Claudine Longet: Aspen’s Femme Fatale
By Robert Chalmers
Claudine Longet left France in pursuit of the American dream. She found it as a chanteuse, actress and socialite. Then, in 1976, she was accused of killing her lover, the skiing legend Spider Sabich. But it was the outcome of her trial in the high-living haunt of Hunter S Thompson that really shocked the nation.
Just for a moment I assumed that the journalist sitting at his keyboard in the front office of the Aspen Times had to be joking. Exactly how many aspects of Claudine Longet’s extraordinary life could have passed him by? Her performance as the female lead, opposite Peter Sellers, in Blake Edwards’ 1968 film The Party? The mercilessly derisive song “Claudine”, written about her by the Rolling Stones? Her close friendship with Bobby Kennedy, whose company she was in at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles on the night of his shooting, on 5 June 1968?
My American colleague must also have missed the 2010 memoir, Aspen Terminus, based on her life. And the fact that, as that book’s accomplished author, Fabrice Gaignault, observes, “Claudine Longet succeeded in doing what no French woman singer since Edith Piaf had done: selling [serious numbers of] records in the United States.” Her major hits in America, predominantly cover versions of MOR classics, were achieved with the support of her former husband, and father of her three children, the late crooner Andy Williams.
Ronald Reagan once called Williams’ voice a “national treasure”. (While I was in Aspen in August last year, Williams was in hospital, combating the terminal stages of cancer.) No such claims have ever been made for Longet, although there is a distinctive and oddly haunting quality to her breathy, girlish renditions of songs such as the Beatles’ Here, There And Everywhere and Good Day Sunshine.
Another thing you’d have assumed any Aspenite would be aware of was the moment, on 21 March 1976, when a .22 in Longet’s hand discharged a single bullet from close range, killing her partner, champion skier Spider Sabich, in the luxury chalet they shared on the edge of town.
It’s certainly acceptable – some might say desirable – for a female icon to radiate a sense of recklessness and danger. But in Longet’s case, the events of that Sunday afternoon shifted the emphasis so firmly from femme to fatale that, even now, many have not forgiven her.
“She is still widely detested in Aspen,” one source told me.
Vladimir “Spider” Sabich had won the slalom at the World Cup in 1968 and the US championships in 1971 and 1972, but his huge popularity transcended the world of professional skiing. When he was killed, aged 31, the handsome Sabich was one of America’s most widely venerated sporting heroes. He was the model for fellow Californian Robert Redford’s character in Michael Ritchie’s 1969 film Downhill Racer and endorsed a wide range of products, from cosmetics to coffee. His shooting remains the most incredible story that the Aspen Times has carried in the modern era, even if you include the 2005 suicide of the writer Hunter S Thompson in nearby Woody Creek: that last death, very sadly, was more predictable. Only a serious back injury sustained when he was approaching the peak of his career (fearlessness was perceived to be his greatest weakness) prevented Sabich from becoming one of the best-known American sporting legends of all time. Known for his charm, generosity and humour, the Californian effortlessly excelled in every area of life that most young American men openly aspired to, with the significant exception of monogamy.
It is a measure of the widespread revulsion that the Longet affair generated in the local community that Hunter S Thompson, not widely known as a moral arbiter, described the killing of Sabich as being like the town of Aspen fouling its own nest. It’s a curious and rather alarming thought that, had the author of Fear And Loathing In Las Vegasbeen successful in his 1970 campaign to become sheriff of Pitkin County, running on a manifesto that would have renamed Aspen “Fat City”, he would have had the responsibility of overseeing the case against Longet.
But it wasn’t her role in Sabich’s violent death that secured Longet’s unique place in the history of American justice, so much as her trial and subsequent punishment. Despite admitting that she was holding the gun when it killed Sabich in his bathroom, Longet, who said the weapon went off by accident, was charged not with homicide but with reckless manslaughter. She would eventually be sentenced to 30 days in Aspen’s Pitkin County Jail, a term to commence on a date of her own choosing. Beforesentencing, her defence co-attorney Ronald Austin had reportedly said that he hoped Longet would escape with a fine.
One reliable Aspen source told me that, shortly after Sabich’s death, an acquaintance had been obliged to help dissuade a third party from taking out a contract on Longet.
There are certain traumas so intense that they can permeate the DNA of a place or an institution, altering and defining the way it is perceived for decades to come, and affecting future generations whose awareness of the event may be vague or nonexistent. It might sound curious to compare the Longet shooting to the Munich air crash, and yet, just as that latter tragedy helped galvanise the ambition, world following and European focus of Manchester United, so the legacy of the Longet affair had significant and enduring consequences for Aspen. The case was crucial to the development of the Colorado town’s now famous reputation as a place that polices itself – not by orthodox means, but through liberal, consensual tolerance, a policy mainly orchestrated by its world-famous, recently retired sheriff, Bob Braudis. As a young deputy back in 1977, Braudis had the job of taking Longet her breakfast in jail.
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