Vera Jayne Palmer visited Hollywood for the first time when she was thirteen. After a tour of Twentieth Century Fox Studios, she and her mother went to the Brown Derby for lunch. Jayne spotted The Great Gildersleeve radio stars Dennis Day and Harold Peary, and asked for their autographs. “You know, Mama,” she said when she returned, “one day, some other young girl is going to make her way across this room and ask for my autograph.”
Jayne’s desire to become a star was not ignited that day; the trip only fanned flames that had always burned within her. Her parents, Herbert and Vera, were witness to her enthusiastic performances at an early age. When she was five, Jayne was singing for anyone who would listen, including her gigantic collection of stuffed animals. At seven, she would stand in her driveway and play the violin for passers-by. Though her idols changed over the years–from Shirley Temple to Gene Tierney, Hedy Lamarr, and Jean Harlow–they were always movie stars.
A naïve and trusting child, Jayne’s innocence often resulted in touching anecdotes. Once, Jayne’s Sunday school teacher told the children that God was always with them. That night, Jayne fell out of bed several times “making room for God.” When Jayne learned that a family living down the street had fallen on hard times, she helped them out in whatever way possible. Disturbed because their little girl had no winter coat, Jayne traded her jacket to the girl in exchange for an old baby bottle. Jayne’s parents were upset, but she never regretted the trade.
Though Jayne’s kind heart enabled her to touch the lives of many, it made her extremely vulnerable. When she was three, her father died suddenly. That morning, at a physical, he was declared healthy, but several hours later he had a heart attack. Jayne, who had been a daddy’s girl, was stunned. “Something went out of my life,” she said. Years later, she remembered how she would sit on his lap while he stroked her long curly hair. “My earliest memories are the best. I always try to remember the good times when Daddy was alive.”
Fortunately, Vera was able to support the family by working as a school teacher. Not long afterward, she met and married Harry “Tex” Peers, and they decided to move from Phillipsburg, New Jersey to Dallas. Jayne was fond of Harry, a firm but loving man, and appreciated the discipline he brought as they became a “family” again. Harry also cultivated Jayne’s love for barbecuing. Outgoing and personable, Jayne would invite anyone to join their weekly barbecues. Years later, on their custom-built double pink marble-topped barbecue, she and husband Mickey Hargitay cooked for the entire San Francisco Giants baseball team.
At a party on Christmas Eve, 1949, Jayne met Paul Mansfield. Handsome and studious, Paul treated Jayne with genuine respect. They fell in love and were married on January 28. After a difficult labor, Jayne Marie Mansfield was born on November 8, 1950. Well aware of his wife’s Hollywood ambitions, Paul thought becoming a mother would distract her. He was wrong. Though she was thrilled with the birth of her daughter, Jayne had not faltered in her dream to become a star. The war in North Korea started, and Paul had to leave for Army reserve duty. Before leaving, he relented and promised her that when it was over, the family would move to Hollywood. Two years later, the Mansfield family started out for California. Paul would stay only four months. They divorced and he went back to Dallas. Nonetheless, Jayne kept the name Mansfield because she thought it sounded illustrious.
Jayne flourished in Hollywood. She took a job at a movie theater but was soon accepting work as a model. Gene Lester, a well-known photographer, recalled her first professional shoot for General Electric. “Jayne was one of the girls I used. She was way over to the left side of the picture. General Electric notified me that they had to cut her out of the picture because she looked too sexy for 1954 viewers.”
Hollywood publicity agent Jim Byron saw her potential. “Jayne had a star quality,” he said. “She was very much like a raw gem.” During Christmas, they decided Jayne would visit newspapers and provide the overworked reporters with cheer-in the form of a spirited hug and kiss. Her appearances were a hit, and Jayne’s picture was in newspapers all over the country. For Byron’s next big event, he got Jayne a ticket to a press event in Florida for the RKO Pictures release of Underwater, starring Jane Russell. On the plane, she was seated next to Daily Variety reporter Joe Schoenfeld. He found her so delightful that the following day their conversation consumed his column. Later, in a red bikini, it became obvious to everyone that she had control of the spotlight. Headlines from that weekend announced, “Jayne Out-Points Jane.” That same year, after starring in the Broadway hit Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter, the headlines read, “Jayne Signs Studio Contract with Fox.”
Jayne was on her way to becoming a celebrity when she attended a Mae West performance at the Latin Quarter. After the show, Jayne was also on her way to falling in love with 1956 Mr. Universe, Mickey Hargitay, who was working as one of Mae’s musclemen in the show. As their relationship developed, Mae became irate at the loss of Mickey’s affections and called a press conference where she ordered him to denounce his relationship with Jayne. Her plan backfired. Instead of reading the scripted statement, Mickey said, “Jaynie and I are very much in love, and we have seriously discussed marriage plans in the future.” On January 13, 1958, amid family, friends and a flurry of press in Palos Verdes, California, the pair married. Theirs was very much a storybook love, of which Jayne later said, “We were into something so beautiful. Mickey and I had a grasp of life that most people never know anything about.” Both Jayne and Mickey loved children and were ecstatic each time Jayne became pregnant. The couple had three children together, Micklos, Zoltan, and Mariska, whom they regularly brought on location for performances. “We take our children everywhere we go,” she said in a Star Weekly magazine interview. “I don’t believe in having them and then leaving them to someone else to bring up.”
Meanwhile, Jayne’s career had continued to prosper. In 1956, she starred in The Girl Can’t Help It, a successful film that satisfied the public’s demand for anything rock and roll related. The musical talent of Little Richard, Gene Vincent and the Blue Caps, Fats Domino, The Platters, and Julie London accompanied Jayne and her co-stars, Tom Ewell and Edmond O’Brien. When she earned the lead in The Wayward Bus, based on John Steinbeck’s best-selling novel, Jayne captured the persona of her character and the critics took notice. Next, Jayne took her Broadway role as Rita Marlowe to the big screen in the film version of Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? Once again, Rock Hunter was a success, and so was Jayne. Fox then placed her in Kiss Them for Me alongside Cary Grant, whom she found to be “one of the most marvelous men I’ve ever met.” During this time she purchased a Mediterranean style mansion on Sunset Boulevard. In keeping with her distinct decorative taste, the mansion would soon become known as “The Pink Palace.”
Before she left to film The Sheriff of Fractured Jaw in England, Jayne and her family spent four weeks in Las Vegas. She had been asked to appear in nightly performance at the Tropicana, where she sang, danced, and joked with the audience and could not refuse the offer of $25,000 a week. Jayne loved being able to personally interact with her fans, and the Tropicana loved the crowd she drew. Her performance brought in a packed house every night. It was the beginning of a long-standing, highly successful nightclub career for Jayne. Several years later, she returned to Las Vegas, this time at the Dunes Hotel, where her weekly salary was raised to $35,000. Though she began touring with her act, Jayne’s stage performances were not limited to nightclubs. She renewed her involvement in the theater, most notably in an acclaimed production of Bus Stop. “As the chanteuse being abducted by the lonesome cowboy, Miss Mansfield can hardly help stealing scenes,” said a critic. “But oft times the scenes are earned rather than stolen.it turns out the lady is endowed with a comedic talent.” She also dabbled in television, with cameo appearances on The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, Jack Benny Program, Burke’s Law, and The Steve Allen Show. Ultimately, Jayne juggled a career that encompassed almost every media facet. Unfortunately, as so often happens in Hollywood, Jayne and Mickey’s relationship had become strained. They decided to divorce in August 1964, but always remained good friends.
In 1967, Jayne’s life was still moving at full speed. “I will never be satisfied,” she said in an interview. “Life is one constant search for betterment for me.” Her time was split between a Southern nightclub tour and the production of Single Room, Furnished, a drama that would become her last film. Furnished was directed by Matt Cimber, who Jayne met on the set of Bus Stop and later married. On June 29, Jayne was riding in front with Ronnie Harrison and lawyer Sam Brody on the way from a Mississippi nightclub engagement. Her children, Mickey Jr., Zoltan and Mariska, sat in the back. As they rounded a curve on a dark stretch of road, the car slammed into a slowed semi. Though the children survived with minor injuries, but everyone sitting in the front was killed instantly.
The world was stunned. Jayne’s personality was so vibrant, her career so vivacious that it was impossible to believe she was gone. At 34, she had already earned a special place in the hearts of millions, and with her death came a deep void that will never be filled.
Jayne was laid to rest in Fairview Cemetery in Pen Argyl, Pennsylvania. There is also a cenotaph dedicated to her in the Hollywood Forever Memorial Park in Hollywood, California.