Obituary: Claudette Colbert
Friday 02 August 1996
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.
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