Jayne Mansfield always reminds me of summer, as strange as that sounds. Perhaps it’s all the photos of the smiling, phosphorescent leggy blonde in bikinis, often lounging by a pool, sunning herself, sultry and white-hot in the bright sunlight. Jayne Mansfield is the summer of Americana, of bygone eras that always appear glamorous in photos, always feel nostalgic despite whatever reality they actually inhabited. Vacationers lingering by pools, by lakes; the heady smell of newly cut grass, of hot dogs and hamburgers grilling, of ice cream pops dispensed from musical trucks; lazy days that stretch on and on, skies at dusk fading to a burnt-orange color. All around the sound of kids shouting and laughing, adults drinking and talking until it was dark.
This is the history that is exhumed, minus the racial chasm, the gangsters, the junkies, the crooked politicians, all of the foriegn entanglements—shot through the lens of a movie camera. Mansfield was certainly part of that; the American movie-of-the-mind, a summer drive-in double feature of sand and sun and the and good-looking young men and women dancing to transistor radios blasting static-ridden bubblegum pop.
But then there is the flipside: her often bizzare later career which spawned such tacky treasures as The Wild, Wild World of Jayne Mansfield (1968), and her terribly sad death in a car crash that killed nearly everyone aboard. This is the dark side of my associations of Jayne Mansfield. I cannot help but imagine that car accident when I think of Mansfield, the lurid details not only played out in the tabloids, but immortalized in film maker Kenneth Anger’s tell-all book of the dark underbelly of Hollywood, Hollywood Babylon. Much of the book is wholly imagined of course–amplified rumors and innuendo, or out-right lies, but these are the details that stick, the images that remain, the hot-bed of a public’s collective memory. This is the evil twin of the cotton-candy nostalgia: the awful, turgid realities that are twisted and distorted for the bizarre glee of an audience wanting all of the dirt on people who seem larger-than-life.
Still, Mansfield occupied a certain space, along with her “blonde-bombshell” counterpart, Marilyn Monroe, in the American landscape. Monroe mixed sexuality with innocence, but Mansfield was all raw sexuality. She was uninhibited and wild; she held nothing back, or so it seemed. Surely Monroe has posed by enough pools, retained that same sun-kissed glow of summer, but somehow Mansfield has become indelibly linked to all of those thoughts of summer, remaining somewhere in the back of my mind.
She lingers in black and white, sometimes in color, a woman who symbolized a nation’s new-found sexuality, bubbling with optimism, the sun as bright and intense as her short-lived career.