Jayne Mansfield: Broadway’s smartest dumb blonde (1956)

LIFE Apr 23, 1956 Jayne Mansfield cover

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Jayne Mansfield: Broadway’s smartest dumb blonde

By Ernest Havemann

Though the thought has never crossed her pretty blond head, Jayne Mansfield is one of the most interesting sociological studies to be found anywhere in the U.S. this spring.

Miss Mansfield has burst dazzlingly upon the theatrical world as a star of a Broadway comedy called Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? and currently seems to be getting her name and photograph into more Broadway columns and movie magazines than any other actress alive. A number of Hollywood studios are bidding for her services, and there seems to be a very good chance that she will someday become a full-fledged movie queen.

LIFE Apr 23, 1956 Jayne Mansfield cover

Yet at the moment, Miss Mansfield is only in what might be called the larval stage. Her face has not yet been metamorphosed by Hollywood’s makeup and lighting experts, nor has her mind by exposure to the Actors’ Studio, poetry and imaginative movie producers. Miss Mansfield is still just herself, friendly and frank, perhaps even somewhat naive in her own calculating way. This is a rare situation, for ordinarily, a movie queen is presented to the public only after some studio has gone to immense expense changing her over completely, to the point where her own mother would not recognize her.

Miss Mansfield does not even obey cliche No. 1 of the movie queen, which is to act bored with success. No teenager ever exhibited so much tenacity at seeking autographs as she does at signings them: she will stand in wind, rain or snow until her last admirer is satisfied. She still preserves her first fan letter which came, when she was a Hollywood starlet, from a California schoolboy named Mendoza, and she reads every newspaper to see whether such columnists as Walter Winchell and Earl Wilson have said anything about her. (If they have nothing for several days she gets on the phone.)

While having some pictures taken recently, she told the photographer, apropos of nothing, “Do you know what Winchell once said about me? He said Jayne Mansfield ‘is as beautiful as Marilyn Monroe in every department, and effortlessly delivers the most devastating impression in years.’ I’ve got it memorized. By the way, what does ‘devastating’ mean?”

Her voice teacher, a composer named Bernie Wayne, told her in the course of a recent lesson that if she could think up some catchy phrase built around the name Jayne, he would try to write a song in her honor. “Gosh, I hope you can work my last name into it,” she said. “There’s a Jayne Meadows too, you know.”

1956 Jayne Mansfield 1

Jayne Mansfield vs Marilyn Monroe?

Many others besides Winchell have compared Miss Mansfield to Marilyn Monroe. This is perhaps inevitable, for in Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? she is cast as a rollicking caricature of a dumb blond movie queen. Moreover, she just naturally has the same come-hither-you-brute sort of voice and look as Miss Monroe.

But the comparison, which a more seasoned actress would at least pretend to love, does not seem to please Miss Mansfield at all. “Marilyn is very attractive and all that,” she has said, “but she and I are entirely different. I can dye my hair and play a serious part.” For that matter, Miss Mansfield would not even have to dye her hair. She could just let it grow back to its natural color, which she admits, again in gross violation of the movie queen’s code, is brown.

Although to date Miss Mansfield has appeared in only five movies, mostly in the kind of bit parts which Hollywood calls suitable for any “big blonde,” and in a play in which a good many critics feel she is only being her own exuberant self, her confidence in her acting ability seems boundless.

Recently she made a screen test for a 20th Century-Fox filming of the novel “The Wayward Bus.” This was a critical event in her brief career, with a starring role at $1,500 a week-or more-as the immediate prize. She was tutored for it by George Axelrod, the author and director of Rock Hunter, who wanted her to do something simple, light and airy before the cameras. Miss Mansfield, however, was all for trying some excerpts from the highly overwrought role of Blanche DuBois in the deadly serious A Streetcar Named Desire.

When Axelrod expressed amazement, Miss Mansfield said airily, “Oh, that’s because you’ve never seen me with my hair back. I can look very Italian and Russian and all that.” Axelrod had her run through a few Blanche DuBois lines, then gently dissuaded her. “Unless people are prepared for what’s coming,” he told her. they might figure you’re imitating Judy Holliday imitating Marilyn Monroe trying to play Blanche.”

1956 Jayne Mansfield 3
As might be expected, Jayne Mansfield leads a rather helter-skelter life in New York. She no longer has her young husband. About a year ago he gave her the choice between the marriage and her career, and as a result, he is now down in Texas editing a railroad magazine while she conquers Broadway. They are in the process of getting divorced, but this may take some time because her husband feels that the theater world is no place to bring up a child, and is asking for custody.

Miss Mansfield lives near the theater in a two-room apartment, as alone as a girl can possibly be in such cramped quarters with a daughter, a maid and two Chihuahuas. A visitor is likely to find her busy putting up her hair, which requires constant attention, while her daughter plays the television set and a record player, the maid vacuums the rugs, two phones ring constantly and the Chihuahuas, only one of which is housebroken, leap about. Miss Mansfield finds the apartment very restful. Until recently she lived in one room and had, in addition to her present menage, three cats and a 135-pound Great Dane.

Since she will go practically anywhere and do practically anything that will add to her fame, her days are a mad round of appointments with reporters, photographers, press agents, radio and television people, charity committees, voice teachers and coaches, for all of which she is anywhere from a half hour to three hours late.

Jayne Mansfield Broadway's smartest dumb blonde (1956)

While running from date to date, she feverishly scans the latest editions of all the New York papers for mention of her name; it is possible that a good team of Boy Scouts could track her through the day just by the trail of discarded pages of the Journal-American, Post, News and Mirror that flutter from her fingers on sidewalks, taxi floors and the corridors of studios and radio stations.

The people who try to escort her from place to place have a rough time of it. An escort is likely to find himself carrying her laundry, jumping out of a cab for more newspapers or some orange juice, lending her a comb and pencil, which he will never get back, and trying desperately to make an apologetic call to her next appointment, the nature of which she remembers only vaguely.

But she has never been late for a performance, and in her own unpredictable way, she eventually manages to get everything else done that is really important. Her advisers — agent, lawyer and press agent — consider her a delight to work with, eager, tireless and completely tractable, except possibly on the one subject of astrology.

Newspapermen can hardly get enough of her uninhibited conversation, and photographers like to take her picture because of her complete candor about what they call cheesecake. Miss Mansfield is well aware that a good figure never hurt any young girl eager to get into the movies.

Indeed, she defends her dimensions with a fierce jealousy. When she was fitted for a mink coat recently, the designer took her bust measurement and called out, “Thirty-nine.” “Forty,” cried Miss Mansfield in anguish. The designer consulted his tape measure again. “No, ma’am,” he said, “it’s 39.” Miss Mansfield paled visibly, then said. “Well, this is a tight brassiere.”

Agent Shiffrin is convinced that, if only he can keep her from playing The Loon, he has a great future star on his hands. So are a lot of other people, including many who do not especially admire Jayne Mansfield. One Broadway observer said recently, “This girl has absolutely no acting technique, and she never will have. But of course, she doesn’t want to be an actress — she wants to be a star. I think she’ll make it.” (By Broadway standards, many movie queens do not act at all. They simply manage, on about the 10th or 20th attempt, to hold a 10-second facial expression, or recite two consecutive sentences in the way a director with the patience of Job has beaten into their heads.)

Jayne Mansfield Broadway's smartest dumb blonde (1956)

One recent afternoon, Shiffrin sat at a restaurant table with Miss Mansfield and some friends, discussing her future. He was explaining enthusiastically that he first saw her when she walked unannounced into his office looking “like a dirigible in a golden dress.”

He went on to say that there are two kinds of Hollywood actresses: the high-brow ones like Katharine Hepburn, who appeal to eggheads, and the low-brow ones like Dorothy Lamour, who appeal to truck drivers. The high-brow ones, he said, have to stay on the ball every minute, and are in constant danger of oblivion at that, for the typical movie audience is by no means composed of Phi Beta Kappas. “When it comes to straight box office,” said Shiffrin, “give me the girl who’s really primitive.”

Miss Mansfield nodded gravely and went into her characteristic sigh, throwing back her shoulders and taking a long, deep and spectacular breath. “I’m primitive, that’s for sure,” she said.

No other actress has ever made that statement.

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