Partner Verna Hull, Helen O’Hagan
226 E 53rd St, New York, NY 10022
55 Central Park West, New York, NY 10023
615 North Faring Road, Beverly Hills CA
Bellerive, Speightstown, Barbados
945 5th Ave, New York, NY 10021
Godings Bay Church Cemetery, Speightstown, Saint Peter, Barbados
Claudette Colbert (born Émilie Claudette Chauchoin; September 13, 1903 – July 30, 1996) was an American actress. Despite both her marriages being seemingly legitimate and loving, rumors of Claudette’s affairs with other actresses such as Katharine Hepburn, Joan Crawford, and Marlene Dietrich followed her for her entire career. Most notably, Claudette had a very public intimate relationship with the out lesbian artist Verna Hull in the 1950s. Although Claudette denied the rumors that she was bisexual or a lesbian, she and Verna rented a home together in New York City and even had neighboring vacation homes in Barbados. The relationship ended abruptly and on bad terms in the early 1960s after the death of Claudette’s husband. When Claudette passed away on July 30, 1996, she left her entire estate to another woman named Helen O’Hagan, who she instructed in her will to be treated “as her spouse.” "She certainly moved with great ease in gay circles," said a friend. "I used to see her at George Cukor's, and there would be quite the carrying-on. She was never shocked. It was a world she was comfortable in. It was taken for granted that she was gay, or at least not conventionally straight." "We used to call her "Uncle Claude"," said Don Bachardy, the lover of the writer Christopher Isherwood. "Actually, I think she's really a good example of a very closeted situation. Only well within her own circle did they know the truth."
Colbert began her career in Broadway productions during the late 1920s and progressed to motion pictures with the advent of talking pictures. Initially associated with Paramount Pictures, she gradually shifted to working as a freelance actress. She won the Academy Award for Best Actress in It Happened One Night (1934), and received two other Academy Award nominations. Her other notable films include Cleopatra (1934) and The Palm Beach Story (1942). With her round face, big eyes, charming, aristocratic manner, and flair for light comedy as well as emotional drama, Colbert's versatility led to her becoming one of the best-paid stars of the 1930s and 1940s and, in 1938 and 1942, the highest-paid. She starred in more than 60 movies. Among her frequent co-stars were Fred MacMurray, in seven films (1935−1949), and Fredric March, in four films (1930−1933). By the early 1950s, Colbert had basically retired from the screen in favor of television and stage work, and she earned a Tony Award nomination for The Marriage-Go-Round in 1959. Her career tapered off in the early 1960s, but in the late 1970s it experienced a resurgence in theater, and she received a Sarah Siddons Award for her Chicago theater work in 1980. For her television work in The Two Mrs. Grenvilles (1987), she won a Golden Globe Award and received an Emmy Award nomination. In 1999, the American Film Institute named Colbert the 12th-greatest female star of classic Hollywood cinema.
In 1928, Colbert married actor and director Norman Foster, with whom she co-starred in the Broadway show The Barker, and in the film Young Man of Manhattan (1930), for which he received negative reviews as one of her weakest leading men. Their marriage remained a secret for many years while they lived in separate homes. In Los Angeles, Colbert shared a home with her mother, Jeanne Chauchoin, but her domineering mother disliked Foster and reputedly did not allow him into the home. Colbert and Foster divorced in 1935 in Mexico.
In June 1935, Carole Lombard threw a party, a rather infamous one, as it turned out, at an amusement park in Venice Beach. The guest list as reported in the press was made uo predominately of "sophisticated" types, especially the women, Lombard invited girls with spunk, irreverence, "imagination": Marlene Dietrich, Lili Damita, Josephine Hutchinson (lover of Eva LeGallienne), Claudette Colbert. The Associated Press was there to take pictures, and noted that the gala, lasting into the wee hours of the morning, was deemed by Hollywood "the most unique in years". Certainly the photos caused a stir, especially the one of Colbert nestled between Dietrich's legs as they slid down a chute together. Later, after Colbert's death, her companion, Helen O’Hagan, with whom she'd lived for more than 20 years, would tell reporters that Claudette barely knew Dietrich, despite the fact that they were Paramount stars on the lot at the same time. Friend Leonard Gershe insisted that Claudette told him "some photographer pushed her" onto the slide with Dietrich. And besides, Gershe insisted, "Marlene and Claudette didn't even like each other. Dietrich described her as "that ugly Claudette Colbert, so shopgirl French."" Yet the photographs of Jerome Zerbe, taken roughly at the same time as Lombard's party, reveal these two supposed foes very close and friendly. Indeed, other friends recall the Dietrich-Colbert connection quite differently. "Maybe they became unfriendly later, but I'm quite sure they were lovers for a time before Claudette married second husband Jack Pressman", said the writer Robert Shaw, who became close with Colbert in the 1950s. "I know Claudette adored Dietrich. I used to kid Claudette about her all the time." William Haines, friends with Colbert for years, reportedly expressed surprise when Shaw told him in the 1960s that Colbert had had an affair with Dietrich. "I never knew she was a dyke," Haines said. To which Shaw replied: "You know, Billy, you don't own a patent on it."
The gay scene was documented in the 1930s by Jerome Zerbe, who spent "three gay months" (his words) in the movie colony. Fascinating are his many photos of Cary Grant and Randolph Scott, attesting to their involvement in the gay scene: Scott arriving at a party at Zerbe's apartment, several lovely poses of Grant in a bathing suit. Zerbe's photographs of the Countess Dorothy di Frasso's party in the summer of 1935, however, remain the most intriguing. The writer Brendan Gill would recount a tale as told to him by Zerbe, in which the countess, known for her malicious sense of humor, secured recording devices to the undersides of all her garden benches. On the day of her party, the wily countess nailed some pretty incriminating tales from her unsuspecting guests. Zerbe's photographs documented the party, and reveal the guests to have all been part of the "sophisticated" clique. Although Cary Grant arrived with perennial date Betty Furness, he posed jauntily with William Haines, George Cukor, and Clifton Webb; Claudette Colbert mugged playfully next to Marlene Dietrich, refuting for posterity charges that they barely knew each other. In one shot, Zerbe captured Colbert taking home movie of Dietrich. A few weeks later, the countess invited the same group back for another party. Gill reported: "She played back for them the indiscreet conversations they had carried on in the supposed privacy of the garden. The prank was not well received." Indeed Photoplay's pseudonymous "Cal York" (perhaps at this point the gay writer Jerry Asher) reported that di Frasso received five urgent (York's emphasis) pleadings from unnamed persons to not play the recordings at her next party, or ever again.
On Christmas Eve, 1935 in Yuma, Arizona, Colbert married Dr Joel Pressman, who eventually became a professor and chief of the head and neck surgery department of UCLA Medical School. She gave a Beechcraft single-engine airplane to Pressman as a present. They purchased a ranch in Northern California, where Colbert enjoyed horseback riding and her husband kept show cattle. During this time, Colbert drove a Lincoln Continental and a Ford Thunderbird. The marriage lasted 33 years, until Pressman's death from liver cancer in 1968. Jeanne Chauchoin reportedly envied her daughter, preferred her son's company, and made Colbert's brother Charles serve as his sister's agent. Charles used the surname Wendling, borrowed from Jeanne's paternal grandmother Rose Wendling. 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. Although virtually retired from motion pictures since the mid-1950s, Colbert was still financially solvent enough to maintain an upscale lifestyle. She had a country house in Palm Springs for weekends, and rented a cottage in Cap Ferrat in southeastern France. Adman Peter Rogers said, "Claudette was extravagant; I never, ever saw her question the price of anything."
In 1958, she met Verna Hull, a wealthy painter/photographer and the stepdaughter of a Sears Roebuck heiress. They had a nine-year friendship that included travel, an interest in art, and rented twin New York penthouses. When Colbert bought a house in Barbados in the early 1960s, Hull bought a house next door, amid rumors that their friendship was a romantic one, which Colbert denied. The friendship ended after an argument that took place as Colbert's husband lay dying, wherein Hull insisted Pressman would not only take his life but Colbert's too rather than die alone.
In 1963, Colbert sold her Lloyd Wright-designed residence in Holmby Hills (West Los Angeles), and she and Joel Pressman rented a small house in Beverly Hills. Professor Pressman died on February 26, 1968.
For years, Colbert divided her time between her Manhattan apartment and her vacation home in Speightstown, Barbados. The latter, purchased from a British gentleman and nicknamed Bellerive, was the island's only plantation house fronting the beach. However, her permanent address remained Manhattan. When Colbert's mother Jeanne died in 1970, and her brother Charles in 1971, her only surviving relative was a niece, Coco Lewis, Charles' daughter. Colbert sustained a series of small strokes during the last three years of her life. She died in 1996 in Barbados, where she had employed a housekeeper and two cooks. She was 92. Her remains were transported to New York City for cremation and funeral services. A requiem mass was later held at Church of St. Vincent Ferrer in Manhattan. Her ashes are laid to rest in the Godings Bay Church Cemetery, Speightstown, Saint Peter, Barbados, alongside her mother and second husband. Colbert never had children. She left most of her estate, estimated at $3.5 million and including her Manhattan apartment and Bellerive, to a long-time friend, Helen O’Hagan, a retired director of corporate relations at Saks Fifth Avenue. Colbert met O'Hagan in 1961 on the set of Parrish, her last film, and they became best friends around 1970. After Pressman's death, Colbert instructed her friends to treat O'Hagan as they had Pressman, "as her spouse". Although O'Hagan was financially comfortable without the generous bequest, Bellerive was sold for over $2 million to David Geffen. Colbert's will also left $150,000 to her niece Coco Lewis; a trust of over $100,000 to UCLA, in Pressman's memory; and $75,000 to Marie Corbin, her Barbadian housekeeper.
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