The French actress turned American femme fatale, Claudette
Colbert, was born on this day in 1903. The possibly bisexual performer had a
successful acting career that lasted over two decades.
Two of Claudette’s most scandalous roles were in The Sign of the Cross (1932) and Cleopatra (1934) where she appeared topless and semi-nude, respectively (x).
Émilie “Lily” Claudette Chauchoin was born on
September 13, 1903 in Saint-Mandé, France. In an ironic twist of fate, she was
nicknamed Lily by her family after the New Jersery-born actress Lillie Langtry
and the family would later migrate to New Jersey themselves. Claudette attended Washington Irving High School and
became heavily involved in their theater program, but still set out for Art
Students League of New York after high school with her sights set on becoming a
fashion designer. It wasn’t until she scored a small role in the Broadway play The Wild Westcotts in 1923 that
Claudette started to seriously pursue acting.
With her sights now set on acting as a career goal, Lily
Chauchoin became Claudette Colbert; Claudette from her middle name and Colbert
from her maternal grandmother’s maiden name. She started out with a five-year
contract with Broadway producer Al Woods, but eventually made the transition
over into films in 1929 with The Hole in
the Wall. She found her niche and became a household name in 1932 when
Cecil B. DeMille cast her as the femme fatale in his historical epic The Sign of the Cross. To Claudette’s dismay,
she would then become known as one of the leading femme fatales in Hollywood
and for her overly sexual roles. By 1933, she had starred in over 20 films and
was ranked as the 13th biggest box office star in America. A year later, she would win the Academy Award for Best Actress for It Happened One Night.
Claudette and one of her supposed lovers, Marlene Dietrich, on the slide during Carole Lombard’s party at Venice Pier Amusement Park, June 1935 (x).
Claudette was married twice; first to a man named Norman
Foster who was a director and her Broadway costar, but after they divorced she
wed a UCLA surgeon named Joel Pressman. 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.”