Don't miss reading my extensive liner notes for the Cuddle Up with Claudine compilation album. Also, my exclusive interviews with songwriter Margo Guryan ("Think of Rain," "I Don't Intend to Spend Christmas Without You") and one-time Longet producer Ken Mansfield.
And don't miss this invaluable update on the Longet/Sabich scandal by sportswriter Bob Burns.
The Claudine Longet Story, by Randy Reeves for Girlyhead magazine
Claudine Longet? Didn't she kill somebody? Sadly, Claudine Longet is most remembered for a tragic day in 1976 when a gun she was holding discharged into the stomach of her boyfriend, ski legend Spider Sabich, leaving him mortally wounded in the bathroom of their Aspen, Colorado chalet. Prior to the shooting, the world knew Claudine best as wife of crooner Andy Williams, although she had gained a measure of fame in her own right as a pop singer with a trademark soft, whispery French accent, and also had to her credit some film work and a string of bit parts on television shows like "Combat!" and "The Rat Patrol." Nowadays, though, more people are familiar with the tasteless Saturday Night Live "Claudine Longet Invitational Ski Tournament" skit (sounds of gunshots are dubbed over footage of skiers flying off a ramp) than with her record and film work.
While the world mourned for Spider Sabich, few tears were shed for the acting and singing career of Claudine which ended just as abruptly as Sabich's life that night. And that's a shame, for Claudine left behind a small legacy of film and TV appearances as well as a catalog of under-appreciated albums which embody the same lethal magic for which Spider Sabich paid so dearly.
Claudine never really found her audience. Despite modest success of some of her singles such as "Love Is Blue," which charted in the spring of 1968, Claudine was rejected by the younger rock crowd of the day as part of the square establishment and was forever overshadowed by the immensely popular Williams in easy listening circles. No doubt the housewives who swooned over Andy were put off by his sexy, young French bride, even though Williams' publicists worked overtime trying to put a fairy tale spin on the couple's union. In the 1960s, it must be remembered, Andy Williams was the undisputed King of Easy Listening, and it simply would not do to have Williams seen as a lecherous older guy snagging himself a young Las Vegas showgirl. No, the official version of events reads like a work of romantic fiction.
Claudine, it is true, was born in Paris in January of 1942. It is also true that at age nineteen, Claudine was in Las Vegas as the lead dancer in the Folies Bergère. The circumstances of her initial contact with Andy Williams, however, are less certain. The story goes that Claudine had car trouble late one night after a show. The virtuous Claudine always went straight home after the Folies to get plenty of rest. But here she was that fateful night, fair maiden in automotive distress. But, lo, a knight with shining teeth soon came to her aid. It was Andy Williams, that dashing man about Vegas, walking back to his hotel. Their eyes met, and with a flicker of recognition that soon became a consuming fire of passion, Andy realized that this was her, the very same girl he used to watch rollerskating near the Louvre, the beautiful child he remembered from his visits to Paris those many years ago. "I would always go to the Louvre," recalled Williams of his Parisian travels. "I used to see this girl rollerskating all the time on one skate. She was eight or nine years old and she lived by the Pont Neuf." Now here she was, all grown up and cast by the fates in a stalled car in his path. Unlikely, perhaps, but the machinations of romance and destiny continued, and the two were soon wed. This was 1961. Several months later, Andy would go on to record his signature song, "Moon River."
During the first three years of their marriage, Claudine stayed in the background and had the first of her three children with Williams, a daughter Noelle. In 1964, Claudine decided to resume her career, this time as a television actress. Andy Williams' sizable showbiz clout didn't hurt her chances of landing roles, and Claudine was featured in episodes of "Combat" (twice), "Hogan's Heroes," "Dr. Kildare," "Mr. Novak" and "12 O'Clock High" (three times). Although most of these shows are now all but forgotten, at the time they were all highly rated, successful programs.
An appearance on NBC's "Run for Your Life" in the 1965-66 television season marked a turning point for Claudine. As part of her role opposite Ben Gazzara in a tragic love story, Claudine was showcased singing the song "Meditation." A recording contract with Herb Alpert's A&M Records conveniently materialized a short time later, and "Meditation" was released in 1966 as Claudine's first single. Her first full-length album, "Claudine," came out in early 1967.
Claudine released a second album in 1967, "The Look of Love," and continued with an album a year on A&M through 1970 with "Love Is Blue" ('68), "Colours" ('69) and "Run Wild, Run Free" ('70). Under the guidance of Tommy LiPuma and Nick De Caro, Claudine cut her share of Latin-flavored and easy listening standards, but was allowed to indulge a bit in the young sound and also covered songs by artists like Donovan and the Bee Gees. Claudine, after all, was still in her twenties, and undoubtedly Andy, Herb and the older set were cramping her style.
Claudine continued her television work. In the 1966-67 season she appeared in a three-part "Rat Patrol" episode and in a sequel to her "Run for Your Life" role. Later she would also guest star on "Alias Smith and Jones." On September 25, 1966, she made the first of six appearances on "The Andy Williams Show" as a feature performer. The six count does not include her spots as part of the Williams family on the holiday episodes over the years.
In 1968, Claudine played her most enduring film role, this time on the big screen alongside Peter Sellers in Blake Edwards' "The Party." Claudine had one earlier film credit, in the "McHale's Navy" movie, and one later credit in a 1971 TV movie, "How to Steal an Airplane," but it is "The Party" that remains the most memorable and satisfying. In the film, Claudine is typecast as Michele Monet, a French ingenue trying to break into the Hollywood big-time. Claudine even gets a showcase song in the movie, "Nothing to Lose," released as a single on A&M that year. While Claudine certainly didn't have to stretch as an actress in "The Party," her screen presence is enormous.
As the sixties drew nigh, Claudine's trip down Moon River was coming to an end. She and Williams separated in 1970, and by 1972 Claudine was romantically involved with Spider Sabich. Spider was an Olympic skier and twice world ski-racing champion, and was the real-life role model for the character played by Robert Redford in the film "Downhill Racer."
Claudine and Spider swung with the glittery jet set that populated Aspen, Colorado, a place that Newsweek magazine at the time described as home to "rich recluses, hip hedonists, mellow cowboys and cocaine-snorting vegetarians." In 1974, Claudine and her three children by Williams moved into Spider's stone-and-glass A-frame in the gated Starwood subdivision of Aspen, a neighborhood that also housed John Denver, Tina Sinatra, Jack Nicholson and Jill St. John.
It should be noted that during this time Claudine released the two finest albums of her career, "We've Only Just Begun" and "Let's Spend the Night Together." The albums were issued on Barnaby Records, a label which, curiously enough, was (and is) owned by Andy Williams. Why, one wonders, would their business relationship intensify just as their marriage was dissolving? Some have interpreted the move as an attempt on Andy's part to maintain whatever ties he could to his beautiful wife, and as we shall see, Andy's loyalty and devotion to Claudine extended beyond the conventional marriage contract. For her part, Claudine came into her own artistically, free at last from the oppressiveness of being Mrs. Andy Williams. Here, finally, was the real Claudine.
The "Let's Spend the Night Together" LP is particularly gratifying. From the fragile, heart-aching version of "God Only Knows" that opens side one to the erotic reworking of the Jagger/Richards title track at the end of side two, Claudine demonstrates that she has few peers when it comes to summoning the power of seduction in front of a microphone. Claudine's take on Graham Nash's "Sleep Song" is as sexually charged as anything by French chanteuse Jane Birkin, but unlike Birkin, Claudine never had to resort to heavy breathing to get her message across.
In retrospect, though, it is Claudine's version of "Jealous Guy" that returns to haunt the listener. Imagine Claudine delivering the following recitation with both hands grasped tightly around a German Lüger:
I was dreaming of the past
And my heart was beating fast
I began to lose control
I began to lose control
I didn't mean to hurt you
I'm sorry that I made you cry
I didn't want to hurt you
I'm just the jealous kind
I was feeling insecure
You might not love me anymore
I was shivering inside
I was shivering inside
March 21 was cold and gray. Claudine had set out for the slopes, but then changed her mind and went to the Center Bar, where she spent the afternoon sipping white wine. Around 4:00 she drove home where Spider, who had been skiing, returned a short while later. As Spider got ready for a shower and stripped down to his blue thermal underwear, Claudine approached him with a .22-caliber imitation Lüger pistol, which she later claimed to have come across just that morning while putting away some sweaters. She was asking him how to use it, how to protect herself and her children when he was away, when all of a sudden her finger slipped on the trigger and bang bang boom boom, a tragic accident. Or was it?
Not everyone bought Claudine's slippery-finger story. Some locals considered Claudine to be an intruder in Aspen, and a spoiled brat to boot. The couple's four-year relationship was said to be rocky, and Claudine's jealous episodes in public had raised eyebrows around town. Claudine and her three children were getting to be too much for Spider, and he had supposedly given them a deadline to find other accommodations. Claudine did have some supporters in Aspen, like John and Annie Denver with whom she stayed the night after the shooting, but public sentiment ran largely against her. Like the sirens of mythology, Claudine was seen as an enchantress who had bewitched and then doomed the hapless Spider.
Claudine on trial revealed, if not the circumstances surrounding the shooting, certainly the duplicity of her nature, and indeed the inherent contradiction and guile of the female animal at its most deadly. With mournful eyes and choking back tears, a pale and trembling Claudine told the jury that "we were probably everything that a man and a woman should be to each other, we loved each other so much. He was my best friend." Claudine saw herself as a victim, guilty only of mishandling a loaded gun. Contrast this with testimony of the glass-hurling and ski-wielding Claudine, lashing out at Spider in public. Innocent and mercenary, sweet yet cunning, the prize and the curse.
A detective who was with Claudine at the hospital that night claimed that her initial story was that she had been joking with Spider, and just before the gun went off had said playfully, "Bang, bang. Boom, boom." At the trial, however, Claudine denied this and said she knew better than to play with a loaded gun, her final words to Spider instead: "You are sure it won't fire?" Another famous disputed quote was by ex-husband Andy, who had rushed to Claudine's side after the accident. He was overheard to have remarked, "She's always been a reckless chick who drives too fast, skis too fast and takes too many risks." Andy on the witness stand spoke of Claudine as gentle and loving mother of their three children.
A diary which had been illegally seized was not admitted into evidence, nor were blood tests rumored to have shown traces of cocaine. The diary ignited a hotbed of speculation outside the courtroom, however. Prosecutor and District Attorney Frank Tucker claimed it could blow the lid off the case, as well as pull the covers down on a long list of Hollywood heavyweights.
After less than four hours of testimony and four hours of deliberation, the jury found Claudine Longet guilty only of criminal negligence. She was sentenced to 30 days in jail and two years probation. Claudine chose not to appeal and served her time in April, 1977 in the Pitkin County jail. True to form, Claudine shortly thereafter became romantically linked with her defense lawyer, Ron Austin. The diary was returned to Claudine, who threw it in the fire.
In the ensuing years, Claudine has kept a low profile. Andy Williams continues to perform nine months out of the year in Branson, Missouri at his Moon River Theater. Williams' publicist, Tennyson Flowers, reveals only that Claudine is happily married and still living in Aspen.
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