Mickey (Miklós) Hargitay – California’s Hungarian muscle man

Mickey Hargitay was probably the first Hungarian immigrant who became the quintessential Californian, the idol of an entire generation of bodybuilders. His determination helped to make the sport respectable in the United States, and Mickey also became a celebrity, one of the “beautiful people” of the Southern California crowd.

Hargitay was born in 1926, into a poor family in the Budapest suburb of Kőbánya. Not much is known about his childhood, although he was athletic, loved skating and soccer, and he also performed as a circus acrobat with his father.

He was 18 when the Second World War ended and he was ready for adventures. Like every young boy he wanted to go to America to be successful and make a name for himself. In 1947 he arrived to the New World and married an American woman, Mary Birge. The couple settled in Indianapolis, where Mickey was working odd jobs as a plumber and carpenter, supplementing his income by performing an adagio act in night-clubs with his wife. For those of you who don’t know, adagio acts involve complex balance and dance steps and in Europe they are a regular part of the circus repertoire. Mickey also spread rumors that he “fought with the Hungarian resistance” during World War II and had an engineering degree in architecture – none of them were true. They had one daughter.

Mickey on the cover of Iron Man magazine.

Mickey on the cover of Iron Man magazine.

The turning point in Mickey’s life was a magazine cover he saw featuring Steve Reeves, a.k.a. “Hercules”, the California body builder who won the Mr. Universe competition in 1950. Mickey started to work-out in the gym following a rigorous body-building program. He was disciplined and worked very hard to build up his muscles. Don’t forget, this was the pre-anabolic steroid world of muscle sports!

The famous May West revue with muscle man.

The famous May West revue with muscle man.

Mickey won the Mr. Universe title in 1955 and things dramatically changed for him. Next stop was New York. He became part of the bizarre and very popular “dinner revue” which was the brainchild of the aging film-star, Mae West. His superb physique caught the eye of Jayne Mansfield, who reportedly said when asked what she’d like for her meal, “I’ll have a steak and the man on the left!” It was love at first sight, and that is an understatement.

Mansfield was already a huge film-star, America’s sex symbol. Mickey soon got a divorce and the two got married in 1958 in what would become one of the most publicized marriages in Hollywood history.

They lived in an enormous pink palace with a heart-shaped swimming pool, Mansfield insisted on having everything painted pink. Mickey was the most famous bodybuilder of his time, a promoter of the sport which became popular on California’s beaches. One of these hangouts is Venice Beach in Santa Monica or as they call it “Muscle Beach.”

Mickey and Jayne

Mickey and Jayne

Hargitay had a couple of small roles in Mansfield’s movies, and even hosted a TV exercise program. In one of his more memorable roles he tried to follow the footsteps of his idol “Hercules” Reeves, but the 1960 film The Loves of Hercules was a major flop. The novelty and media hoopla of the beautiful couple slowly started wearing off. The marriage lasted for six years, produced three children, and in 1964 the volatile Mansfield left Hargitay for another man. The sex goddess tried everything to reignite her career, she even had a nude photo spread for Playboy. Later she started drinking, took drugs and died in a car accident in 1967. She was only 34 years old.

Mickey later remarried and lived with his third wife, Ellen Siano for the rest of his life. They had no children together and they raised famous film-star daughter Mariska Hargitay, who was born from Hargitay’s marriage to Mansfield. Mickey died in 2006 in Los Angeles.

Arnold Schwarzenegger paid tribute to him by playing the role of Mickey in the 1980 TV-movie The Jayne Mansfield Story. He considered him as the role model by which he modeled his professional and athletic career.

Today Mickey is remembered by the American public as one of the husbands of his mega-famous bride; an exotic “fashion accessory” to America’s pinup sweetheart. While the Hungarian beefcake was perfectly complementing Mansfield’s over-sexualized and heavily promoted image, there was more to Mickey. He was ambitious, determined and also quite successful, a trailblazer and inventor in fitness and bodybuilding.

György Lázár

One Comment

  1. Miklos Banfi says:

    Nice portrait. Do I remember right, he was pictured on the back of the 20 forint bill?

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