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The Ballad of Claudine Longet

Claudine Longet's albums should be on your Top Ten list if your tastes are similar to those of Gomez Addams. It's not just the French accent; there's something else about Claudine that's "very friendly."

Longets debut LP on A&M begins with Francis "Love Story" Lai's 1966 Academy Award winning theme to A Man and A Woman. If that doesn't get you hot, there's also another French song "Tu As Beau Sourire" ("Your Ace is a Pretty Smile"). This being Herb Alpert's label, there are a couple of bossa nova tunes from Antonio Carlos Jobim, her first single "Meditation" and "A Felicidade." And don't forget the obligatory Lennon/McCartney cover "Here, There And Everywhere," which producer Tommy LiPuma and arranger Nick De Caro probably hoped would repeat the success of Sergio Mendes & Brazil 66's "Daytripper." Little did A&M A&R know that they were creating another Golden Throat who would follow up with "Something," "Goodday Sunshine," "When I'm Sixty-four," and "Jealous Guy." Longet's tasteful renditions of the Beatles are quite a relief from William Shatner's interpretation of "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds." Beam me up!

The pop genre also includes Fillmore fave Sopwith Camel's ricky-ticky Rudi Vallee put-on "Hello, Hello." The folkies could groove to Smothers Brothers regular Mason Williams' "Wanderlove" and Native American Buffy Saint Marie's "Until It's Time For You To Go." The sentimental standard "Sunrise, Sunset" would appeal to the lounge crowd to obtain a broad base of support to provide make-out music for would-be modern sophisticates.

Claudine would later add other pop covers to her repertoire including The Beach Boys, The Bee Gees, The Rolling Stones, Joni Mitchell, Simon & Garfunkle, Donovan, Nash & Young--the lighter side of what some would call protest music. Nevertheless she always maintained a base of standard nightclub material such as "Love is Blue" and "Falling in Love Again" familiar to her mainstream audience. (Don't forget "Sleep Safe and Warm," the theme from Rosemary's Baby.)

And as always, Longet worked rather well in the Latin mode on "Dindi" and "Manha de Carnival." No Carmen, yet always waving a cape to beguile us and in the end to help deliver that fatal final thrust.

It is the tension between the square and the mod that makes Claudine most interesting--tradition and the individual talent. Longet lies somewhere between the straight world and something beyond, lifting us into the uncertain interval.

But the most telling song is saved for last: the Motown hit "My Guy"--with special emphasis on the possessive pronoun, for Claudine seemed to be a very possessive woman. In 1976, Longet was charged with reckless manslaughter in the shooting death of her lover Vladimir "Spider" Sabich in Aspen, Colorado.

For fifteen years, Claudine had been Mrs. Andy Williams, and if you grew up in the 1960's, you probably remember their annual Christmas specials and Andys NBC variety series that ran from 1958 to 1971. Claudine's several TV appearances included 12 O'clock High, Combat, Rat Patrol and Hogan's Heroes where she personified what we are fighting for--imagine poor Frenchy molested by those nasty stormtroopers. (No Hogan, you may not assist in the interrogation.) Hey, she was even on Mr. Novak and Dr. Kildare as well as in the movie version of McHale's Navy.

There were also several crime dramas, but truth is stranger than The FBI, The Streets of San Francisco, Run For Your Life or Alias Smith & Jones. (One could learn to be an expert witness.)

That's cool, but who was she-- where did she come from?

On his way to the Louvre, Andy Williams had first seen Claudine sailing down the streets of postwar Paris on a single roller-skate when she was only 8 or 9 years old. A decade later, Williams would help Claudine with her stalled car in Las Vegas, where she was dancing with the Folies Bergere.

They married in 1961 and lived the charmed life of the Camelot era often skiing at Sun Valley with Ethel and Bobby Kennedy. Andy would play golf with Henry Fonda while Claudine would play tennis with the actor's son Peter. Jack Nicholson was also a good friend who would show up at her trial in Aspen.

By the mid-seventies, Andy and Claudine were divorced, and she had moved in with twice world pro ski champ Sabich, the model for Robert Redford in Downhill Racer, whom she had met at a 1972 Bear Valley, CA competition. Spider's brother Steve was dating H&R Block scion Candy and had been busted for 850 pounds of pot.

Local gossip had it that Claudine's jealousy had manifested itself in several violent scenes in the Aspen area. She is reported to have hit Spider over the head with a ski during a disagreement and pulled a chair out from him at a restaurant when she caught him talking to another woman. Publicist Jill Lillstrom says Claudine threw a glass at Spider when he was surrounded by admirers and ignored Longet at a Steamboat Springs bar.

Spider's friends said that he had told Claudine to move out because of her prohibitive behavior, and an Aspen real estate agent had records of her inquiry about rental property a couple of weeks before the fatal shooting.

According to Claudine's testimony, she had found Spider's .22 caliber Luger and was asking the skier how to operate it while he was washing his face in the bathroom.

"If the lever is on the spot, is it safe?" Claudine said in court that he had assured her that it was.

"I raised the gun and playfully went 'Boom Boom,' and it went off."

Sabich was shot in the abdomen and died ten minutes later according to Longet, who said she unsuccessfully tried to administer artificial respiration. She spent that night in grief with the John Denver family.

"I have too much respect and love for living things to be guilty of this crime," Claudine would tearfully tell the Aspen jury who may have been as much concerned about maintaining the reputation of this lucrative ski resort as those of its celebrity guests. DA Frank Tucker's test reportedly showing traces of cocaine in Longet's blood was ruled inadmissible. The seven men and five women convicted Claudine of the lesser charge of negligent homicide and District Judge George Lohr sentenced Longet to two years and a $5000 fine.

After serving only 30 days of her sentence in the Pitkin County clink with a couple of drunk drivers, Claudine went to Mexico with her lawyer Ron Austin, who would leave his wife to marry the melodramatic chanteuse. They still live in Aspen.

(Six months later, Ted Bundy would escape from the Pitkin County courthouse.)

Who says there are no happy endings?

* * * * *

Claudine Longets various performances may provide a clue to her enigmatic personality. Just a clue, not a key, for hers is not an open and shut case. Those who inhabit the realm of the exotic can make their own rules.

Thus the exotic fascinates and enthralls with the charm of its ultimate Otherness, an oblique spin occult in its origin. The exotic takes us away to a place outside our normal experience where we can stand outside ourselves and uninhibitedly experience ecstasy. Claudine was always already a mystery.

Longets most obvious element of the exotic is her Frenchness with its accumulated mythical baggage. And as Plutarch tells us, a myth is a representation that signifies something else. Semiotician Roland Barthes would agree. (Likewise, see Todorov on The Fantastic and just a dash of Gustav Flaubert, Theophile Gautier, and Prosper Merimee.)

From the French curl to the French kiss, French is the language of passion. It is the language of emotion, taste, sensation, aesthetics, and most of all S-E-X. If you thought soixante neuf was something, you should have seen Paris burning in 1968. Yet Gallic icons can be familiarized into things we take as much for granted as French fries and mayonnaise which are usually made bland in the process of domestication. But still the soothing sounds of the broad vowels and soft consonants enchant us when Claudine tells us she is "een luff."

Longets charm is that of the faux naifthe child-woman popularized by Bebe Bardot and extended to Babydoll, Lolita, and Kitten with a Whip. This archetype goes at least as far back as the decadence of the Romantics with their nymphs luring sailors to watery doom or "La Belle Dame Sans Merci" entangling a knight in her silken tresses, as deadly a trap as a black widow has yet devisedthe faux naif as the façade of the femme fatale. How French can you get?

Here is the puckish imp teasing the moths to the flamewhen their wings burn, she knows shes not to blame. This woman is really not as naïve as she would seem.

Contributing to the fatality of this charm is the tactic of deception. This woman wears many masks. She is elusive and evasive, telling stories that no one believes. But we want to believe because we dont want to break the spell that thrills us into captivation.

Several of her songs tell stories ranging from the innocent flirtation of "Walk in the Park" to the more sinister "Man in a Raincoat" who took her money and ran. (Was he Bogie or Chester the Molester?) "Happy Talk" would never be the same until Captain Sensible turned it around.

The masks were provided by A&Ms expert A&R department that had already established a corporate personality growing from that of its founder Herb Alpert. This was the hip Hispanic label whose mellow moods could make us all into smooth and suave Latin loversat least for a night.

A&M was the label of Martin Denny sideman Julius Wechter whose Baja Marimba Band provided a rhythmic compliment to The Tijuana Brass. Here was Sergio Mendes, whose arrangements of pop standards brought Bossa Nova across the equator. Mendes' theme from Casino Royale, "The Look of Love" was a likely cover for Claudine.

Here were The Sandpipers, who could even turn "Louie Louie" into a romantic lullaby. Here we followed the Pied Piper of Crispian St. Peter and were lulled by the lushness of the Pozo Seco Singers. Longet's later LP's on Andy's Barnaby label would take her into further realms.

All these elements contributed to the creation of Claudine Longets public image--a persona made up of nuances suggested by the many roles she played. Not that Claudine was such a convincing performer. This can be especially observed when she had Peter Sellers as a foil in Blake Edwards The Party, where she sang Mancinis theme song "Nothing to Lose." Not on par with The Pink Panther, but definitely a step up from How to Steal an Airplane. But Claudine doesnt have to be a great actress. We know it's only make believe, but we want to believe because we like playing the game--be it cat and mouse, hide and seek or peekaboo. We forgive her by extending our suspension of disbelief because she was more than a mere musician. She was a bona fide Celebrity: Mrs. "Moon River," godmother of The Osmonds.

How much more mythical can you get? Not since Medea rode off in a flying chariot after killing Jasons sons in a jealous rage. The sorceress makes her own rules and can get away with murder. Shes an alien whose immunity to our social codes allows her to retreat to the land of the Golden Fleece.

Its all in her smile. "Hello, hello. I like your smile." Her ace is a beautiful smile, and she plays it close to the vest, occasionally flashing forth her trump. And like the Cheshire Cat, it is only her soft voice and the shadow of her smile that remain after she has faded into obscurity. And if you have once caught that smile, youll want to see it again and get involved in an obsessive pursuit that is inevitably futile in trying to grasp the intangible secret of her charm.

Behind this smile is a worldliness that turns the expression into an urbane smirk, a grin as sardonic as any skull in the grip of rigor mortis. Its this hint of fatality that spices the ecstasy with agony. We are pained by her reckless abandon casting fate to the wind while flying in the face of adversity. We can string together clichés incessantly, but the mystery still remains, the indefinable je ne sais quoi. We know not what she is, but that mystery adds to our curiosity.

Our impressions are ill defined, soft and vague in outline, and can only come together when we stand back and let them fuse together. Each song is a piece of the puzzle that we try to fit together into a portrait. But we find some parts missing and have to fill in the gaps with our imaginations. Somehow she wont look us straight in the eyes. Coy and demure, Claudine remains an enigma.

Her favorite masque is the nostalgic quest to regain the paradise of innocence lost in the purgatory of experience. Thus the chorus of children reaffirming that she once believed it all. Images of childhood are undercut by the not-so-subtle suggestiveness of "Pussywillows/Cattails" and such. Images of snow now in hindsight bear witness to a fatally ironic foreshadowing.

This homesickness also involves the postwar dissociation of sensibility of a generation whose childhood was deprived of its innocence by the horrors of war and the exploitation of occupation. Was she trying to recapture a past she never had, an innocence she never experienced, skating through the rubble of reconstruction?

Thats whats so cool about Claudineher essential isolation and alienation. Whereas most soft pop of the 1960s was done by squares pretending to be hip, Claudine was a flower child trying to act straight. Did she listen to Donovan with easyriding buddies Fonda and Nicholson? Maybe burn a little incense? Tennis anyone?

Can't get used to losing you

No matter what I try to do.

We can all sing along with Andy. We miss Claudine. Her charm is ageless, and a comeback is belated. She's paid her dues, let her sing the news and be her own touchstone.

Not only those of us who experienced her enchantment on the first go-around, but even more a whole new generation of fans. Netwise, Claudine is as popular as ever, if not more so. Her albums are being reissued in Japan. She has inspired not only her own webpage but also satires by Jagger, Dylan, and SNL as well as tributes from young devotees including Tori Amos, Geraldine Fibbers and Kim Fowley proteges The Rubbermaids. Somehow there is something lasting in what Longet had to say and especially the way that she expressed herself.

The legend continues, but where is Claudine? Has she finally faded into obscurity, or will she be seen and heard again? We want her, we need her, we love her. When will she return? That would be the happy end for which her fans ardently hope!