Mariska Hargitay is practically Hollywood royalty, born as she was to screen legend Jayne Mansfield and actor Mickey Hargitay. But that doesn’t mean that the Law & Order: Special Victims Unit star has always had things easy. Indeed, while Hargitay was still very young a horrible tragedy rocked her life. And hearing her talk about that time is devastating.
Back in the ’50s, however, Hargitay’s mother was one of the biggest sex symbols of the period and prone to daring publicity stunts like “accidentally” revealing her breasts to photographers. But behind the scenes, Mansfield’s existence was rather chaotic. Her love life was eventful, too: the troubled star got hitched three times and also had numerous affairs, including – allegedly – one with John F. Kennedy.
Furthermore, Mansfield was the subject of many a scandal in her day. Gossip swirled, for example, that not only was the actress reportedly a member of the Church of Satan, but also that she was having an affair with its founder. Hargitay herself, meanwhile, was a child conceived out of wedlock – a state of affairs rather frowned upon at the time. Perhaps with that in mind, Mansfield and Mickey Hargitay claimed that they were still married when the actress fell pregnant, even though the two had divorced in Mexico by then.
Then, after splitting from Hargitay, Mansfield wed film director Matt Climber. That marriage didn’t last long, however, and before long Mansfield had moved in with her attorney, Sam Brody. But Brody was reportedly abusive to both Mansfield and her oldest daughter. And by the mid ’60s, the once-iconic blonde bombshell was on a downward spiral, battling alcoholism.
In fact, it was at this point – when Hargitay was just three years old – that Mansfield’s life came to a tragic end. In June 1967 Mansfield, Brody and their driver Ronnie Harrison were all killed when their car crashed into the back of a tractor obscured by pesticide fog. Hargitay and two of her brothers were in the car, too, but they all escaped with relatively minor injuries.
And ever since photographs were first released of the crash scene, a persistent urban legend has claimed that Mansfield was decapitated in the crash. Indeed, it’s rumored that one infamous photo actually shows the top of her head lying on the ground. That assertion has long since been debunked by official reports, though.
Nevertheless, due to Mansfield’s association with the Church of Satan, rumors still circulate about the exact nature of her death. Paranormal enthusiasts have claimed that she and Brody had curses placed upon them by Anton LaVey, the Satanist Church leader whom she was allegedly sleeping with, for example. And needless to say, growing up with those rumors couldn’t have been easy for the young Hargitay.
But on the whole, Hargitay’s childhood was pleasant. She and her brothers were given to the care of her father and his new wife Ellen Siano, and they grew up largely protected from the paparazzi. Hargitay and her siblings also spent a lot of time in Hungary – their dad’s home country – where the future actress learned to speak three new languages. Not all of that time was as idyllic as it may sound, though, as Hargitay had to deal with yet another distressing incident while still very young.
Specifically, when Hargitay was nine, a plane on which Siano was working as a flight attendant ran into extreme turbulence. And during that incident, in which one passenger died, Hargitay’s stepmom suffered severe injuries. Thankfully, however, she lived, and so Hargitay was spared the pain of losing another parent.
The impact of Mansfield’s death didn’t truly hit Hargitay until she was 22, though. Of that time, the actress told People magazine in 1992, “I’d wake up crying. I went through months of severe depression.” And in the same interview, Siano made her own feelings clear. She explained, “The press constantly reminds Mariska of a sad situation, and the fact that she overcomes that demonstrates tremendous resilience.”
That resilience may have come in handy, too, when Hargitay was trying to make her way in Hollywood. After all, her route to stardom was hardly glamorous: in order to afford acting classes, for example, she would waitress and work in clothes shops. She also shared an apartment with three other people in order to make ends meet; there, she decorated her bedroom with memorabilia and photographs of her late mother, whom she looked more and more like each day.
When it came to getting roles, however, Hargitay was often judged purely on the basis of who her mother was. Nevertheless, she was determined to succeed, and in 1999 she finally got her big break, being cast as Olivia Benson, in Law & Order: Special Victims Unit.
Indeed, Olivia Benson has arguably since become Hargitay’s career-defining role. Plus, when she started getting letters from rape survivors who watched Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, it led her to do good in the world, too. Specifically, in 2004 Hargitay set up the Joyful Heart Foundation in order to help victims of rape, assault and abuse. And since then, the foundation has raised millions of dollars and helped thousands of people.
Even after making it big, though, Hargitay once more found herself the victim of personal trauma. In 2006, for instance, her father died from multiple myeloma; he had only got to spend a little time with his grandson, Hargitay’s first son August. Then, in 2008, the actress was left with a collapsed lung after a stunt went wrong on the SVU set. But something really shattering was still around the corner.
Because Hargitay had been raised by Siano, who wasn’t her biological mother but had raised her as such, she grew up keen to adopt children of her own. So, the star and her husband, Peter Hermann, began to seek a little one to adopt. And on their third attempt, the couple thought that they had found the child for them.
But, sadly, it wasn’t to be. Just two days after Hargitay and Hermann had welcomed their new arrival, the birth mother – who had become almost a friend to them – had a change of heart. She wanted the baby back, and Hargitay felt she had no choice but to agree. “It was nothing short of devastating,” the actress told Good Housekeeping in 2012.
Still, Hargitay continued, “It was so painful for us, but it was deeply joyful and deeply right for [the birth mother]. I felt honored to be part of the process. It was a profound blessing to have been part of the making of a union.” And indeed, Hargitay still sees the woman who almost gave up her baby to her – although she has remained quiet about the details.
Hargitay did eventually get her happy ending, though. In 2011 she and her husband adopted two children – Amaya and Andrew – to complete her family. And in 2017 the star gave an interview to Closer Weekly in which she seemed to suggest that she had come to terms with her mother’s passing.
Hargitay told the magazine, “I used to hate constant references to my mom because I wanted to be known for myself. Losing my mother at such a young age is the scar of my soul.” But, as it turned out, becoming a parent herself had changed her outlook on life. The SVU lead added, “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.”
And Hargitay, it seems, is now at a good place in her life. Her career is still going strong, for one; she’s even now being paid approximately $500,000 per episode to play Olivia Benson. Her charity is doing well, too, and has recently received a large donation from singer Taylor Swift. Plus, her Instagram page is packed with photos of herself and her family having fun – and there are lots of pictures of her mother on there to boot.