In the spotlight…..                       

Claudette Colbert

1903 - 1996


a fountain of beauty and a force

to be reckoned with...

 


           

.but to tell her story we must also tell the story of the women in her life...the grandmother who taught her, the mother who fought her and the adopted aunt who nurtured her.


Claudette at age 2

 

Our star was born in Saint-Mande, a suburb of Paris, on September 13, 1903, the second child of Georges Claude Chauchoin and his wife, Jeanne Marie. The Chauchoins already had a son, Charles Auguste, born 5 years earlier and the apple of his mother's eye. Both Jeanne and her mother, Marie Augustine Loew, wanted this girl baby to be named after the actress Lillie Langtry who was born near their birthplace on the Island of Jersey off the coast of Normandy. But the parish priest wouldn't hear of it. It had to be a saint's name and there was no saint named “Lillie” no matter how you spelled it. So “Emilie” was chosen after two 19th century saints and Jeanne's adopted sister, who was also an Emilie became “Tantine” (aunty). But at home, it would be Lillie (later shortened to Lily) despite birth records to the contrary. As for Tantine, she never married but became more of a mother to Lily than Jeanne who openly preferred her son.

 





When Lily was three, the family left France for America..first Georges, then Jeanne, Tantine and Lily, followed much later by Charles and Marie Augustine. Georges preferred business to baking ( his family had a pastry shop in Saint-Mande) but was not very successful in anything he tried. He finally got a job at First National City Bank and the family moved into a fifth-floor walk-up on East 53rd Street in New York City. Lily was now bi-lingual thanks to her grandmother who wanted all her children to speak English and French. However, her mother Jeanne preferred only French to be spoken at home. She also referred to Lily as “the ugly duckling”often remarking that her daughter looked more “like her father”. Always seeking her mother's approval, Lily would have a life-long complex about her face.


and with her mother and brother in 1905

Because she always wanted to be an artist, Lily enrolled at Washington Irving High School where there was an excellent art program. But things suddenly changed when a girl in the class play became ill. The actress would late recall “I was dragged into the production at the eleventh hour because I was the only one in the school who really spoke fluent French.” The play was Grammar and the role of Blanche, a French girl, was a turning point for Lily. It was also about the time she decided her name would be easier to remember with both names beginning with the same letters. So she chose the feminine version of her father's name “Claude” and became Claudette Chauchoin. Her last name would change again in 1923 just before her Broadway debut. Jeanne Chauchoin suggested “Colbert” after Jean Baptiste Colbert, Louis XIV's foreign minister. Claudette, as usual, agreed.


Claudette was teaching French to students for $35 a week in 1919 when she heard that the Provincetown Players in Greenwich Village were paying $75 a week to actresses. She was able to get a small role in Edna St. Vincent Millay's Aria da Capo but was still not sure an acting career was in her future. She went back to teaching French and taking art classes. Then, in 1923, one of her students introduced her to playwright Anne Morrison who was casting her play The Wild Westcotts. Claudette made her Broadway debut in a small part with just three lines...“The party was so lovely....The garden is beautiful...I am so hungry.” Claudette later recalled “From then on, I never wanted to do anything else.”

 



publicity pose in 1926

1925 was a benchmark year. Claudette Colbert became the “discovery and protegee” of A.H. Woods, the most colorful stage producers of the era. Her performance in A Kiss in a Taxi brought her into the limelight. Although she did not appear on Broadway again for another two years, she worked steadily going from one play to another. Wood paid her $150 a week and that meant the family could move to grander accomodations at 55 Central Park West. But it was also the year Claudette lost her father. Georges Chauchoin did not live to see his daughter's rise to fame.


In January, 1927 Claudette began The Barker that gave her the longest run so far. It also gave her the man who would become her first husband...Norman Foster. Walter Huston starred as the manager of a tent show who didn't want his son (Foster) following in his footsteps. Claudette played the snake charmer who is paid to seduce him but falls in love instead. But the love lasted longer than the show and they were secretly wed in 1928. But Claudette was so afraid of her mother, the couple never lived together. Norman maintained a separate residence while Claudette continued to live with her mother..for the entire seven years of their marriage!

 

 


On Broadway in The Barker with Norman Foster



Film studios were springing up all over New York in 1927. Claudette began a routine of filming during the day while “treading the boards” on Broadway at night. Her debut movie, and only silent film, was For the Love of Mike directed by Frank Capra and her reaction to it was “I was appalled” and she vowed never to do another film. Thankfully for all of us, she changed her mind. She was doing Elmer Rice's See Naples and Die” on Broadway when the stock market crashed and there were only 37 people in the seats. Paramount closed their New York studio. As soon as The Misleading Lady wound up production, Claudette, her mother and Tantine headed for Hollywood. She would not return to Broadway for a quarter of a century. Claudette also worried that she would not see her beloved grandmother again. She never did. Marie Augustine Loew died in New York two years later.

 

 

 

 


The famous milk bath scene from The Sign of the Cross ….

and as Cleopatra.

Her first film for Paramount in Hollywood was The Man from Yesterday with fellow countryman Charles Boyer (Jeanne was enthralled with him). But it was the same routine as it had been in New York...as soon as one film ended, she began another. One big break came after meeting director Cecil B. DeMille. As Poppaea “the wickedest woman in the world” Emperor Nero's lascivious wife in The Sign of the Cross, Claudette's resume took the first turn away from fluffy roles into more meatier drama including another DeMille epic Cleopatra. Then her new agent, Charles Feldman set her up for the most important film of her career.


Capra, Colbert and Gable

and the “leg “that stopped traffic

 

It was originally called Night Bus. MGM had it, hated it and loaned it out in exchange for a future use of director Frank Capra. Miriam Hopkins and Constance Bennett both turned it down and even Claudette, who heartily disliked Frank Capra, felt she could make her own terms....double her usual salary of $25,000 and a shooting schedule of no more than four weeks. Paramount never even blinked. The picture was renamed It Happened One Night and co-starred Clark Gable. Nominated for five Academy Awards, it won in all categories..Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Director, Best Picture and Best Writing Adaptation. That would not happen again until 1975 with One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest. But Claudette, who didn't have much hope for the film, didn't attend the Oscars and was on her way out of town when she was hustled off the train by studio personnel and back to the Biltmore Hotel to receive her Oscar.


Claudette's signature look with the bangs...

...and the Peter Pan collar!

 

Claudette's signature look was one of her own doing. While her bangs was originally conceived by Hollywood coiffeur Sydney Guilaroff, Claudette kept it because she was self-conscious about her forehead. The Peter Pan collar she preferred was to elongate what she felt was her short neck. She insisted on being photographed from the left only because she felt it was her best side. This sometimes involved changing lighting and building sets around her. When it was necessary to shoot the right side, she demanded that only long shots be used. It was as though Mama Jeanne's taunts were always in the back of her mind.


The Pressmans

 

 

In August, 1935 Claudette got a Mexican divorce from Norman Foster who had spent their married life “on dates”. What began as a marriage of love and passion Claudette would never forget, the fire soon went out with their lifestyle. Foster immediately married Loretta Young's sister, Sally Blane and went on to become a well-known director. Claudette married Dr. Joel Jay (Jack) Pressman, an ear-nose-throat specialist she had first met at a party (actually it was because of a party.... it seems brother Charles and Norman had a “difference of opinion” and Charles broke Norman's nose...enter Dr. Pressman). This time Claudette moved Mama Jeanne out of the house into one of her own. Louella Parsons rated the marriage one of Hollywood's most successful except “They wanted very much to have children. But by the time they started trying, it was too late.” The Pressmans once considered adopting twins that Jack heard were available at the time but changed their mind. These were the same twins Joan Crawford adopted.

 

 


with good friend Frank Sinatra at the Hollywood canteen
at the ceremony on the USS Thetis Bay

 

During the war years, Claudette made an average of two films a year dividing the rest of her time between volunteer work with the Red Cross, the Hollywood Victory Caravan and trying to establish some communication with relatives in occupied France. On April 21, 1944, when the USS Thetis Bay CVE-90 was commissioned actress Claudette Colbert was present at the ceremony on the ship's hanger deck. Dr. Joel Pressman, Ms. Colbert's husband, was a Lieutenant Commander in the US Navy Medical Corps and assigned as the first medical officer of the Thetis Bay. That year she also received a Best Actress nomination for Since You Went Away. After completing Practically Yours that same year with frequent co-star Fred MacMurray, her contract with Paramount expired and Claudette decided independence sounded too good to pass up. In 1946 Mama Jeanne persuaded Claudette to drop her agent Charles Feldman and put her brother Charles (now Wendling) in his place. Wendling thrived with the addition of Claudette to his client list while she received almost no help at all from her incompetent brother. Eventually she got up the courage to fire him.

Her first non-Paramount project was Tomorrow is Forever (1946) with Orson Welles for International Pictures. Again, she set up boundaries.... she would be off the set every day at five o'clock. She felt that her face would show fatigue by that time and she also wanted to be home with Jack. It didn't work well with her nemesis Frank Capra who refused to abide by that condition. Claudette lost a plum role when Capra gave the part of Spencer Tracy's wife in State of the Union to Katharine Hepburn. She lost another one after an injury during the filming of Three Came Home (1950). Resisting the use of a stunt woman for a violent rape scene for the sake of realism, Claudette ended up with a ruptured disk a cracked vertebra and a lengthy hospital stay. 20th Century Fox waited two months before recasting Bette Davis as Margo Channing in All About Eve.


with Jack Benny

rehearsal with Noel Coward

 

On April 1, 1951, after turning down a million dollar deal from NBC, Claudette Colbert made her television debut...on the Jack Benny Show! The show was filmed instead of live and Benny and his wife Mary Livingstone were good friends. On July 22, 1951 she returned to the stage after two decades, not on Broadway, but at the Westport Country Playhouse in Connecticut. It was a witty play by Noel Coward called Island Fling. That same year, she returned to Broadway, filling in for Margaret Sullavan in Janus. But that was enough to revive her love the stage. Once that bug bit her again, there was no turning back. Claudette told the New York Journal-American that she wanted to go back to the stage for years but “you know my husband. He didn't want me away.” Apparently she changed her husband's mind because, in 1958, she reunited with Charles Boyer in The Marriage-Go-Round for 450 performances and toured 13 states.



the paintings of Vern Hull


at the Stage Door Canteen with Charles Boyer and Gary Cooper

She also began a friendship with wealthy painter and photographer Verna Hull. In New York without Jack, Claudette was lonely and needed a friend. Verna, known as the brushless painter, was the daughter of Greta Garbo's psychiatrist and stepdaughter of a Sears/Roebuck heiress. Claudette, with her art background and continental upbringing, found Verna an ideal best friend but it was Verna's bi-sexuality that made the news. Claudette brushed that off at first but became irate when she realized what people were saying. As one of her friends commented
“ Claudette was not someone you took liberties with..not even with a surgical mask and rubber gloves”.


with Karl Malden, Troy Donahue in Parrish 1961

Claudette made what was her last film Parrish in 1961 and retired to an 18th century plantation house in Barbados. Verna was with her when she found the island home she would later call Bellerive. It was to be a Shang-ri-la for her and Jack after his retirement. But only death and heartbreak followed her there. By the time Jack joined her there in 1967 he was already dying of liver cancer. After his death on February 26, 1968 he was buried above ground in a travertine mausoleum Claudette designed in the cemetery of St. Peter's Church near Bellerive. Her mother, 90 years old and now infirm, came to live with her still as haughty and sarcastic as ever. When she heard servants referring to her daughter as “Madame” she coldly told them that she alone was the only “Madame” in that house. Jeanne Loew Chauchoin would live another two years. When she died in 1970 her ashes were put in an urn at the foot of her son-in-law's burial vault. Claudette's nine-year friendship with Verna Hull had also ended in enmity just before her husband's death. Verna owned the property adjoining Bellerive but the rift was so ugly that Claudette had a fence built between them dividing the small island in half.

 


At 80 backstage at the Kennedy Center with the Reagans

With Ann-Margret in the television miniseries The Two Mrs. Grenvilles

 

Claudette went back to the stage for the last time in 1985’s Aren’t We All? with Rex Harrison, which traveled throughout the country and for five months in Australia. “I was on the screen for 30 years and never did get used to getting up at five in the morning,” she explained. “In the theater you stay up late, and you sleep late in the morning. It’s a delicious life.” Then, in 1987, she played the elder Mrs. Grenville in NBC's miniseries The Two Mrs. Grenvilles and won a Golden Globe Award. She was 87 years old.


Old friends Helen O'Hagan and Liz Smith

 

 

Someone was always in the house whenever or wherever Claudette was at the moment. She hated to be alone. So she had a legion of special friends who would stay over to keep her company. Besides her celebrity friends there was Helen O'Hagan who had become like a daughter to her and had been her confidante for 20 years. When Claudette suffered the first of her debilitating strokes in March, 1993 Helen took an early retirement from Saks to care for her. But Helen had been away for a short vacation when Claudette had her second and final brush with death. She came back in time to spend the night at Colbert's bedside. Claudette Colbert died the next day at 3:15 pm on July 28,1996.

Her body was shipped to New York for cremation prompting a friend to say “I guess it's the first time she's ever flown in the back of a plane.”


the old church

and the resting places

Her ashes rest in a mahogany box inside Dr. Pressman's tomb.

Outside of a few modest behests, Claudette Colbert left the bulk of her estate including Bellerive to Helen O'Hagan.

 

Filmography

For the Love of Mike 1927

The Hole in the Wall 1929

The Lady Lies 1929

Young Man of Manhattan 1930

The Big Pond 1930

Manslaughter 1930

Mysterious Mr. Parkes 1930

Honor Among Lovers 1931

The Smiling Lieutenant 1931

Secrets of a Secretary 1931

His Woman 1931

The Wiser Sex 1932

Misleading Lady 1932

The Man from Yesterday 1932

The Phantom President 1932

The Sign of the Cross 1932

Tonight Is Ours 1933

I Cover the Waterfront 1933

Three-Cornered Moon 1933

Torch Singer 1933

Four Frightened People 1934

It Happened One Night 1934

Cleopatra 1934

Imitation of Life 1934

The Gilded Lily 1935

Private Worlds 1935

She Married Her Boss 1935

The Bride Comes Home 1935

Under Two Flags 1936

Maid of Salem 1936

I Met Him in Paris 1937

Tovarich 1937

Bluebeard's Eighth Wife 1938

Zaza 1939

Midnight 1939

It's a Wonderful World 1939

Drums Along the Mohawk 1939

Boom Town 1940

Arise, My Love 1940

Skylark 1941

Remember the Day 1941

The Palm Beach Story 1942

No Time for Love 1943

So Proudly We Hail! 1943

Since You Went Away 1944

Practically Yours 1944

Guest Wife 1945

Tomorrow Is Forever 1946

Without Reservations 1946

The Secret Heart 1946

The Egg and I 1947

Sleep, My Love 1948

Family Honeymoon 1949

Bride for Sale 1949

Three Came Home 1950

The Secret Fury 1950

Thunder on the Hill 1951

Let's Make It Legal 1951

The Planter's Wife 1952

Destinées 1954

Royal Affairs in Versailles 1954

Texas Lady 1955

Parrish 1961