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A popular sex symbol of film and television throughout the 1960s and 1970s, actress Jill St. John was as known for her high-wattage boyfriends as she was for her roles on screen. Signed with a major studio while still in her teens, St. John played spunky daughters in a slew of comedies like "Summer Love" (1958) prior to emerging as a sultry starlet in efforts like "The Lost World" (1960) and "Who's Been Sleeping in My Bed?" (1963). Throughout this period, several short-lived marriages to millionaires, race car drivers and singers competed for attention with St. John in films like "The Oscar" (1966) and "Tony Rome" (1967), the latter film starring Frank Sinatra, just one of her reported love interests at the time. Her most notable film role came in the form of Tiffany Case, the first American Bond Girl opposite Sean Connery's British Secret agent in "Diamonds Are Forever" (1971). Although she continued to appear periodically in film and on television, St. John entered a period of semi-retirement in Colorado before gaining a certain degree of infamy as the woman who comforted grieving widower Robert Wagner after the sad and suspicious drowning death of revered actress Natalie Wood in 1981. Despite her...
A popular sex symbol of film and television throughout the 1960s and 1970s, actress Jill St. John was as known for her high-wattage boyfriends as she was for her roles on screen. Signed with a major studio while still in her teens, St. John played spunky daughters in a slew of comedies like "Summer Love" (1958) prior to emerging as a sultry starlet in efforts like "The Lost World" (1960) and "Who's Been Sleeping in My Bed?" (1963). Throughout this period, several short-lived marriages to millionaires, race car drivers and singers competed for attention with St. John in films like "The Oscar" (1966) and "Tony Rome" (1967), the latter film starring Frank Sinatra, just one of her reported love interests at the time. Her most notable film role came in the form of Tiffany Case, the first American Bond Girl opposite Sean Connery's British Secret agent in "Diamonds Are Forever" (1971). Although she continued to appear periodically in film and on television, St. John entered a period of semi-retirement in Colorado before gaining a certain degree of infamy as the woman who comforted grieving widower Robert Wagner after the sad and suspicious drowning death of revered actress Natalie Wood in 1981. Despite her previous marital track record, St. John's marriage to Wagner in 1990 stood the test of time, with the former Hollywood sex kitten clearly enjoying the second phase of her life and career.
Born Jill Arlyn Oppenheim on Aug. 19, 1940 in Los Angeles, she was the daughter of Betty Lou Goldberg and Edward Oppenheim, a restaurateur. From the earliest of ages, Mrs. Oppenheim saw a budding performer in her pretty and precocious daughter, who landed her first professional work as an entertainer on a local radio program at the age of five. After adopting the surname of "St. John" - at her mother's suggestion - the aspiring performer toured on stage with Martha Raye in a production of "Annie Get Your Gun" and enrolled at the popular Panaieff Ballet Center in Hollywood. It was at the dance academy where she met and befriended a pair of future female stars, Stephanie Powers and Natalie Wood, with whom St. John would remain close throughout the remainder of their lives. By the age of nine, the driven young performer made her television debut with a role on the series "Sandy Dreams" (ABC, 1949) and a supporting turn as Missie Cratchit in an adaptation of "The Christmas Carol" (syndicated, 1949), narrated by Vincent Price. While a student at the Hollywood Professional School, St. James continued to pick up guest spots on such programs as "The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show" (CBS, 1950-58) and the long-running aviation adventure "Sky King" (NBC/ABC, 1951-55), prior to graduating from Hollywood Professional in 1955.
For the first of many times, St. John's romantic proclivities raised eyebrows after the 16-year-old ran off to Las Vegas and married millionaire Neil Durbin, the heir to a linen company fortune, in 1957. The marriage would last less than a year. That same year, the young ingénue was signed to a contract with Universal Pictures, and after a few more television guest appearances, she made her feature film debut in the musical comedy-romance "Summer Love" (1958). A pair of Clifton Webb family-comedies - "The Remarkable Mr. Pennymaker" (1959) and "Holiday for Lovers" (1959) - quickly followed. The 20-year-old graduated from playing precocious teens to vivacious leading ladies with her co-starring turn opposite Claude Rains and Michael Rennie in Irwin Allen's big-budget adaptation of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's dinosaur adventure "The Lost World" (1960). Of more interest to many entertainment reporters that year, however, was St. John's second marriage, this time to Lance Reventlow, a sports car racer and son of Woolworth heiress Barbara Hutton.
St. John's film career picked up steam throughout the decade with supporting roles in features like the romance "The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone" (1961), starring Warren Beatty and Vivien Leigh. A steady stream of appearances followed with roles in the Frank Sinatra vehicle "Come Blow Your Horn" (1963), the Jerry Lewis farce "Who's Minding the Store" (1963), and the Dean Martin romantic comedy "Who's Been Sleeping In My Bed?" (1963). While none of these features became the breakout hit she was hoping for, St. John kept her profile high with work in the marriage comedy "Honeymoon Hotel" (1964), the spy-spoof "The Liquidator" (1965) and the Hollywood melodrama "The Oscar" (1966). Intermingled with the film roles were appearances on such popular television series as "Batman" (ABC, 1966-68) and "The Big Valley" (ABC, 1965-69). With her marriage to Reventlow having ended four years earlier, St. James exchanged yet another set of vows with singer Jack Jones in 1967, only to divorce for a third time two years later. Over the next decade, the sultry starlet was linked to such influential men as Frank Sinatra, Jack Nicholson and even future Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger.
St. John worked alongside Natalie Wood's handsome husband Robert Wagner - who St. John had first met during her early days as a contract player for Universal - in the made-for-TV mystery-adventure "How I Spent My Summer Vacation" (NBC, 1967) and again in the sports melodrama "Banning" (1967). Now one of Hollywood's most popular screen sex kittens, the red-haired starlet also took part in more B-movie fare like the seafaring romp "The King's Pirate" (1967) and the hard-boiled Sinatra crime drama "Tony Rome" (1967). St. John also had roles in a pair of made-for-TV secret agent thrillers, "The Spy Killer" (ABC, 1969) and "Foreign Exchange" (ABC, 1970), before moving up to the big leagues of the genre as the first American Bond Girl, Tiffany Case, opposite Sean Connery in the 007 action-adventure "Diamonds are Forever" (1971). Coincidentally, the other Bond Girl in the film was Lana Wood, sister of Natalie Wood. Other work of the period included a co-starring turn in the lurid thriller "Sitting Target" (1972) as the unfaithful wife of Oliver Reed's brutish escaped convict and a return to television in the musical Western-comedy "Saga of Sonora" (NBC, 1973).
By the middle of the decade, the frequency of St. John's appearances greatly decreased from the hectic pace she had maintained during the height of her popularity in the mid-'60s. After a few years away from the screen, she returned as the titular intrepid reporter with a nose for danger in "Brenda Starr" (ABC, 1976) and later made a guest appearance on "Hart to Hart" (ABC, 1979-1984), a popular adventure-romance series starring her friend Wagner and another of her old ballet school chums, Stephanie Powers. Guest appearances remained a lucrative line of work for St. Johns, who - although semi-retired and living in Colorado at the time - popped up on a number of other hit shows, including "The Love Boat" (ABC, 1977-1986), "Fantasy Island" (ABC,1977-1984), "Magnum P.I." (CBS, 1980-88) and "Matt Houston" (ABC, 1982-85). Tragedy struck close to home in 1981 after Natalie Wood drowned while aboard a yacht off the coast of Santa Catalina Island with Wagner and actor Christopher Walken, with whom Wood was currently making a film. A combination of factors - not the least of which included the mysterious circumstances surrounding Wood's death and St. John's sordid history of romantic involvements - raised eyebrows when the grieving husband and his former co-star began dating in 1982, just months after Wood's death.
Turning away from the type of sexpot roles that made her famous, St. John explored her dramatic abilities as the villainous warden of a women's prison in the exploitation movie "The Concrete Jungle" (1982). She then tried her hand at regular series TV as Deanna Kincaid on the short-lived primetime soap "Emerald Point N.A.S." (1983-84), opposite fellow Bond Girl Maud Adams. As a longtime culinary enthusiast, St. Johns began to explore other creative avenues, appearing periodically as a cooking expert on "Good Morning America" (ABC, 1975- ), taking on an editorial position with the USA Weekend Sunday Magazine and releasing The Jill St. John Cookbook in 1987. At last, after nearly a decade of speculation, the actress wed Wagner in 1990, although for some, the shadow of Wood's tragic demise still loomed over the relationship. Regardless, the couple enjoyed their newly minted status, appearing together on screen in a variety of projects, including the Robert Altman Hollywood satire "The Player" (1992) and in the famous 1997 "The Yada Yada" episode of "Seinfeld" (NBC, 1990-98). A spate of independent films that included "Something to Believe In" (1998), "The Trip" (2002) and "The Calling" (2002) rounded out St. John's list of credits for the next 10 years.
Painful memories were revisited for St. John and her husband in November of 2011 when the case surrounding Natalie Wood's drowning death was reopened after Dennis Davern, the captain of the boat they were on board that night, admitted that he lied during the initial police investigation in 1981. In Davern's opinion, an argument between Wagner and Wood that night led to the actress' drowning death. After months of continued investigation, Wood's death certificate was amended, stating that there were "undetermined factors" which led to her drowning and what led to her being in the ocean in the first place was "not clearly established." With police refusing to discuss further details in the case, tabloid speculation ran rampant, forcing St. John and Wagner to once weather the storm of public scrutiny.
By Bryce Coleman
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