The Cancellation of Miss Jayne Mansfield
March 1967 Nothing like this had ever happened before. Nothing in living memory could match it. Not Jack Kennedy and his mid-Atlantic sophistication, not Grace Kelly in Mayo. Not even the apocryphal sighting of Jimmy Stewart casually strolling - as only he could - through the next town over on a fair day; cowboy in a summer suit. This was something else altogether. A Cabaret (mind you), like something you'd see in the pictures, open to all with the means to pay. Here. And it required careful planning, some extra buff and gleam: a crease-new shirt, a close shave (using two kettles' worth of scalding water), an especially vigorous polishing of the shoes. The tan jacket, sharp at the lapels, slightly too short in the arm, made by the brother in the leather factory, ready to be shrugged on. Best slacks laid reverently over the back of the chair. Wages saved that week and the previous few, tightly rolled in the inside pocket; fewer fags smoked. And the tickets – of course, the coveted tickets. Hot property, ten shillings each, procured on a Friday tea break from work, that few months on a row of council houses backing onto the hotel in Tralee. Secreted in the back pocket of dusty, cement-spattered jeans, to the crude joshing of the younger guys, and the gentle bemusement of the older men. As they packed up that evening one, a man close to retirement, quietly asked him could he look. But I won’t hold them for fear that I dirty them, he said. His mother asked him was he going. When he went redly quiet, she threw her eyes heavenwards. - Jesus tonight. She turned back to table and fumbled with a box of Atora. The set of her shoulders showed a measure of disapproval, though he sensed a slight softening. -Who are you bringing? He was the driver, his being one of very few roadworthy vehicles in the neighbourhood. A black-green Morris Minor 1000, burnished like a beetle in the sun. -The boys. She told him to confess and, in the same breath, commanded him to walk up the lane to the neighbours to show them tickets. And for a moment she stopped her work, drew a floury hand across her brow, and looked at him intently, holding his eyes in hers as if to draw out some latent badness. He wanted to explain that it wasn't about lust. It was something else entirely. But then the chance evaporated; she turned back to her kneading. Sunday; one week to go. A breezy April afternoon, not much doing. A week to go, a week to go to 'till Miss Jayne Mansfield would appear live and in person (the poster stated) at the ballroom of the acclaimed Mount Brandon Hotel, the jewel in the crown of Tralee's social scene. It had been the subject of much animated talk this morning after Mass and he felt hopeful, a building excitement. Now, stretched out on the narrow bed, the small transistor positioned on the table for maximum reception, he had a sort of waking dream, imagining a cartoonish Jayne breaking through the screen at the local picture house, extending a leg through her sequinned dress and landing it into the musty, smoky theatre, fellas with their mouths open in shock, lit matches suspended in mid-air, girls wowed at the reality of her. She might laugh, a laugh like bells ringing, as she performed her way up the middle aisle, perhaps stopping to chuck someone under the chin, admire a ladies’ coat. She would turn at the top of the steps, examine her jewel-red nails, and give a little wave, ghost-like now in the dusty light of the projector. See y’all in The Brandon, she might drawl in a Southern way, before disappearing though the swing doors at the back. A window had been opened, and into the murky theatre had poured light. Sleepy now he turned his head; for a moment he fancied he caught the scent of expensive perfume. It felt as though hours had passed. Now, the happy sound of The Hollies transmitted from a ship somewhere in the English Channel. He marvelled at both the remoteness and the closeness of it. Only the Sunday newspaper, with the brazen headline on the front page, underneath the familiar red top: Hollywood Star to Perform in the Kingdom, folded and left on the table in the pantry in such a way as he'd see it, held an ominous foreboding. And that is when the trouble started. Monday Dispatched to town for messages. In the Post Office a lady tutted loudly at the newspaper stand where the story was firmly front page in The Irish Press. The postmistress asked was he going. He shrugged noncommittally. She allowed herself a thin smile, passed him his grandmother's pension, and put her hand out impatiently to the next person in the queue, a noted Holy Joe, who had crossed himself when he heard her name as if to dispel the malign influence of the lustful presence (even before she had arrived on these shores). It struck him that the same action was used to venerate and to dispel evil. The disquiet rumbled low at first, like a communal refrain at Mass, but it began to slowly crank up. A low, groaning complaint that was sure to reach a fevered pitch any time now. These things had a pattern. The national broadcaster had had a camera crew outside the church in Tralee on Sunday. Around the table that evening, cups of tea on the tacky oilcloth, they watched the report. It was uncanny, seeing the town on the screen, the familiar made unfamiliar. In the background people were distracted, not knowing whether to walk or stand still. His grandmother laughed heartily when two women collided. Those that spoke were suspicious of the microphone, leaning in a little too close, unsure where to look. Some scurried by, heads down. Women in headscarves clutching handbags were firmly against it. A man he vaguely knew delivered a few meek words about this day and age. One woman, who to look at might seem straight-laced, stated that if people didn’t like her they needn’t go. He felt like crying when he heard that. One youngish-looking man opined that this was a Catholic country, and such a woman should not be tolerated. The sourness with which this was delivered, deep into the camera lens, eyes open wide and intent, surprised him in spite of everything he knew. He focused on the tickets, on their talismanic presence, printed with a sweet-smelling ink, the characters slightly raised on the thick, off-white paper. Wednesday The boys were divided: one reassuring, one hopelessly pessimistic. These guys, no one listens anymore, one offered, tweaking an already perfectly-knotted tie in front of the small shaving mirror. He glanced back over his shoulder to address the other, a more uncertain type, who nodded his head emphatically, immediately contradicting this action with his words. -I don’t know, I don’t know. I took Batt Sullivan to the mart on Monday and he said no way would it happen. McQuaid will stick his oar in, he said. Still busy in front of the mirror, the first could not be dissuaded. He had moved now onto his hair. This he arranged using his thumbs, a practised action. -Don't worry my friend (contorting his face so to look like Robert Mitchum, his hero) we’ll have a fucking ball. For added affect he lit a Woodbine, letting it roll in his mouth where it clung impossibly to his lower lip. Now he turned, pointing his fingers like a gunslinger, laughing infectiously, before cheerfully, fragrantly, leading them through the good sitting room, into the pantry (placing a kiss on Mom's cheek, and she swatted him away, half-cross, half-laughing) out of the house towards the immaculate Morris Minor, which scattered hens as it chugged to life. Off to the Odeon in town, to lose themselves for a couple of hours, to lean and smoke fags at the entrance afterwards, to eat salted chips in newspaper, washed down with a bottle of sweet milk. By Thursday the mood had shifted. Still, when he got home from work he washed the Minor again, though it didn't need it, now more in hope than expectation. Friday Hands caked in mortar he ran over to the hotel to check the billboard when he was supposed to be on the shop run. He checked the billboard. That night: Dickie Rock and the Miami Showband, grinning at him from the poster, photo set at an angle to the text in the modern style. Saturday: a wedding (no-one he knew). Sunday: Miss Jayne Mansfield. A local cinema was showing a film of hers, capitalising on the controversy. Ireland was talking of little else. People clustered round the billboard as if it were a shrine. He lit and deeply inhaled a Woodbine and tried to relax. All week the church hierarchy was gearing up for a battle. And when they used their voices by God were they heard. Predictably, at late Mass on Saturday the priest railed against the event somehow without directly mentioning it, a particular skill of the clergy, before reading the directive from the bishop. You could see him rushing through the early bits, anticipating the sermon and his moment of glory. An entertainment is planned for Sunday in Tralee. The bishop requests that all good Catholics should not attend. He was loving it. At the back of the church there was a still tension. She (her name would not be mentioned) was not the first to be read from that altar but the venom tonight was palpable. Filthy, corrupt, sinful. Goddess of Lust. Spiritually harmful. He tried and failed to see the harm or threat. He left before Communion, having left in his heart, he realised, long before since. Sunday Late in afternoon, a neighbour was seen ambling up the laneway towards the farmyard. He watched him from the kitchen garden, watched him twirling a switch, needlessly beheading the yeosadans, seeming by that action to taunt him. A well-known harbinger of doom in the locality. By God he had news, and it showed in the cut of him, chest puffed with import, fit to burst. He knew before he reached the door and made his triumphant announcement, felt the muscles in his stomach clench, the shock of a few hot tears angry in the sides of his eyes. He ducked slightly, not wanting this pernicious Mercury to spot him, and now watched his progress through the breezeblocks, his Morris now a matchbox toy; and suddenly the world seemed very small, as if a window in a murky room had been closed shut. He did not go back inside, into the pantry, but could hear the voice, clear as a church bell, sufficiently loud to pierce Heaven itself. Ms Jayne Mansfield (it proclaimed) will not perform this evening at the Brandon Hotel. Now then! Savoured words, saved up like a particularly tasty morsel. He lit a fag hurriedly, shaking the match needlessly vigorously as if to dispel the crushing shame he now felt. Shame when he used to leave his shoes at the foot of a tree on the way there so he’d be like the other boys. Shame that, later on in the evening, still burned in his face as he took the tickets from the breast pocket of the tan leather jacket and tucked them reverently behind the mirror. June 1967 He heard the news while making tea. It crackled dustily through the speakers of the large wireless, perpetually tuned to the BBC World Service. The announcer, in a studied voice, stated that she had died in an automobile accident just outside of New Orleans. He continued to stir the teapot, the spoon catching the battered steel sides, not feeling anything much, except rather removed. He poured tea and thought of her mangled and bloodied, her blonde head tossed and unnaturally bent, her body limp and discarded on some hot highway, her face cracked but beautiful. He thought back to pictures of her in Kerry, the lightness with which she received the scornful welcome, the grace of her as she smilingly shrugged. He placed the tea-tray on the table in the good sitting room, not staying for a cup himself, instead taking the Minor out for a run on the quiet summer roads.
Carrie Griffin is lecturer in English at the University of Limerick, where she was editor-in-chief of The Ogham Stone literary journal, 2016-2021. Her work has been published in Silver Apples and she was shortlisted for the Allingham Flash Fiction prize (2021). She blogs at withmy50p.wordpress.com.