In the 1950’s everyone wanted a rival Marilyn. In France it was Bardot. Britain had Diana Dors; Sweden, Anita Ekberg. These were larger-than-life female love goddesses, blonde, busty hourglasses full of sexual promise.
Marilyn’s biggest rival to the throne was Jayne Mansfield. And when sad Norma Jeane died under mysterious circumstances in 1962 it seemed that her long-time pretender would ascend the throne. But by the early 1960’s the fad for the buxom bombshell had faded. The female silhouette was more toward Audrey Hepburn or Jane Fonda.
A new documentary, Mansfield 66/67, recounts sassy Miss M’s decline and fall in a glorious mash-up of clips and talking-heads. Poor, trashy Jayne with her high IQ, facility with the classical violin, fluency in foreign languages and many children (she had five) was the antithesis of Monroe. Jayne came to fame in a single movie – the rock ’n’ roll-themed The Girl Can’t Help It (1956), but by the early 60’s rock was transmogrifying into pop and Jayne was forced into schlocky European movies and travelling from state to state in tacky cabaret, opening strip malls and doing personal appearances. There was also a disastrous goodwill tour to GI’s in Vietnam where she seemed to have more sympathy (like many Americans) with the enemy, the Viet Cong.
In 1958 she married ex-bodybuilder Mickey Hargitay who became her manager. She made a handful of forgettable B-minus pictures and became a pin-up girl, famous for being famous 50 years before the Kardashians. Together Jayne and Hargitay were like characters out of a Richard Hamilton pop-art painting.
But on 29 June 1967 on a rainy freeway near Biloxi, Mississippi, Miss M’s world came to a tragically sticky end when her silver-grey Buick Electra 225 skidded and ran into the back of a tractor-trailer. The car’s roof was sliced clean off. Mansfield; Sam Brody, her boyfriend/lawyer; and the driver, Ronnie Harrison were in the front seat and her three children three-year-old Mariska, eight-year-old Mickey Jr and six-year-old Zoltan, were asleep in the back.
The children survived the crash but the adults did not.
According to legend Mansfield was decapitated but it’s thought she was only “scalped”. Jayne, who loved pink and teacup chihuahuas, was only 34.
In Kenneth Anger’s 1975 book Hollywood Babylon he published a cruel photograph of the aftermath of the crash – Mansfield’s body covered with a sheet by the roadside; her kinky boots visible. A dead pet chihuahua. Her hair extensions snared in the broken windshield. The picture summoned up the tawdry, gossip-rag side of celebrity. The cover of the book featured Jayne looking every inch the mid-century-modern Venus of Willendorf. Her straining breasts (a nipple visible) threatening to spill out of her low-cut satin dress.
This cover picture was one of a series taken at a welcome event celebrating Sophia Loren’s arrival in Hollywood. The paparazzi shots were to become one of the most famous and reproduced sequences in Hollywood history. The most startling showed Mansfield, who had become a knowing parody of the sexy star, leaning over Loren’s dinner table and the Italian star’s incredulous side-eye showed sheer horror. It’s these photos (and her shocking death) that give Mansfield a legacy more lasting than any film she made.
But there is another aspect to Mansfield that lingers. Marilyn had her relationship with JFK, Ekberg had her Trevi Fountain moment, and Bardot her bikini and life in St Tropez; but Mansfield had Satan.
Anton Szandor LaVey was a minor cult figure in the 1960s. Real name Howard Levey (1930-97), he was a fan of occultist – and fellow publicity hound – Aleister Crowley, the self-styled “wickedest man in England” (who owned Boleskine House on the banks of Loch Ness. Between 1970 and 1992 it was owned by Jimmy Page of Led Zeppelin). In 1966 LaVey founded the LA-based International Church of Satan (the same year Time magazine ran a cover headline “Is God dead?”). The following year the Rolling Stones released the LP Their Satanic Majesties Request. Something devilish was in the air. LaVey was described in Vanity Fair magazine: “…with his ankhs, altars, pet lion, he was like a Hugh Hefner for proto-goth kids.”
The pet lion, Togar, became too hard to handle even for the spawn of the Devil and actress Tippi Hedren adopted it at her Shambala big-cat sanctuary. The church had a libertarian credo with orgies and topless dancers, something that attracted many curious acolytes. It was rumoured (untrue) that LaVey was advisor on the 1968 movie Rosemary’s Baby (now the subject of a lavish making-of book) and that he played the Devil who impregnates Mia Farrow’s character.
In 1966 LaVey met fellow media junkie Jayne Mansfield. In photos they make a very odd, not to say camp, couple – he in panto black satin cape and she with her mini-dress and bouffant. At the time Mansfield’s career was in free-fall, her home life in turmoil. She was dating her married attorney Sam Brody, while fighting for custody of her fifth child by her third husband. Maybe LaVey suggested he could cast a spell and make all the bad stuff go away or have trouble visit Jayne’s enemies. Maybe LaVey put a curse of Jayne’s boyfriend Brody, who didn’t care for Jayne’s flirtation with things satanic. Maybe Jayne’s car crash was just a coincidence. Maybe.
Info: The documentary Mansfield 66/67 is released by Peccadillo Pictures on DVD and On-Demand on 25 June, This Is No Dream: Making Rosemary’s Baby, text by James Munn, is published by Reel Art Press in July.