Jayne Mansfield (born Vera Jayne Palmer; April 19, 1933 – June 29, 1967) was an American actress in film, theatre, and television, a nightclub entertainer, a singer, and one of the early Playboy Playmates. She was a major Hollywood sex symbol of the 1950s and early 1960s. Mansfield was 20th Century Fox’s alternative Marilyn Monroe and came to be known as the Working Man’s Monroe. She was also known for her well-publicized personal life and publicity stunts.
Mansfield became a major Broadway star in 1955, a major Hollywood star in 1956, and a leading celebrity in 1957. She was one of Hollywood’s original blonde bombshells, and although many people have never seen her movies, Mansfield remains one of the most recognizable icons of 1950s celebrity culture. With the decrease of the demand for big-breasted blonde bombshells and the increase in the negative backlash against her over-publicity, she became a box-office has-been by the early 1960s.
While Mansfield’s film career was short-lived, she had several box office successes and won a Theatre World Award and a Golden Globe. She enjoyed success in the role of fictional actress Rita Marlowe in both the 1955–1956 Broadway version, and, in the 1957 Hollywood film version of Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?. She showcased her comedic skills in The Girl Can’t Help It (1956), her dramatic assets in The Wayward Bus (1957), and her sizzling presence in Too Hot to Handle (1960). She also sang for studio recordings, including the album Shakespeare, Tchaikovsky & Me and the singles Suey and As the Clouds Drift by (with Jimi Hendrix). Mansfield’s notable television work included television dramas Follow the Sun and Burke’s Law, game shows The Match Game and What’s My Line?, variety shows The Jack Benny Program and The Bob Hope Show, the The Ed Sullivan Show, and a large number of talk shows.
By the early 1960s, Mansfield’s box office popularity had declined and Hollywood studios lost interest in her. Some of the last attempts that Hollywood took to publicize her were in The George Raft Story (1961) and It Happened in Athens (1962). But, towards the end of her career, Mansfield remained a popular celebrity, continuing to attract large crowds outside the United States and in lucrative and successful nightclub acts (including The Tropicana Holiday and The House of Love in Las Vegas), and summer-theater work. Her film career continued with cheap independent films and European melodramas and comedies, with some of her later films being filmed in United Kingdom, Italy, Germany, and Greece. In the sexploitation film Promises! Promises! (1963), she became the first major American actress to have a nude starring role in a Hollywood motion picture.
Mansfield took her professional name from her first husband, public relations professional Paul Mansfield, with whom she had a daughter. She was the mother of three children from her second marriage to actor–bodybuilder Mickey Hargitay. She married her third husband, film director Matt Cimber, in 1964, and separated from him in 1966. Mansfield and Cimber had a son. In 1967 Mansfield died in a car accident at the age of 34.
In January 1955 Mansfield appeared at a Silver Springs, Florida press junket promoting the film Underwater!, starring Jane Russell. Mansfield purposely wore a too-small red bikini, lent her by photographer friend Peter Gowland. When she dove into the pool for photographers her top came off, which created a burst of media attention. The ensuing publicity led to Warner Bros. and Playboy approaching her with offers. In June 8 of the same year, her dress fell down to her waist twice in a single evening – once at a movie party, and later at a nightclub. In February 1958, she was stripped to the waist at a Mardi Gras party in Rio de Janeiro. In June 1962, she shimmied out of her polka-dot dress in a Rome nightclub. In the three years since making her Broadway debut in Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?, Mansfield had become the most controversial star of the decade.
In April 1957, her bosom was the focus of a notorious publicity stunt intended to deflect media attention from Sophia Loren during a dinner party in the Italian star’s honor. Photographs of the encounter were published around the world. The best-known photo showed Loren’s gaze falling on the cleavage of the American actress (who was seated between Loren and her dinner companion, Clifton Webb) when Mansfield leaned over the table, allowing her breasts to spill over her low neckline and exposing one nipple. Several similar photos were taken in a short time. Fearful of public outrage, most Italian newspapers refused to print the wirephotos; Il Giorno and Gazzetta del Popolo printed them after retouching to cover much of Mansfield’s bosom, and only Il Giornale d’Italia printed them uncensored. The photo inspired a number of later photographers. In 1993, Daniela Federici created an homage with Anna Nicole Smith as Mansfield and New York City DJ Sky Nellor as Loren for a Guess Jeans campaign. Later, Mark Seliger took a picture named Heidi Klum at Romanoff’s with Heidi Klum in a reproduction of the restaurant set.
A similar incident (resulting in the exposure of both breasts) occurred during a film festival in West Berlin, when Mansfield was wearing a low-cut dress and her husband, Mickey Hargitay, picked her up so she could bite a bunch of grapes hanging overhead at a party. The movement exposed both her breasts. The photograph of that episode was a UPI sensation, appearing in newspapers and magazines with the word “censored” hiding the actress’s exposed bosom.
At the same time, the world’s media were quick to condemn Mansfield’s stunts. One editorial columnist wrote, “We are amused when Miss Mansfield strains to pull in her stomach to fill out her bikini better; but we get angry when career-seeking women, shady ladies, and certain starlets and actresses…use every opportunity to display their anatomy unasked”. By the late 1950s, Mansfield began to generate a great deal of negative publicity because of repeated exposure of her breasts in carefully staged public “accidents”. Richard Blackwell, her wardrobe designer (who also designed for Jane Russell, Dorothy Lamour, Peggy Lee and Nancy Reagan), dropped her from his client list because of those accidents. In April 1967, Los Angeles Times wrote, “She confuses publicity and notoriety with stardom and celebrity and the result is very distasteful to the public.”