This is the first of three articles that Kat Bergeron from The Sun Herald in Biloxi, MS wrote about my birth family back in 2000. It was part of a weekend long interview she did with all of us at a family gathering in Florida. The original articles ran with a lot of photographs, but I only have the text versions stored electronically. Plenty of photos will follow over time. I was married to my first husband at that time, and my last name was Thrower. Boy, have things changed! Anyway, enjoy!
Mansfield Memories Many Know the Legend, but Until Now, Few Knew the Truth Behind that Fatal Night
Kat Bergeron / The Sun Herald (Biloxi, MS)
Section: LOCAL-FRONT, Page: A1
Jayne Mansfield, Hollywood's heir-apparent for the blonde bombshell throne after Marilyn Monroe's death, entertained at the Gus Stevens supper club in Biloxi 33 years ago this week.
Fate stepped in that hot, muggy night. History concentrates on Mansfield's untimely death, but this, too, is the story of shattered youthful dreams and the altered lives of two Mississippi Coast families. On Wednesday night, sexy Jayne sang in the "soft seductive voice that was as much a part of her personality as her plunging neckline," noted a reporter. The crowd at the popular restaurant-club adored her, even though her last performance at 11 p.m. lasted only 30 minutes. She sat on men's knees; she kissed their foreheads.
Mansfield had headlined at the club several times before, and fans flocked from a four-state area to be entertained. Gus Stevens, owner of the Biloxi club that carried his name, had pioneered regional entertainment by bringing in such notables as Mel Torme, Andy Griffith, Rudy Vallee and Jerry Lee Lewis.
The blonde Hollywood idol was to perform nightly through the Fourth of July weekend. Stevens, a dogmatic Greek-American who kept tight reins on his own family, knew the rumors of Jayne's problems with alcohol, money and men. Her looks were fading from the abuse, but the public still adored this sex symbol.
Her plans for use of a personal car fell through --- money rumors again --- and Mansfield had to be in New Orleans on Thursday for a television interview. She wanted to leave after the last Biloxi performance on Wednesday.
Tony Picillo, the club's manager, begged off driving her because he wanted to be in town the next day to arrange an entertain-the-troops tour for her at the Seabee base in Gulfport.
So Mansfield asked Gus Stevens for the use of a car and driver. She specifically asked for a Cadillac, which he didn't have, but his wife's personal car was a comfortable Buick. Irene Stevens remembers hesitating with her approval, but in the end she relented.
Ronnie Harrison, a good-looking college student who was working the summer at the restaurant, was asked to do the driving. He also hesitated at the late hour but, for personal reasons, he wanted to impress the boss. So he agreed.
Mansfield was in Biloxi with three children, ages 3 to 8, four Chihuahua dogs and her lover-manager, Samuel S. Brody.
It was late. They tucked the sleeping children and dogs in the back seat of the car, and the adults sat in the front. No Interstate 10 existed in those days for quick travel from the Coast to New Orleans, so they headed down U.S. 90, which weaved passed pineywoods, fishing camps, small communities and marshes on its way to the Crescent City.
At a curve near the Rigolets, the waterway that connects Lake Pontchartrain with the gulf, the Buick slammed into an 18-wheeler that had slowed down because of a chemical cloud spewed from a mosquito fogging truck.
The time was 2:25 a.m. The date was June 29, 1967.
Mansfield, Brody and Harrison were killed instantly. The children lying in the back seat were spared, though injured. Two of the dogs died.
The tabloid press stepped in, and untrue rumors about the driver and everyone else in the car spread like wildfire. One of those rumors --- that Mansfield was decapitated --- persists to this day. The rumor started when someone reported seeing a "head" which was in fact Mansfield's blonde wig placed upon a hat form.
Years of lawsuits --- against the driver of the semi, against the city of New Orleans, which owned the mosquito fogger, and against the Stevenses --- would follow. The estates of the Mansfield children and of Brody wanted compensation for the losses.
Ronnie Harrison was branded "the chauffeur," as if he had no other life. Tabloid rumors claimed he was drunk. He was in fact a promising pre-law student at the University of Mississippi who'd grown up in Gulfport.
The least known story of all is that Harrison was in love with the Stevens' oldest daughter, Elaine. That's why he'd wanted to impress the boss by driving that night. The parents thought Elaine was too young at 17, and, besides, 20-year-old Harrison wasn't Greek.
The biggest secret of all was that in three days, Ronnie Harrison and Elaine Stevens were planning to elope. They were in love. And she was pregnant.
Nine weeks ago, the wrecking ball destroyed the old building that was the legendary Gus Stevens Buccaneer Supper Club, one-time provider of good food and entertainment 24 hours a day.
He had closed the doors in 1975, claiming changing attitudes in the public's entertainment demands. Only to friends did the family admit that nothing had been the same since the horrible accident that they seldom talked about in their attempts to be normal.
"It was like someone had walked through Gus Stevens and turned all the lights out, one by one, that night," Irene Stevens, Gus's wife, recalls. "And it was like they had turned out the enthusiasm."
Coming soon: Life Goes On...