”I will never be satisfied,” platinum blondshell Jayne Mansfield proclaimed mere months before her death. ”Life is one constant search for betterment for me.” Once nicknamed ”Marilyn Monroe, King Size,” the Texas tease with eye-popping proportions achieved the fame and glamour she craved — before a grisly car crash on June 29, 1967, ended her life. Born Vera Jayne Palmer in 1933, Mansfield was determined to be a movie star from an early age, when she told her mother she was ”prettier than Shirley Temple.” At 21, she left Dallas for L.A., where her 40-21-36 figure caused many a slack jaw. Her screen break came in 1956’s The Girl Can’t Help It, followed by a turn in 1957’s Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? — a role she played in the original 1956 Broadway production. Then came more comedies (like 1957’s Kiss Them for Me, with Cary Grant), and a 1958 marriage (her second) to Hungarian-born Mickey Hargitay, a former Mr. Universe with whom she would have three of her five children.
Though she had proved her range in 1957’s The Wayward Bus, based on a John Steinbeck novel, her buxom-blond image eventually became a liability. By 1963, Mansfield’s marriage to Hargitay was over (reportedly due to Jayne’s dalliances), and her star had faded. She was reduced to making B movies abroad, doing supermarket promos, and performing burlesque shows. Her June 28, 1967, gig at Gus Stevens’ Supper Club in Biloxi, Miss., would be her last.
Scheduled to appear on an early-morning New Orleans TV talk show, Mansfield elected to drive overnight in a borrowed Buick, with driver Ron Harrison, her lawyer/lover Samuel S. Brody, and her three kids with Hargitay (Miklos, 8; Zoltan, 6; and Mariska, 3). At 2:25 a.m., about 20 miles outside of New Orleans on U.S. Highway 90, the car smashed into an 18-wheeler stopped behind a truck spraying insecticide. Mansfield, Brody, and Harrison were killed instantly; the children suffered minor injuries. Though the top of the car had been sheared off, Mansfield was not, as legend has it, decapitated: The image of her blond wig on the dashboard most likely fueled the rumor.
Mansfield’s children recovered completely and were raised in L.A. by Hargitay and his third wife, Ellen Siano. Of the three, only Mariska, now 38, has followed in her mother’s footsteps, starring in NBC’s Law & Order: Special Victims Unit. Mickey, 76, has only warm memories of his late wife. ”She was one of the super ladies of all time,” he says. ”She did so much: movie star, entertainer, mother. Living with her beautiful memory every day with the children…I’m just so grateful.”