Sunday 19 November 2017

'This is not a proper person we should have entertaining here'

Fifty years ago, Kerry clergy successfully blocked a planned appearance by racy actress Jayne Mansfield in Tralee. ­Damian Corless recalls a furore with a tragic postscript

Risqué rose: Jayne Mansfield at a press conference with Bill O'Herlihy in Tralee in 1967
Risqué rose: Jayne Mansfield at a press conference with Bill O'Herlihy in Tralee in 1967

The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there. For proof of that famous opening line from LP Hartley's novel The Go Between, we can rewind 50 years to late April 1967 when Tralee prepared itself for the visit of Hollywood glamour girl and former Playboy Playmate Jayne Mansfield.

A year earlier, a Late Late Show appearance by Playboy mogul Victor Lownes was pulled after Montrose caught a case of cold feet, and months later a whack of the crozier from the Bishop of Clonfert had forced host Gay Byrne into an abject apology after staging a version of the popular British show Mr & Mrs.

Gaybo's awful sin? He asked one of the contestants what colour nightie she'd worn on her wedding night. "I didn't wear any," she replied, before changing her answer to "white". The bishop let fly from his pulpit the next morning, branding the item "objectionable" and "debasing".

It was into this Ireland that Jayne Mansfield landed in April 1967. Her screen career had been on the slide for some time when she signed up for a one-night stand in the Mount Brandon Hotel. She was to be paid the princely sum of £1,000 for 35 minutes of cabaret. The booking immediately divided the council, with Councillor Michael O'Regan thundering: "This is not a proper person we should have entertaining here. The lady says she cannot sing or dance, but is a sex symbol."

The promoters were banking that 3,000 punters would settle the matter in their favour, before a twin-pronged jab of divine intervention punctured their scheme. The Bishop of Kerry asked just one thing of his flock - unquestioning obedience. He told them: "The bishop requests you do not attend."

The Dean of Kerry weighed in, saying: "I appeal to the men and girls of Tralee to disassociate themselves from this attempt to besmirch the name of our town for the sake of filthy gain."

The dean added that the very presence of this Catholic mother-of-five would cast a slur on the place that honoured women each year with the Rose of Tralee festival. He stressed that he was not an intellectual, but he knew that if the people worshipped Christ in the morning, they could not play with the Devil by night.

While the faithful of Kerry were hearing this on the Sunday morning of the show, the blonde bombshell was causing a stir in Dublin Airport. Caressing the mandatory pet chihuahuas with rhinestoned fingers, she assured the throng that she never missed Sunday Mass. A huge crowd of well-wishers greeted her at Shannon that afternoon. Within minutes of her departure by limo, an Aer Rianta clerk had erected a sign on the counter proclaiming "Jayne Rested Here".

When her car caught a flat near Castleisland, she made straight for the only place open on a Sunday afternoon. In the local church she lit a votive candle for her young son who'd recently been mauled in a lion-petting mishap. Arriving belatedly in Tralee, the actress learned that the venue's directors had just emerged from an emergency meeting. They'd issued a terse statement.

It said: "Owing to the controversy caused by the visit of Jayne Mansfield, the management has decided to cancel her appearance." She responded with a statement of her own, saying: "Nobody cancelled my act tonight. The musical arrangement for my act was sent on in advance so that an Irish band could practise it. The band, I have been told, broke down somewhere and cannot be located."

The Brandon's dashing manager, Patrick White, leapt to the rescue. Of course that's exactly what had happened. He'd appreciate it if everyone could just ignore the original statement which said the cancellation was due to "controversy".

"I had the statement done up and it slipped out by mistake," he elaborated.

The Dean of Kerry, for one, was not buying the missing musicians story. The cancellation was a victory for Christian decency and a personal triumph for himself and the bishop. At Mass that evening, the dean expressed his gratitude to the hotel's managing director, John Byrne, for "cancelling this special entertainment".

Jayne Mansfield flew off to Paris the following day for another lucrative cabaret slot. Even as she hightailed it out of Tralee, some townsfolk were looking to make fresh trouble for Gay Byrne.

"Tralee residents are considering launching a protest with RTÉ over Saturday night's Late Late sketch which depicted three people with placards," one newspaper reported. One resident huffed: "This sort of thing is not funny. If RTÉ want to laugh at Miss Mansfield, alright, but they should leave the people of Tralee out of it."

Tragically, Jayne was killed two months later in a horrific car accident. She was just 34.

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