"Online since 1999"
Bob Walker's First-Hand Account
I started working in New Orleans radio in 1966, doing weekend music shows and some weekday news broadcasts. Therefore I used this opportunity to get my official media press pass issued by the New Orleans Police Department.
The up side was that it got me in free to a number of fun concerts and events, and I was able to strut at those events as an official member of the press. Quite a rush for a 20-year-old just beginning a long radio career.
The downside was that, once in a while, I had to witness some of life's horrors as an official member of the press. The first of those was the car crash that took the life of Jayne Mansfield and two others.
I was 20 years old at the time, and I had been on radio doing newscasts and music shows for little over a year during the dusk-till-dawn darkness of that summer night / early morning in 1967 when the phone woke me up, and the WSMB radio station all-night announcer Chuck Vest told me what had just heard on the ever-present radio station police hotline (yes, a red phone installed at the announcing console). It had just happened. An automobile fatality possibly involving actress Jayne Mansfield and others on Highway 90.
I quickly dressed and drove on Highway 90, to a dark stretch near Fort Pike and the Rigolets Bridge characterized by miles of marshland, waterfront camps on high pilings, and treacherous winding asphalt highway, one lane in each direction divided by a yellow strip down the middle. One of those turns on that dark road had already earned the name "Dead Man's Curve" for good reason. Many impatient drivers trying to pass the car in front at the wrong moment ended up defining that stretch of road.
Jayne Mansfield's movie career had hit the skids shortly after the movie "The Girl Can't Help It" in, I think, 1958. She was a novelty, a well endowed sex symbol that men saw on screen and lusted after. But, as in real life, they were soon looking for one even sexier (men!).
In 1964, as a teen (!), I saw Jayne Mansfield in a exploitation movie called "Promises! Promises!" at the Do Drive-In. The movie was forgettable but the come-on was that Jayne Mansfield was topless in this "B" movie (in one scene it turned out, with Jayne waking up and stretching in bed at the very beginning, with the sheet falling from her shoulders to her waist as she stretched). That's how far her movie career had sunk in six years.
By 1967 Jayne had been performing on the Supper Club circuit, singing questionably and telling lame jokes. But people came in droves to see her in person because she was, after all, Jayne Mansfield. In the summer of 1967, Jayne was booked for a two-week (I think) appearance at Gus Stevens' supper club on the beach road and right by the famous lighthouse in Biloxi, Mississippi, an area of hot tourist activity and lots of beach fun. Among the biggest attractions Gus Stevens presented were Jayne Mansfield, Johnny Rivers, Jerry Lee Lewis, Brother Dave Gardner, Justin Wilson and Andy Griffith.
I'm not sure how many days into her booking engagement she was at Gus Stevens,' but one midweek during her stay she was scheduled to appear on the "Midday" show at noon (!) the next day on WDSU-TV Channel 6 in New Orleans. So, after the show that night, Jayne, her agent/lover Sam Brody and their driver, 20 year old Ronnie Harrison from neighboring Mississippi City, got into the front seat of a 1966 Electra Buick 225 (owned by Gus Stevens) for the trip well after midnight. In the back seat Jayne put her three sleepy kids who were travelling with her during this supper club booking.
I learned much later that one of the kids asleep in the back seat that night was Mariska Hargitay, now a TV actress on "Law & Order - Special Victims Unit." She is the daughter of Jayne Mansfield and her former husband, former Mr. Universe Mickey Hargitay, and was 3-1/2 years old at the time. Her two slightly older brothers in the back seat, Zoltan and Mickey Jr. were also the children of Jayne and Mickey. The fact that the kids were in the back seat and asleep probably saved their lives. All three survived the crash with only minor physical wounds. I wonder if Mariska even remembers the crash itself now, since she was so young.
So, off the Buick Electra went, in those days before interstate highways. They left Gus Stevens' and followed the beach road west toward New Orleans. The beach and the Mississippi Sound and the Gulf of Mexico were on their left on that starry, moonlit summer night. With the windows rolled down, the salty air and soft Gulf breeze on that late summer early morning must have been quite pleasing as they rode to the droning of the tires.
They drove the twenty miles through Biloxi, Gulfport, Mississippi City, Long Beach and Pass Christian. Then they turned right as the road led away from the beach. They drove over the short, high-rise Henderson Point bridge, and then over the dark and still water as they crossed the long Bay St. Louis Bridge, and through Bay St. Louis and Waveland.
Making the turn onto Highway 90 from Waveland, they stopped for a late-night "pit stop" and a Coke just past the Mississippi / Louisiana state line at the White Kitchen, a 24-hour a day landmark and stopping point for anyone travelling between the Gulf Coast and New Orleans in those days, if just to "potty."
After they left the White Kitchen night mist began to settle over the woods and swamp land and roads. The Electra proceeded down Highway 90 and entered the marshland about ten miles further.
No one knows why they were speeding like that on a treacherous, dark and winding road on a misty night. Maybe their young driver was sleepy. No one knows why.
The speedometer was estimated afterwards at 80 miles per hour as they approached Dead Man's Curve among the marsh and fishing camps that hide in the nighttime mist which permeates the Rigolets area.
Further obscuring visibility, a slow-moving mosquito fogging truck lay hidden from them on the road at the curve. The nighttime mist captured the insect fog and spread it far and wide while holding it suspended above ground, like light suspended in a prism of glass.
Behind the slow-moving mosquito fogger was a slow-moving 18 wheeler.
The Buick sped through the mist and the fog generated by the insect spray. They were about 23 miles from downtown New Orleans.
The impact was tremendous.
The Buick hit the back of the 18-wheeler, shearing off the car's top and prompting later rumors that they had been riding in a convertible.
I was not used to seeing such carnage at that age, so I chose not to stay at the crash scene for more than a couple of minutes because I was getting sick at the blood and carnage.
But a couple of years later I was able to "acquire" copies of the official police snapshots of the crash scene. They are still in my house misplaced somewhere, but I remember what they showed, which is what I saw.
Ronnie Harrison, the driver, and Sam Brody, seated in the middle, were physically intact but literally crushed from the front by the dashboard.
Jayne Mansfield was tossed out of the Buick by the impact and she landed on the shoulder of the road.
Jayne had been wearing a blonde wig. It came off of her head when she was thrown thrown through the windshield of the passenger side of the Buick by the impact. Some people on the scene saw the wig hanging on the corner post of the shattered windshield, and assumed it was her real hair and that she had been decapitated. She wasn't. But there was other very obvious physical trauma on her head and body.
She lay twisted and broken on the side of the road. What a twisted look of horror on her face...frozen in the terror of her fate.
The coroner who did the autopsy on Jayne Mansfield passed away around 2004. In his recollections of the crash, which were quoted in his obituary in the New Orleans Times-Picayune, he stated definitively that Jayne's head was not decapitated, that it was intact on her neck, though her head was quite traumatized, especially on her upper forehead and hair line where she had been "scalped" and lost bone and tissue.
I have not traveled down that area of Highway 90 since that day. I have heard since then that they were later doing work to correct the danger of the winding highway where the accident occured. But if the basic road is still there today:
TO VISIT WHERE THE CRASH OCCURED: Proceed on U.S. Highway 90 to milepost 292. Go westbound from there 2118 feet and you will be within 20 feet of where the crash occured. There are no phone or electric poles nearby to use as a reference.
I hope this satisfies some curiousity and settles some confusion.
The Buick is now owned by a private collector, and is untouched from its condition of that night.
NOTE . . . I received the following email on September 30, 2002:
DREW STRAHAN, SUFFOLK, VA:
Bob, I was reading the article about Jayne Mansfield. I hope I have reached the right person that wrote it. I can say for 100 per cent sure Jayne Mansfield did stop at the White Kitchen.
My mother and I were at the White Kitchen eating fried chicken ... back then it was all you can eat for $1.99 cents ... and in came Jayne Mansfield.
My mother had blonde hair and it was of course dyed back then in the 60's, and I said "Here come's a lady with blonde hair just like yours." Then the word out of my mothers mouth ... "OH my GOD, its Jayne Mansfield! Jayne went to the ladies' restroom, then she came out and believe me I was watching. She bought 3 small bottles of Coca cola and some candy ... the candy was the small GOLD BRICK about the size of a person's small finger. She walked over to my mother and said "Lady, that is one hell of a 'do you have on you head," and it was. My mother had a wing on one side the size of the state capital and had on more war paint and makeup than 8 women could wear.
I went to the door and watched Jayne get into the car. As well as I remember is was a BUICK ELECTRA 225, about a 1965 or 1966. My mother was driving a 1967 OLDS 98. My mother told me on the way home that Jayne Mansfield was supposed to be on the Midday show with Terry Flettrich.
The next morning I got up about 7:30 to cut the grass and my mother came out and told me Jayne Mansfield had died in a car crash. It really upset my mother. We got in the car and went to what has always been "Dead Man's Curve," and my mother had me cut some roses from her rose trellis in the yard and we laid them on the right side of the road.
I too will never forget that day. I can remember like it was yesterday. We almost did not go to the White Kitchen that night. At the last minute we changed our minds and went to that one instead of going to Bosco's on Highway 11, the reason being Bosco's was too crowded and I made the suggestion for us to go and eat some Chicken at the White Kitchen.
You know I have not been back home to Slidell since my mother died in 1980 but you can believe one thing. I am planning a trip to Louisiana around the holidays. I will make it a point to stop by and lay some flowers on the side of the road where her life ended.
Thanks for letting me share this story with you.
To save you a lot of reading, let's end this urban myth
JAYNE MANSFIELD WAS NOT DECAPITATED!
DECAPITATE: CUT OFF THE HEAD OF A PERSON OR ANIMAL.
The Coroner who performed the autopsy reported that her head and body were "in one piece" though extremely cut and battered.
See Death Certificate: "Crushed skull with avulsion of cranium and brain."
But definitely not decapitated by definiton.
June 29, 1967 4:07 am