Jayne Mansfield was born Vera Jayne Palmer on April 19 1933, in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania. Mansfield’s father Herbert was an attorney and musician while her mother Vera had previously worked as a schoolteacher. Mansfield endured a childhood tragedy at the age of 3 when her father passed away from a heart attack while driving with the family. Reflecting back on the tragedy, Mansfield later said, “Something went out of my life. … My earliest memories are the best. I always try to remember the good times when Daddy was alive.”
Mansfield’s mother returned to teaching to support herself and her daughter, and in 1939 she married a sales engineer named Harry Peers. The family moved to Dallas, Texas.
Mansfield enjoyed a middle class upbringing and was later reported to be an above average student under the oversight of her strict mother who enjoyed taking up languages. She was also a natural born performer. Mansfield took voice, dance and violin lessons and would frequently stand out in her driveway playing her violin for passersby on the sidewalk.
Jayne Mansfield was 16 years old when she met a 20-year-old named Paul Mansfield at a Christmas party and immediately fell for him. They married clandestinely in January of 1950, a few months before Mansfield graduated from Highland Park High School. Later that year, she gave birth to a daughter, Jayne Marie.
Mansfield’s first years in Hollywood initially brought disappointment. She had unsuccessful auditions for Paramount and Warner Bros. and had to take a job selling candy at a movie theater. She also sought out modeling work, but at a professional photo shoot, an advertisement for General Electric, she was cropped out of the picture because she looked “too sexy” for 1954 audiences, according to photographer Gene Lester. Still, Mansfield was able to make her TV debut that year with an appearance in the Lux Video Theatre series.
As Mansfield struggled to break into show business, her marriage suffered, and in 1955 she and Paul split ways, though she opted to keep his last name. That same year, she made her big-screen debut via small parts in a trio of 1955 films: ‘Pete Kelly’s Blues, Hell on Frisco Bay’ and ‘Illegal’.
Mansfield proved to have a no-holds-barred for self-marketing, and she took steps to distinguish herself from the many curvy blonde starlets attempting to make it big in Hollywood at the time. The model/actress made pink her trademark color, she wore pink, drove a pink car and eventually bought a house decked out in pink that was dubbed “the pink palace.”
From then on, as one journalist put it, Mansfield “suffered so many on-stage strap and zipper mishaps that nudity was, for her, a professional hazard.” Shortly after the ‘Underwater’ incident, she signed a contract in 1955 with Warner Bros. and later that year landed the role of Rita Marlowe in the hit Broadway production ‘Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?’, which ran for 444 shows. She also starred in the play’s 1957 film adaptation. Those performances finally established Mansfield as a marquis actress, and she went on to be featured in such films as Kiss Them For Me (1957), co-starring Cary Grant, ‘The Wayward Bus’ (1957), ‘The Sheriff of Fractured Jaw’ (1958) and ‘It Takes a Thief’ (1960).
Nevertheless, many more people saw her photograph than her movies, in just nine months, from September 1956 to May 1957, Mansfield reportedly appeared in an astonishing 2,500 newspaper photographs. She also modeled for the newly minted ‘Playboy’ magazine at various times during the 1950s. Mansfield thus joined the era’s pantheon of blonde sex symbols who evoked Marilyn Monroe. (Monroe was in fact quite dismayed about the way in which Mansfield seemed to parody her image, at one point wishing that she could sue the actress.)
In the later years of her career, Mansfield also returned to the stage with an acclaimed turn in ‘Bus Stop’ and developed into a successful Vegas headliner and nightclub performer. Her act combined song, comedy and impromptu banter with the audience.
After her 1955 split from Paul Mansfield, Jayne Mansfield’s personal life followed a turbulent and highly publicized course that often overshadowed her acting career. In 1958, she married the winner of the Mr. Universe Competition, Mickey Hargitay, who had also worked as one of Mae West’s musclemen. Mansfield and Hargitay had three children, including future actress Mariska, and co-starred in the 1960 film ‘Hercules and the Hydra’ and ‘Promises! Promises!’, among other projects.
However, the relationship between Mansfield and Hargitay was a tumultuous one, and in 1964 Mansfield married director Matt Cimber, with the two having worked together in ‘Bus Stop’. The couple wed in Mexico, even though it was later ruled she had not officially divorced Hargitay. Mansfield and Cimber had one child before also parting ways. Mansfield later became involved in a rocky, reputedly abusive relationship with Sam Brody, the attorney she hired to assist with her divorce proceedings.
On June 29 1967, on the way to a morning TV interview, Mansfield, along with Brody and a hired driver, were traveling to New Orleans, Louisiana, in the front seats of a Buick Electra after a nightclub performance in Biloxi, Mississippi. Mansfield and Hargitay’s three children were riding in the back as well. It was sometime after 2 a.m. when the car, rounding a curve, crashed into and went under a slowed tractor trailer believed to be obscured by pesticide spray, killing all three of the front seat passengers. Jayne Mansfield was only 34 years old at the time of her death. Her children, though suffering injuries, survived the crash.
(The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration subsequently regulated that all tractor trailers have a rear under guard installed, now often known as the Mansfield bar.)
During the course of her career, Mansfield was pigeonholed and perceived as vacuous by some while also being critiqued for her approach to generating publicity. Yet she was considered by others to be an intelligent, driven performer whose relentless performing schedule and wit made her stand out. “I will never be satisfied,” she once said, summing up her approach to life and career. “Life is one constant search for betterment for me.”