Remembering the tragic death of Jayne Mansfield, 50 years later
It was late. Actress Jayne Mansfield, one of Hollywood’s original blonde bombshells, had just finished up the second of two performances scheduled for June 28, 1967, at the Gus Stevens Restaurant and Supper Club in Biloxi, Miss. — but she wasn’t ready to rest just yet. She had a TV appearance scheduled for the next day on WDSU’s “Midday” show in New Orleans, so the 34-year-old actress loaded three of her children into the back seat of a 1966 Buick Electra driven by Ronnie Harrison and climbed into the front with Harrison and attorney Samuel S. Brody. Their intended destination was the Crescent City’s glitzy Roosevelt Hotel, but they would never make it. In the early-morning hours of June 29 — 50 years ago this week — the car in which they were traveling slammed into the back of a tractor trailer that had slowed for a mosquito-spraying truck west of the Rigolets near Slidell. Their car slipped under the back of the truck, shearing off much of the roof and killing Mansfield, Harrison and Brody instantly.
The tragic, and grisly, circumstances surrounding Mansfield’s death made instant headlines in Hollywood and beyond, only adding to the public’s fascination with her. She was buried in Pennsylvania but, fueled by a macabre interest in her death, the crash site on U.S. 90 — between New Orleans and Bay St. Louis — is often visited by fans of the late star.
- Photos of the crash scene taken by Times-Picayune photographer G.E. Arnold, and showing what is believed to be her wig tangled in the car’s windshield, fueled rumors that Mansfield had been decapitated in the crash. She wasn’t, according to James Roberts of Bultman Funeral Home in New Orleans, where the actress’ body was taken after her death. “She was fully intact,” he once said in an interview. “I know. I embalmed her.”
- The three Mansfield children who were asleep in the back seat of the car — including a 3-year-old Mariska Hargitay, who years later would star in the TV series “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit” — received what were described as minor injuries in the crash. They were initially taken to Charity Hospital by an unnamed couple, then transferred to Ochsner Foundation Hospital at the request of their father, movie muscleman Mickey Hargitay.
- According to a Times-Picayune report, a $10,000 diamond bracelet was found in the wrecked car’s engine compartment. “Miss Mansfield had apparently been wearing it,” the newspaper said.
- The twisted wreckage of the Buick Electra in which Mansfield was killed is on display at Hollywood’s Dearly Departed museum, which is dedicated to Tinsel Town’s macabre past.
- Mansfield was born Vera Jayne Palmer and, although seen as the quintessential Hollywood “dumb blonde,” she was neither dumb nor blonde. She was a natural brunette and she claimed to have an IQ of 163.
- Boasting an exaggerated hourglass figure, Mansfield fashioned herself into a 1950s sex symbol, appearing some 30 times in Playboy magazine and — proving to be a master of publicity — staging frequent wardrobe “malfunctions” to titillate the public. In the mid-1950s, she was signed by 20th Century Fox to become what the studio had hoped would be the next Marilyn Monroe.
- Mansfield’s first starring role came in the 1956 film “The Girl Can’t Help It,” which co-starred a cast of real-life rock ‘n’ roll stars, including Fats Domino and Little Richard.
- In addition to being an actress, Mansfield was a classically trained pianist, a talent on which she relied to launch a nightclub career after film roles became less frequent in the early 1960s.
- “I wish the whole world could know her as I do,” Mansfield’s ex-husband Mickey Hargitay told reporters at Ochsner hospital following the crash. “She was a remarkable woman and a great mother. I am so sorry nobody really knows the real Jaynie.”
Fifty years later, Mansfield continues to fascinate the public, but her legacy is much bigger than the gruesome details of her death — and, indeed, bigger than her acting career and well-covered publicity antics. In the wake of the 1967 accident that claimed her life, federal highway authorities recommended the installation of “underride guards” on the back of tractor trailers to prevent automobiles from plunging under them in a rear-end collision. In 1998, such guards became mandatory. Officially known as a Rear Underrun Protection System, they are also commonly known as “Mansfield bars,” after the late actress.