So far in this Retro-Ski season my Trivia questions haven’t generated many responses. So last week I chose a sure-fire question that I could count on for responses. “Who shot Spider Sabich?” And my readers didn’t disappoint!
I heard from Mark Anderson, Bob Marshall, Christopher Rynne, Bonny Mutty, Lyndall Heyer, and Dr. Gretchen Rous Besser. All identified Claudine Longet as the shooter!
Just a quick review for the younger readers in the audience. Vladimir “Spider” Sabich was an extremely good-looking, charismatic, fun-loving, Alpine ski racer in the 1960s and 1970s. His father gave him the nickname “Spider” at birth. Spider raced on the U.S. ski team for 4 years. At the 1968 Olympics he finished 5th in the slalom and 14th in the GS. In 1969 he ended up ranked 11th overall in the World Cup standings.
In 1970 Bob Beattie started a World Pro Ski Tour which featured a whole new racing format. Skiers raced head-to-head through elimination rounds until only two were left to compete in the finals. The courses included a couple of jumps amid the gates just to spice things up. It was a more TV-friendly format than the traditional ski race. Spider thrived in the new format winning the overall tour championships in 1971 and 1972. Sabich was the perfect star for the new pro tour with his all American looks and outgoing personality. Even though the amount of money Spider won on the tour wasn’t impressive, he made far more in endorsements.
At a celebrity ski race in 1972 Spider Sabich met Claudine Longet – an actress, singer, and the estranged wife of Andy Williams. The attraction between the two was mutual and immediate. Their relationship escalated and eventually Spider moved Claudine and her three children into his Aspen home.
In 1973 Jean Claude Killy came out of retirement and joined the World Pro Ski Tour. The result was a season-long battle between Killy and Sabich. In the finals, Spider fell on one of the jumps during the GS and suffered a compressed vertebra. He was unable to compete in the slalom the following day and Killy won the overall tour championship. The injury would impact Spider’s racing career and over the next three years he only won one race.
On March 21, 1976 he returned home from a meeting with Bob Beattie. Spider was preparing to take a shower when Claudine entered the bathroom carrying a pistol. While there are many versions of what happened next, the gun fired and the bullet struck Spider in the abdomen. Spider died in the ambulance from loss of blood.
Longet was charged with manslaughter. The trial would be one of those celebrity events that we have become used to, but in 1976 it was not as common. Andy Williams flew into Aspen to come to the aid of his ex-wife. Their divorce had been final in 1975. Williams would remain very visible throughout the trial escorting Claudine to the court house daily.
After four days of testimony the case was turned over to the jury. It took the jury under four hours to return a verdict of guilty on a lesser charge of criminally negligent homicide, a misdemeanor. That charge carried a maximum fine of $5000 and up to 2 years in jail; however the judge fined Longet $250 and sentenced her to 30 days in jail. Since she was the mother of three children, the judge allowed her to serve the sentence at a “time of her choosing.” The “time of her choosing” was delayed awhile as Claudine took off for a Mexican getaway with her Aspen lawyer, Ron Austin, who left his wife and family to be with her!
The Sabich family was outraged at the verdict and sentence. They filed a wrongful death suit against Claudine Longet. The suit was dropped after Longet signed a confidentiality agreement that prevented her from ever discussing the case.
There have been some updates since I last wrote a column about Spider ten years ago. Dr. Besser points out:
“Sabich came into his own in 2022. Aspen’s mayor proclaimed May 8 annual Spider Sabich Day at an arena bearing the ski celebrity’s name. A new documentary about Sabich, titled “Spider Lives,” debuted. Spider Sabich was inducted posthumously into the U.S. National Ski and Snowboard Hall of Fame.”
Claudine Longet is now 82 and is still married to her former lawyer, Ron Austin. For years they lived in Aspen, but this past year they listed their property for sale. They now live in Hawaii. If you’re interested, I believe the Aspen house is still available for $59.5 million!