It's falsely believed that Jayne Mansfield died when she was beheaded in a fatal 1967 car accident, but the truth is even grislier — and much sadder.
Like her rival, Marilyn Monroe, Jayne Mansfield died tragically young, leaving a rush of rumors in her wake.
On June 29, 1967, around 2 a.m., a car carrying Jane Mansfield and three of her children, including actress Mariska Hargitay, slammed into the back of a semi-truck on a dark Louisiana highway. The impact sheared off the top of Mansfield’s car, instantly killing the three adults in the front seat. Miraculously, the sleeping children in the back seat survived.
The shocking accident quickly led to gossip involving decapitation and devilish curses that still persists today. However, the truth is more gruesome and even sadder than anything the rumor mill could dream up.
Who Was Jayne Mansfield?
In the 1950s, Jayne Mansfield rose to stardom as a cartoonishly-sexy alternative to Marilyn Monroe. A young Mansfield, born Vera Jayne Palmer, arrived in Hollywood at just 21 years old, already a wife and mother.
Mansfield starred in films like 1960’s Too Hot to Handle and 1956’s The Girl Can’t Help It. But the actress was best known for her personality off-screen, where she played up her curves and sold herself as a naughtier version of Monroe.
Hollywood reporter Lawrence J. Quirk once asked Monroe about Mansfield. “All she does is imitate me,” Monroe complained, “but her imitations are an insult to her as well as to myself.”
Monroe added, “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.”
Jayne Mansfield didn’t shy away from the rivalry. In fact, she actively pursued John F. Kennedy because of his relationship with Monroe. After snagging the president, Mansfield cackled, “I’ll bet Marilyn’s pissed as all get out!”
In 1958, Mansfield married her second husband Mickey Hargitay, an actor and bodybuilder. The couple had three children, including Mariska Hargitay, and starred in several movies together.
Mansfield married and divorced three times and had five children in all. She also had a number of highly publicized affairs.
Mansfield wasn’t shy about her sex symbol status. She posed for Playboy as a playmate and declared, “I think sex is healthy, and there’s too much guilt and hypocrisy about it.”
Her turbulent love life made for constant tabloid fodder, and she pushed boundaries that other stars at the time wouldn’t approach. She was infamous for exposing her breasts to photographers on the street, and she was the first mainstream American actress to go nude on screen, baring all in the 1963 film Promises, Promises.
Nor did she shy away from camp. Mansfield famously lived in a rose-colored Hollywood mansion dubbed The Pink Palace, complete with a heart-shaped swimming pool.
But when news of Marilyn Monroe’s sudden death reached Mansfield in 1962, the typically audacious actress worried, “Maybe I’ll be next.”
The 1967 Car Accident
Five years after Monroe’s death, Jayne Mansfield died in a car accident.
In the early morning hours of June 29, 1967, Mansfield left Biloxi, Mississippi, driving toward New Orleans. The actress had just performed at a Biloxi nightclub, and she needed to reach New Orleans for a television appearance scheduled for the next day.
On the long drive, Mansfield sat in front with a driver, Ronald B. Harrison, and her boyfriend, Samuel S. Brody. Three of her children slept in the backseat.
A little after 2 a.m., the 1966 Buick Electra crashed into the back of a trailer truck, instantly killing everyone in the front seat. Harrison likely didn’t see the truck until it was too late because of a nearby machine pumping out thick fog to kill mosquitos.
Jayne Mansfield’s Death
After the Buick Electra crashed into the truck, it slid under the back of the trailer, shearing off the top of the car.
Police rushed to the scene to find Mansfield’s three children alive in the backseat. The accident instantly killed the three adults in the front seat and also killed Mansfield’s dog. Police declared the actress dead on the scene.
As news of the grisly accident went public, rumors swirled that the crash decapitated Mansfield.
The Jayne Mansfield death photos released after the accident added fuel to the rumors. Her wig had been thrown from the car, which in some pictures made it look as though her head had been cut off.
According to police, Mansfield suffered a gruesome – though near-instantaneous – death. The police report taken after the accident states that “the upper portion of this white female’s head was severed.”
Mansfield’s death certificate confirms that she suffered a crushed skull and a partial separation of her cranium, an injury more akin to a scalping than total decapitation. But the beheading story remains oft-repeated, even finding its way into the 1996 movie Crash.
Another rumor followed on the heels of Mansfield’s alleged beheading. Gossip hounds said that the starlet, who had been in a relationship with Church of Satan founder Anton LaVey, was killed by a curse LaVey put on her boyfriend Brody.
This rumor, of course, has not been substantiated. But it too lingers on, thanks in part to a 2017 documentary called Mansfield 66/67.
Mariska Hargitay On Her Mother’s Legacy
Mariska Hargitay, who went on to become famous for her role as Olivia Benson in Law and Order: SVU, survived the car accident that killed her mother. So did two of her brothers: Zoltan, who was six, and Miklos Jr., who was eight.
Hargitay may have slept through the car accident, but it left a visible reminder in the form of a scar on the actress’s head. As an adult, Hargitay told People, “The way I’ve lived with loss is to lean into it. As the saying goes, the only way out is through.”
Rather than trying to avoid the pain of losing her mother, Hargitay says she’s learned to “really lean into it, because sooner or later you have to pay the piper.”
Mariska Hargitay remembers her mother differently from Mansfield’s public image. “My mother was this amazing, beautiful, glamorous sex symbol,” Hargitay acknowledges, “But people didn’t know that she played the violin and had a 160 IQ and had five kids and loved dogs.”
“She was just so ahead of her time. She was an inspiration, she had this appetite for life, and I think I share that with her,” Hargitay told People.
Surprisingly, Jayne Mansfield’s death had a huge impact outside of her family and fans. The accident that killed her spurred a change in federal law.
The Federal Requirement For Mansfield Bars
When the Buick carrying Jayne Mansfield slid under the back of a semi-truck, the top of the car was torn off, but it didn’t have to happen this way. The gruesome deaths had been avoidable – and the federal government stepped in to make sure similar accidents didn’t take place in the future.
As a result, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration ordered all semi-trucks to change their design. After Jayne Mansfield’s death, trailers require a steel bar to prevent cars from rolling underneath the semi-truck.
These bars, known as Mansfield bars, would ensure that no one else suffered the same tragedy as Jayne Mansfield and her family.
Jayne Mansfield wasn’t the only Old Hollywood star to die tragically young. Next, read about Marilyn Monroe’s death, which shook Mansfield, and then learn more about the mysterious circumstances surrounding James Dean’s death.