texas where they studied acting at the University of Texas.
Mansfield was always a hard worker and took a variety of odd jobs to help support her family. While her husband served in the Army Reserves in Georgia during the Korean War at Camp Gordon, she was living there for a year.
It was here she appeared in a number of theater productions. It was in 1953 while in Dallas that she studied with Baruch Lumet, father of director Sidney Lumet, at the Dallas Institute of Performing Arts. It was Lumet who would get her a screen test at Paramount in 1954.
The fact that Mansfield was attractive led her to take part in numerous beauty contests. Among her titles were Miss Fire Prevention Week, Miss Photoflash and Miss Magnesium Lamp. But what was popular in beauty contests did not please everyone. Advertisers of that era were trying to project a wholesome image and found Mansfield’s prominent breasts not the image they wanted to project.
General Electric had selected her to try out for an ad that depicted young women around a swimming pool. But the company later thought family audiences would find her overtly sexual allure to be upsetting to the nation’s housewives. They turned her down for the role.
In 1954, Mansfield got her first film role in a low-budget picture called "Female Jungle" for which she got $150. But 1955 was to be a banner year of Mansfield’s career when she got a contract from Warner Brothers. She was given bit parts in two films, one with Alan Ladd and another with Jack Webb. She showed her acting talents, appearing in a courtroom drama "Illegal" opposite veteran actor Edward G. Robinson.
Mansfield also made it to the Broadway stage that year in "Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?" Two rising young actors, Orson Bean and Walter Matthau, were among those who were in the play with her. Mansfield would appear in the movie version of the play two years later. Her dramatic talents were called on in 1957 in a film called "The Burglar," which got positive reviews.
Mansfield was suddenly considered a hot property. Twentieth Century Fox signed her for a 6-year contract. According to one source, one of the reasons that she was hired by Fox was to let their resident bombshell Marilyn Monroe know she was not the only actress that had her "endowments" and would show up at the studio on time without being "difficult."
Her time with Twentieth Century Fox was perhaps the most commercially successful period of Mansfield’s career. In 1956, she appeared in "The Girl Can’t Help It." It featured some of the top rock n' roll talent of the time, including Fats Domino and Little Richard. It grossed more money than "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes" and was praised by critics.
Mansfield followed this role in 1957 with "The Wayward Bus," based on a John Steinbeck novel of the same name. The New York Times claimed it was "generally conceded to be the best acting of her career." Mansfield won a Golden Globe for New Star of the Year for her performance.
But it was Mansfield’s off-stage private life that shaped the public's image of her.
Her second husband, bodybuilder/actor Mickey Hargitay played out their combination of theatrical careers and her love affairs across the pages of gossip columns everywhere. She met Hargitay when he was appearing at the Latin Quarter nightclub in an act with Mae West, the "mother" of all blonde bombshells.
When West threatened to sue her, it was great fodder for a sensation-seeking public. But it did nothing to enhance Mansfield's attempts to be taken seriously as an actress.
However, all the publicity did have the added advantage of making her, by 1960, a household name.
Most of her early publicity was handled by James Byron. But things worsened once she took over her own publicity. It was then, several critics noted, she became less a pleasant comic actress with sex appeal to a joke. "She became a freak," noted her own agent.
Critic James Bacon noted after her death, "Here was a girl with real comedy talent, spectacular figure and looks, and yet ridiculed herself out of business by outlandish publicity."
As the 1960s went on, her career took Mansfield further and further away from the spotlight she once had dominated. In 1967, Mansfield was in Biloxi, Mississippi, appearing at a local nightclub. On the evening of June 28, she was driving down a highway with her attorney, Sam Brody, and driver, Ronnie Harrison, with three of her children in the back seat. At 2:25 am on their way to New Orleans, they rammed into the back of a tractor trailer that was stalled behind a truck spraying mosquito fogger.
The three adults were killed instantly. The children survived with minor injuries. Contrary to popular, persistent legend, Mansfield was not decapitated.
She was buried in Pen Argyl on July 3 beside her father, Herbert Palmer. The only one of her husbands or boyfriends to attend her funeral was Mickey Hargitay. Many said at the time he was the only one of her spouses who really loved her.
But in fact Mansfield still has may fans today, who have not forgotten her.