A Look Back At The Life Of Mickey Hargitay

It's no secret that there's something awe-inspiring about the statues of ancient Greek gods. Carved from marble and etched into an ideal — physical perfection — they're the stuff of surreal beauty. It's that ancient ideal that was the inspiration for modern bodybuilding, and when it comes to the modern sport, there's a handful of names touted as being examples of the same kind of perfection that the Greeks were striving for. 

They're often given titles like Mr. America, Mr. Olympia, and the staggeringly boastful Mr. Universe. It's the last one that Mickey Hargitay took home in 1955, and he turned his muscles into a career.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Hargitay became known for and defined by the women in his life. First, the most famous of his wives: Jayne Mansfield. And second, his daughter: That was, of course, "Law & Order: SVU" actress Mariska Hargitay. But Mickey Hargitay's life was fascinating both alongside the women he was famously connected to, and in his own right.

Mickey Hargitay was a lifelong athlete

Before emigrating to the United States, Mickey Hargitay was Miklos Hargitay: The native Hungarian was born in 1926, and unfortunately, there's a lot that's just not known about his early years. That's according to the Hungarian Free Press, and that's a shame — because what is known about his young life is pretty wild.

Hargitay was born in a Budapest suburb, and he wasn't just a lifelong athlete in the way that many kids are young athletes. He wasn't getting chauffeured around to football, basketball, and lacrosse practice, although he was particularly fond of soccer. While some children might say they want to run away from home and join the circus, Hargitay didn't need to: He performed in the circus alongside his acrobatic father. Who wouldn't want to learn more about that?

Unfortunately, details are scarce and in some cases, oft-repeated stories about Hargitay aren't necessarily true. Some claim that he had won international speed skating races, and that he had been a resistance fighter in Hungary during World War II. Hargitay would have been the right age for it, but other sources say that his stint in the resistance was just a story he started circulating once he got to the U.S. He also told other not-exactly-true tales, like the one about earning an engineering degree, making it somewhat difficult to tell the fact from the fiction.

He emigrated and started a nightclub act

One of the biggest decisions a person can make is the decision to move to another country. At the time Mickey Hargitay left his native Hungary, there were a lot of people traveling. It was 1947, and in a post-war world many took advantage of the upheaval to flee and make a new life somewhere else. In "Jayne Mansfield: A Biography," May Mann says she asked Hargitay about the circumstances of his emigration. He explained that he had been wrapping up a degree in psychology from the University of Budapest when things started going not at all as he planned.

"I was to be drafted for the army and sent to Russia for four years. I escaped and was captured three different times. After many attempts, I finally reached America and two years later, I became a citizen," he recounted. "My parents, Frank and Maria Hargitay, and my two brothers and my sister are still behind the iron curtain."

Like many immigrants, Hargitay relied on skills learned in the Old Country once he settled in his new homeland. He and his first wife, Mary Birge, supplemented the income he made as a handyman by performing in Indianapolis nightclubs. Their act was an adagio, inspired by the routines he performed back in Hungary. (Like the one pictured, with second wife Jayne Mansfield.) Even if the name doesn't sound familiar, a description of the routine certainly will: It's an often elegant acrobatic routine where one person lifts and balances the other.

He's credited with overhauling public perception of bodybuilding

It's safe to say that Mickey Hargitay got noticed in a big way, and it wasn't long before he was showing up on the covers of magazines like Iron Man. And that was a surprisingly big deal, and not just for Hargitay.

Gene Mozee was a bodybuilding historian; involved in the sport from the earliest days, he was a record-setting bench press lifter in his own right. His photographs are credited with documenting the rise of stars like Arnold Schwarzenegger, and according to what he told the Los Angeles Times, none of it would have happened if it wasn't for Hargitay's influence. At the time he came on the scene, bodybuilding was looked down on. Critics thought building that kind of muscle would force an athlete to sacrifice in other areas — like flexibility — but Hargitay's athletic abilities existed alongside enough muscles to earn him the Mr. Universe title.

"Walter Winchell once said that what [President] Eisenhower did for gold, Mickey Hargitay did for bodybuilding, because he brought it to the forefront," Mozee shared. Schwarzenegger has also lauded Hargitay's contributions to the sport, saying, "When I came to this country in 1968, he was one of the first people I wanted to meet." He created "hope for someone like myself and others to dream about."

From Mae West to Jayne Mansfield

A favorite for the covers of bodybuilding magazines like Iron Man, it was a cover of Strength and Health Magazine that caught the attention of Hollywood icon Mae West. At the time, she was past the racy movies of her heyday, but that definitely hadn't taken the edge off her often ribald performances. Post-World War II, she was renowned for stage shows featuring scantily clad men: After she saw Mickey Hargitay on a magazine cover, she recruited him. Then, in 1956, he was picked out of the crowd by none other than Jayne Mansfield.

And it didn't entirely go over well. As May Mann recounts in "Jayne Mansfield," Mansfield and Hargitay were immediately inseparable, but the movie companies who held Mansfield's contracts — 20th Century and Fox — weren't happy. She was, after all, still technically married, and that was the kind of publicity they really didn't want. Add in the fact that they didn't see Hargitay as being Hollywood enough for the glamorous Mansfield, and it seemed like everyone had a reason why it shouldn't have been more than a fling. Some even went as far as to question how, exactly, someone known only for flexing his muscles could afford a $25,000 engagement ring. 

None of that mattered, though, and Mansfield would explain, "I knew I wanted Mickey ten minutes after we were introduced at the Latin Quarter. ... It's like I've been pulling a huge wagon alone. Now there will be two of us."

Their wedding was a media frenzy

Mickey Hargitay was married three times: He married his first wife shortly after settling in the U.S., and after marrying his third wife in 1968, they would remain married for the 38 years until his death. In between was his most famous wife — Jayne Mansfield — and their wedding was an almost ridiculous spectacle.

The Mansfield-Hargitay wedding was such a big deal that the media reported on even the smallest of details — and it was really no wonder. In spite of Mansfield's insistence that it be a small affair, notes May Mann in her book, "Jayne Mansfield," that definitely didn't happen — partially because she had arranged for hundreds of invitations to be sent out to a list of who's who in Hollywood ... and still more dropped from the sky via helicopter. On the day of the wedding, police were called in to control the crowds of people who showed up hoping to get a glimpse of the happy couple, directing traffic and attempting to keep damage to a minimum.

And in a way, it was a sign of things to come. The happiest couples are on the same page about their future, and at the same time Mansfield relished the attention and celebrated the idea of an upcoming Vegas show telling the story of her life, Hargitay had different ambitions. He, she told her friend and future biographer May Mann, wanted to open a Hungarian restaurant, a line of gas stations, and his own series of health stores and fitness clubs.

A pink house was a condition of his marriage

It wasn't long after Mickey Hargitay's marriage to Jayne Mansfield that they purchased a house. Initially a perfectly ordinary home on Sunset Boulevard, the then-white home was purchased from the owner of a series of grocery stores for $76,000. That was just the beginning of the expenses, and Architectural Digest says that the home that would become known as the Pink Palace was outfitted — in part — with around $150,000 worth of furniture that Mansfield got in trade for personal appearances. Tributes from adoring fans also poured in, including a bed that was donated by Laguna Beach's police department, as per May Mann's "Jayne Mansfield." 

The house required a considerable amount of work to be done to it in order to get it up to Mansfield's standards — and to turn the entire thing various shades of pink. Most of the work was done by Mickey Hargitay himself, who had come both a long way and not-so-far at all from his days as a handyman and carpenter in Indianapolis. He painted, he plastered, he even built and tiled a heart-shaped pool. 

And pink was definitely everywhere, including the shag carpeting that covered the walls and ceiling, as well as the floor in her bathroom. Hargitay arranged for a champagne fountain in the living room, cupid decor throughout, and gardens his wife likened to those found at Versailles.

His relationship with Jayne Mansfield was ultimately a rocky one

It wasn't long after Mickey Hargitay and Jayne Mansfield married that she became pregnant with their first child, but their relationship was ultimately a rocky one. A second baby followed a year later, the media lauded their happy marriage, and celebrated the birth of a third child, but behind the scenes, Mansfield lamented to her biographer May Mann (via "Jayne Mansfield"): "I need stimulation. So far, Mickey has been everything to me that I need. But now he is turning into just a husband. ... There's no incentive." Not long after she had that conversation, Mann heard on the radio that she had filed for divorce. 

Hargitay only found out about it when he returned home to find reporters already there for a press conference, but 48 hours later, they were back together and jetting off to Europe for an extended holiday. Their bliss was to be short-lived, though, and as Mann writes, when Mansfield started spending more time with a movie producer named Enrico Bomba, Hargitay had enough.

Hargitay reportedly gave her an ultimatum: She needed to spend more time with him and with their children, or he was going to walk. In the end, though, it was reportedly her who called it quits. She filed for divorce again and he moved out ... but still remained at her beck and call should anything need repairing, updating, or remodeling at the so-called Pink Palace.

He made sure his children had a childhood as normal as possible

Mickey Hargitay and Jayne Mansfield were already divorced when she was killed in a gruesome car accident. After Mansfield's death in 1967, Hargitay raised their three children — Mickey Hargitay Jr., Mariska Hargitay, and Zoltan Hargitay (left) — with his third wife, Ellen Hargitay (center). It's only been relatively recently that his most famous daughter has spoken about her upbringing.

Good Housekeeping spoke with Mariska about her own decision to adopt, and she said that her father and his wife had a large part to play in cementing her firm belief that family was about much more than blood. "I called her Mom," she shared. "She really claimed us. She never had biological kids of her own, and to this day we are her kids." In other interviews, Mariska has painted a picture of everything a father should be: In Glamour, she talked about his insistence that she have a childhood of volleyball games and school sports, and how it didn't matter where he was or what he was doing, his children came first — unconditionally. And in People, she credited him for giving her wisdom and emotional intelligence.

Mickey Jr. has shared memories of his father, too: According to the Los Angeles Times, he found his calling at a young age, and opened a plant store. He's since built it into a wildly successful business, crediting his father for making it his job to care for the family's plants.

His car accident added to the mythos of Jayne Mansfield's afterlife

Although Mickey Hargitay and Jayne Mansfield were divorced at the time of her death, their children were with her in the car at the time of the accident — and Hargitay immediately made the trip to New Orleans to join them. He was there so quickly, in fact, that in her biography, "Jayne Mansfield," May Mann recalls he was ultimately the one called in to identify her body. A blanket of pink roses were at her funeral — from her children — and from Hargitay, a massive bouquet of red roses.

Mansfield's death was sudden and completely unexpected, and to say her personal affairs were not in order would be a massive understatement. Hargitay was still the beneficiary of her life insurance policy, and those who were closest to her stayed in the Pink Palace while things got sorted. And that's where the stories of her ghost come in.

As Mann recounts, there were a series of strange occurrences that happened in the days and weeks after Mansfield's death. Fueled by stories about her recent foray into joining the Church of Satan, many latched on to the idea that it was the devil that infected the house. Mansfield's maid reportedly heard her and Hargitay's son often speaking to her, and there were a series of strange accidents — including one that involved Hargitay. He was leaving the house when he was involved in a car accident that was just one of many that happened on or near the grounds of the house. And the strange occurences continued even after the house had been bought and sold multiple times — Allegedly, when Ringo Starr bought the house, he had pink paint that Hargitay had so painstakingly used to transform the entirety of the house painted over ... yet still returned to pink.

He had his own movie career

At the same time Jayne Mansfield had lauded Mickey Hargitay for his complete and utter devotion to her, she had also noted that he wasn't an actor (via "Jayne Mansfield"). In spite of that, he did have his own movie career ... albeit a brief and forgettable one.

His movies included "Bloody Pit of Horror," which cast Hargitay against the backdrop of a terrifying castle, in an excuse to surround him with scantily clad ladies destined to meet a terrible end at the hands of a madman. Sounds like it's of questionable taste? That's likely: It was supposed to have been based on the X-rated writings of the Marquis de Sade. Before that, he had starred alongside his then-wife in "The Loves of Hercules," and for an idea of both production value, script quality, and acting, all that's really necessary to say is that it got the "Mystery Science Theater 3000" treatment near the end of the show's run.

Hargitay's acting career wasn't filled completely with B movies, though, and in 2003, he starred in his final role. It was perhaps the most fitting: In an episode of "Law & Order: SVU" called "Control," he starred alongside his daughter as the main witness in a case. In an obituary in the Los Angeles Times, he was quoted as saying, "I enjoyed my career. I never wanted to be any more than what I was, and I had fun doing it."

Mickey Hargitay died in 2006

When Mickey Hargitay passed away in 2006, his obituaries gave two different causes of death. According to the Los Angeles Times, he had been diagnosed with multiple myeloma, while The New York Times reported that a family spokesman said the cause was bone cancer.

In the Times, Hargitay was paid perhaps the most ideal of compliments: In addition to being lauded for his business sense, his devotion to his family, and his work in promoting health and fitness, he was remembered as a genuine, down-to-earth person by Iron Man publisher John Balik. "[He] was the epitome of the word 'gentleman'," Balik recalled. "The kind of feeling you got from him was just a really genuine guy. He had a lot of accolades and success in life, but you never felt that."

And that's a testament to the character of a man who famously caught the eye of one of Hollywood's biggest starlets. When she saw him performing on stage for the first time, Jayne Mansfield famously remarked, "I'll have a steak and the man on the left." Less famously, the bouquet of flowers he bought for her funeral swore his eternal love.