No matter how famous Claudette Colbert got—and in the 1930s, she was the highest-paid screen siren out there—it couldn’t fix her deep insecurities behind the scenes. And then there were the scandalous rumors, on-set blowups, and secret marriages. Colbert left an indelible mark on Hollywood before all but disappearing from screens. Here are 50 facts about the mysterious star.
Claudette Colbert Facts
1. She Didn’t Want to Be a Movie Star
Claudette Colbert’s whole career was a surprise. A stage actress, Colbert never wanted to be a movie star. Even so, Hollywood wanted her. Tinseltown was just switching from silent films to talkies, and there was huge demand for actresses who had experience with speaking roles. They eventually enticed her to go West.
2. She Tried to Quit Acting
Colbert’s first experience on a film set was so awful, she swore never to do it again. Her first movie was 1927’s For the Love of Mike under soon-to-be legendary director Frank Capra—but this didn’t help her much at the time. In the 1920s, Capra was still young and green, and Colbert didn’t trust him. She only stayed in Hollywood because she was locked in a contract.
3. She Almost Didn’t Get Her Iconic Role
In 1934, Colbert worked with Frank Capra again in the now classic It Happened One Night, playing spoiled heiress Ellie Andrews. But most people don’t know the film’s dark history. After their previous collaboration, Capra and Colbert had no love lost for each other, and Colbert wasn’t even supposed to get the part. She was Capra’s last choice…after seven other starlets turned him down.
4. She Made Obscene Demands
Perhaps hearing that she was the bottom-of-the-barrel choice for the part in It Happened One Night, Colbert made sure to put in her most diva demands before she committed to the role. She insisted not only on getting twice her salary for the film, she also finagled a shorter filming schedule…so she wouldn’t have to cancel her vacation plans. Now that’s star power!
5. Her Director Hated Her
Surprising almost no one who knew Colbert and Capra, filming It Happened One Night was an absolute nightmare. Capra recalled that his lead actress “had many little tantrums” about almost anything, “mostly,” he said, “motivated by her antipathy toward me.” But her biggest “diva moment happened in the film’s most famous scene…
6. She Refused to Do a Racy Scene
When it came time to film the scene in It Happened One Night where Ellie Andrews hikes up her skirt and flashes a scandalous bare leg to hitch a ride with a passing driver, Colbert put her foot down. Literally. She initially refused to do the scene, calling the iconic ankle strip “unladylike.” To get her to do it, Capra had to resort to desperate measures.
7. She Had a Jealousy Problem
About ready to give up on getting his starlet to do the scene, Capra brought in her body double, a chorus girl who was a Hollywood hopeful. Well, never underestimate what jealousy can do for you. When Colbert caught sight of the girl who was about to steal her scene, she immediately changed her tune, saying, “Get her out of here. I’ll do it. That’s not my leg!”
8. She Hated Her Face
Colbert was always exacting and deeply insecure. This is not a good combination, and she went to extreme lengths to control her image. It’s become a cliché for people to claim they have a “good side,” but Colbert actually refused to show the right side of her face to the camera entirely. This eccentricity soon blew up into epic proportions.
9. She Got Behind the Camera
Colbert was deeply suspicious that cameramen wouldn’t heed her demands and they’d end up shooting her “bad side,” so she took matters into her own hands. Not only did she start learning about lighting and the technical side of film, she would often force producers to redesign film sets just to accommodate her specific “needs.”
10. She Had an Adorable Nickname
Colbert was actually born Émilie Claudette Chauchoin in a suburb of Paris, France in 1903. Her parents nicknamed their beautiful little girl “Lily.”
11. She Had a Bizarre Relationship With Her Mother
Colbert’s mother Jeanne Chauchoin made Mommie Dearest look tame. The overbearing and overprotective Jeanne doted on her famous daughter and coddled her well into adulthood. Jeanne even insisted on living in the same house as Claudette in Los Angeles. Colbert didn’t seem to mind…until the day Jeanne outdid herself in the worst way imaginable.
12. Her Mother Hated Her Husband
Around 1928, Colbert met and soon married her first husband Norman Foster. Well, Colbert may have been in love, but her mother Jeanne most certainly was not. Mama reportedly banned Foster from her presence and wouldn’t even allow Claudette’s own husband to set foot in the home. And the drama doesn’t end there.
13. Her Marriage Had No Chemistry
Colbert starred opposite her husband Norman Foster in the 1930 film Young Man of Manhattan, where the two played love interests. It should’ve been a slam dunk for romantic chemistry. It…was not. Critics panned Foster as one of Colbert’s worst leading men. If you think that’s not a great sign for their marriage, you’d be right.
14. She Kept an Enormous Secret
Ok, Jeanne banning Norman Foster from her house isn’t a good look…but the matriarch didn’t even know that he and Claudette were married. No, really. Colbert had kept everything about the romance from her mother for fear that Jeanne would blow up. Which, to be fair, she probably would. But it gets even worse than that.
15. She Had a Truly Unorthodox Marriage
Thanks to Mama Jeanne’s controlling behavior, Colbert and Foster never lived together. This wasn’t a flash-in-the-pan union either: They were married for a whopping seven years, all while living in separate houses. Colbert kept their love a secret all the while, and never managed to get out from her mother’s thumb.
16. Her First Oscar Nomination Caused a Scandal
Colbert’s very first Academy Award nomination came in 1935, when she was up for the Best Actress trophy for It Happened One Night. But her moment was tainted from the very beginning. Bette Davis famously snuck into the nominations as a “write-in vote” after outraged viewers protested her Oscar snub. Colbert did not take this well at all.
17. She Ran Away From the Oscars
Colbert was never full of confidence, and this last-minute inclusion of Davis rattled her worst insecurities. Colbert was utterly intimidated, and sure she’d never win in the face of Davis’ overwhelming popularity. So instead of attending the award ceremony and face a loss in person, she went on a cross-country rail trip. This totally backfired.
18. She Was an Absentee “Best Actress”
That evening, Colbert’s film It Happened One Night swept the awards. It won Best Picture, Best Director, Best Screenplay, Best Actor, and, you guessed it—Best Actress. Colbert had beat write-in candidate Bette Davis…but she was nowhere to be found in the audience. Studio head Harry Cohn was furious—but the scandal continued.
19. She Nearly Missed Her Big Break
At the moment that her name was announced as the recipient of the Best Actress Oscar, Colbert was about to depart on her cross-country rail trip. Cohn dispatched someone to find her at all costs, and they managed to catch her just before she stepped on the train. The gofer whisked the actress from the station directly to the awards ceremony to accept her Oscar—albeit belatedly.
20. Her Childhood Was No Fairy Tale
When she was a child, Colbert’s family was far from well off. Her father couldn’t hold down a job, and when she was three years old, they relocated from France to New York City for a better life. It wasn’t exactly the American Dream, though; their new digs were a tiny fifth floor walkup. The apartment did, however, have a famous upside.
21. She Worked Hard for Her Beauty
At the height of her stardom, audiences knew Colbert for her glorious set of stems, thanks mostly to that iconic car-hailing scene in It Happened One Night. But those legs didn’t come from nowhere: Colbert said that it was walking up those five flights of stairs every day as a child that gave her those shapely calves.
22. She Played One of the Most Famous Women in History
Before Elizabeth Taylor, there was Claudette Colbert. In 1934, Colbert took on the iconic role of Cleopatra in Cecil B. DeMille’s film of the same name. The acclaimed movie followed the ruler’s life, from her introduction to Julius Caesar to her tragic end. But behind the scenes, Colbert was absolutely miserable.
23. She Was in Horrible Pain While Filming
While making Cleopatra, Colbert was recovering from appendicitis—and it nearly turned fatal. The elaborate, heavy costumes and lengthy days on set made it difficult for her to even stand for more than a few minutes at the time, which is not good when you’re the title character of a film. It all paid off, though. The film got a Best Picture nomination.
24. She Almost Took a Different Path
While many urged the teenaged Colbert to pursue a career on the stage, she had other ideas in mind. Colbert was passionate about fashion design, and worked in retail in order to pay for design classes at the Art Students League of New York. If only she’d been born a few decades later, when stars having fashion lines became a totally common thing!
25. She Got a Lucky Break
When Colbert was an art student, she experienced a lucky twist of fate. Although she had been pulled between fashion and the stage since her high school days, she happened to meet a playwright at a party in college and reignited her love of treading the boards. From there, she ended up making her Broadway debut at the age of 20.
26. She Got Typecast in the Worst Way
Colbert soon signed a contract with legendary Broadway producer Al Woods…and then the hard part started. Broadway producers kept casting her in French maid roles, and Colbert detested being “That French Girl.” She even insisted people pronounce her name “Col-Bert” and not “Col-Baire” to distance herself from her Gallic heritage.
27. She Had a Bitter Divorce
Colbert and husband Norman Foster’s “Seven Year Itch” marriage ended predictably—but no less tragically—in a bitter split. After years of keeping everything hush-hush and tiptoeing around her family, the pressure became too much. In the grand Old Hollywood tradition, the two desperate actors got a quickie divorce in Mexico in 1935.
28. She Played an Infamous Empress
Though Colbert became famous for playing Cleopatra, she actually nabbed a much darker role two years earlier: That of notorious Roman empress Poppaea Sabina, wife to the equally notorious Nero. Director Cecil B. DeMille approached her and asked, “How would you like to play the wickedest person in the world?” Colbert replied “I’d love it.” Yet she’d soon regret those words.
29. She Suffered an Indignity on Set
The movie was The Sign of the Cross, and it was a turning point in Colbert’s career, taking her from undervalued studio grunt to A-list star—but behind the scenes, she lived in fear. Her co-star in The Sign of the Cross, Fredric March, continually groped her on set. Colbert later called him “the worst womanizer I ever knew.” But don’t worry, she got her revenge.
30. She Got Back at Her Co-Star
One day, March brazenly decided to harass Colbert in plain sight during a photo shoot for the film, groping her rear end. When the photos were published, a furious Colbert went straight to Paramount Studios. As a result, she became the first star to get approval of photos of herself before they were published, a practice that is still common today.
31. She Went to Extreme Lengths for Her Art
March’s creepy and unwanted advances weren’t the only bizarre ordeal Colbert had to go through on the set of The Sign of the Cross. In the film, she also famously had to bathe in donkey’s milk for one iconic shot. Not necessarily a fun thing to do take after take, even if the end result is legendary. But the thing is, the liquid was worse than donkey’s milk….
32. She Once Took a Disgusting “Bath”
During promotion for The Sign of the Cross, DeMille claimed the milk was authentic, but the truth is it was actually plain old powdered cow’s milk. This? Not a great idea.The scene took days to film, and the milk slowly began to turn. By the final day, it stank to high heaven and had curdled into chunks—and Colbert still had to stand in it. No thanks!
33. She Had a Surprise Success
When filming wrapped on It Happened One Night, Colbert was certain she’d just been in a stinker. After completing her scenes, she told a friend that she’d just finished the worst film she’d ever made. Of course, that’s not quite what happened. It Happened One Night is now a classic; the disaster film somehow turned into a miracle.
34. She Was the Biggest Thing in Hollywood
In 1936, Colbert became the highest-paid actress in Hollywood, and by 1938 she was the highest-paid performer period. Guess a string of hits will do that.
35. She Met Her Second Husband Through Violence
Yeah Colbert’s family really didn’t like her first husband Norman Foster—and their hatred actually allowed her to meet her second husband. At a family dinner, Colbert’s brother punched Foster, breaking his nose. Colbert then took her man to see a hunky surgeon named Jack Pressman. Colbert and Pressman stayed in contact, and when the timing was right, they got together.
36. She Betrayed Her Mother
Just four short months after her divorce from Foster, Colbert was standing at the altar with Pressman. But even this came with a price. After the disaster of her first marriage, Colbert finally kicked her mother out of the house. As it turns out, this made for a much happier union, and the pair were together until Pressman’s passing. But that doesn’t mean it was without scandal…
37. She May Have Been a Lesbian
According to rumors, Colbert had dalliances during her marriage to Pressman—except that’s not the scandalous part. Tabloids claimed that instead of having affairs with male co-stars, Colbert was a closeted lesbian carrying on secret trysts with other starlets. Her most famous supposed lover? Teutonic beauty Marlene Dietrich. Nothing could be further from the truth.
38. She Despised Her “Lover”
Secret Sappho or not, Colbert likely wasn’t carrying on with Dietrich…because the two women hated each other. There’s a famous photo of them snuggled together at a party, but Colbert claimed someone pushed her up to Dietrich against her will to get the shot. Oh, then there’s the little fact that Dietrich once called Colbert “ugly” and “so shopgirl French.” Me-ow.
39. She Went Gritty
By 1950, Colbert was aging out of romantic lead roles, but she wanted to hold on to her status—and she began to take dangerous risks. While filming the drama Three Came Home, she shook off her usual glamor and played a woman interned at a POW camp. Colbert even allowed them to film her “bad side”—but her dedication forced her to go way too far.
40. She Had One Big Regret
For one violent scene, Colbert sent her stuntwoman home and insisted on performing it herself, only to wind up in the hospital with a cracked vertebra and ruptured disc. This had devastating consequences. The injuries forced her to give up the lead in All About Eve. The film then went to Bette Davis, her one-time Oscar rival, and became one of the greatest films of all time. Ouch.
41. She Made a Strange Friend
Injured and aging, Claudette Colbert started to slow down in the 1950s…but when one door closes, another one opens. In 1958, she met the wealthy heiress Verna Hull and started passing the hours away from her busy husband with her fancy new companion—but their close friendship would eventually show a disturbing dark side.
42. She Reignited Old Rumors
For 10 years, Colbert and Hull were inseparable, and they would frequently attend various shows and galleries together. Yet this intimacy came with a price. Tabloids soon reignited the rumors that Colbert was having a Sapphic affair with Hull, even though both women vehemently denied their involvement. But in 1968, things got even more complicated.
43. She Faced Losing Her Husband
In the late 60s, Hull and Colbert’s scandalous friendship came to a sinister end. That year, Colbert’s husband Jack Pressman was on his deathbed, suffering brutally from liver cancer. Naturally, Colbert expected her bosom buddy Hull to be her rock during this difficult time and to help support her. That’s…not exactly what Hull ended up doing.
44. She Was in a Hollywood Feud
Despite her hefty riders, Colbert was usually a consummate professional on set—with one exception. In 1943, she appeared in So Proudly We Hail! alongside Paulette Goddard and the much younger starlet Veronica Lake. When Goddard became friends with the naive Lake instead of her, the 39-year-old Colbert resented the implication that she was too old, and snubbed the woman from then on.
45. She Did Everything to Save Her Husband
Colbert went above and beyond to save Pressman’s life. They were in Barbados at the time, so—get this—the star commissioned a freaking passenger plane full of medical staff to pick him up and fly him back to California. Sadly, it was too late. Pressman passed in February, 1968. The loss devastated Colbert—but it didn’t end there.
46. She Suffered Great Losses All at Once
In quick succession after her husband, Colbert also lost her mother and brother. Colbert’s reaction was surprising. These were brutal losses, but she also felt relieved that she no longer had familial burdens. She used her new-found time to return to acting, even taking an award-winning part in the 1987 miniseries The Two Mrs. Grenvilles.
47. She Outlived Old Hollywood
Unlike many of her contemporaries, Colbert was neither desperate to hold on to stardom nor a recluse in the last decades of her life. She outlasted her family, her husband, and many other Old Hollywood stars, but the end does come for us all, even the magnificent Claudette Colbert. In 1996, Colbert passed at the age of 92.
48. She Started a Torrid Affair
While Colbert didn’t like Frank Capra much, she definitely had different feelings about her handsome It Happened One Night co-star Clark Gable. Years later, she made a scandalous revelation. Even though they both were married at the time, Colbert and Gable carried on a steamy affair while on set. Now that chemistry is palpable.
49. She Received a Disturbing Letter
Colbert was at her failing husband’s bedside when she received a bizarre letter. It was a message from Verna Hull via her estate manager—and it contained an utterly chilling accusation. According to Hull, the dying Pressman was somehow going to take Colbert down with him, slaying her so that they could be together forever. Uh, what? And Colbert’s reaction to this unhinged “news”? Not good.
50. She Cut off Her Best Friend
As soon as Colbert received the strange letter, she marched right over to Hull’s property. With no muss or fuss, Colbert then yelled at Hull’s maid to, “Tell your mistress I will never see her or speak to her again for the rest of my life!” Then, just to make sure she was 100% clear, Colbert sent back every gift Hull had ever given her.