When the Devil Drives

Posted by in August's Magazine

Jayne Mansfield was Avis and Pepsi to Marilyn Monroe’s Hertz and Coke. The B-list movie credentials of Miss Mansfield run to some truly dreadful films and her fame was primarily owed to her majestic bust. She quickly became famous for being famous like any number of Kardashians.

After Monroe’s death Mansfield should have been heir to the sex goddess’s crown but her acting talents were paltry and the permissive 60s required a svelte toplessness that buxom Jayne couldn’t offer. A series of European B-pictures and personal appearances (despite a high IQ she played the dumb blonde very well) ended in disaster in 1967 on a rain-slicked highway when her Buick Electra 225 ran into the back of a truck which sliced the car’s roof clean off. Mansfield and two other passengers were killed outright. The children in the back seat survived.


Rumour had it that Mansfield had been decapitated in the crash. Not true: her hairpiece was caught in the cracked windshield and her skull was horribly crushed. In Kenneth Anger’s cult book Hollywood Babylon Jane is depicted on the cover at the peak of her pulchritudinous beauty. Inside there are some horrible crash scene photographs – one of the star’s dead Chihuahua and another of Mansfield’s body covered with a sheet by the roadside. It’s this photograph that is emblazoned on the cover of a new book Death Drive by the design guru Stephen Bayley that looks at a number of famous people who died on the road. Bayley examines the ironies and coincidences and circumstances of these last drives and the design of the culpable vehicles.

One of the most interesting chapters looks at the 1960 demise of the novelist, pacifist, Marxist and Existentialist Albert Camus – the second-youngest recipient of the Nobel Prize in Literature – who was famous for his philosophy of the absurd. He was the passenger of his publisher Michel Gallimard. They were driving from the South of France to Paris in Gallimard’s Facel-Vega HK500 one of the most beautiful automobiles ever made. It was a stylish and luxurious concoction part sports car part limousine.

The author and publisher, along with Gallimard’s daughter Anne, took a leisurely 500 mile trip, stopping for agreeable Michelin-starred meals (and wine) en route. Gallimard was at the wheel when the car ploughed into trees. Camus broke his neck and the publisher died five days later. Anne survived. Bayley points out that ‘a man who boldly confronted extinction and the banality of existence, but who was scared of driving fast, was killed in a luxury car that was being driven to quickly’.

Rock music is well served in the form of car crashes from Marc Bolan’s smashed up Mini 1275 GT, Eddie Cochrane’s demise in a Ford Consul and the recent tragedy of the band Viola Beach. In 1966 21-year-old Tara Browne, an heir to the Guinness fortune and Mod face about Swinging London, smashed his Lotus Elan (the favoured mode of transport of Emma Peel in TV’s The Avengers) in a Chelsea street. It was thought he was high on LSD. The incident was said to have inspired Lennon and McCartney when they wrote A Day in the Life: ‘He blew his mind out in a car/he didn’t notice that the lights had changed’.

The suave playboy Porfirio Rubirosa was ‘the greatest lover of the 20th century’ according to Julie Burchill. Nowadays Rubirosa is nearly forgotten but in the 1940s and 50s he was a famous celebrity. The gossip columns regularly linked his name with a legion of famous women: Eva Peron, Tina Onassis and, in an odd twist, Jayne Mansfield.

In 1956, Ruby married and it looked as though he had given up his wild ways. The marriage lasted for nearly 10 years. Then in 1965 when, a little the worse for champagne, the world’s most famous Latin lover wrapped his Ferrari round a tree in the Bois de Boulogne. He was 56. The funeral attracted 250 friends including sisters of the late President Kennedy.

We live in a car crash culture. The fascination arises from the fact that every time we get in a car to a certain extent we dice with death. And when there is an incident on the motorway we are often unable to look yet unable to look away. Car wreckage often looks like some funky modern sculpture. Andy Warhol did a famous series of car crash screen prints and David Cronenberg’s controversial 1996 film Crash based on JG Ballard’s book, featured characters who get their kicks from car smash-ups.

‘The car crash is a defining phenomenon of popular culture’, writes Bayley. ‘Every crash is unique, but universal. Each episode has its own narrative arc, which travels from ambition – via notions of status, escape and self-destruction – to a catastrophic demise, often with a dynamic of genuine tragedy. After all, how could anything be more wilfully self-destructive than dangerously driving yourself to metal-bending, tyre-squealing, glass-shattering and possibly fiery oblivion’?

Princess Diana’s death in Paris in 1997 was a mixture of the glorious and the banal. A paparazzi picture of her dead body appeared in an Italian trash magazine. The contrast of stardom in life and ordinariness (even banality) in death in a car crash is lost on no one.

Info: Death Drive: There Are No Accidents by Stephen Bayley is available now from Circa Press
Twitter: @KenWilson84

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