Obituary: Claudette Colbert

Claudette Colbert's wit and poise and that beguilingly worldly- wise charm which she used to such effect as the greatest of the comediennes of the golden age of cinema, was strikingly reflected in her private personality, writes Derek Granger [further to the obituary by Tom Vallance, 1 August].

The soft, husky, low-toned voice, the brightly welcoming candour of expression were alight with the humour and warmth which she brought to that long line of knowing, sophisticated heroines who graced, with such appeal, classic movies like The Palm Beach Story and It Happened One Night.

With these spirited and lively qualities, she also combined the solid, down-to-earth pragmatism of the good French housekeeper, with a perfectionist's eye for domestic detail, a practical and deeply knowledgeable sense of how to run a superb kitchen and the kind of fastidious determination which enabled her to produce French lettuces from the unlikely soil of a tropical island garden so that she could give her guests a proper Gallic salad.

It was at home in Barbados, where she had mostly lived for the past 30 years, that these robust aspects of her French ancestry came much into their own. Bellerive, the handsome, Georgian plantation house, situated on the Caribbean shore of the Bajan province of St James, was the house she had found with her second husband, Joel Pressman. Unlike so many of the prettily contrived pleasure domes which many had built as their Barbadian holiday homes, Bellerive resembled its owner - a solid, lived-in, comfortable and welcoming house devoid of pretension. With its airy blue and white drawing room, its huge windows letting in the breezes from the sea and its polished dark wood floors, Bellerive bore the sturdy, authentic air of a rich, colonial past.

It was in this enviable setting that Colbert's guests enjoyed great country- style French cooking (she had taken some of her staff to study cookery in Paris) and were fussed over by devoted female retainers, including the gentle Marie who came specially out of retirement to help look after her mistress when, in the very last years, Colbert's health began to fail.

A high point in life at Bellerive occurred with the official visit of the President and Nancy Reagan to a group of Caribbean islands of which Barbados was chosen as the base. With the tropic sky now awhirr with the clatter and whooshing of helicopters, a gunboat guarding the shore and rings of bulging, Brobdingnagian security men, Colbert, after driving herself to the ultimate degree of meticulous preparation, emerged as the relaxed and easy hostess of a party which included Lord Bernstein of Granada Television and the right-wing commentator William Buckley and his wife, Patricia.

After the affable Ronald Reagan had gone swimming and told funny stories about the Russians and the First Lady had taken delicately to the sea borne on a lilo, Colbert asserted her rights as hostess by disallowing the President, on health grounds, to sit down for lunch in his wet bathing trunks. The benign, light-hearted afternoon was suddenly broken to encompass a dark moment of history. The President was summoned to take a ship-to- shore call to General Haig, then flying back to Waskington after his failed attempt to broker a last peace deal between Britain and Argentina.

Colbert, like all good professionals, had a fine sense of her own worth but no vanity. She had too much basic sanity ever to think of her long and brilliant achievement as anything other than work well done.

Although she had lived and worked in America for nearly all her life, she clung strongly to her roots in France (she was delighted with her award of the Legion d'Honneur) and she loved coming to England, recalling with much relish her British touring days, nearly 70 years ago, when she opened in the winter of 1928 at the Empire in a wet and windswept Cardiff, playing the sultry Lou in The Barker, a long-forgotten drama of itinerant show folk and life in the travelling circus. It is hard to think of Colbert, icon of the cinema's great era of sophistication, sampling the pleasures of matinees and evenings in Portsmouth and Hull and perhaps it was appropriate that she should next return to the Haymarket Theatre in 1984 in a comedy, Frederick Lonsdale's Aren't We All, as stylish and time-proof as herself.

All her life she was a staunch Republican and natural Conservative, so she was therefore thrilled when Margaret Thatcher made a visit backstage and invited her to Sunday lunch at Chequers. She was also disconcerted to discover that her own enthusiasm for Britain's prime minister was not universally shared by some of the cast.

Always immaculate, a neat and elegant figure beautifully but unfussily turned out, she exuded an air of benevolent well-being which seemed to offer a grateful acknowledgement of her own good fortune. Her image in countless films remains secure but those who knew her will remember a clear-eyed, generous and staunchly companionable friend with a huge fund of spontaneous good nature.

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs People

Talent Manager / HR Manager - central London - £50,000

£45000 - £50000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Talent / Learning & Development Mana...

HR Manager (standalone) - London

Up to £40,000: Ashdown Group: Standalone HR Manager role for an SME business b...

HR Analyst - Banking - Bristol - £350-£400

£350 - £400 per day: Orgtel: HR Analyst - Banking - Bristol - £350 - £400 per ...

HR Manager - HR Generalist / Sole in HR

£30000 - £35000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: HR Manager - HR Generalis...

Day In a Page

Israel-Gaza conflict: No victory for Israel despite weeks of death and devastation

Robert Fisk: No victory for Israel despite weeks of devastation

Palestinians have won: they are still in Gaza, and Hamas is still there
Mary Beard writes character reference for Twitter troll who called her a 'slut'

Unlikely friends: Mary Beard and the troll who called her a ‘filthy old slut’

The Cambridge University classicist even wrote the student a character reference
America’s new apartheid: Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone

America’s new apartheid

Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone
Amazon is buying Twitch for £600m - but why do people want to watch others playing Xbox?

What is the appeal of Twitch?

Amazon is buying the video-game-themed online streaming site for £600m - but why do people want to watch others playing Xbox?
Tip-tapping typewriters, ripe pongs and slides in the office: Bosses are inventing surprising ways of making us work harder

How bosses are making us work harder

As it is revealed that one newspaper office pumps out the sound of typewriters to increase productivity, Gillian Orr explores the other devices designed to motivate staff
Manufacturers are struggling to keep up with the resurgence in vinyl records

Hard pressed: Resurgence in vinyl records

As the resurgence in vinyl records continues, manufacturers and their outdated machinery are struggling to keep up with the demand
Tony Jordan: 'I turned down the chance to research Charles Dickens for a TV series nine times ... then I found a kindred spirit'

A tale of two writers

Offered the chance to research Charles Dickens for a TV series, Tony Jordan turned it down. Nine times. The man behind EastEnders and Life on Mars didn’t feel right for the job. Finally, he gave in - and found an unexpected kindred spirit
Could a later start to the school day be the most useful educational reform of all?

Should pupils get a lie in?

Doctors want a later start to the school day so that pupils can sleep later. Not because teenagers are lazy, explains Simon Usborne - it's all down to their circadian rhythms
Prepare for Jewish jokes – as Jewish comedians get their own festival

Prepare for Jewish jokes...

... as Jewish comedians get their own festival
SJ Watson: 'I still can't quite believe that Before I Go to Sleep started in my head'

A dream come true for SJ Watson

Watson was working part time in the NHS when his debut novel, Before I Go to Sleep, became a bestseller. Now it's a Hollywood movie, too. Here he recalls the whirlwind journey from children’s ward to A-list film set
10 best cycling bags for commuters

10 best cycling bags for commuters

Gear up for next week’s National Cycle to Work day with one of these practical backpacks and messenger bags
Paul Scholes: Three at the back isn’t working yet but given time I’m hopeful Louis van Gaal can rebuild Manchester United

Paul Scholes column

Three at the back isn’t working yet but given time I’m hopeful Louis van Gaal can rebuild Manchester United
Kate Bush, Hammersmith Apollo music review: A preamble, then a coup de théâtre - and suddenly the long wait felt worth it

Kate Bush shows a voice untroubled by time

A preamble, then a coup de théâtre - and suddenly the long wait felt worth it
Robot sheepdog technology could be used to save people from burning buildings

The science of herding is cracked

Mathematical model would allow robots to be programmed to control crowds and save people from burning buildings
Tyrant: Is the world ready for a Middle Eastern 'Dallas'?

This tyrant doesn’t rule

It’s billed as a Middle Eastern ‘Dallas’, so why does Fox’s new drama have a white British star?