She was born Mary Eileen “Mimi” Chesterson in St. Paul, Minnesota on December 20th, 1949 – though I have seen sources name her birthplace as Milwaukee and as Evanston. As I understand it, soon after her birth her parents relocated to the Chicago suburb of Evanston where her father began work for Motorola. To the chagrin of her parents, “A student” Mimi opted to pass on college and pursue her dreams of being an actress/model. One of the first jobs she took to support herself was as a receptionist at the Chicago offices of Playboy Magazine. It was there the green-eyed redhead caught a photographer’s eye, which resulted in some test shots. Eventually she went on to become the centerfold in the November 1969 issue. Her name was changed to “protect” her two younger sisters, so Mimi became Claudia Jennings – who eventually became Playboy Playmate of the Year 1970.

Claudia used the celebrity to launch her film career. She promptly made her film debut in the Vietnam drama ‘Jud’. Next, she moved to Los Angeles and quickly began a relationship with musician/songwriter Bobby Hart (he wrote ‘Hurt So Bad’, ‘Last Train to Clarksville’, and ‘I’m Not Your Steppin’ Stone’ among others). Next she appeared in the film adaptation of the Jacqueline Susann trash-fest ‘The Love Machine’ (starring John Phillip Law and Dyan Cannon) followed closely by ‘The Stepmother’.

In 1972 Claudia had her first breakout part – as a vicious and bitchy roller derby queen in ‘Unholy Rollers’. (This one came out the same year as Raquel Welch’s ‘Kansas City Bomber’, and it’s much better!) The film was also the first to show Ms. Jennings’ athleticism. As an actress she exuded physical energy. Her future as an action star didn’t start just yet though – some more minor parts followed – ’40 Carats’, ‘Group Marriage’, and ‘The Single Girls’.

Then along came a luscious little horror flick ‘Sisters of Death’ (1972) about a reunion of sorority sisters. Years earlier a girl had been killed in a hazing gone terribly wrong. Now “The Sisters” are together again and someone is killing the surviving gals one by one. Hmmm…sounds like a precursor to a lot of similarly plotted movies. ‘Sisters of Death ‘ costarred Cheri Howell, Sherry Boucher, and Paul Carr. It wasn’t actually released until 1978 when it cashed in on both the horror craze and Claudia’s name.

Next came the first of what would be Claudia’s signature films – ‘Truck Stop Women’ (1974). In this one Claudia plays Rose, the rebellious daughter of truck stop/whorehouse entrepreneur Anna (Lieux Dessler). Feisty Rose sides with L.A. mobsters to run her mother out of business. What’s a mother to do? Her next role was in ‘Gator Bait’ (1976). In this action flick she headlines as a Cajun Bayou poacher out to clear her name of murder. Before you can say, “Hot damn!” she has a bowie knife at some varmint’s throat vowing revenge. Next came ‘Moonshine County Express’ (1977) which concerned three sisters out to fight the crooked sheriff for their right to run their daddy’s moonshine still --- yeehaw! – With Susan “Dallas” Howard, B-movie staple John Saxon, William “Cannon” Conrad, and Maureen “Marcia Brady” McCormick. (Ironically, Claudia had also appeared on ‘The Brady Bunch’ as Tami Cutler, the hippie chick who sees “talent” in Greg and wants to transform him into rock star Johnny Bravo.) That same summer Claudia Jennings came blasting across America’s drive-in screens as Candy Morgan in ‘The Great Texas Dynamite Chase’ (1977). This violent feminist outlaw tale (way pre-Thelma and Louise) was about two female thieves (Candy and Ellie-Jo) on a wild ass bank-robbing spree…and they LIVE at the end…and without even being punished! This one costarred Jocelyn Jones (as Ellie-Jo) and Johnny Crawford. By the time she made ‘Deathsport’ in 1978 Claudia Jennings had a solid fan base and following, solid enough to costar opposite the then very popular post Kung-fu David Carradine. ‘Deathsport’ was Roger Corman’s futuristic bikers and barbarians follow up to ‘Death Race 2000’ and costarred B-movie favorite Jesse Vint and Richard Lynch.

Whew. That is some serious drive-in fare. Unforgettable in her denim cutoffs and a halter-top, Claudia Jennings was unrivalled Queen of the Hicksploitation film craze of the 1970s. She was the denim & cut-offs babe of the bicentennial year – girl most likely to be drink from a XXX whiskey jug, strip down and swim in a muddy creek, pack a rifle in her pick-up, and use her fists if need be. She was a new kind of woman, a deliciously violent feminist icon.

For variety Claudia also managed to make an appearance in the David Bowie classic ‘The Man Who Fell to Earth’ in 1976. Claudia also came very close to nabbing two roles, which would have changed her career dramatically. She had the athletic grace and fighting skills to hold her own as an action heroine…and she was second choice to being Wonder Woman on the TV-series, but the part went to Lynda Carter. The other role Claudia was tagged for was to replace Kate Jackson on ‘Charlie’s Angels’, but network execs weren’t too keen on having this former Playboy Playmate on a prominent role in a weekly series. As a result they wimped out, caving in to fears over sponsor reaction. They passed on Claudia and gave the role to Shelley Hack! Talk about the swift hand of karma!

Earlier Claudia had injured herself filming a stunt in ‘The Great Texas Dynamite Chase’. The injury required filming to be halted for several days and eventually drugs were used to alleviate the pain and get her before the cameras again. Around this time there were also some Claudia Jennings’ rumors beginning to surface regarding cocaine use and a wild L.A. nightlife --- but hey, it was still the 70s. Why the fuck not? There were some bad signs – Claudia was losing weight, going through a string of unsavory lovers and rocky relationships, and becoming difficult on the set. The hellcat apparently even got into an actual physical fight with the director of ‘Deathsport’

Her final film was David Cronenberg’s drag racing movie ‘Fast Company’ in 1979 costarring William Smith and (him again!) John Saxon. Now if only Cronenberg would have put Claudia Jennings in one of his regular movies. The iconic director made the atypical ‘Fast Company’ between his goreiffic classics ‘Rabid’ and ‘The Brood’.

On October 3rd 1979 Claudia was driving her Volkswagen convertible down Topanga Canyon Boulevard, en route to her move the rest of her stuff out of her ex-boyfriend’s apartment, when she fell asleep behind the wheel and collided with a van. She died as paramedics were getting her out of the accident wreckage. That wonderfully promising and “alive” screen presence was only 29, just 10 weeks shy of her 30th birthday.