“To be celebrated is nothing. To be loved is everything.”–Claudette Colbert
Claudette Colbert was one of the top stars of the 1930s and 1940s. With distinct facial features and a talent for both comedy and drama, she would become one of Hollywood’s versatile stars. Starring in over 60 films, she was a highly gifted actress of both the stage and screen.
Émilie “Lily” Claudette Chauchoin was born on September 13, 1903, in Saint Mandé, France. Her father, Georges Claude, was an investment banker, while her mother, Jeanne Marie, worked several different occupations during Emilie’s childhood. Her parents spoke both French and English before eventually relocating the family to New York City in order to pursue more opportunities for employment.
Emigrating in 1906, the family lived in on the fifth floor of a building on 53rd street—a climb to which Colbert would one day attribute her toned legs. Colbert studied English with her grandmother before beginning public school. Though Colbert dreamed of becoming a painter, her mother hoped that she would find success as an opera singer.
Enrolled at Washington Irving High School, Colbert’s speech teacher encouraged her to audition for a play she had written. As a result, Colbert made her stage debut at the age of 15 in The Widow’s Veil at the Provincetown Playhouse.
Soon, Colbert’s interests expanded to fashion design, leading her to attend the Art Students League of New York. The school paid for her education in the arts while she worked at a dress shop. At the same time, she continued to explore the performing arts and was offered a small role in a Broadway play called The Wild Westcotts in 1923. Having used the name Claudette since high school, she adopted the stage name of Claudette Colbert by combining the first name she was currently using—Claudette—as well as her grandmother’s maiden name—Colbert.
Colbert’s early career included a variety of stage productions on Broadway. She carried out ingénue roles and received critical praise for her 1927 appearance in The Barker. Later, Colbert was spotted by theatrical producer Leland Hayward, eventually leading her to transition to film roles. By 1928, she signed a contract with Paramount Pictures to work in early sound films. Her initial film roles were shot in New York, allowing for her to also appear on stage when not filming.
Colbert married her Barker co-star, Norman Foster, in 1928. The marriage would be a secret for several years, while to couple lived in separate homes. Colbert’s mother disapproved of Foster and the couple eventually divorced in 1935.
Colbert appeared alongside popular leading men of the day early in her career, including roles with Maurice Chevalier and Fredric March. Her role in the box office hit, The Sign of the Cross (1932), garnered her additional attention from the public. By 1933, she had already appeared in 20 films, carrying out parts that regularly demonstrated her versatility as a performer.
During this period, Colbert worked in films that would be especially memorable in her career. Her role in It Happened One Night (1934), a screwball comedy, lead to her winning the Academy Award for Best Actress. In the same year, she played the titular role in Cleopatra (1934) as well as a lead in Imitation of Life (1934)—both of which proved to be highly successful films.
In 1935, Colbert married Dr. Joel Pressman, who became a professor and chief of head and neck surgery at UCLA Medical School. They remained married until his passing in 1968.
After her Oscar win, Colbert continued to work in films across several genres, including comedies, romances, and dramas. She valued her career and athletic lifestyle. Moreover, she wished to be in full control of her image; she only allowed for the left side of her face to be filmed, in order to hide a childhood injury on her nose that was visible on the right side of her face. This often called for film sets to be redesigned.
Colbert worked as a freelance star after her appearance in Since You Went Away (1944), enabling her to work at other film studios. She was initially chosen to portray Margo Channing in All About Eve (1950) but she suffered a back injury, which prevented her from taking on the role.
As television increased in popularity, Colbert transitioned to a new medium once again. She starred in television adaptations of Blithe Spirit (1945) in 1956 and The Bells of St Mary’s (1945) three years later. She also took on different television guest roles, in addition to hosting the Academy Awards ceremony in 1956. Colbert returned to the stage in 1958, earning a Tony Award nomination for Best Actress for her performances in The Marriage-Go-Round. Her final film appearance was in Parrish (1961).
Over the years, Colbert split her time between her Manhattan apartment and a vacation home in Speightstown, Barbados. She passed away on July 30, 1996, in her Barbados home at age 92. Her services were held at the Church of St. Vincent Ferrer in Manhattan and she was laid to rest at Goding Bay Church Cemetery in Barbados, next to her mother and Pressman.
Today, Colbert is remembered in many countries. Her birthplace is marked with a plaque at 57 Avenue du Général de Gaulle in Saint-Mandé, France.
Washington Irving High School is now Washington Irving Campus, located at 40 Irving Pl, New York, New York.
The Provincetown Playhouse remains a historic theater, standing at 133 MacDougal St, New York, New York.
The Art Students League continues as an art school at 215 W 57th St, New York, New York.
In 1922, Colbert and her mother lived on the fifth floor of 226 E 53rd St. in New York City.
By 1928, Colbert, her mother, aunt, and godmother relocated to 115 W 73rd St. in New York City. This is the location today:
In 1940, she and Pressman shared a home at 615 N. Faring Rd in Beverly Hills. Colbert moved out in 1961. The home sold for the last time in 2014 and was razed.
Her home in Speightstown, Barbados, stands to this day and was purchased by David Geffen.
Today, Colbert’s work continues to be enjoyed by film fans all over the world.