There’s something about Hollywood and dying young that seem to go hand-in-hand. Just take River Phoenix, Marilyn Monroe and Brandon Lee—each star’s premature passing turned them into tragic icons. Rather than growing old and fading away, ill-fated stars stay young and beautiful forever. The more mysterious and untimely a celebrity’s passing, the more attention it gets.
Society’s morbid fascination with dying young holds especially true in the case of movie goddess Jayne Mansfield. One of the original blonde bombshells of the 1950’s, Mansfield was 20th Century Fox’s answer to Marilyn Monroe. She starred in box office hits “The Girl Can’t Help It” (1956), “Too Hot to Handle” (1960) and sexploitation movie “Promises, Promises!” (1963). She was an early Playboy playmate, as well as the first actress to go nude for a starring role in a major Hollywood picture.
Five decades after her death, few people remember her movies but her personal life remains a source of speculation and discussion. Like many Hollywood starlets before and since, Mansfield’s chaotic private life was more engrossing than her professional one. With a supposedly incurable thirst for press attention, she became known for her many publicity stunts, particularly her planned wardrobe malfunctions, as well as her infamous romances. By age 34, Mansfield had been married three times and had a number of high-profile relationships—she bedded both of the Kennedy brothers before her rival Monroe got a look in—that the tabloids ate up. Still, her most famous affair was with Anton LaVey, head of the Church of Satan. It was this brief relationship that spawned the many bizarre conspiracy theories surrounding Mansfield’s early demise.
Last month, the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London screened “Mansfield 66/67.” Directed by P. David Ebersole and Todd Hughes, the film explores the last two years of Mansfield’s life—including her relationship with LaVey—and was filmed to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the star’s death. The documentary includes interviews with an eclectic mix of filmmakers, actors and artists from director John Waters to gossip columnist A.J. Benza, as well as the actress’s contemporaries Mamie Van Doren and Tippi Hedren.
It has been suggested that Mansfield’s life was spiraling out of control prior to her passing. During the 1950s, her renowned measurements (40-22-35) and “dumb blonde” persona made her a star, but in the rapidly changing culture of the 60s, her career began to decline. As society’s beauty ideal changed to the skinny, androgynous figures of fashion models such as Twiggy and Jane Birkin, there was less demand for Mansfield’s look. She began to make dubious career decisions, but remained a star by pulling elaborate publicity stunts: for example, she engineered red carpet wardrobe malfunctions by wearing clothes that would purposely fall down or come apart, and even faked her own death by drowning five years before her actual passing. In April 1967, the Los Angeles Times described Mansfield as someone who “confuses publicity and notoriety with stardom and celebrity and the result is very distasteful to the public.”
Headlines described Mansfield as a “Love Goddess with a Jinx,” but her public identity differed greatly from her real one. Behind the scenes, Mansfield possessed an IQ of 163 and spoke five languages.
As her career took a turn for the worse, Mansfield resorted to performing in cheap burlesque shows for money. Her third marriage to former Italian wrestler Matt Cimber crumbled due to her alcoholism, and by 1966, Mansfield was living with her lawyer lover Samuel Brody. It was during this time that the actress met LaVey while visiting San Francisco for its annual film festival.
The head of the Church of Satan, LaVey rose to fame for his research on the paranormal. He lived in the “Black House” with his pet tiger and a bevy of topless women. He lived by the motto, “if you’re going to be a sinner, be the best sinner on the block” and regularly wore a black cloak and inverted pentagram. He supposedly gifted Mansfield with a medallion and dubbed her “High Priestess of San Francisco’s Church of Satan.” The pair purportedly became lovers, although conflicting sources state that the coverage of their meeting by the press at the time was exaggerated. Mansfield and LaVey seemed like an unlikely pair, but the two had plenty in common: they were both sex positive and knew how to get the press’s attention—in fact, The Church of Satan was started with the help of a publicist.
As the story goes, sometime during 1966 a jealous Brody challenged LaVey about his possible romance with Mansfield. Flying into a rage, Brody is said to have destroyed several of LaVey’s sacred Satanic talismans. Though LaVey didn’t believe in supernatural entities or gods, he did believe in magic, and apparently reacted to this sign of disrespect by placing a curse on Brody’s head—one that was intended to cause the attorney to die in a car accident within a year.
Throughout the remainder of 1966 and in 1967, Brody had no less than six minor car accidents and near-fatal crashes. On the night of 28 June 1967, he and Mansfield were slain while driving down the I-90 from New Orleans. In the freak accident, the couple’s Buick smashed into the back of a truck, hidden by a cloud of insecticide dust that seeped out from the trailer it was hauling. Mansfield and Brody’s car drove under the trailer, instantly killing them and their driver, Ronnie Harrison. Fortunately, Mansfield’s three children, Mariska, Miklos and Zoltan, survived.
The rumors that Mansfield was a practicing Satanist didn’t emerge until after her death. The dalliance between her and LaVey supposedly occurred during what is considered the Church of Satan’s golden age. As the 70s rolled around, people began to lose interest and the Church’s popularity declined. It was around this time that rumors surrounding a possible relationship between LaVey and Mansfield began to take off, as well as claims that Mansfield had converted to Satanism before her death. Headlines called her a devil worshipper whose career was built off the back of occult dealings, transforming her post-mortem reputation from screen siren to Satanist.
One leading source of the rumours was an unauthorized biography by columnist May Mann, who was a good friend of Mansfield’s while she was alive. Many fans feel Mann betrayed the actress with her sensationalized version of events, several of which have since been debunked. A photoshoot with Mansfield and LaVey, photographed by paparazzo Walter Fischer at Mansfield’s “Pink Palace” home, also fueled the fire. The shoot was a publicity opportunity for both of them, though the images were never published during Mansfield’s lifetime.
So, was Mansfield a practicing Satanist? It’s unlikely, considering she was in the process of converting to Judaism for Brody at the time of her passing. However, in a 1992 interview with Joan Rivers, Karla LaVey, Anton’s daughter, claimed that Mansfield most definitely joined the religion in the last year of her life. Karla also claimed that her father and Mansfield were involved romantically. Nevertheless, her assertions could have been for publicity, as LaVey capitalized off his association with Mansfield for the rest of his life.
So, who was the real Jayne Mansfield? A screen siren, intellectual or devil worshipper? Eulogizing Mansfield in print, film critic Robert Ebert wrote, “there is very little to say about her that is not the invention of a press agent.” The true Mansfield may just be a secret the star took to her grave.