Émilie "Lily" Chauchoin (pronounced “show-shwan”) was born in Saint-Mandé (an eastern suburb of Paris), France, to Georges Claude Chauchoin (1867-1925) and Jeanne Marie (née Loew, 1877-1970). Despite being christened "Emilie", she was called "Lily", because she had a aunt living with her. The aunt was her maternal grandmother's adopted child, Emilie Loew (1878-1954), who wasn't a blood relative, worked as a dressmaker, and never married. Colbert's nickname "Lily" came from Jersey-born actress Lillie Langtry. Jeanne Chauchoin and Colbert's grandmother Marie Augustine Loew (1842-1930) were born in the Channel Islands in the British Isles, and they were already fluent English speakers before coming to the U.S., though French was spoken in the family circle. Colbert's brother, Charles Auguste Chauchoin (1898–1971), was also born in Jersey. Jeanne held various occupations. While Georges Chauchoin had lost the sight in his right eye and hadn't settled into a profession, he was a pastry-shop owner in Paris and also worked in banking business but made some inappropriate investments. Marie Loew had already been to the U.S., and Georges' brother-in-law (surname Vedel) was already living in New York City. Marie was willing to help Georges financially but also encouraged him to try his luck in the U.S. After suffering business setbacks, in order to pursue more employment opportunities, her family including Marie and Emilie Loew emigrated into Manhattan in 1906. They lived in a fifth floor walk-up at 53rd Street. Colbert stated that climbing those stairs to the fifth floor every day until 1922 made her legs beautiful. Her parents formally changed her real name to Lily Emilie Chauchoin. Georges Chauchoin worked as a minor official at First National City Bank. She quickly learned English from her grandmother Marie Loew before entering public school and remained fluent in French. Colbert hoped to become a painter since she could grasp a pencil. In 1912 her family was naturalized in the U.S. Jeanne clearly favored her son Charles Chauchoin than her daughter.
Colbert studied at Washington Irving High School having strong art program, where her speech teacher, Alice Rossetter, encouraged her to audition for a play Rossetter had written. In 1919, Colbert made her stage debut at the Province town Playhouse in The Widow's Veil at the age of 15. However, Colbert’s interest in the arts was still towards painting.
Intending to become a fashion designer, she attended the Art Students League of New York, where she paid for her art education by working as a dress shop employee. After attending a party with the writer Anne Morrison, Colbert was offered a bit part in Morrison's play and appeared on the Broadway stage in a small role in The Wild Westcotts (1923). Influenced by her father's middle name Claude, she had been using the name Claudette instead of her first name Lily since high school, and for her stage name she added her maternal grandmother's maiden name Colbert. She formally changed her real name to Lily Claudette Chauchoin. Her father Georges died in 1925 and her grandmother Marie Loew died in New York in 1930.
After signing a five-year contract with the producer Al Woods, Colbert played ingenue roles on Broadway from 1925 through 1929. During this periods, she disliked being typecast as French maid. Colbert later said, "In the very beginning, they wanted to give me French roles … That’s why I used to say my name Col-bert just as it is spelled instead of Col-baire. I did not want to be typed as ‘that French girl’". She received critical acclaim on Broadway in the production of The Barker (1927) as a carnival snake charmer. She reprised this role for the play's run in London's West End. Colbert was noticed by the theatrical producer Leland Hayward, who suggested her for heroine role in a silent film For the Love of Mike (1927), now believed to be lost. The film didn't fare well at the box office.
In 1928 Colbert signed a contract with Paramount Pictures, who were looking for stage actors who could handle dialog in the new "talkies" medium. Colbert's skill as speaker was one of her best assets. At first, Colbert didn't like film acting. During production of the 1929 film, The Lady Lies, she was appearing nightly in the play See Naples and Die. Her earliest films were produced in New York. In 1930 she starred opposite Maurice Chevalier in The Big Pond, which was filmed in both English and French. She co-starred withFredric March in Manslaughter (1930), which was critically acclaimed for her acting as a vehicular manslaughter. She was paired with March in four productions, including Honor Among Lovers (1931) with Ginger Rogers. While these films were box office successes, she also starred in Mysterious Mr. Parkes (1931), which was a French-language version of Slightly Scarlet for the European market, although it was also screened in the United States. She sang opposite Maurice Chevalier in the Ernst Lubitsch musical The Smiling Lieutenant (1931), which was a box office success and critically acclaimed for her ability to shrewdly play a character role opposite Miriam Hopkins. Also her musical voice was featured in the 1933 film Torch Singer, which co-starring Ricardo Cortez and David Manners.
Colbert landed her famous role as a femme fatale in Cecil B. DeMille's films where she wore fetishistic costumes which lose layer after layer of clothing. In the 1932 historical epic, The Sign of the Cross, she starred opposite Fredric March as the Roman empress Poppaea. For an instant, glimpses of her bare breasts and nipples were visible in a scene where her character was bathing in asses' milk, a scene that came to be regarded as an example of Hollywood decadence prior to the enforcement of the Production Code. In 1933, Colbert renegotiated her contract with Paramount to allow her to appear in films for other studios. In Cleopatra (1934), she played the title role opposite Warren William and Henry Wilcoxon. Thereafter, Colbert did not wish to be portrayed as overtly sexual and later refused such roles.
Colbert was reluctant to appear as the "runaway heiress," Ellie Andrews, in the Frank Capra romantic comedy, It Happened One Night (1934), oppositeClark Gable and released by Columbia Pictures. Running behind schedule after several actresses had refused the role, the studio accepted Colbert's demand that she be paid $50,000 and that filming was to be completed within four weeks to allow her to take a planned vacation. Through the filming, Colbert felt that the script was weak, and Capra claimed Colbert "had many little tantrums, motivated by her antipathy toward me;" however, "she was wonderful in the part." After filming was completed, Colbert complained to her friend, "I just finished the worst picture in the world." Capra fretted that the film was released to indifferent reviews and initially only did so-so business. Then after it was released to secondary movie houses, word-of-mouth began to spread and ticket sales became brisk. It turned out to be a major hit, easily Columbia's biggest hit to the 1980s. The film contained at least one scene that is often cited as representative of the screwball film genre and which became well known, being a resounding box-office success. In 1935, after her Academy Award nomination, Colbert decided not to attend the presentation, feeling confident that she would not win the award and instead, planned to take a cross-country railroad trip. After she was named the winner, studio chief Harry Cohn sent someone to "drag her off" the train, which had not yet left the station, and take her to the ceremony. Colbert arrived wearing a two-piece traveling suit which she had the Paramount Pictures costume designer, Travis Banton, make for her trip.
Colbert's success allowed her to renegotiate her contract, raising her salary. In 1935 and 1936, she was listed in the annual "Quigley Poll of the Top Ten Money Making Stars", which was compiled from the votes of movie exhibitors throughout the U.S. for the stars who had generated the most revenue in their theaters over the previous year. Then she received an Academy Award nomination for her role in the hospital drama, Private Worlds (1935).
In 1936, Colbert signed a new contract with Paramount Pictures, and this contract made her Hollywood's highest paid actress. This was followed by a contract renewal in 1938, after which she was reported to be the best-paid star in Hollywood with a salary of $426,924. At the peak of her popularity in the late 1930s, Colbert earned $150,000 a film. Colbert spent the rest of the 1930s deftly alternating between romantic comedies and dramas, and found success in both: She Married Her Boss (1935), with Melvyn Douglas; The Gilded Lily (1935) and The Bride Comes Home (1935), both with Fred MacMurray; Under Two Flags (1936), with Ronald Colman; Zaza (1939), with Herbert Marshall; Midnight (1939), with Don Ameche; It's a Wonderful World (1939), withJames Stewart.
In addition to Lubitsch, DeMille and Capra, Colbert was working with the top directors in the industry: Dorothy Arzner, Preston Sturges, Frank Lloyd, John M. Stahl, Wesley Ruggles, Gregory La Cava, George Cukor, Mitchell Leisen, and John Ford.
Colbert was a stickler for regarding the way she appeared on screen. She believed that her face was difficult to light and photograph, and she was obsessed with not showing right side of her face, to the camera, because of a small bump that resulted from a childhood broken nose. She refused to be filmed from right side of her face, and it often necessitated redesigning movie sets.Film technicians described the right side of her face as "the dark side of the moon." During the filming of Tovarich in 1937, when one of her favored cameramen was dismissed by the director,Anatole Litvak. After seeing the rushes filmed by the replacement, Colbert refused to continue. She insisted on hiring her own cameraman, and offered to waive her salary if the film went over budget as a result. Gary Cooper was terrified at the prospect of working with Colbert in his first comedy, Bluebeard's Eighth Wife (1938), because he considered Colbert to be an expert in the genre. She learned about lighting and cinematography, and refused to begin filming until she was satisfied that she would be shown to her best advantage. Colbert knew more about lighting than the experts did. Drums Along the Mohawk (1939) with Henry Fonda was Colbert's first color film. However, she distrusted the relatively new Technicolor process and feared that she would not photograph well, preferring thereafter to be filmed in black and white.
During this time she began appearing for CBS' popular radio program Lux Radio Theater, making 22 episodes between 1935 and 1954. She also appeared for another radio program The Screen Guild Theater, making 13 episodes between 1939 and 1952.
In 1940, Colbert refused a seven-year contract that would have paid her $200,000 a year, as she had found that she could command a fee of $150,000 per film as a freelance artist. With her manager, Colbert was able to secure roles in prestigious films, and this period marked the height of her earning ability. Colbert once said that Arise, My Love (1940) was her favorite film of her own.
During filming of So Proudly We Hail! (1943), a rift occurred between Colbert and co-star Paulette Goddard. Asked which of her costars she preferred, Goddard had replied, "Veronica, I think," referring to Veronica Lake. Goddard further commented that Colbert "flipped" and "was at Paulette's eyes at every moment," and said that they continued their feud throughout the duration of filming. Colbert usually had her particular tough standards of professionalism on the filming. Impressed by Colbert's role in So Proudly We Hail!, David O. Selznick approached her to play the lead role in Since You Went Away (1944). She was initially reluctant to appear as mother of teenaged children, but Selznick awared of her sensitivity. Released in June 1944, the film became a substantial success and grossed almost $5 million in the United States. The critic James Agee praised aspects of the film, but particularly Colbert's work. As a result, she received Academy Award nomination for Best Actress.
After World War II
In 1945, Colbert ended her association with Paramount Studios, and continued to free-lance in such films as Guest Wife (1945), with Don Ameche. She starred opposite John Wayne in the RKO Studios film Without Reservations (1946), with a storyline and setting intentionally inspired by It Happened One Night. Without Reservations grossed $3 million in the U.S., and the overall popularity of Colbert's films during 1946 led to her making third appearance in the "Quigley Poll of the Top Ten Money Making Stars". While working on Without Reservations (1946), director Mervyn Leroy referred to Colbert as an interesting lady to work with, recalling her habit of not watching where she was going and constantly bumping into things. Praised for her sense of style and awareness of fashion, Colbert ensured throughout her career that she was impeccably groomed and costumed. For the 1946 melodrama, Tomorrow is Forever (1946), Jean Louis was hired to create eighteen changes of wardrobe for her.
She achieved great success opposite Fred MacMurray in the comedy The Egg and I (1947). The film was one of the year's biggest hits, and was later acknowledged as the 12th most profitable American film of the 1940s. The suspense film Sleep, My Love (1948) with Robert Cummings, was also a commercial success. The romantic comedy Bride for Sale (1949), in which Colbert was part of a love triangle that included George Brent and Robert Young, was well reviewed and modestly commercial success. The Pacific war film Three Came Home (1950) was praised for her acting by the critics. However, The Secret Fury (1950), distributed by RKO Studios, was a mystery melodrama that received negative reviews. During this periods, Colbert was unable to work beyond 5 p.m. each day, due to doctor's orders. While Colbert still looked like a young woman, she found it difficult to make the transition to playing more mature characters as she approached middle-age. Colbert once said, "I'm a very good comedienne, but I was always fighting that image, too".
In 1949 she was originally cast in All About Eve, because producer Joseph L. Mankiewicz was enthusiastic about Colbert feeling that she best represented the style he envisioned for the part. Colbert severely injured her back and led her to abandon the picture shortly before filming began. In later life, Colbert said, "I just never had the luck to play bitches."
For tax reason, Colbert traveled to Europe, making fewer films in the early 1950s. She appeared in Royal Affairs in Versailles with Orson Welles, only one film she acted for French director, however Colbert had a supporting role rather than top billing in the film. This film was screened in the United States in 1957.
In 1954 Colbert turned down a million-dollar broadcast deal with NBC-TV, but made pact with CBS-TV to star in several teleplays. After a successful appearance in a television version of The Royal Family, she began acting in various televison programs. From 1954 to 1960, she starred in thetelevision adaptations of Blithe Spirit in 1956 and The Bells of St. Mary's in 1959. She also guest starred on Robert Montgomery Presents, Playhouse 90, and Zane Grey Theater.
In 1958, she went back to Broadway in 1958 doing The Marriage-Go-Round, for which she was nominated for a Best Actress Tony Award.
She made a brief return to the screen in Parrish (1961), playing the supporting role of mother, which received little attention from the press. After that, Colbert instructed her agent to stop his attempts to generate interest in her as a film actress, because there have been no offers.
Her occasional successful acting ventures were appearances on Broadway in The Irregular Verb to Love (1963); The Kingfisher (1978) in which she co-starred with Rex Harrison, and Frederick Lonsdale's Aren't We All? (1985) also with Rex Harrison.
In 1987, Colbert appeared in a supporting role in the television miniseries The Two Mrs. Grenvilles. The production was a ratings success. Colbert won aGolden Globe and received a nomination for an Emmy Award.
Modern critic pointed out that Colbert had a mixture of unique physical assets (her round apple-face, big eyes, curly light hair, slender stooping body), elegant voice, aristocratic manner, sleek acting, a tongue-in-cheek vivacity, witty senses of humor and ladylike alluring charm, that distinguishes her from the other screwball comediennes of the 1930s such as Jean Arthur and Irene Dunne. In her comedy films, she invariably played shrewd and self-reliant women, but unlike many of her contemporaries, Colbert rarely engaged in physical comedy. Her characters were more likely to be observers and commentators.
In 1928, Colbert married Norman Foster, an actor and director, who co-starred with her in the Broadway show The Barker, and in the 1930 film Young Man of Manhattan which received negative reviews as one of her weakest leading men. Their marriage remained a secret for many years while living in separate homes. In Los Angeles, Colbert shared her home with her mother Jeanne Chauchoin, but her domineering mother disliked Foster and did not allow him into their home. Colbert and Foster divorced in 1935 in Mexico.
Four months after her divorce, Colbert married Joel Pressman, a surgeon at UCLA, a throat specialist. The marriage lasted 33 years, until his death of liver cancer in 1968. She gave theBeechcraft Bonanza single-engine plane to Pressman as a present. They purchased a ranch in Northern California, where her husband kept show cattle. During this periods, Colbert drove Lincoln Continental and Ford Thunderbird.
Jeanne Chauchoin envied her daughter's talent of art/acting, and never gave the recognition of Colbert's success. Jeanne let Colbert's brother Charles serve as Colbert's agent. Colbert spent many years of her life getting Jeanne's approval. Charles used the surname Wendling which was borrowed from Rose Wendling who was Jeanne's paternal grandmother. He served as Colbert's business manager for a time, and was credited with negotiating some of her more lucrative contracts in the late 1930s and early 1940s. Colbert was generally respected for her professionalism, with the New York Times stating that she was known for giving "110 percent" to any project she worked on. Hedda Hopper wrote that Colbert placed her career "ahead of everything save possibly her marriage", with a strong sense of what was best for her, and a "deep rooted desire to be in shape, efficient and under control". The writer A. Scott Berg described Colbert had "helped define femininity for her generation with her chic manner." Colbert once said, "I’ve been in the Claudette Colbert business a long time."
In 1954 her aunt Emilie Loew died in the U.S. Virtually retiring from motion picture industry since mid 1950s, she was still financially solvent enough. Despite having a country house in Palm Springs for staying on weekends, she rented a cottage in Cap Ferrat, southeastern France. Adman said, "Claudette was extravagant, I never, ever saw her question the price of anything." In 1963, Colbert sold her residence located in Holmby Hills (western Los Angeles), so Joel Pressman rented a small house in Beverly Hills.
In 1958 she met Verna Hull, a wealthy painter/photographer and the stepdaughter of a Sears Roebuck heiress. They had nine-year friendship and painted together, went for a drive together, traveled together and even rented twin penthouses back in New York. They had a mutual interest in art. When Colbert bought a house in Barbados in early 1960s, Hull also bought a modest house next door.
For years, Colbert divided her time between her apartment in Manhattan and her vacation home in Speightstown, Barbados. The latter purchased from British gentleman was the island’s only plantation house fronting the beach. Its summer house was called "Bellerive" as nickname. However, her permanent address remained Manhattan. Later in life, she was also a staunchRepublican and natural conservative.
Colbert's mother Jeanne died in 1970 and her brother Charles died in 1971, so her only surviving relative was a niece, Coco Lewis, Charles' daughter.
Following a series of small strokes during the last three years of her life, Colbert died in 1996 at her second home in Barbados, where she was employing one housekeeper and two cooks at that time. Colbert’s body was shipped to New York for cremation. A requiem mass was held at St. Vincent Ferrer church in New York City later. Her ashes were buried in the Parish of St. Peter Cemetery, Barbados, along with her mother and second husband.
The childless Colbert left most of her estate, estimated at $3.5 million and also including her Manhattan apartment and another home Bellerive, to a long-time friend, Helen O'Hagan, a retired director of corporate relations at Saks Fifth Avenue, whom Colbert had met in 1961 on the set of the her last film and became best friend from circa 1970. Though O'Hagan was financially comfortable without the generous bequest, Bellerive was sold at over $2 million to a midwestern U.S. couple. Her remaining assets were distributed between three heirs: $150,000 to her niece Coco Lewis; a trust worth more than $100,000 to UCLA for Pressman’s memory; and $75,000 to Marie Corbin, Colbert's Barbadian housekeeper.