In the tiny, celebrity-studded hamlet of Aspen, Colo. last week, newly printed bumper stickers jeered: IT’S ALL CLAUDINE’S FAULT. Her trial for the “reckless manslaughter” of 31-year-old Vladimir (“Spider”) Sabich had only just begun, but the verdict of the townspeople, nettled by their snow-less ski trails at peak season, was already in. Sabich, twice the World Pro Skiing champion, was a local hero. And Longet, 35, a former Vegas showgirl turned whispery chanteuse who had moved in with Sabich even before her divorce from singer Andy Williams, was regarded as the flighty, self-indulgent femme fatale.
Understandably, Claudine sees her life with Spider differently—almost as a pastoral of domestic accord. “The four years with Spider were the happiest and richest of my life,” she says. “We probably were everything that a man and woman should be to each other. He was my best friend.”
Nevertheless, in the purchased paradise of Aspen, where romances flourish and fade with changes in bank balances, their relationship seemed no deeper than many, only longer. Separated from Williams in 1970 (although she continued to perform with him on their annual Christmas TV show), Claudine met Sabich at a celebrity ski tournament in 1972. By 1975 she and her three children by Williams—Noelle, now 13, Christian, 11, and Robert, 7—had moved into the $250,000 stone-and-log chalet that Sabich built in the posh Starwood enclave just outside Aspen. It featured not only a sauna but a waterbed in the living room as well. Their laid-back life-style, Claudine says, came as a welcome relief from the family’s cotton candy existence in L.A. “Suddenly we began to depend on each other,” says Claudine. “Noelle and I became closer friends, and all of us chipped in to do things together—like cutting down our own Christmas tree in the woods. That’s quite a chore, especially when NBC always gave us a tree in previous years.”
She and Sabich enjoyed hiking and horseback riding when he wasn’t in training, and he became “a teacher and companion to the kids,” she recalls. “One time he had all of us out in front of the house planting seeds and carrying manure to fertilize them. There’s no way Andy would carry manure or roll around in the mud. The children love and cherish Andy, but they could tag along and do things with Spider.”
Still, their life together kept up with Aspen’s spirited pace. In a city where a “best breast” contest of topless young girls is a spring rite, where there is an average of one bar to every downtown block, and where the mayor once posed nude for a desk calendar, Sabich and Longet were not stay-at-homes. A Denver newspaper once characterized Aspen as the “cocaine capital of the U.S.,” and Spider and Claudine ran with a crowd that had a reputation for familiarity with the white powder.
Sabich’s career was set back by injuries in 1973 and 1974. In 1975, he made only $800 on the pro ski tour—while Longet’s divorce from Williams that year reportedly involved a million-dollar settlement. “Spider and I never talked about money,” she says, “and I never tried to give him any. He was the head of the house and there was no question about it.”
By last winter, Sabich’s friends say, their relationship had deteriorated, and he gave Claudine notice to move out by April 1. There were public quarrels, and on one occasion she pulled a chair out from under him. They were gossiped about. On the night of March 21, 1976, what her lawyers call an “accident” and what the prosecutor calls a careless blunder with a .22-caliber pistol left Sabich dead on his bathroom floor.
Longet says she barely remembers that night. At the hospital, she sat muttering to a sheriff’s deputy, “I shot Spider. It was an accident. I didn’t mean to do it.” For days, she recalls now, “I felt total despair, total lack of understanding of why it happened. I wasn’t aware of the rest of the world.” She told police that Sabich had been showing her how to use the gun when it went off—and a ballistics expert testified last week that the safety catch was defective.
After her arrest and subsequent release on bail, she slowly reassembled her life. “I started taking long walks—maybe an hour or two every day,” she says. “Then, on one of those walks, I noticed the grass was growing, and I was glad it was spring.”
Williams, at her side only hours after the shooting, was her anchor then and in the pretrial months. In the past, he frequently has had to calm the highly emotional Claudine. Some TV viewers recall his attempt to console her when she began crying uncontrollably during Bobby Kennedy’s funeral at St. Patrick’s Cathedral.
Last June Claudine bought a $153,000 Victorian house in “old Aspen,” across the street from the Aspen Institute. (“Fortunately, because of my financial position,” she says, “I don’t have to tolerate a boss or someone who is unpleasant.”) She also began teaching French twice a week at a local elementary school. “The love of my children and Andy’s help were the only things that kept me going,” she says. To those who wonder why she stayed in Aspen at all, she explains: “If I left, I’d be running away and taking my hurt somewhere else. I love this town and I’m part of it. Aspen is where I want to raise my children.” She says she is unafraid of those who dislike her: “If somebody called me a whore and a terrible person, I would not break,” she says, and adds, “Our house is not a sad house. I keep my hurt inside.”
The trial has put her future beyond her grasp. “Who knows?” she says. “I take one day at a time. I don’t want to work again [in show business]. That is behind me now. I want to ride horses and get a farm and raise chickens and ducks.” At the next moment she jokes about going to Tibet and studying archeology. “I change according to where I am and who I’m with,” she explains. “I loved to go to premieres with Andy dressed in a gown. I would imagine I was a princess and then giggle about how just three days before I was rolling around in the mud in Aspen.” She is dating no one now and seeing only a few close friends and her sister Danielle, 28, who lives in the L.A. area. Thinking of the future reminds her of the past. “Spider and I,” she says, “were really pals. When we were together there was constant laughter and adventure. He taught me how to fly, explore, laugh and play. Maybe nobody will ever fill that space.”