© 2000 Robert Balcomb

She swept through the restaurant like a cyclone. It was Jayne Mansfield! She was headed for a large table at the opposite end of the Tree Room in the La Placita where I was quietly having my lunch. Her progress through the room left a clatter of silverware hitting the floor as diners’ heads snapped up in surprise. Large-dark-eyed, startlingly blond Jayne was dressed in a daring low-cut gold dress with bare shoulders nestled in a fur stole. A loyal entourageof perhaps twenty followed her. Walking close by was her husband Mickey Hargitay, carrying the Chihuahua.

My wife Mary had informed me that Jayne would be in town to judge the Miss New Mexico Pageant. Its sponsor, the Brown Plumbing Company, had commissioned Mary to design and decorate their main display room, which would host a reception for the event. Nevertheless, I was taken by surprise at Jayne’s sudden appearance during my normally uneventful midday meal.

I was a regular at La Placita, since my portrait studio was located in the old Spanish courtyard behind the restaurant. The buildings were all part of a charming complex that is part of Albuquerque’s famous Old Town Plaza. The restaurant building dates back to 1706, when it housed the Territory Governor over 120 years before New Mexico became a state. Several artists’ studios and various shops surround the courtyard with a Spanish-tiled wishing well in the middle, making a colorfully creative and atmospheric place to stroll in for the locals and is a must-see place for visitors.

Anyhow, as I was finishing my traditional Mexican meal, Jayne and party entered, causing all the commotion. After watching the scene at her table for a while, I had to tear myself away to return to my studio. As I was leaving, I had a flash of inspiration: Do a portrait of Jayne! I asked my friend Mr. Elliott, whose family had owned and operated the restaurant for over three generations, if he would mind inviting Jayne to come back for a sitting after her meal. I was not really expecting anything from my request. Then, I remembered that I had removed all my portraits from the walls in preparation for a move to California. What if they did show up? With the walls bare, I would feel embarrassed at what might appear to be some kind of ploy to have Jayne “come into my darkroom and see what develops.” But somehow I felt confident. In 1956 I had been a student of the acclaimed California photographer William Mortensen and had worked with him for a year, gaining a unique style of photographic portraiture based on his techniques and philosophies. It is quite distinctive from the usual kind of work done in other studios—but now I had none to show. At least, however, the shooting rig was still in place.

Then to my surprise the whole group came crushing into my small one-room studio. Mickey (con Chihuahua) and the crowd filed in and lined up against a side wall. To my relief Jayne did not seem to have any problem with the empty look of my space.

I had Jayne sit on the stool facing the camera, and she immediately struck her usual sexy-glamour-oomph attitude. “No, Jayne,” I said, “relax, just sit—no ‘pose,’ no expression—I just want a picture of you.” She relaxed, breathing, “Oh, thank you!” She was obviously relieved to drop the assumed pose she had to live with all her professional years, and seemed eager to follow my directions. BUT, as I removed the metal lens cover from my camera, I accidentally dropped it, creating a loud clank on the brick floor, and when I stooped to retrieve it, I just as accidentally kicked it about three feet and when I stooped to grab it I kicked it another three feet and—all with perfect Laurel and Hardy clatter. At that point the assembly against the wall erupted into laughter, further adding to my fluster. Struggling to gain control I asked the group to leave and perhaps browse through the patio shops, and proceeded with the sitting. With Mickey observing, Jayne and I had a wonderful session. She was an ideal model, and I gleefully shot over half a dozen rolls of film.

It was not until after they had left that I realized I should have asked Mickey to sit for me as well—caught up in the excitement I somehow did not think of it. I am most sorry for that rude oversight and feel bad that he probably felt left out. And certainly his would have been a great accompaniment to Jayne’s portrait.

The next evening Mr. Brown had the Pageant reception in his newly decorated showroom featuring a fur-lined bathtub with the bottom cut out. It was mounted on a raised platform, with Jayne sitting in it as guests one by one joined her, with only their heads showing over the furry rim, while a photographer snapped their pictures. Needless to say, I’m most fond of the one of Jayne and me. The reception was a huge success. Jayne was in her element: pleasing the admiring crowd.

During and after the party Mary and I spent a pleasant few hours talking with Jayne. We were impressed and pleased to find her a delightful and interesting person, very different from her “screen” person, a genuine homespun Texas girl—a side I’m sure few people ever had a chance to experience. Martha Saxton’s book Jayne Mansfield and the American Fifties speaks in length about how Jayne reveled in sex and notoriety, furthering the thought that that’s all she wanted. Perhaps somewhat true, but our experience with the other Jayne convinced us that she also wanted simply to be herself but couldn’t find enough chance to do so or to find enough people to accept her that way.

I sincerely feel that my portrait shows her as she really was, not just a sex object (although she did have on that revealing dress that I had no control over), but a real person. I also feel that she would have been happy with it, too, but unfortunately destiny prevented her from ever seeing it. Again, in all the commotion I forgot to ask for her address!

At least, Mary and I can look at the portrait with fond memories of having had, for even that too-short time, the enjoyment of knowing the real Jayne Mansfield.

[Click on Jayne's image to see a larger view.]

Robert Balcomb is a portrait photographer living in Washington State. Being a former student of William Mortensen, he is perhaps the finest living exponent of the Master's teachings.  Mr. Balcomb can be reached at rsbalcomb[AT]wavecable.com(replace [AT] with @). More of Mr. Balcomb's work can be seen in the June 2001 and June 2005 issues, and feature articles about Mortensen appeared in both the June and August 2001 issues. Also, be sure to visit the RobertBalcombPhotoForum to participate in discussions on William Mortensen and other topics of photography.

Robert's new book on William Mortensen.


Back to