Mariska Hargitay is best known for her work on the extremely popular Law & Order: Special Victims Unit. And her own backstory sounds like it could have come from a TV show. As a child, Mariska lost her famous mother Jayne Mansfield in the most horrific way. Now she’s talking about the impact the tragedy had on her.
Mansfield was one of the most iconic actresses of her era. In the 1950s and 1960s, she was a sex symbol, prone to “wardrobe malfunctions” and the occasional scandal. Rumors even circulated throughout her life that she was a member of the Church of Satan, and it was later said that she’d slept with John F. Kennedy.
One confirmed fact about Mansfield was that she wed three times and gave birth to five children in total. Her first husband, Paul Mansfield, provided the actress with the surname she would become famous by. She tied the knot with him in 1950, had her first child Jayne Marie that same year and then divorced him in 1955.
Very shortly after her divorce from her first husband went through, Mansfield married Mickey Hargitay, an actor of Hungarian descent who became Mr. Universe in 1955. They threw an extravagant wedding ceremony – but the relationship didn’t last. The marriage ended in 1963, although Mansfield then realized she was expecting a child.
Being an unmarried mom would have brought Mansfield significant negative publicity at the time, so she and Hargitay maintained the pretense that they remained together. The baby, Mariska Hargitay, arrived early in 1964. And throughout her childhood, Mariska’s father would be her legal guardian, even though she lived with her mother.
Mariska had a chaotic upbringing. In 1966 her brother Zoltan was bitten by a lion during a visit to a California theme park. As a result, he needed to have a series of operations. Zoltan caught meningitis in the course of one of them, although he eventually pulled through. Unsurprisingly, the Mansfields brought a multi-million dollar lawsuit against the theme park, which subsequently shut down.
Mansfield had one more child, Tony Climber, in 1965. By then her career had stalled, though, and she’d become an alcoholic. A few months before she died, the Los Angeles Times wrote of Mansfield, “She confuses publicity and notoriety with stardom and celebrity and the result is very distasteful to the public.”
Then, in June 1967 Mansfield got into a car alongside her driver Ronnie Harrison, her boyfriend Sam Brody and three of her kids, including Mariska. During the early hours of June 29, their vehicle collided with a tractor-trailer, which had been obscured from view due to a rig spraying insecticide. All three of the adults were killed.
The children, thankfully, only suffered minor injuries. And since Mariska was only three years old, she doesn’t remember the crash, although she still has a scar on her head caused by the events of that night. Speaking to Red Book in 2009, she described the loss of her mother as “the scar of my soul.”
The immediate aftermath of the car crash was horrific. For years, an urban legend spread that Mansfield had been decapitated in the accident, after photographs of the aftermath began circulating and a clump of blonde hair was spotted among the debris. In truth, though, she wasn’t. The mass of hair was actually the wig she’d had on that night.
A funeral for Mansfield was held in Pennsylvania, and she was buried beneath a heart-shaped headstone bearing the inscription: “We Live to Love You More Each Day.” Of all her former husbands, Mickey Hargitay was the only one who attended the service. And he then began the job of raising Mariska and her siblings.
Mariska subsequently grew up considering that her father’s new wife, Ellen Siano, was essentially her new mother. In 2012 Mariska told Good Housekeeping, “I called her Mom. She really claimed us. She never had biological kids of her own, and to this day we are her kids. So we were blessed that she really embraced us and loved us so quickly.”
Both Ellen and Mariska talked to People magazine about the loss of Mansfield in 1992, just as Mariska was beginning to make it in the acting world. She’d earned a role on Falcon Crest in 1988, for example. The loss of Mansfield, Mariska explained, had led her to suffer with depression as a young adult.
Mariska explained that during her early twenties, she would “wake up crying” about her mother. “I went through months of severe depression. I knew the pain had to be exorcised,” she recalled. And Ellen added, “The press constantly reminds Mariska of a sad situation, and the fact that she overcomes that demonstrates tremendous resilience.”
Then, in 1999 Mariska was catapulted into the A-list of TV actors when she joined the cast of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit. It had been a long road to get there, though. Indeed, casting agents had previously often compared Mariska to her famous, deceased mother. Some had even advised her to change her name or to have cosmetic surgery on her nose.
In 2000 Mariska spoke to The Washington Post about how her mother had shaped her acting career. “I played lots of tomboys, wearing flannel shirts, jeans and boots,” Mariska said. “On some unconscious level, I was shying away from those sexual roles because of my mother. But as I got older, I changed my mind. I now look forward to doing all kinds of parts, including those that are sexual and sensual.”
Mariska also discussed the contrasts between herself and her Law & Order character Olivia Benson. “One profound difference is that Olivia doesn’t want to get married or have kids,” she explained. “I can’t imagine that. My goals in life have always been to act and have a family. I have three godchildren whom I adore.”
There was one similarity, though: Olivia was brought up by only one of her biological parents. Mariska stated that she drew on her own “sense of loss and trying to fill in the gaps” in order to play the character. Mariska’s personal impression of her mother, she admitted, was drawn from Mansfield’s public persona and the anecdotes of those who’d known her.
“People would always ask me if I had seen her movies,” Mariska explained to The Washington Post. “I was not interested in her film persona. I wanted her to be my mom and know something about who she was: who she loved, what made her sad, and I wanted to know how I was like her. I wanted to hear real stories.”
Eventually, Mariska began seeing her mother as a person – and a remarkable one at that. “I think she was ahead of her time,” the actress told The Washington Post. Mariska described Mansfield as “a wonder-woman. She had a career and five children. She was sexy, played the violin and had an amazingly high IQ.”
Playing Olivia Benson changed the whole course of Mariska’s life, in fact. And it also gave her an opportunity to embark on a mission. Benson is a survivor of sexual assault, and in response to letters she received from other women in that position, Mariska formed the Joyful Heart Foundation. It’s an organization that seeks to support victims of assault and abuse.
Moreover, Mariska also met her husband while filming Law & Order: SVU. Come 2004 she wed Peter Hermann, the man who plays defense lawyer Trevor Langan on the show. They soon started a family; in 2006 the couple’s first child arrived, and in 2011 they adopted two other kids.
And becoming a mother made Mariska think more about Mansfield and her tragic passing. “Being a wife and mother is my life, and that gives me the most joy,” Mariska told Closer Weekly in 2017. “I understand [my mother] in a new way that gives me peace. Now I understand the love she had in her, and it makes me feel closer to her.”
In March 2018 Mariska gave an interview to People magazine about the loss of her mom. By then, she was making around $400,000 for each Law & Order: SVU episode. “The way I’ve lived with loss is to lean into it,” Mariska stated. “As the saying goes, the only way out is through.”
Mariska had suffered other losses in her life by that point as well. Her father had passed away in 2006, just weeks after Mariska had picked up an Emmy and lauded him in her acceptance speech. And at the beginning of her adoption journey, she’d suffered the pain of being handed an adopted child only to be told days later that the biological mother had decided not to give up her baby.
“In my life, certainly I’ve tried to avoid pain, loss, feeling things,” Mariska informed People. “But I’ve learned instead to really lean into it, because sooner or later you have to pay the piper… I’m not saying it’s easy, and it certainly hasn’t been for me. There’s been a lot of darkness. But on the other side things can be so bright.”
Mariska cried a little when discussing her mom with People. “My mother was this amazing, beautiful, glamorous sex symbol. But people didn’t know that she played the violin and had a 160 IQ and had five kids and loved dogs,” Mariska said. “She was just so ahead of her time. She was an inspiration, she had this appetite for life, and I think I share that with her.”
Mariska also talked about the loss of her father, to whom she’d always been very close. “My dad taught me to listen and to learn,” she said. “As a young kid, I had my antennas out for who had wisdom and why, and what was I supposed to learn from them, and why were they there. The way I’ve been able to make sense of the cards I was dealt was to follow those signs.”
Her father’s passing was naturally very painful for Mariska. “It was huge to lose this person who was my everything – my strength, my power, the person who believed in me,” she told People. “But I got to say goodbye, and I remember it was very calm, and he just looked at me and he said, ‘Mariska… Always.’”
“I already carried his fire, the lessons that he taught me, his compassion, his love, his kindness,” Mariska continued. “Now I do feel that he’s with me. Even though he’s not here physically, I carry him.” And the actress had similar thoughts about her mom. “Someone once said about [remembering] my mother: ‘All you have to do is look in the mirror.’ She’s with me still,” Mariska added.
The following year, 2019, Mariska spoke to Australian newspaper The Sydney Morning Herald about Mansfield – and Mariska’s journey to discover her. A lot of her life, the Law & Order star explained, had been about “separating out this iconic person, the person that I heard about, the funny person and the family person.”
“What I am left with is what an incredible pioneer she was, how fearless she was and what a badass she was,” Mariska added. “I think in so many ways she was truly ahead of her time.” There’s no doubt that Mansfield led an incredible life before it was tragically cut short, and she was also known to be extremely smart.
Trying to balance her brains with her beauty was apparently always difficult for Mansfield, however. She was considered a pinup and a fantasy object for men, something that smarts had no part in. Allegedly, Mansfield herself denounced the fans who didn’t care that she had a high IQ. “They’re more interested in 40-21-35,” she reportedly once said, according to Salon, referring to her physical measurements.
In her interview with The Sydney Morning Herald, Mariska mused about how difficult it had been for her mother to make it as an actress. “I grew up in Los Angeles and I had access – I grew up in the business. But she grew up in Texas, she had no access, and she just went for it,” Mariska said.
“It’s not an accident that she was an actress and I am an actress,” Mariska added. “She has had so much influence on me, in ways that, in my unconscious mind, I am not even fully aware of.” Indeed, while Mariska was trying to make it as an actress and studying at UCLA, she kept old memorabilia from her mother’s career in her bedroom.
Mariska also spoke about how well her life was going. Of her husband, she said, “Peter is so gentle and so deeply kind. And I look at him, and I go, ‘Well, that’s not an accident, my father was all of those things to me.’ It’s not lost on me that I have these two parents that said the only person that limits you is yourself.”
“I know that I am here because of what I learned from them,” Mariska continued. “I sometimes look at my life and go, ‘How did that happen? How did I marry that guy? How do I have these beautiful kids?’” Her oldest son August is a teenager now, in fact. “It’s not lost on me that in those moments, I feel closest to my mother,” Mariska added.
Mariska also said that she considered the many images of her mother in her heyday as being like mirrors to her. “Somebody said to me once if you want to get to know your mother, just look into the mirror,” Mariska said. “They are mirrors, in such a way, and I’d like to think maybe I took it to the next level. She and my father gave me the world.”
Mariska sometimes pays tribute to her mother on social media, too. In June 2019 – not that far away from the anniversary of Mansfield’s death – Mariska posted a picture on Instagram of herself as an infant with her mom. And in the comments, people told Mariska how much she now looked like Mansfield.
Mariska is carrying on the legacy of Jayne Mansfield. And that legacy continues in other ways as well. After that terrible accident killed her and came close to ending the lives of her children, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration decided such a thing could never happen again. Now, all truck trailers have bars on the back to stop cars going under them – they’re sometimes referred to as “Mansfield bars.”