Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Girls of Grindhouse: Claudia Jennings

I've been planning on writing about Claudia Jennings for some time but I've been procrastinating because the story of this curvaceous redhead is a such a tragic one... and also because she's topless in practically every picture.  But now that BiHS is no longer rated PG, I can post some of the booby pics.  I'll get to the tragic part in a little bit.

Claudia Jennings entered the world on February 20, 1949 in St. Paul, Minnesota with the name of Mary Eileen "Mimi" Chesterton. She was the oldest of three sisters and the daughter of a sales manager for Motorola and a mother who was a college professor.  Shortly after her birth, the family moved to the Chicago suburb of Evanston, Illinois because of her father's job.

She graduated high school in 1968 as an "A" student but disappointed her parents by choosing not to pursue a post-secondary education, but rather a career as an actress and model instead.  She joined the House Hill theater company and in order to support herself she got a job as a receptionist at Playboy magazine, and it wasn't long before she was noticed and was offered the opportunity to pose for the gentleman's magazine.  She first became a centerfold in the November 1969 issue and then again as Playmate of the Year in 1970.  It was at this time that Mary Eileen decided to change her name to Claudia Jennings in order to protect the good standing of her family name and her two younger sisters.

Claudia used her new "exposure" to launch a film career and made her debut as Sunny in the Vietnam drama Jud (1971).  Shortly thereafter she moved to Los Angeles and began a relationship with Bobby Hart, the musician/songwriter responsible for such "classics" as "Last Train to Clarksville" and Hurt So Bad."  She landed some minor roles on television and was also in an off Broadway show in New York, but was only being cast in roles because of her looks and Playboy notoriety.  She decided to get an agent who would represent her based on her acting merits and soon she was back on the big screen.  Of course, this wasn't simply because of her acting.  In 1971 she was in Willy and Scratch and The Love Machine, then The Stepmother in 1972.  Also in 1972, Claudia had a starring role as the bitchy roller derby queen in the cult film, Unholy Rollers.  More and more "B-movie" roles came her way.

Claudia's star continued to rise and she became one of the queens of grindhouse era, starring in exploitation classics like 'Gator Bait and Truckstop Women.  She was even on an episode of "The Brady Bunch" and was on the short list to play Wonder Woman in the television series of the same name, but ultimately lost the role to Lynda Carter.

In 1975, things started to go bad.  Claudia's relationship with Bobby Hart fell apart and she moved out on her own.  Depression followed.  While filming The Great Texas Dynamite Chase, Claudia injured herself and shooting was postponed for several weeks.  She was given drugs for the pain and during her downtime she lost 10 pounds.  Rumors of unruly behavior and cocaine use started to spread.  She began an affair with Gary Graver, the director of her next film, Moonshine County Express and her behavior became even more erratic.  She began hanging out with seedy individuals, partying and losing more weight.  She went from one rocky relationship to the next and by this point, the cocaine use was no longer just a rumor.  Her drug use was taking over her life.  She continued to act, but was even more belligerent on set and even threw down with the director of Deathsport in 1978.  Also that year Claudia traveled to Canada to work on one of Cronenberg's lesser known films, Fast Company.  It would be her last.

Her career was falling apart but she was hopeful and confident that she would replace Kate Jackson on "Charlie's Angels."  It's rumored that Aaron Spelling wanted her in the role, but because of her previous Playboy spreads, the role was given to Shelley Hack.  Devastated and now disillusioned with the Hollywood lifestyle, she vowed to get clean and put her life and career back on track.

On October 3rd, 1979 Claudia Jennings was driving her Volkswagen convertible down Topanga Canyon Boulevard to collect some personal items from ex-boyfriend, Stan Herman's home.  She fell asleep at the wheel and was struck by a van.  She died as medics were attending to her.  The autopsy revealed that there were no drugs in her system at the time of death.  She was 29 years old.