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Did the Devil kill Jayne Mansfield?


Jayne Mansfield and Anton LaVey

It was an unlikely match. Jayne Mansfield was the platinum blonde, pneumatically chested star of films like Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? and The Girl Can’t Help It. Anton LaVey was the founder and head priest of the Church Of Satan, a goateed poser prone to wearing capes and horns.

About the only thing the pair seemed to have in common was a casual attitude to female toplessness, yet for a while, in 1966 and 1967, they were associates and perhaps more. LaVey even claimed – after Mansfield’s tragic death – that her death was the result of a curse he had thrown. With the release of a gossipy new documentary from P. David Ebersole and Todd Hughes examining the affair, Mansfield 66/67, perhaps it’s time to take a look at this strange meeting of minds.

Religious zealots and Illuminati-conspiracy theorists often claim that Hollywood is in league with the Devil, though there’s little evidence that he, she or it is any more popular in Hollywood than, say, carbs. But there was a brief period in the late Sixties when LaVey made inroads in the town and named film stars among his ranks.

Hollywood has always attracted ambitious dreamers and open minds, and the combination proved fertile ground for Chicago-born Anton Szandor LaVey when he founded the Church of Satan in 1966.

LaVey was an outsize figure in more ways than one, standing 6ft with a cleanly shaven head and a Mephistophelean goatee like a wannabe Ming the Merciless. A high-school dropout, he had travelled with a before graduating to stage magic and hypnosis. According to his church’s official biography, he “became well-versed in the many rackets to separate the rubes from their money” – which, as training for the founder of a religion goes, is relevant preparation.

A gifted musician, LaVey would play piano at the bawdy shows on Saturday nights and then see much of the same audience when he played at the tent revival meetings the following morning, reinforcing an existing cynicism towards human nature. Eventually he went to college, studied criminology and became a forensic photographer with the San Francisco Police Department. But a growing interest in the supernatural led him towards ghost hunting, rituals and eventually to found his church.

LaVey owned an extremely ugly Victorian house on San Francisco’s California Street, which he painted entirely black and established as his new headquarters. He adopted the motto of British occultist Aleister Crowley, "Do as thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law" (also a line from Rabelais) and put this solipsistic sentiment at the heart of his new church. He then accessorised with rituals that were largely of his own invention, involving lots in the way of naked women, who lay down and became "altars" for "High Mass", celebrated on a Friday night.

Anton LaVey performing a Satanic ritual with his wife Diane CREDIT: BETTMANN

An early attempt to ignite interest in the church saw LaVey put on nightclub shows with topless "witches" and a bikini-clad "Inquisitioner", something too few religions have tried. Gradually LaVey reduced the theatrics and tried to strike a more dignified pose, or as dignified a pose as one can when wearing a satin-and-horns headdress. Meanwhile he courted publicity relentlessly, granting interviews frequently and keeping his church in the public eye.

There were still, according to the accounts of former members, orgies and services of a sexual nature, but it wasn’t just the nudity that attracted newcomers. As with many religions the congregants would plead for intercession, wishing calamity on an enemy or rival, or attempting to invoke financial or sexual success.

The crowd tended to be young, well-heeled and curious, as with other new religions growing at the time. For LaVey, Satan was not the adversary to a true God, but the creator himself, and all mankind's other religions merely delusions that hid the true nature of the world, and humanity.

And converts did trickle in. Sammy Davis Jr, the singer, actor and Rat Pack member whose own philosophy of life drove him to try just about everything that presented itself – women, men, religion, drugs – became involved in 1968. But before him there was Jayne Mansfield.

Jayne Mansfield in the 1950s CREDIT: EVERETT COLLECTION/REX

In 1966 Mansfield’s star was on the wane, because what had been boundary-pushing sexuality in the 1950s looked impossibly old-hat to young people who would soon be part of the Summer of Love. It was only three years since she’d appeared in Promises! Promises!, the first major American actress to take a nude role in a Hollywood picture – and yet still she seemed out of step with the age.

Mansfield embodied the outrageous glamour of the 1950s, with her heart-shaped bath and swimming pool and beautifully maintained image. By the mid-Sixties, that came to seem inauthentic and rather frivolous, and the actress turned to nightclub performance and personal appearances to maintain her lifestyle and five children.

At the San Francisco Film Festival in October 1966, Mansfield heard about LaVey and, always interested in the supernatural, went along to meet him. He was impressed by her charms and invited her to become his High Priestess, later visiting her in Hollywood where they posed for pictures and hung her certificate of membership in her bedroom. They ate out at La Scala in downtown Los Angeles and seemed like the best of friends – which, given Mansfield’s looks, prompted rumours that they might be more, despite a total lack of evidence to that effect.

How the National Enquirer reported LaVey and Mansfield's relationship

The relationship seemed largely based in a mutual desire for publicity. Each was aware that their power lay partly in shock value, and their association provided shock aplenty. Both had built reputations on being sex-positive, and uninhibited – so why shy away from one another? They were both canny to the power of the image, so that photoshoot in Mansfield’s boudoir, with LaVey in full robes and the actress holding a wax skull, must have seemed like the perfect way of making him seem more influential and clued-up, and her more risk-taking and relevant.

However, Mansfield’s lawyer and lover, Sam Brody, reportedly mocked the ceremony and tried to keep LaVey at arm’s length. For his efforts, he was reputedly cursed by LaVey. It’s worth noting that there is no public record or mention of this curse before the car accident where both Brody and Mansfield lost their lives in 1967, but LaVey’s talent for self-publicity ensured that the legend stuck. He also took credit – perhaps the wrong word – for another accident only about a month after he met Mansfield.

On November 25, 1966, Zoltan Hargitay, the son of Mansfield and her second husband Mickey Hargitay, was mauled by a supposedly tame lion during a photo shoot. The animal took the boy’s head in its jaws, fracturing his skull, slashing his cheek and neck and inflicting other smaller puncture wounds, according to newspaper reports at the time. He underwent surgery that night to decompress the skull fracture and sew up the wounds, before an X-ray revealed a punctured spleen and internal bleeding that required further surgery. Thankfully he made a full recovery.

Jayne Mansfield appearing at White Hart Lance before a 1959 Tottenham Hotspur match CREDIT: PA

More bad news followed, when Jayne Marie Mansfield, her 16-year-old daughter from her first marriage, stormed out of the home after Brody apparently tried to beat her. And then came that fatal car crash in June 1967, the seventh automobile accident the couple had suffered. Mansfield, Brody and driver Ronnie Harrison were in the front seat, with her children Miklós, Zoltán and Mariska Hargitay all asleep in the back. In low visibility near Biloxi, Mississippi, they ploughed into the back of a truck’s trailer and the top of the car was sheared off, killing all the adults instantly. The three children survived with only minor injuries.

Legend had it that Mansfield was decapitated, which was not true, but she did suffer huge cranial trauma, and legislation was passed to give US trucks a bumper and make sure that no such thing could happen again.

Amid the devastation, LaVey took credit, claiming that Mansfield had asked him to put a curse on Brody, who he said was blackmailing her. “She brought about her own demise. But it wasn’t through what I had done to curse her. The curse, that she asked me to cast, was directed at him. And it was a very magnificent curse.”

The claims sparked a brief twitch of interest in LaVey, but his power was waning. A breakthrough seemed to come with Roman Polanski's film of Rosemary's Baby in 1968, where he played the Devil himself in the rape of Rosemary.

Rosemary's Baby

It's an uncredited role, but it put the spotlight back on the church. Ironically the Satanists themselves were sniffy about its storyline: while parts of Ira Levin's book had been informed or inspired by some of LaVey's press – so the latter claimed – the church did not endorse the film's plot. Rosemary's Baby was denounced by the Catholic League Of Decency, and became a huge box-office success.

Suddenly LaVey was besieged by reporters, occult researches and potential adherents. He released a record album, The Satanic Mass, with audio extracts from his then-forthcoming 'Satanic Bible' and clips from the ‘Satanic baptism’ he had performed for his 3 year-old daughter Zeena the previous year (she not only left the church in adulthood but denounced it and established a charity to help former cult members, the Sethian Liberation Movement).

The following year, however, the terrifying, ritualistic murder of Polanski's wife Sharon Tate by the Manson cult put paid to any notion that Satanism might become mainstream. One of the killers, Susan Atkins, had danced as a topless vampire in a LaVey show called the Witches' Sabbath before joining the Manson family.

Anton LaVey CREDIT: PIERRE PERRIN/SYGMA

Another of the victims of that bloody night was celebrity hairdresser, Jay Sebring, who had attended LaVey’s church around the same time as Davis. The sad aftermath of the murders left the church looking pathetic rather than dangerous. While LaVey continued his work and publicity efforts, expansion slowed, and the free-wheeling 1960s attitudes that had tolerated and even welcomed satanism seemed to vanish.

LaVey died in 1997, in a Catholic hospital, and his home was demolished by developers in 2001. The church he founded still exists, though its headquarters were moved to New York's Hell's Kitchen. One of LaVey's successors as High Priest, Peter H Gilmore, now plays down the more outrageous trappings of his predecessor and describes the organisation's membership as "sceptical atheists".

The Church lingers on. Skiba, frontman for Alkaline Trio and Blink-182 and a Church of Satan member for roughly 15 years, said recently of LaVey’s work that, "It's just amazing and romantic, and those are bygone days…Anton was the heartbeat of that aesthetic." He certainly had an aesthetic, but the power to bring about the death of an actress? Not so much.

LaVey benefitted from his association with a name as big as Mansfield’s, just as she benefited from his notoriety, and the last thing he wanted was her death. Their shared curse – and one that Ebersole and Hughes’ documentary implicitly discusses – was that neither got to the heights of fame that they dreamed.