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Jill St. John Young, Then And Now: A Bond Girl's Career

Entertainment | April 7, 2020

Jill St. John in 'Diamonds Are Forever' (1971). Source: IMDB

As the first American to play a Bond girl, Jill St. John cemented her place in film history with her turn as Tiffany Case in Diamonds are Forever (1971). But St. John was a well-known actress before Bond, and her career continued long afterward -- her list of co-stars, in addition to Sean Connery, runs the gamut from Jerry Lewis to Dean Martin to Robert Wagner, and even Adam West, TV's Batman. St. John has been in the business since she was child, and she even popped up on Seinfeld in the ‘90s. Few Bond Girls can boast the longevity of Jill St. John.

Jill was acting from a young age

source: reddit

St. John is a Los Angeles native, the kind of person who you assume will end up in the movie business some day, but she wasn’t always a St. John. She was born Jill Arlyn Oppenheim in 1940 and studied at the Children's Ballet Company with Natalie Wood. She was Tinseltown through and through. While Jill was studying ballet her mother changed her last name to St. John to make her more "Hollywood" sounding. As stage-mommish as that sounds, it worked. St. John began acting on the radio when she was only six and she made her screen debut in a made-for-TV presentation of A Christmas Carol in 1949. While regular kids were going to school St. John was acting alongside George Burns and appearing on television regularly. She graduated from high school when she was 14 years old and enrolled at UCLA’s extension school the next year.

She signed a contract with Universal when she was 16

source: amazon

One year after enrolling at UCLA’s extension school, St. John was signed to a contract with Universal Pictures. This was 1957 so she was only making $200 a week, but that’s not bad for a teenager. In 1958 she made her major studio film debut in Summer Love and she started popping up on shows like Schlitz Playhouse and The DuPont Show. A year later St. John made a move to 20th Century Fox where she appeared in what she called “starlet parts.” She was unhappy about playing daughters, girlfriends, and women who needed help. Even though her casting didn’t change as she went into the ‘60s she continued working.

Comedy turned things around for her

source: Paramount Pictures

It’s clear that people enjoyed St. John’s work both inside the studio system and in the audience. Following her divorce from her second husband in 1963 she changed herself completely. Her appearance in Come Blow Your Horn opposite Frank Sinatra earned her a Golden Globe nomination in 1963. When asked about the critical response to her role she noted, “I’ve never pretended to be a dramatic actress, but I’m very funny.” While her role in Diamonds Are Forever eclipsed everything else she did, it was her work in the early ‘60s that played a major part in shifting the public’s perception about her. She was no longer just an ingenue, she was a funny leading lady who could hang out and flirt with the boys.

Tiffany Case was the thinking man's Bond girl

source: united artists

As the first American Bond girl Jill St. John had a lot riding on her performance. It’s not that audiences were showing up specifically to see the new Bond girl, but this was an important move for the series as a whole. Unlike many of the Bond girls before her St. John was able to inject her own personal sense of humor into her role. St. John says the success of this character is based in the fact that she’s just as smart as Bond, if not smarter. She said, “[Tiffany’s] a very smart lady. She's a survivor... In some ways, she's a lot like me…”

Following Diamonds Are Forever She Phased Herself Out Of Hollywood

source: reddit

St. John wasn’t finished with acting after Diamonds Are Forever but she was tired of all of the work that went into being famous, things that she felt were inconsequential to the work that she wanted to do. She explained:

Glamour isn't something worth while to strive for. It's almost a 1940 word... Any kind of glamour starts with health - physical and emotional health. I do yoga and meditate... My entire goal in life is to achieve peace of mind and inner happiness. It's such a drag to exercise, to get your hair done every day, all that narcissism... I could understand why, having passed that point of being a movie queen, that said, 'Oh, the hell with it,' and let it all hang out.

Jill St. John, Culinary Goddess

source: getty images

As St. John acted less and less following Diamonds Are Forever. She mostly appeared in TV movies and on shows like The Love Boat and Fantasy Island, which isn’t really what she wanted to do (no one loves being in TV movies) so rather than continue to grind away she moved to Aspen, Colorado and started focusing on her cooking. Her love of cooking led to a new career as culinary personality. She appeared on Good Morning America and even had a column in USA Weekend throughout the ’80s that was later compiled into the Jill St. John cookbook.

While she was disconnecting from Hollywood she was still keeping in touch with on again off again scene partner Robert Wagner. They met in 1959 and got together in 1982 but finally married in 1990. The two made small appearances together in The Player and Seinfeld. 

Tags: Bond Girls | Jill St. John | Ladies | Then And Now

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Jacob Shelton

Writer

Jacob Shelton is a Los Angeles based writer. For some reason this was the most difficult thing he’s written all day, and here’s the kicker – his girlfriend wrote the funny part of that last sentence. As for the rest of the bio? That’s pure Jacob, baby. He’s obsessed with the ways in which singular, transgressive acts have shaped the broader strokes of history, and he believes in alternate dimensions, which means that he’s great at a dinner party. When he’s not writing about culture, pop or otherwise, he’s adding to his found photograph collection and eavesdropping on strangers in public.