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Jayne Mansfield’s Death: The Car Crash That Changed Federal Laws

Madeline Hiltz
(Photo Credit: Silver Screen Collection/ Getty Images and Michael Ochs Archives/ Getty Images)

Arguably, no celebrity death was more tragic – or gruesome – than that of screen starlet Jayne Mansfield. The 1967 fatal car accident was so horrible that it incited rumors about curses and decapitation that still persist today.

Marilyn Monroe King-Sized?

Headshot of Jayne Mansfield, circa 1955

Headshot of Jayne Mansfield in a studio portrait, circa 1955. (Photo Credit: Silver Screen Collection/ Getty Images)

Jayne Mansfield was born on April 19, 1933, in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania. Originally, Jayne Mansfield’s name was Vera Jayne Palmer. When she was 17-years-old, she married Paul Mansfield. When she and Paul arrived in Hollywood, Mansfield was only 21-years-old but already a wife and mother.

Jayne Mansfield initially struggled to find roles in Hollywood. However, she wasn’t afraid to use her assets to her benefit and was one of the earliest Playboy bunnies. In February 1955, Mansfield was named Playboy’s Playmate of the Month.

It proved to be a big year for Jayne Mansfield. Not only was she a popular Playmate, but she also made her big-screen movie debut. In 1955, Mansfield played a small role in Pete Kelly’s Blues, Hell on Frisco Bay, and Illegal. Mansfield also divorced Paul in 1955 but opted to keep his last name.

Jayne Mansfield and Mickey Hargitay at Idlewild Airport, 1956

Mickey Hargitay and Jayne Mansfield embrace at Idlewild Airport in New York, June 8th, 1956. (Photo Credit: Bettmann/ Getty Images)

Jayne Mansfield worked off her initial pinup success, marketing herself as the newest blonde bombshell in Hollywood. Of course, Marilyn Monroe was Hollywood’s original blonde bombshell, but Jayne Mansfield posed a threat to Monroe after signing a six-year contract with 20th Century Fox in 1956.

After her breakout role in The Girl Can’t Help It (1956),  20th Century Fox began marketing Mansfield as “Marilyn Monroe King-Size.” Jayne Mansfield insisted that she was not trying to copy Marilyn Monroe, but Monroe didn’t believe these claims. In fact, Monroe dismissed Mansfield as a cheap imitation, saying, “all she does is imitate me – but her imitations are an insult to her as well as myself. I know it’s supposed to be flattering to be imitated, but she does it so grossly, so vulgarly – I wish I had some legal means to sue her.”

In 1958, Mansfield married her second husband, a Hungarian bodybuilder Mickey Hargitay. The couple had three children together, including their daughter Mariska Hargitay, who stars in Law & Order: Special Victims Unit. The couple divorced in 1964.

Jayne Mansfield poses with her heart-shaped pool in the backyard of her Pink Palace

A brunette Jayne Mansfield relaxes on the balcony overlooking her heart-shaped pink swimming pool in the backyard of her Pink Palace, Los Angeles, circa 1961. (Photo Credit: Bettmann/ Getty Images)

Jayne Mansfield married one final time before her death. In 1964, she married her third husband, Matt Cimber. Together, the couple had a son but divorced in 1966.

Jayne Mansfield was known for her flamboyant tactics, such as exposing her breasts in movies and to photographers on the street. She was the first actress to be filmed nude on screen, in the 1963 film Promises, Promises. She was also known for her love of the color pink. Her Los Angeles home was known as the “Pink Palace,” and was covered in a floor-to-ceiling pink shag rug and even had a heart-shaped swimming pool.

Despite her apparent rival with Marilyn Monroe, Jayne Mansfield was clearly impacted by her untimely death. When Marilyn Monroe’s death was reported in 1962, Jayne Mansfield grew quiet and ominously said, “maybe I’ll be next.” Tragically, this prediction came to pass all too soon.

The gruesome death of Jayne Mansfield

Jayne Mansfield sits in the passenger sear of a limousine

Jayne Mansfield sits in the passenger seat of a limousine, circa 1965. (Photo Credit: Express Newspapers/ Stringer/ Getty Images)

After she divorced Matt Cimber, Jayne Mansfield became romantically involved with her divorce lawyer, Sam Brody. The two moved in together in July 1966. At the time of her third divorce, Mansfield was increasingly struggling with alcoholism and began performing at cheap burlesque shows.

Because she was performing at more and more nightclubs, Jayne Mansfield was required to travel frequently. Such was the case on the night of her death. In the early morning hours of June 29, 1967, Jayne Mansfield was traveling from Biloxi, Mississippi, where she had finished performing at a nightclub, to New Orleans for a scheduled television appearance.

Newspaper talking about the car crash that killed Mansfield

A man in New Orleans reads about the death of American actress Jayne Mansfield in a car crash outside the city the previous day, USA, 30th June 1967. (Photo Credit: Michael Ochs Archives/ Stringer/ Getty Images)

Jayne Mansfield was sitting in the front seat of a 1966 Buick Electra with her boyfriend, Sam Brody, and her driver, Ronald B. Harrison. Three of her five children – Miklós, Zoltán, and Mariska – slept in the backseat.

Mansfield left Biloxi a little after midnight on June 29, 1967. Around 2 a.m., the Buick crashed into the back of a trailer truck. Everyone sitting in the car’s front seat was killed instantly, but the three children sleeping in the back seat escaped relatively unscathed. Ronald Harrison likely didn’t see the tractor-trailer until it was too late. The vehicle they crashed into had slowed down behind a truck spraying a thick fog intended to kill mosquitoes. Jayne Mansfield was only 34-years-old when she died.

Front view of Jayne Mansfield's 1966 Buick Electra

Front view of the 1966 Buick Electra that killed Jayne Mansfield, Sam Brody and Ronnie Harrison. (Photo Credit: Michael Ochs Archives/ Getty Images)

The 1966 Buick Electra was completely destroyed upon impact.  The car, which is known as “Jayne Mansfield’s death car,” was saved from complete destruction after it was bought by a private collector in Florida. By the 1970s, the death car had become a roadside attraction. Today, the Buick is owned by Scott Michaels, who included the death car as part of his Dearly Departed Tours & Artifact Museum in Los Angeles.

Rumors swirled following the release of the death photos

Scene of the car crash that killed Jayne Mansfield near New Orleans

View of the scene of the car crash that killed Jayne Mansfield, Sam Brody, and Ronnie Harrison in New Orleans. (Photo Credit: Keystone/ Getty Images)

Jayne Mansfield, her boyfriend, and the driver were all declared dead at the scene. Almost immediately, rumors about Mansfield’s death started circulating. Pictures of the accident scene were released, which only added fuel to these rumors.

Upon impact, Jayne Mansfield’s wig was thrown from the car. In the death photos released to the public, this blonde wig makes it look like Mansfield could have been decapitated. Furthermore, the police report from the accident notes that “the upper portion of this white female’s head was severed.” Most people interpreted the police report as proof that Mansfield was decapitated.

Mansfield’s death certificate notes her cause of death being a “crushed skull with avulsion (forcible separation or detachment) of cranium and brain.” One often thinks of decapitation of the head being separated from the body through slicing the neck.

Frontal view of the car at the accident scene

Additional view of the car at the accident scene after the car hit a transport truck. (Photo Credit: Bettmann/ Getty Images)

These rumors continue to persist, even today, through movies including Crash (1996) and Hollywood Babylon (1975). The latter of the two films released additional controversial death photos from the scene, including one showing Jayne Mansfield’s dead chihuahua lying beside the car.

This widely accepted notion of decapitation was not Jayne Mansfield’s cause of death. Jim Roberts, the undertaker that prepared Mansfield’s body for burial, once noted that “her head was attached as much as mine is.”

Micky Hargitay puts his head on his arm in mourning

Mickey Hargitay rests his head on his arm as he climbs into a hearse at Kennedy Airport (July 1st). Hargitay had just helped place the body of actress Jayne Mansfield in the hearse for a trip to Pen Argyl, PA. (Photo Credit: Bettmann/ Getty Images)

That being said, Jayne Mansfield did not go gently. Scalping is probably a better description of Mansfield’s cause of death, as her skull was cracked open. The only silver lining for Mansfield is that she likely would not have felt anything at all, as her death was instantaneous.

Another rumor was nipping at the heels of the decapitation theory circulating in Hollywood. Jayne Mansfield had struck up an unlikely friendship with Church of Satan creator Anton LaVey. According to this particular rumor, LaVey and Sam Brody once got in an argument that ended in LaVey hexing Brody. LaVey then supposedly warned Mansfield that Brody would die in a car crash. This rumor in particular was solidified in the world of recent popular culture through the 2017 documentary Mansfield 66/67.

Mansfield Bars

Jayne Mansfield poses for a studio portrait

Studio portrait of 1950’s sex symbol, Jayne Mansfield. (Photo Credit: Bettmann/ Getty Images)

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Jayne Mansfield’s death was so gruesome that it prompted the federal government to ensure no more accidents of this manner happened.

The top of Mansfield’s Buick was torn off after it slid under the back of an 18-wheeler. After the accident, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration had all semi-trucks change their design. Semi-trucks now required their trailers to have a steel bar put in place to prevent any cars from rolling underneath.

Today, these bars are known as “Mansfield Bars,” after Jayne Mansfield. Their goal is to ensure no person ever has to endure the same fate as the Hollywood starlet.