It began on a bleak Nov. 29 when Jill St. John sent flowers and a note of condolence to Robert Wagner following the tragic drowning of Wagner’s actress wife, Natalie Wood. St. John, 42, had known Natalie since childhood, and she and R.J., as friends call him, had been pals since the two were contract players at Fox in the 1950s.
Two months later they crossed paths at a dinner party. It was a rare social foray for the grieving Wagner, 52, who was dividing his time between filming his TV series, Hart to Hart, and caring for his three daughters. The party, however, was a catalyst. “That was it,” recalls St. John’s friend and business partner Jayne Smith. “R.J. just started calling. They started dating and have been ever since. She’s really in love.”
It would seem so. After 10 years of living in Aspen in semiretirement from her sexpot roles and starlet notoriety, St. John now rents a chic duplex apartment a mile down the road from the electronically guarded Wagner home in Beverly Hills. When he traveled to Vermont in June to shoot a feature film, I Am the Cheese, with E.T.’s Robert Macnaughton, Jill slipped off to join him. In Aspen, the two were seen holding hands and window-shopping. A Hawaiian vacation strengthened talk of a deepening relationship (though each registered separately at the Mauna Kea Hotel), and Jill’s appearance with Wagner and his children at the Beverly Hills High graduation of his eldest daughter, Kate, turned the topic to marriage.
Wagner, still recovering from his wife’s death, flatly denies any wedding plans and, friends say, is devoted to the children. Jill discreetly refuses to discuss their relationship at all. “I’ve had friendships with some truly outstanding men, and I believe one of the things they like about me is that I never talk about them,” she says. Nonetheless, she admits: “It’s marvelous to be enjoying a relationship with a friend of 20 years. There is so much trust and understanding.”
Indeed, St. John has always found those qualities in short supply in Hollywood. Given her flamboyant reputation, she also knows there are some who will judge her an unlikely replacement for Wood as mother to Kate, 18 (Wagner’s child by second wife Marion Marshall), Natasha, 11 (Natalie’s child by second husband Richard Gregson), and Courtney, 8 (the only child of both Wagner and Wood). But Jill has long since come to terms with her old image. “I know who I am and those who care about me know who I am,” she states. Later she adds proudly, “I get along beautifully with R.J.’s children.”
St. John notes that her return to Los Angeles last summer had nothing to do with Wagner. After a decade of self-imposed exile, she came back, she says, “because I miss acting. I never wanted to let my name die.” Her first effort was a modest independent film, Concrete Jungle (due next month), in which she plays a crazed prison warden. It’s a far cry from her real ambition—”good comedy”—but at least it wasn’t “another sex symbol or bikini role.” Last spring she filmed the pilot for ABC’s Matt Houston series, and she will co-host ABC’s The Celebrity Daredevils with William Shatner in October. There’s also talk of a Hart to Hart guest shot as the socialite sister of Stefanie Powers, whom she closely resembles. Her well-publicized relationship with Wagner hasn’t hurt her comeback, but St. John denies she’s using it. “I want my films to be noticed,” she admits, “but I believe that personal happiness is still greater than any career.”
Many of her friends and co-workers affirm her sincerity. Daredevils producer Bernie Rothman remembers Jill as “all fluttery and sweet” during the early days of the Wagner courtship. “She couldn’t wait to see him,” says Rothman. As for those who resent her, C.C. Huston—ex-wife of director John Huston and Jill’s pal for 25 years—has a theory: “People are jealous because Jill has always been a glamour puss. What can you say about a woman who’s nice, gorgeous, smart, and has dated only the most wonderful men? Nothing good! It’s pathetic, but Jill will rise above it.”
Born Jill Oppenheim, the only child of an L.A. restaurateur and a housewife, St. John has long been accustomed to making her own way. Her mother gave her the first push toward local theater at 5, but Jill took over from there. At 10, she toured with Martha Raye in Annie Get Your Gun and studied at the Panaieff Ballet Center in Hollywood, where her classmates included Natalie Wood and Stefanie Powers. “The three of us were very friendly,” remembers St. John, noting that their showbiz aspirations separated them from the other students. Wood, however, was a child star at the time, and Jill remembers being jealous of Natalie’s gold ballet slippers.
Soon enough St. John was mining gold of her own. It wasn’t just sexy airhead roles in Summer Love and Come Blow Your Horn and Diamonds are Forever. Press agents made hay of her supposed 162 IQ (she enrolled in UCLA’s Extension School at 15), but Jill jokes that “there have been many times when I haven’t used it.” She dated the likes of Henry Kissinger, Frank Sinatra, Brazilian playboy-industrialist “Baby” Pignatari, David Frost, Italian jeweler Gianni Bulgari, Sean Connery and millionaire horseman Ogden Phipps. Though she made a film—1961’s The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone—with her male counterpart in prodigious dating, Warren Beatty, the two never clicked. “I’m probably one of the few who doesn’t know him that way,” she says with a laugh.
If her sex life won her some bad press—”Too Many Jacks for Jill,” chided one headline—her three failed marriages served her no better. At 16, she eloped with laundry heir Neil Dubin, then 22. But they separated after four weeks and divorced a year later. In testimony, she reportedly complained that his verbal abuse gave her “hives.” At 19, she married race car driver and Woolworth heir Lance Reventlow, then 24, and learned to wear jewelry from his mother, socialite extraordinaire Barbara Hutton. Today she keeps the gems in several vaults. “I haven’t seen them in years,” she says. “I don’t live that way now.”
Her divorce from Reventlow after three years was not bitter, nor was her split from singer Jack Jones, after two years, in 1969. But it’s clear that Reventlow meant the most to her. His death in a plane crash in 1972 gave her empathy for Wagner’s tragic loss. “Much of Lance stayed with me,” she says, her eyes misting. “We remained friends as long as he lived.” St. John recalls that she met Lance by chance shortly before his death and spent an afternoon reminiscing with him and a few friends. “We just laughed and told stories,” she says. “I believe God was so good to give me that last, wonderful afternoon.”
In retrospect, it’s not surprising that St. John left Hollywood in 1971 for the quiet of Aspen, Colo. As she put it, “When I became 30 I felt I deserved my gold watch and a send-off dinner.”
Instead, she settled for a rambling two-bedroom wood-and-glass house on six acres in Aspen’s exclusive Star-wood enclave. “It was time in my life for a new experience, and I had no idea how wonderful it could be,” says St. John, who took to raising vegetables, orchids and peonies. “I found great spirituality in the mountains.” She started a designer sweater business, Smith-St. John, Ltd. with her friend Jayne Smith. But Aspen wasn’t always mellow. She still winces over the day when her red husky, Ruby, was shot dead by a neighboring rancher. “That was the only time I wished I was a man,” says St. John. “I would have liked to punch him in the nose. But now I realize that’s his karma and it will all work out.” She’s kept the Aspen property and visits often. For the rest, says St. John, “I enjoyed and still enjoy solitude. It’s a great luxury for me. I was alone, but I certainly wasn’t lonely.”
This time around, thanks to Wagner and her own maturity, she seems to be taking the Hollywood trip more carefully. But she hasn’t lost her ambition or savvy. She says the notion of an ongoing role on Hart to Hart with Wagner doesn’t interest her a bit (though she did the pilot for the show with him and Powers in 1979). “I want to do my own show rather than be a subsidiary part of another,” she reasons.
St. John practices yoga, drives a black 1979 VW convertible and rarely drinks except for an occasional gin and water. Though she looks a decade younger than she is, the prospect of aging holds no terror. “Good memories are better than an unlined face or the biggest diamond in the world,” she says. Her new relationship with Wagner, to whom she now shyly refers as “my boyfriend” among friends, has clearly brought important changes. “I think people who are happy just look better,” she says brightly. “And I am very, very happy.”