I regularly wrote in these pages (and will no doubt do so again) that many of our Sirens don’t seem to age in their years of retirement. But this time we must talk about a beauty that came to a tragic end, never to live out her twilight years. Such is the case with Claudia Jennings, Queen of the Drive-Ins.
She was born Mary Eileen Chesterson (nicknamed Mimi) in St.Paul, Minnesota, on February 20, 1949. Her family moved to a Chicago suburb, Evanston, as the father found in a job at Motorola. Mimi is the eldest of three sisters and at the age of 10, found herself enrolled at Marquette University to study Dramatic Arts. The youngster was fascinated by acting and was soon doing so in local plays. Of course, she would be active in college theater and could be seen, in August 1967, in a short film shot by a fellow student as a school project.
An excellent student, Mimi still disappointed her parents with the announcement that she was dropping her academic life to become a full-part actress/model, as they were still thinking that she would go to some prestigious university. She found herself an apartment and began the typical hard life of any aspiring comedienne. So, a receptionist job was found at the offices of Playboy Magazine, to make ends meet. Not surprisingly, she would eventually be asked to participate in a photo-shoot, with Hugh Hefner, the ultimate Bunnyman himself, becoming her mentor. In the November 1969 issue, Claudia Jennings is the featured Playmate, none other than our Mimi, now renamed for the sake of her young sisters. The green-eyed redhead would become one of the most popular Playmates of the seventies (interestingly, even with a small chest).
Still in 1969, Claudia made her feature film debut in Jud, an independent production having the Vietnam war as its theme. She then moved to Los Angeles and began a relationship with musician Bobby Hart. Some minor roles on television would follow, and even an off-Broadway show in New York. Claudia then decided to find herself a reputed agent to represent her, as she was already tired of being offered undeserving work based only by her looks and Playboy reputation. Soon after, Claudia could be seen in Willy and Scratch and The Love Machine, both in 1971. 1972 remains a strong year, as Claudia starred in Unholy Rollers, a B-movie based on the roller derby craze (already visited in the Raquel Welch project Kansas City Bomber of the same year). It was her biggest role to date (and still one of her best), with Martin Scorsese as an editor! Claudia followed with Group Marriage, 40 Carats and The Single Girls. Then would come the obscure thriller Sisters of Death.
Meanwhile, Claudia was now living with Hart and his son, with lots of orphaned animals and continuous house guests. She would begin her legendary drive-in work in such classics as Truck Stop Women and Gator Bait, now becoming a sexy action-movie star, playing hard-to-handle characters. Ironically, she would even find the time to appear on a Brady Bunch episode in 1973. The next year, she guest-starred on an episode of the series The FBI alongside Harvey Keitel. Of course, she remained faithful to Playboy, spoiling us with many more pictorials over the years. Interesting to note that all this “bad girl” roles were coming from a well educated and cultured young woman.
In 1975, Claudia was one of the 2000 hopefuls waiting in line to be the next Wonder Woman for an eventual TV series. Of course, Lynda Carter became a legend in her own way in being the chosen one. Claudia was then seen alongside David Bowie for the sci-fi classic The Man Who Fell to Earth, the two beginning an hallucinogenic relationship, as Claudia had just broken up with Bobby Hart. Legendary producer Roger Corman hired her for the cult film The Great Texas Dynamite Chase. Unluckily, she would hurt herself during a stunt, stopping the entire production for two weeks. She lost 10 pounds and began taking drugs to finish shooting. Some rumors claimed that she was difficult to work with.
Claudia began a new relationship, this time with the director of her current project (Moonshine County Express), Gary Graver. During their time together, her attitude turned for the worst, she still lost weight and began hanging around with dubious individuals to enjoy the California nightlife. Cast in Deathsport with David Carradine, this turned out to be another difficult shoot where she apparently physically fought it out with the director! Cocaine was a big problem. In 1978, Claudia came to Canada to star in David Cronenberg’s least known movie, Fast Company, with the immortal William Smith. This was to be her final movie project, as she was now floating from short-lived liaison to short-lived liaison.
Claudia remained certain that she would be chosen to replace Kate Jackson in Charlie’s Angels… but Shelley Hack was finally elected. Disillusioned by her career, men, and Hollywood, she decided to put her life on the right tracks. But on October 3, 1979, as she was driving her Volkswagen on Topanga Canyon Boulevard, she was hit by a van. Claudia Jennings would die in the hands of the medics trying to get her out of the wreckage. The memory of this tragedy still gets to me, as she’s still very present in the minds of her many fans, old and new alike, more than twenty-five years after she passed on. Isn’t this the ultimate legacy of any Cult Siren?
1971 Jud; The Love Machine; The Stepmother 1972 Group Marriage; Unholy Rollers 1973 40 Carats; The Single Girls 1974 Truck Stop Women 1976 The Man Who Fell to Earth; Gator Bait 1977 The Great Texas Dynamite Chase; Moonshine County Express; 1978 Sisters of Death; Deathsport 1979 Fast Company