Jayne Among the Birds

By Iain Sinclair

jayne-mansfield.jpgJayne Mansfield

Hackney harbours the wandering souls, of cinema not least

Jayne Mansfield, Hollywood Babylon siren, mammal superstar, Catholic/Satanist porno-pin-up decapitated by guillotine windscreen, in the early hours of the morning of 29 June 1967, on the road between Biloxi and New Orleans, swayed into the low church hall and community centre of All Saints, Haggerston, to declare open a convention of East London budgerigar fanciers. September 1959.

That’s as Fortean weird as it gets: the mechanics of movement, the dietary and cultural improbabilities. Yes, local bad boys, George-Raft-fancying Bethnal Green hoodlums, liked to import American photo opportunities, screen and showbiz automata at the end of their tether; out of favour, on suspension, in hock to the Mafia. Indigent. Tax-busted. Dope-hungry. Punchdrunk basket-case palookas. The mute thrush, Judy Garland. Joe Louis with the wrong kind of shuffle. Sonny Liston, holes in his dead eyes, as if he were wearing the black pennies before they laid him out in the Palm Mortuary, Las Vegas. Billy Daniels. Raft himself, trying to remember how he did it, shot the Look across white tables with too many bottles on them.

But that was the Sixties, film and performance leaked into the London night like sewage from worn-out Victorian pipes; clubs were theatres where group portraits could be assembled by anonymous Rembrandts to promote status. Celebrity was tactile, shared cigarettes, shared sweat, the perfumed gangster picks up an imaginary tab (his tithe, the protection he offers, insurance against his own malevolence). The cinema sheet was porous: the act begins everywhere. No separation between script, newspaper report, faked dialogue, novelisation, truth: posthumous twenty-five-year wet-dream nightmares in a shared cell. The men, the torpedoes, are homosexual, armoured in the brittle varnish of narcissism. The divas, the arm candy, are beards: parodic domesticity, confused gender identity; heavy white furs in monsoon, mob-crush temperatures. Everybody wants to touch every-body: pinch, lick, taste. Prove. Secure a florid signature on lobby prints or legal documents.

Haggerston was different. Mansfield, an intelligent woman on a global publicity assault, would travel anywhere, with the same camera-caressing, tyre-track smile; the four-inch heels, transvestite abundance of hair, sheath dress that made walking, limo to church hall, a ballet of slithering juggling bodymass, stretched satin and ribbon shoulder-straps. Stateside, there would be two ratty Chihuahuas, hairless, trembling, clutched over her exposed breasts. There would be children with exotic names. And complicated dyslexic lives ahead of them. The dogs were safely behind bars, in Heathrow quarantine. The kids were in the Beverly Hills Pink Palace with a favourite minder. (Linda Mudrick offers a promotional quote, alongside Glenn Ford, Bob Hope, Joan Crawford, on a Mansfield biography. ‘I vouch for its truth. As Jayne’s personal maid and black, I was her confidante for the last five-and-a-half years of her life.’) New British pets, sentimental gifts from temporary patrons addicted to reflex generosity (in lieu of proper payment), left their stringy turds and wet splats steaming in thick-pile hotel carpets. The ones that were not found, behind preposterous dictator-scale sofas, were the worst: an evil stench of pampered captivity. While Mansfield bathed, publicly, in champagne showers. And auditioned unsuitable, frequently violent lovers.


She came to austere, monochrome England, her Californian studio career pretty much in ruins, to shoot a noir feuilleton cobbled together, phoned-in direction, by Terence Young – a Soho face whose Bond franchise pension was just around the corner. In an era of double lives, afternoon drinking clubs offering the permissions of ersatz night, Young associated, on clubbable terms, with Eddie Chapman, safe-blower, triple agent, entrepreneur: a man with a story to sell. The movie encyclopaedist, David Thomson, characterises the director as a man trading on ‘carnal supercharge’. Young lurched, with no visible strain, between military hardware, parachute regiment propaganda, and architectural exposés of mammal goddesses: Mansfield, Anita Ekberg. Or Ursula Andress emerging from the sea, a militarised Nordic ‘Birth of Venus’. Such was the topographical scrutiny Young lavished on Jayne that his exploitational programmer (written by Herbert Kretzmer of the Daily Express) should have been titled Mansfield Park and not the tabloid-optimistic Too Hot to Handle.

Jayne played, in this film as in others, the absence of self; the dim version that conceptualists imposed on her. As if the act of a life, exhibitionism, voluptuous displays of American family values, deranged consumerism, the body as a deformity of superfluous health and vitality, was the true thing: the residue of a unique human consciousness. To be demonstrated in Vietnam on rapidly erected stages. When we starved, she was our milk fountain, and from her muscled breasts (not as vast as they appeared, cantilevered from a prominent rib cage) issued forth a gush of stars, crystals of planetary dust. An innocent era, when Homeric gods and goddesses, brought across the Atlantic by war, might couple, in disguised forms, with the broken mouths and pinched frames of late Europeans. Mansfield, in her bravely borne excesses, was the final manifesto of this mythology: she came to Hackney from the cover of Life magazine, out of Time, dripping from a surf of sleaze stories, sheet-sniffing voyeurism, eavesdropping technologies. She was an overripe consignment of Marshall Plan aid, a gift-wrapped Trojan horse intended to secure us in the chains of US cultural colonialism.

The cast of Too Hot to Handle, that accident of egos, colluding masochists, included Christopher Lee, Gothic slummer, opera buff, fire-sale Byron, whose performance in a pantomime of Xeroxed Dennis Wheatley (already transfused from William Hope Hodgson), The Wicker Man, is relevant to our story. The way tawdry occultism operates through specifics of place; it is always the stones that are haunted, the hills, hollows, headlands. Human breath is so shallow, we make minimal impact on the climate of the city. Lee’s career, reviving the Hammer-branded Frankenstein and Dracula enterprises, upstream at Bray, led inexorably to an afterlife of denial, being slightly out of temper and hard of hearing in the hell of fandom conventions. (Equivalents of the Haggerston bird show relocated to gloomy Harrogate hotels, Peterborough retail parks, basketball courts in Sioux City, air-conditioned hangers in Los Angeles.)

If Mansfield, the steroidal Monroe clone escaped from a Howard Hughes laboratory, is the ultimate magnet for voyeurism, a splash-Madonna of centrefolds, a fertility-enhancing Venus of Willendorf in an infertile era, then her Too Hot to Handle co-star, Carl Boehm is the ultimate watcher. The camera-prick. He returns, blade-eye spearing nighttown’s victims, peepshow wage-earners, streetwalkers, women prepared to be filmed, in Michael Powell’s career suicide feature, Peeping Tom.

sophia-loren-jayne-mansfield-default.jpgSophia Loren and Jayne Mansfield

The cast-list implodes. Everybody sleeps with everybody. Too Hot to Handle has an alternate title, Playgirl After Dark. In the movie, Mansfield is an exotic dancer – now her main source of income: Las Vegas, market value plummeting, cash managed by the latest predator boyfriend. The last in this line is a short abrasive Jew called Sam Brody – who, in an early incarnation, played a second-string part in the Jack Ruby trial. All the threads of conspiracy converge on Dallas: strip-clubs, sleepwalking dancers, hairy men in sharkskin suits and indoor dark glasses, disgruntled Cubans, shopping-mall access to death-techno weaponry. Sick politicians who use television like a sun ray lamp. Surveillance tapes that nobody has the time to transcribe. Demons and saints in alliance to rig the electoral sham of democracy.

After London, Mansfield returned home – in our wilderness of mirrors – to appear in The George Raft Story. In which, ironically, there was no part for George. He was impersonated by Ray Danton, whose slick moves, obediently inky hair and sharp Italianate tailoring were an inspiration to the Kray Twins and other emerging local talent who took film magazines along, as prompts, to a favoured Kingsland Road tailor.

Cinematic memories, unless they are revived on afternoon or late-night television, have gone. Even the Film Shop in Broadway Market can’t supply me with Mansfield’s performances in Too Hot to Handle or The Burglar – which was directed by Paul Wendkos and written by David Goodis. All I have to work with is a smudged front-page photograph from the Hackney Gazette (25 September 1959): JAYNE AMONG THE BIRDS. Glamorous American film star Jayne Mansfield visited the East London Budgerigar and Foreign Birds Society’s show at All Saints’ Hall, Haggerston. She presented the prizes and had a rapturous reception from crowds of local “fans”.

This is extracted from a work-in-progress, Hackney: A Rose-Red Empire, a documentary fiction.

Iain Sinclair is the author of numerous works of fiction, non-fiction, poetry and much else in between, as well as a filmmaker, often in collaboration with Chris Petit.