May 30 2012

The (So-Called) Decapitation of Jayne Mansfield

By: Emily Hingle

In The Times Picayune newspapers of the 1950s and 60s, the buxom blonde actress and model Jayne Mansfield was often mentioned in ads for her latest films appearing at drive-ins, billed as the sexy bombshell in scant clothing. But she made the headline of the Picayune on June 30, 1967, when she and two others were involved in a fatal car accident on the dark roads east of the city.

Near the end of her life, Jayne Mansfield's career was in decline. She was beginning to be seen as trashy because of her nude appearances in Playboy Magazine, even being Playmate of the Month, and being the first American mainstream actress to bare her body in the film Promises! Promises! Pictures from the set of the film were published in Playboy in 1963 and led to obscenity charges being filed against Hugh Hefner. She had divorced her third husband after a short marriage that crumbled due to her infidelity and alcoholism. To keep in the public eye, Jayne had begun a dinner club tour around the nation, telling jokes and singing. Patrons flocked to her shows although she was supposedly not a great live entertainer, and was even arrested for indecent exposure at one such club in Vermont in 1963. Her children were also making headlines; her son Zoltan was mauled by a lion in December 1966, but escaped serious injury. And just days before her death, Baton Rouge's newspaper The Advocate reported on June 19, 1967, that her 16-year-old daughter Jayne Marie (who was a Playboy model in the 1970s) was assaulted by an adult male friend of her mother.

The actress was appearing at the Gus Stevens Club in Biloxi, Ms., on June 23 through July 4 in 1967. After the performance on Wed., June 29, her party, which included her lawyer, and possibly lover, Samuel Brody, 20 year-old University of Mississippi student and friend of Gus Stevens Ronnie Harrison, and her young children Mariska (now an actress on Law & Order: SVU), Zoltan, and Mickey Jr. traveled to New Orleans in a Gus Stevens' grey 1966 Buick Electra 225. Ronnie was driving the car and the children slept in the backseat. Jayne was set to appear on WDSU's noon show Midday. The ill-fated group only stopped at a popular state-line diner, White Kitchen.

The area of road they were driving on between the stop near Slidell and New Orleans was known to be dangerous. Old Chef Mentuer Highway, or Highway 90, is a narrow, winding road sandwiched between the Lake Pontchartrain and the Rigolets. One curve in the road is called "Dead Man's Curve" because of the danger it could pose even to careful drivers due to the darkness and fog that rolled in from the lake and swamps. More so, the police estimated that Ronnie got up to 80-mph on the pitch black, misty road.

As the car drove down Highway 90 at approximately 2:15 a.m., a mosquito fogger truck drove slowly to dispense thick diesel mist; the driver claimed later that he had turned off the fog before the accident occurred. Nearby, a large tractor-trailer driven by Richard Rambo was traveling at 35-mph when the mosquito-fogger truck was passing him on the left. Jayne's car drove into the diesel fog, and didn't see the truck ahead in enough time to stop and went under the truck's back wheels. All of the children survived with some lacerations and fractures, but Samuel, Ronnie, Jayne and her pet Chihuahua were killed instantly. Rambo stated to police that he stopped the truck, ran to the car underneath it, and took the children and Jayne out for fear that it would catch fire. He said that he could not remove the two male occupants in the driver and middle seat. Rambo laid Jayne's body in the shell-packed dirt on the side of the road; her wounds seem as dark as her black boots in the old photos. The Times Picayune printed the story on June 30 with a grainy picture of the wreck including the caption, "Twisted metal is all that is left of the automobile." Jayne was deceased at 34.

Rumors persisted that all of the car's occupants were cleanly decapitated when the car drove under the truck; a legend that continues today. A picture even circulated showing headless bodies sitting stoically in a pristine car. However, none of the victims were decapitated in such a way. The death certificate of Vera Jayne Palmer Mansfield Hargitay states that the cause of death was a "Crushed skull with avulsion of cranium and brain." She also incurred a broken arm and multiple lacerations on her hands and legs. An aspiring young radio personality Bob Walker was called to the scene to report on it. He, as many others, insists that the decapitation story began because pictures of the crash showed chunks of blonde hair around the car that were only pieces of her blonde wig. He states: "She lay twisted and broken on the side of the road. What a look of horror on her face...frozen in the terror of her fate." The three adult occupants in the front seat were flung forward and bashed their heads on the truck; the pictures of the scene show the roof of the car pushed back like an accordion. The Times Picayune June 30 article states, "Orleans Parish coroner Dr. Nicholas J. Chetta said all three victims died because of crushed skulls. All three also had multiple leg lacerations." Along with the article on the front page of that paper, Jefferson Parish stated that they would discontinue mosquito fogging by truck because it was hazardous.

In the aftermath of the infamous crash, the car itself became a tragic trophy, but not everyone wanted to see it. The car was first towed to my grandfather James Hingle's wrecking yard in New Orleans East. He refused to keep it for very long because he believed cars that people died in were bad luck, and the police had it taken away. The Buick was eventually bought by a fan of the actress and kept it as a grim souvenir for years. It was not locked away in his garage for long before he showed it off as a sideshow prize around the country. The "Death Car" was placed on a big rig with Jayne Mansfield crudely painted on the side and driven from town to town where gawkers could pay a small fee to see the car behind glass with pictures of the crash strewn around. Some said that there were still blood stains on the upholstery. The car ultimately came to rest in the controversial Tragedy exhibion in Florida's U.S. History Museum until 1999 when the museum closed down and the car was sold at auction to a private owner. Supposedly, pieces of the interior complete with blood stains are circulating between collectors. Soon you'll be able to see what touring the Death Car was like in the film Jayne Mansfield's Car about an Alabama family whose estranged mother's body is brought back to them for burial by the British family she left them for. The movie, currently being filmed, is directed and fronted by Billy Bob Thorton, also featuring Robert Duvall, Kevin Bacon, and Shawnee Smith.

The car isn't the only piece of the crash that made it into museums. Presumably, the Chihuahua that died in the crash was willed to Jayne's friend and Church of Satan founder Anton LaVey. He had the dog stuffed and stitched back together and is on display in the Museum of Death in Hollywood, California, along with serial killer John Wayne Gacy's clown art and artifacts from the Heaven's Gate Cult mass-suicide.

Jayne Mansfield is interred in Plainview, Pennsylvania, under a heart-shaped tombstone. Back at the site of the tragedy, fans have erected a cross where they believe the exact spot of the crash occurred, although it's debated because of the location printed on the death certificate. Trucks like the one that the car drove in to now have an under-ride rail that stops cars from going underneath the wheels called the Mansfield Bar. Jayne may have seen her hectic life ending in a sudden death when she said, "Stars were made to suffer, and I am a star."

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