Friday, August 3, 2012

Claudine Longet & Spider Sabich

A Bitter Goodbye

The funeral was a bitter goodbye.
Spring had just arrived in 1976. An overflow crowd gathered at a Catholic church in Placerville, Calif., in the lap of the Sierra Nevadas, to mourn Spider Sabich, the young American skiing star taken in the prime of his life.
Sabich’s large Croatian-American family was knit together at the front of the church, numb with grief.
Smart and dashing, with chairlift-stopping good looks, Spider Sabich was among a small group of professional American skiers who popularized the sport here in the 1960s and ’70s.
The crowd assembled to pay last respects included skiing stars, Olympic athletes and childhood friends. Some had watched Sabich grow up on the slopes in nearby Kyburz, Calif.
California map with Kyburz
California map with Kyburz
During the funeral, the Sabich family stole glances at a tiny female figure seated with a small group of her own friends. She dabbed at her eyes with a handkerchief, and now and then her shoulders convulsed.
She was Sabich’s girlfriend, the French actress and chanteuse Claudine Longet.
On one hand, she had a right to be there. No one doubted that Spider had once been in love with Longet.
On the other hand, she was utterly out of place. She was, after all, the woman who killed Sabich.
She said it was an accident. His friends and family were not so sure.
A search for the truth would play out over the ensuing year. Before the last breathless gossip was whispered and the final expose written, the Sabich-Longet affair would develop into one of the decade’s most riveting celebrity spectacles.

Skin and Bones

Sabich came from Croatian stock.
His father, Vladimir, grew up in Sacramento. A bomber pilot in World War II, he was shot down over Japan  and spent a year in a Siberian prison. Sabich was released in 1944 and returned home to his wife, Frances.
A son was born to the couple the following year. The child was so spindly at birth that his father took one look and gave him his famous nickname.
“He was a long baby, but he had no flesh on him,” Vladimir told the Sacramento Bee. “He was all skin and bones. I said, ‘Geez, he looks like a spider.”‘
The alliterative nickname stuck. Few even knew his real name: Vladimir Jr.
Spider Sabich, victim
Spider Sabich, victim
In 1950, the growing Sabich family moved 50 miles east of Sacramento to the small mountain town of Kyburz, where Vladimir Sr. worked as a police officer.
They arrived in the mountains at an opportune time.
A brand-new ski hill, Edelweiss, opened down the road from their house, and the Sabich kids became slope rats.
Spider strapped on his first pair of leather boots and wooden skis at age 5. Soon, he and his brother, Steve, were invited to join the Edelweiss youth ski team.

Highway 50 Boys

Billy Kidd, Bob Beattie & Jimmie Huega, Oympics
Billy Kidd, Bob Beattie & Jimmie Huega,
Oympics
Their coach was Lutz Aynedter, a German downhill champion from the 1940s who emigrated to America after the war.He taught the Sabich boys European-style ski racing, and Spider and Steve became junior stars among the fearless young racers of Kyburz, who became known as the “Highway 50 Boys.”
As teenagers, Spider and Steve won one race after another against boys wearing better equipment who were racing for more ritzy California ski resorts, like Squaw Valley and Lake Tahoe.
The Sabich boys caught the eye of Bob Beattie, ski coach at the University  of Colorado, whose team served as a surrogate U.S. national team.
Billy Kidd skiing
Billy Kidd skiing
In 1964, two of Beattie’s Colorado  team members, Billy Kidd and Jimmie Huega, had stunned the ski world by winning the silver and bronze in the slalom at the Innsbruck Olympics in snooty, ski-crazed Austria.The Sabiches won ski scholarships to Colorado. Steve’s career was cut short by a knee injury, but Spider went on to earn a spot on the U.S.  team for the 1968 Olympics in Grenoble, France.
He worked hard, sometimes doing 25 training runs a day. But like most great athletes, he left the impression that it all came naturally.
“There were two things interesting about Spider,” Beattie once said. “He had a great sense of humor and a lot of flair. He was a great-looking guy, very spirited. But he also majored in engineering when he came to Colorado. His mind worked very thoroughly, as an engineer’s would. He had these two opposite sides to him.”

Fifth at Olympics

Jim Moose Barrows
Jim Moose Barrows
Coach Beattie and the rest of America  expected great things from the 1968 team, which also included Kidd, Huega, Moose Barrows and Ni Orsi, all Colorado Buffaloes.
But a combination of mishaps and stiff competition kept the Americans out of the medals. Sabich finished fifth in the slalom.
Tina Sinatra
Tina Sinatra
Most of the team turned professional and competed in World Cup ski racing in Europe. Sabich had a decent career, with one victory in the slalom and 18 top 10 finishes. In 1969, he was ranked as high as 11th in the world.In 1970, Beattie formed the Professional Ski Racing Tour in the United States  to capitalize on the sport’s growing popularity in America.
John Denver
John Denver
Sabich gladly joined up, eager to return to America after spending most of the three previous years in Europe.He moved to Aspen, where his brother, Steve, by then a contractor, built him a chalet in the exclusive Starwood section, where his neighbors included Tina Sinatra and John Denver.

A Babe Magnet

Bob Beattie
Bob Beattie
Sabich quickly became one of the tour’s stars—on and off the ski runs.Blond and blue-eyed, he was the sort of man who stopped conversation when he walked into a ski lodge. Ski bunnies crowded in for a closer look.
“He was so charming and very sexy,” longtime friend Dede Brinkman told the Sacramento Bee. “It was the same type of charisma you see in movie stars.”
His brother Steve added, “Spider was a babe magnet. Just catching his overflow was fine with me.”
In the early ’70s, Bob Beattie pioneered the use of celebrity ski races to drum up interest in his new U.S.  tour. Spectators would flock to the slopes to see stiff-skiing celebrities, then stick around to see the real ski racers.
Spider Sabich & Claudine Longet together
Spider Sabich & Claudine Longet together
In 1972, singer, actress and ski enthusiast Claudine Longet was invited to a celebrity skiing exhibition held before a pro race at Bear Valley, Calif., just 25 miles from Sabich’s hometown of Kyburz.Sabich and Longet met there for the first time and were overwhelmed by an immediate mutual attraction.
Sabich was accustomed to women finding him irresistible. But with Longet, the feeling was mutual. A friend likened it to “nuclear fusion.”
They were a couple before the weekend was over.

Paris to Vegas

Claudine Longet, younger
Claudine Longet, younger
Longet was born in Paris  on Jan. 29, 1942. After high school, she worked briefly as a dancer in a stage revue for tourists in Paris, and through connections there learned of a thriving market for thin, leggy young women for the French girlie shows that were the rage in Las Vegas.
Longet certainly qualified as French, thin and leggy. She had melancholy doe eyes and a face often described as innocent, surrounded by a hive of auburn hair. She was soft-spoken and seemed as fragile as rice paper.
Andy Williams
Andy Williams
Arriving in Las Vegas  at age 19, Longet found work as a danseuse in “LeFolies Bergere,” the Tropicana casino’s famous “feather show” of French-style burlesque. (The show, which opened in 1959, is still running in 2005.)Longet soon caught the winking eye of Andy Williams, the cardigan-wearing crooner. They were married on Christmas in 1961. He was 34, and she was not yet 20.
The following year, Williams had a career-changing hit with “Moon River,” the ballad that Henry Mancini wrote for the film “Breakfast at Tiffany’s.”
As Williams’ star ascended, Claudine put her career on hold and gave birth to daughter Noelle in 1963 and son Christian in 1964.
The popularity of “Moon River” landed Williams his own television show in 1963, and Longet became a frequent guest. (Their signature shtick played on Claudine’s accented English. Her tag line became, “Ooooohhhh, Andeeee!”)
Video cover: The Party
Video cover: The Party
That accent led Longet to a series of ’60s TV roles as a sexy foreigner in programs such as “Hogan’s Heroes,” “Combat!”, “Rat Patrol,” “Run for Your Life,” “Dr. Kildare,” “12 O’ Clock High” and “Alias Smith and Jones.”She then won star billing in the 1968 Blake Edwards film “The Party,” playing a Hollywood  starlet who becomes the love interest of Peter Sellers’ character.

Love Is Blue

Claudine Longet
Claudine Longet
Longet had a parallel career as a pop singer, releasing the first of five recordings in 1966. Her specialty was covers of easy-listening songs, sung in a distinctive breathy whisper.
She had four Top 100 hits in her career, including a cover of fellow Frenchman Andre Popp’s made-for-Muzak “Love Is Blue.”
She also recorded covers of the Beatles’ “Here, There and Everywhere,” Burt Bacharach’s “The Look of Love,” “God Only Knows” by the Beach Boys, “Make It With You” by Bread, and a number of Carpenters’ tunes, including “They Long to Be (Close to You)” and “We’ve Only Just Begun.”
In 1969, Longet gave birth to her third child, Bobby, named for Williams’ friend Bobby Kennedy. By then the marriage was on the rocks, even though Longet and the children continued to appear until 1972 as a happy family on Williams’ popular Christmas specials.
The couple separated in 1969. Claudine and the children stayed in their oceanside  mansion in Malibu, Calif.
Williams and Longet remained friendly. He agreed to pay her $8,000 a month in support. When they finally divorced in 1975, Longet won a $2.1 million settlement.
By then, she was deeply involved with Spider Sabich.
That relationship would bring her more fame—or infamy—than anything she had done in a recording, television or film studio.

Change of Lifestyle

At 31, Sabich was enjoying the peak of his career in 1972 when he paired up with Longet, then 34. He was the top slalom racer on Beattie’ s pro circuit, and he was earning more than $200,000 a year from winnings and endorsements.
Map: Aspen, Colorado
Map: Aspen, Colorado
Longet began splitting time between Sabich’s chalet in Aspen  and her own home in Malibu — no mean feat when raising three children.
After a year or so, Sabich invited Longet and her kids, then ages 10, 9 and 4, to move in with him. It was a sobering change of lifestyle for the swinging bachelor, and naturally there were conflicts.
Friends of the skier said Longet could be needy and demanding. Once, she hurled a wine glass at Sabich at a nightclub because he wasn’t giving her enough attention.
She forbade Sabich to attend Aspen ‘s annual “Best Breast” bash, a racy but guileless celebration of the female anatomy.
Not that Sabich and Longet lived like Mormon missionaries.
Aspen  was frosted with cocaine in that era. It is reasonable to assume that Sabich and Longet enjoyed the full complement of vices available.
“Spider smoke, drank and did whatever all of us did,” his brother Steve said. “Let’s not forget, those were the ’60s and ’70s.”

A Fatal Shot

Sabich suffered a compressed vertebra injury in the final race of the 1973 ski season, at Aspen Highlands. Although he continued to ski competitively, the back problem hampered his performance in the following three seasons.
At the same time, his relationship with Longet had grown increasingly contentious. He told friends they were heading for a split—although he was having problems convincing Longet that it was time to move on.
By March 21, 1976, Sabich faced a double dilemma over his personal and professional future.
The couple went their separate ways that morning. Sabich skied, then met with Bob Beattie. Longet saw the children off to school, then donned ski gear herself.
She apparently never made it to the slopes. She shopped, then stopped at a bar for a glass of wine or two. She was waiting at home at 3:30 when the children arrived from school.
Sabich got home 30 minutes later.
Preparing to shower, he stripped to blue thermal underwear. He planned to go to a party that night. According to one account, he planned to go to the party alone. According to another, he planned to go with Longet. Longet walked into the bathroom holding a pistol as Sabich disrobed.
A single shot rang out, and Sabich was hit in the abdomen. Longet’s children ran to the sound and saw the skier in their mother’s arms, bleeding. She called for help, then sent the children outside to await the ambulance.
Sabich lost a tremendous volume of blood on the bathroom floor. He died in the ambulance en route to the hospital, with Longet at his side.

Aspen Outrage

Andy Williams with Claudine LongetAndy Williams rushed to Aspen to support his ex-wife, who spent the night of the killing at the home of John and Annie Denver.She needed the support.
When friends of Sabich began whispering that the skier had grown weary of Longet, public opinion in laid-back Aspen turned against the Frenchwoman.
“Everybody hates her,” one resident told Newsweek.
Longet did not help her personal P.R. by going around Aspen wearing a T-shirt stamped with the sports logo “No Sweat.”
She attended the Sabich funeral and burial in California, then returned to Aspen to learn she was being charged with reckless manslaughter, a felony with maximum penalties of 10 years in prison and a $30,000 fine.
Longet hired Charles Weedman, a hired-gun criminal defense attorney from Los Angeles, and Aspen lawyer Ron Austin.
Claudine Longet with attorney Ron AustinFrom the outset, Longet said the shooting was an accident. She told the first two cops who questioned her that she was fooling around with the gun.The cops said Longet told them she aimed at Sabich and made a gunshot sound — ”boom-boom” or “bang-bang.”
Longet pleaded not guilty, and a trial was scheduled for January 1977.
It was a modern prototype of the celebrity-crime spectacle, played out over a couple of weeks at the Pitkin County Courthouse in Aspen.
Gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson, who lived in Aspen, said the trial was “like fouling your own nest.”

Evidence Barred

After the shooting, gung-ho cops made two decisions that would have dire consequences for Longet’s prosecution.
First, they forced Longet to give a blood test without a judicial order. Second, they confiscated her personal diary without a warrant.
Colorado Supreme Court buildingBefore the trial, the Colorado Supreme Court ruled Longet’s rights were violated by the blood test and diary seizure.
The drug test reportedly showed traces of cocaine in Longet’s blood, and her diary allegedly documented the failing relationship.
Frank Tucker, the county prosecutor, read the diary and said the conflict between Sabich and Longet could not have been clearer.
“She was an over-the-hill glamourpuss, and she was not going to lose another man,” Tucker said. “Andy Williams had already dumped her, and she was not going to be dumped again, thank you.”
The evidence ruling was a boon to the defense.
Lawyers Weedman and Austin had indicated to reporters that the trial would include evidence that the relationship was on the skids. They thought prosecutors would be allowed to read compromising passages from Longet’s diary.
But with the diary barred, the tone of the defense changed. The lawyers insisted that Sabich and Longet were deeply, blissfully in love.

It’s Not True!

Seating a jury of 12 local men and women with open minds was not easy. One prospective juror after another said they believed Longet had shot Sabich on purpose.
On the first day of jury selection, Longet sat weeping in a shapeless gray minidress and Frye knee boots as citizens announced her guilt.
“To me, this is all total despair,” she told reporters. After three days, a jury of seven men and five women was finally empaneled.
Bob Beattie, Sabich’s former coach, was the first witness. He said the trial had an oddly genteel tone, as though no one wished to distress Longet.
“The hardest question they asked me was my name,” Beattie said.
A police officer followed, testifying that Longet said she pointed the gun at Sabich and said “bang-bang” or “boom-boom.”
From her seat at the defense table, Longet all but shouted, “It’s not true!” Judge George Lohr failed to admonish her — and a starstruck tone for the trial was set.
Perhaps the most effective defense evidence concerned the handgun, a cheap knockoff of a German Luger that Vladimir Sabich Sr. had purchased while in France  to watch his son at the ’68 Olympics.
Luger, similar weapon
Luger, similar weapon
Sabich Sr. gave the gun to his son Steve, who stored it at Spider’s chalet. Longet claimed she discovered the gun in a closet on the day of the shooting.
A defense witness said the safety on the gun was defective, and the firing mechanism had been lubricated with too much grease. The witness said it was entirely possible that the gun fired accidentally.

Star Testimony

On Jan. 11, the media got what it was waiting for: Claudine Longet took the witness stand. Attorney Weedman gave her the handgun and asked her to describe the shooting.
Claudine Longet, Aspen trial
Claudine Longet, Aspen trial
She began, “I picked up the gun and walked toward the bathroom, saying to Spider, ‘I would like you to tell me about this gun.’ I kept walking and I had the gun in my hand.”
Longet said she asked Sabich whether the gun was safe, and they exchanged a few words about the safety switch.
“He said, ‘Yes, it’ s safe.’  I said, ‘ It won’ t fire?’
“He said, ‘You’ve got it.’”
At that instant, she said, the gun went off.
Longet began crying as she described how Sabich staggered against a wall and held his abdomen.
“Spider called my name three times and he sort of slid down,” she said. “”I told him to try to make it, to talk to me. He was fainting. I tried to give him mouth-to-mouth resuscitation, but I didn’t know how.”
Weedman asked Longet to describe her relationship with Sabich.
“Spider and I loved each other very much,” she said. “I think we were the very best of friends. There were times over four years when we disagreed on things. We would have small arguments…But above all, we were the very best of friends and loved each other very much.”
In his closing statement, Weedman returned to the gun testimony and to Longet’s professed love for the man she killed.
“If there’ s any evil in this town,” Weedman said, “it was the evil of the gossip about the relationship between Spider and Claudine…Not one single loud-mouthed gossip was able to come here and tell you anything bad about this relationship. For that, there should be some shame in this community.”

Guilty of a Misdemeanor

After four days of testimony, the jury took three hours and 40 minutes to return a verdict. They passed on the felony charge of reckless manslaughter but convicted Longet of criminally negligent homicide, a misdemeanor.
Longet accepted the verdict without emotion, although she later told reporters, “I am not guilty. I have too much respect for human life to be guilty.”
She faced a maximum jail sentence of two years and a $5,000 fine. But no one expected her to serve heavy time, including the jurors.
“I wouldn’t want her to go to prison, heavens no,” juror Daniel DeWolfe, 27, told the Associated Press. “By no means is she the type of person who should be in jail. I don’t think she’s a threat to society.”
He said the entire trial was a waste of taxpayers’  money and that Longet would not have been prosecuted had she not been a celebrity.
“I think they should have plea-bargained and straightened this out,” DeWolfe said. “There was no need to make this big fuss about it.”
Such comments left Spider Sabich’s family gnashing their teeth, and their aggravation only increased at Longet’s sentencing on Jan. 31, 1977.
“The defendant did not intentionally cause the death of Spider Sabich,” Judge Lohr began. “All of the evidence is that the defendant and the decedent had a close personal relationship and the death of the decedent was a deep personal tragedy to her.”
He denounced Aspen for its hostility toward Longet, and he castigated the scores of people who wrote him letters about the shooting, most urging a tough sentence in the Sabich “murder.”
Before sentencing, Longet stood before Lohr in a flowered minidress and begged for mercy on behalf of her children.
“My children and I are very close,” she whispered. “We love each other very much. They respect me and they firmly believe in my innocence. They are beautiful. They are happy. They are very gentle and open. With all my heart, I would like them to stay that way.”
Lohr said he was certain that Longet would not commit another crime. But he added, “To impose no imprisonment might undermine respect for the law.”
He decreed a $250 fine and 30 days in county jail, to be served “at a time of her choosing.”
Pitkin County Jail
Pitkin County Jail
The Sabich family bristled at the sentence — and bristled again when Lohr urged those involved to “go forward to lives as normal as possible.”Outside the courtroom, Longet was less demure than she had been before the judge, lambasting prosecutor Tucker.
“I think it’s very unfortunate that I fell into the hands of a district attorney more concerned with his own ambitions than with justice,” she said.
Tucker replied, “She was the victim of her own recklessness and carelessness. It’s always good to be able to blame someone

Life’a a Beach

Judge Lohr added the “time of her choosing” clause to the sentence out of concern for Longet’s children. He assumed she would want to serve her time while the children were on summer vacation.
But Longet had her own priorities. Not long after the sentencing, she stole away for a Mexican seaside vacation with defense attorney Ron Austin, who abandoned his family to take up with Longet.
Longet eventually did serve her time, mostly on weekends. Longet and Austin married and currently live in Aspen. Longet is now 63.
Longet has been allowed to live a private life in the resort town, but she has been portrayed as the duplicitous villain in pop culture.
A 1977 “Saturday Night Live” episode featured a segment about the “Claudine Longet Invitational Ski Shoot.” Chevy Chase  and Jane Curtin played commentators as a film showed a skier crashing after the sound of gunfire.”Uh-oh,” Curtin said, “he seems to have been accidentally shot by Claudine Longet.”
And the release of the Rolling Stones’ LP “Emotional Rescue” was delayed in 1980 while lawyers vetted the potential libel in one of the cuts, “Claudine.”
The song, written by Mick Jagger, included these lyrics:
Oh, Claudine/Now only Spider knows for sure/But he ain t talkin about it any more/ Is he, Claudine?/There s blood in the chalet/ And blood in the snow/She washed her hands of the whole damn show/The best thing you could do, Claudine.”
The song was cut from the album, although copies have leaked out.
Like Jagger, prosecutor Tucker and Sabich’s family believe that Longet killed a man and escaped with little retribution.
Vladimir Sabich Sr. filed a $1.3 million wrongful-death civil lawsuit against her. They settled out of court after Longet agreed to a confidentiality clause that barred her from speaking about Sabich.
“I wasn’t looking for money,” Vladimir Sabich Sr. told the Sacramento Bee in 1996. “I just wanted the truth. I kept her from publishing a book.”
“I’ve always known she shot Spider Sabich and meant to do it,” said former district attorney Frank Tucker.
“It’s a shame, because Spider accomplished so much in his life,” said Steve Sabich, Spider’s brother. “Claudine accomplished only two things — marrying Andy Williams and getting away with murder.”

7 comments:

  1. The Oscar Pistorius case reminds me of this trial. It seems that her family has legally protected his story from her version- she cannot write a book about the crime.

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  2. Just like the OJ trial, police screw up's at the crime scene and celebrity status helps you get away with murder. I'm close to someone that investigated this case, I know for a fact that she did this intentionally.

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  3. And the judge Lohr? It seems he was bewitched by her or touched by a good amount of money.

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  4. The story seems a little one sided to me. They can say whatever they want about her, but she can't even comment back. The only thing you hear from her side is what she said before his family filed in civil court. Personally, I would like to be able to hear her side, and make an informed decision myself. Not have Spider's family tell me which way is up.

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  5. Oh, and Steve, just to let you know, wherever you are in Hell, she was much more accomplished than you ever could be and did a hell of a lot more than just 'marrying Andy Williams and getting away with murder."

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    Replies
    1. Oh, and what would that be? Who are you? Claudine?

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    2. Oh bullshit. Who are you, Claudine?

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