One Classy Lady

updated 02/16/1987 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 02/16/1987 AT 01:00 AM EST

She often discusses her age, but always purposefully and never regretfully. She does not act as though time has passed her by and she is just going through the motions, looking back at a life that was so much better when she was young and battling Bette Davis and Katharine Hepburn for the best roles. Claudette Colbert brings up her age when others forget it, when they ask too much of her, which they do all the time. It's understandable, because she still moves lightly, dresses in pastels and looks as though she should be twirling a parasol. "I tell them I'm tired," she explains, "and they say, 'But you're walking faster than us.' I have to remind them that I'm 83 and they're not."

She is not being coy. She seldom is, except on the screen. She is devoid of nonsensical trappings, unless you count the ruffled chintz pillows in her dressing room. She has never been one to make too much of herself, seldom granting interviews, never doing talk shows. When a visitor travels halfway around the world to Perth, Australia and knocks on her hotel room door, she can't imagine what would make such a trip worthwhile. Modestly, she sums up her life: "I did this picture. I did that picture. I went skiing. Then I did another picture. Then I went swimming. And I was happily married. Who gives a damn?" She laughs, that same small laugh that punctuated so many of her best lines, but this time she is laughing somewhat nervously. It isn't so much that she doesn't want to talk about herself. It's more that she isn't sure she has anything worthwhile to say.

That she finally agreed to act in her first television production a quarter-century after making her last Hollywood movie seems rather substantial. She says she took a part in the mini-series The Two Mrs. Grenvilles, playing the elder Mrs. Grenville, because it was the first interesting television role she had been offered. Prior to that, "all the things they sent me were bad imitations of the things I used to do." She was an acquaintance of Elsie Woodward, the person on whom Mrs. Grenville is based, but she met her years after the shooting of her son, and they never discussed the case. She says it was common knowledge that Woodward believed her daughter-in-law had murdered her son.

To play the role she did something uncharacteristic, allowing her hair to be combed back and colored gray. The effect is startling, because in real life she maintains the look you see on the late movies. She's been tinting her hair light brown herself, not trusting professional hairstylists since 1935, when an interviewer described the color as an unpleasant "light mustard." She still wears bangs, because about a half-century ago she decided that was how she looked best and she never saw any reason to change. She is not a whimsical woman.

You need not peer through wrinkles and pancake make-up to see if a recognizable face is there. It's clearly the same face, rather unusually assembled to begin with, holding together magnificently over the years. She has high cheekbones, hardly any neck at all, and she didn't bother with face creams until she was in her 50s. Her nose was broken twice in youthful athletic accidents, and she still refuses to be photographed from the right side, where the bump shows. She says stories of her insisting that movie sets be rebuilt to accommodate her profile preference are "nonsense."

You would recognize her immediately, as the Australian women usually do when she heads out to the fruit and vegetable markets in her chauffeured Jaguar, usually in search of green beans and mangoes. She explains that as a Frenchwoman by birth she eats green beans, as a Barbadian by residence she must have her mangoes. The shoppers who spot her usually don't believe what they are seeing: Colbert picking through the rock melons and papaws. The ones who don't recognize her see just another friendly face and comfortably commiserate with her over the outrageous price of beans. It is almost always the women who seek her out, not the gentlemen, for while she had legs that stopped traffic in It Happened One Night—honestly, she still has—she was never really a come-hither beauty. Even when she starred in Cleopatra for Cecil B. DeMille in 1934, she was more like the vamp next door. "The only time anybody ever tried to pick me up was in 1927," she says, still rather shocked at the audacity. "I was not unattractive, but I've often thought a lot of passes I've heard about came about because the women let the men think it was all right. The aura I gave is that I was not available."

If it seems strange to find her in Australia, it is simply that a woman must work. She says her mother died at 94, more from boredom than old age, and she doesn't foresee the same fate for herself. She is touring in the play Aren't We All?, a British drawing-room comedy co-starring Rex Harrison. He is four years her junior, although you wouldn't know it to look, and he has much the better role. She just steps onstage now and then, twinkles, and steps off. "I don't really do anything," she apologizes. The reviews have all been flattering, but always she and Harrison are praised not so much for their performances as for the mere fact that they are still mobile enough to pull them off. "I remember that when I first came here," she says, "I thought, 'All Australians must die young. They've never heard of older people.' Why should they be amazed that we are on our feet and working?"

She was born in 1903 in France and came to the United States with her family in 1906. Her first U.S. passport erroneously listed her birthdate as 1905, which is not the kind of mistake an actress rushes out to correct, and it was not until her real 75th birthday approached that she confessed. She decided, "What the hell difference does it make, 73 or 75?" She was christened Lily Chauchoin, but she had always hated the name Lily, and she never thought much of Chauchoin after teasing American schoolchildren nicknamed her "Shoeshine." By the time she went onstage in the '20s, she was Claudette Colbert.

Like the rest of the New York theater, she didn't survive the crash of 1929. "There was nobody to go to the theater, no money. You either did talking pictures or you sat home." As a stage actress she had no difficulty adjusting to talkies, not with that lilting voice. She says it was the directors who suffered the most, because they had to learn to keep quiet while the cameras were rolling. She only did one silent picture, 1927's For the Love of Mike, in which she played an ingenue sitting at a Harvard-Yale crew race, waving a banner. It was such a flop she doesn't even recall which school she was cheering for.

The most important lesson she learned as a stage actress was what kind of contract to sign. In 1925 she had agreed to a five-year option contract with an agent, starting at $150 a week. Soon he was paying her $250 while collecting $900 for her services. She finally bought herself out of the last year of the contract for $25,000 and signed a four-picture deal with Paramount, refusing an option clause. She broke away from the studio system before anybody else realized there was a studio system to break away from.

In 1934 she got $50,000 for her role as Cleopatra—Elizabeth Taylor would get $1 million for the same part nearly 30 years later—and she earned as much as $150,000 a picture during her career. Most of us reflexively look back upon those days as a balmy pretax era, but she says it was nothing of the sort, that she once paid 89 percent of her income in federal taxes. She was never wealthy, never made the kind of investments that earned fortunes for other stars of her era. "The money I made went into a trust fund at the Chase Manhattan Bank, and you know how they are with women's money," she says.

As a star she was never quite the equal of a Clark Gable, which was proven to her in 1947, when she was about to begin work on Frank Capra's State of the Union. She demanded a 5 p.m. quitting time, which Gable was getting on his pictures. Capra refused, she dug in, and Hepburn got the part. Yet she was always a star of the first order, an authentic Hollywood property for more than 20 years, even if there was something restrained about her popularity. It was as though she held her fans at a distance, the same way she held back men who might have flirted with her. She won the Academy Award for Best Actress in 1934, playing an heiress in Capra's It Happened One Night, and she retains unpleasant memories of the adulation that followed. She and her husband, Dr. Joel Pressman, went to Genoa, Italy for a vacation; they were mobbed. She distastefully recalls the smell of sweat and garlic, the fear she felt, the police literally carrying them away to safety. "Little gals like Marilyn Monroe, where that madness happens to a much greater degree, I can see why they become abnormal," she says.

She led a life of quiet celebrity, but she was hardly reclusive. Nobody with an oceanfront house in Barbados lacks for company. It seems as though she has known everybody, and she admits that it's probably true, a function of having lived long enough. She was remembered in the will of Cole Porter. She was best friends with Lillian Hellman. She woke up one morning in California to find Carole Lombard practicing fly-casting on her front lawn, hoping to impress Gable. She says her husband liked Gable so much that he once gave her permission to run off with him in case she ever decided to leave him for a Hollywood leading man. "I said to him, 'Don't worry.' I wasn't ready to take that one on. It would be very difficult, marrying a man who could have any woman, the way that one could."

Colbert was married twice. Her first husband was an actor, Norman Foster. They married in 1928, while appearing together in a play, but Colbert kept it secret for a year because her mother couldn't stand him. Her mother spoke English poorly and once asked Foster for the meaning of the word "threshold," then told him never to cross hers. In 1935 Colbert married Pressman, who had treated her for sinus problems. She still refers to him as "my husband," although he died nearly 20 years ago, and she keeps framed photographs of him on the nightstand by her bed and on her dressing-room table. After his death she moved permanently to their 200-year-old plantation house in Barbados, feeling that L.A. was no place for a woman to live alone.

Initially it was her husband's advice that kept her out of television. In the early '50s she turned down a weekly show (it became The Loretta Young Theater) after he said to her, "Do you want to be the richest woman in the cemetery?" Nothing in television tempted her after that, not until the role of Mrs. Grenville appeared.

Surely the most important reason why she never worked in television before this is that theatrical engagements were always available to her, but there is an inalienable dignity to Colbert that isn't suitable to all manner of television. Three times she has been asked to appear on The Love Boat, and she says, crossing herself, that three times she declined.

Any offers from Hollywood Squares?

She looks up sternly.

"They wouldn't dare."

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