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Claudette Colbert

Death of Claudette Colbert

September 13, 1903 - July 30, 1996
BRIDGETOWN | Age 92

Oscar-Winner Claudette Colbert dead at 92

Obituary

Claudette Colbert, whose velvet voice and trademark bangs graced Broadway plays and Hollywood blockbusters from 1923 until 1987, has died. She was 92.

Miss Colbert died Tuesday at her oceanfront home in Barbados, which still was filled with the friends that the Parisian-born film star loved to introduce to her adopted Caribbean home.

Miss Colbert starred in more than 60 films, including "It Happened One Night," "Midnight," "Cleopatra," "Tovarich," "I Met Him in Paris," "The Palm Beach Story," "The Smiling Lieutenant," "Since You Went Away" and "Three Came Home."

"When somebody like Claudette dies, it's a bit like the curtain's come down on an era," said Margaret Leacock, a friend who persuaded Miss Colbert to move to the former British colony in 1960.

She said Miss Colbert lived life to the full _ entertaining guests up to her death and holding court at luncheons until just a few weeks ago.

"She still had that great presence, that great smile that captivated people.

"Famous people came to stay ... theater people like Frank Sinatra, intellectuals like Bennett Cerf (owner of Random House publishers). She had the Reagans. Pamela Harriman, the American ambassador in Paris, was a great friend."

Miss Colbert's lilting, velvet voice was heard in weepy love stories, melodramas and epics, but her forte was comedy, such as "It Happened One Night" which co-starred Clark Gable and was directed by Frank Capra. She shared in its then-unprecedented sweep at the Oscars.

"It made audiences happy in a way that only a few films in each era do," film critic Pauline Kael once wrote. "In the mid-30s, the Colbert and Gable of this film became Americans' idealized view of themselves _ breezy, likable, sexy, gallant, and maybe just a little harebrained. It was the `Annie Hall' of its day _ before the invention of anxiety."

"I love to play comedy and I can say immodestly that I'm a very good comedienne," Miss Colbert said in a 1981 Time interview. "But I was always fighting that image, too. I just never had the luck to play bitches."

She came close. In 1950 she signed to play Margo Channing, the aging Broadway star in "All About Eve." Then she injured her back. The juicy part went to Bette Davis.

Miss Colbert suffered a stroke three years ago from which she never fully recovered. It curtailed her daily swims and speedboat rides, Leacock said.

Still, she found time to go shopping with her goddaughter, Leacock's daughter Mandy. "We'd go to Martinique, for French clothes, because she decided one had to get clothes that really fit and knickers that didn't hang in the crotch," she said.

Miss Colbert was born in Paris on Sept. 13, 1903. Three years later her father brought the family to New York City.

She was christened Lily Chauchoin. But two years after she got a bit part on Broadway her new name, Claudette Colbert (Colbert was her mother's maiden name) was up in lights.

Actress Kitty Carlisle Hart said her friend could do act on stage and film with the same grace.

"She was a wonderful movie actress, and a very good stage actress," Hart said. "She always looked as if everything was so easy for her _ shook it out of her sleeve. But she had enormous technique."

Miss Colbert made one silent film in 1927 _ "For the Love of Mike," directed by Capra _ then debuted in talkies opposite Edward G. Robinson in 1929's "A Hole in the Wall."

She starred opposite Gary Cooper, John Wayne, Henry Fonda and Spencer Tracy. Her directors included Ernst Lubitsch, George Cukor, John Ford and Cecil B. DeMille.

At the peak of her popularity in the late 1930s, Miss Colbert earned $150,000 a picture _ a substantial sum then.

Her honors included a Golden Globe award for the 1986 television special "The Two Mrs. Grenvilles" and a Life Achievement award from the Kennedy Center for Performing Arts in 1989.

Leacock said Miss Colbert's biggest regret was that she never retired to Barbados with her husband, surgeon Joel "Jack" Pressman. He died in 1968 after 33 years of marriage. The couple had no children. Miss Colbert's 1928 marriage to actor Norman Foster ended in divorce.

A memorial service was planned for Saturday at a Roman Catholic chapel near Miss Colbert's home, Leacock said. Then, her body would be flown to New York for cremation and the ashes returned to Barbados, to a family vault where her mother and husband are buried.

Leacock said she believed Miss Colbert's only surviving relative was a niece, Coco, her brother's daughter.