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3 Days with Claudette Colbert

“I never leave the house without a dollar in quarters.”

Claudette Colbert

“I’ve never done anything like this before.”

The single rose in the bud vase made everything else look incredibly tacky. We were having a celebrity visitor. We always had celebrity visitors, why the special effort? John Malkovich, Meryl Streep, Keir Dullea and Kelly McGillis didn’t rate this treatment. They had put up with the accumulated crud just like we did. Bill Buckley and Robert Hughes, forget it. Hey, the place was always busy and they were being paid, right? This time we were getting a visit from a real star, from when there were stars. Claudette Colbert.

I cleaned the studio again, brushed the black felt we used on the table to muffle the sound of turning pages, despaired, turned it over and brushed the less damaged backside. I washed the double glass in the control room window.

Sigh!

I nipped out to the maintenance room for a Phillips screwdriver to remove the pane and washed the inside of the soundlock glass, too.

Before we were told who the narrator would be I had been looking forward to three afternoons of listening to a good book and expense account lunches in a bag from the deli downstairs. Sherry was my Audiobooks client: the producer, editor, chief cook and bottle washer at Random House for books on tape. For all the product they got out onto the street, an impressive effort. A two woman shop, Sherry and Linda, tucked away in a ninth floor office on East 51st Street.

Claudette was late. She was eighty-three years old, suppose she had died on the way to the studio? Sherry and I paced in front of the elevator, feeling foolish and negligent that we had lost one of our charges. Sherry checked with her office. Did she know where to go?

Claudette had the address. In fact, she had just called to confirm; her husband’s chauffeur was bringing her in the limo. Claudette had married a distinguished surgeon decades earlier. He had entrusted his wife to us and now we had lost her: old and feeble, wandering alone in midtown Manhattan. [When fact-checking this piece, I discovered that her husband, Dr. Joel Pressman, a surgeon, had died in 1968. She always spoke of him in the present tense: “He makes sure that I have a banana and a vitamin pill to start the day.”] The elevator doors opened and a busy, compact woman bustled out. She caught a heel on a loose parquet tile, the one we had been meaning to glue down, stumbled, recovered. She was carrying a pink nylon insulated lunch hamper with an appliqué flower on the side. She lumped it on the reception desk and announced, “Sorry I’m late. Random House? I’m here for their one o’clock session.”

“Miss Colbert?” Sherry.

“Yes, and I’m all out of breath. My husband must never know. I got the address wrong. I’m always doing that. I had the car drop me at 45 West 35th Street. I had enough change to call your office, but not enough for a cab. I walked it double-time.”

Ten blocks uptown on Fifth Avenue, against the wind. Eighty-three and only twenty minutes late. She had scrambled. “I never leave the house without a dollar in quarters.”

It was Claudette Colbert. Definitely. And definitely not feeble. Floral print jumper, a little hat and the same bangs and tight-permed curls that had charmed Clark Gable in It Happened One Night. And looking not eighty-three. Diet and exercise. Fifty, perhaps.

“I’ve never done anything like this before. Narration is something new. Bear with me.”

The book was Anne Morrow Lindbergh’s The Gift From The Sea. The three days were a vacation from hassles and deadlines. We finished early and lingered late; she seldom needed a second take. I asked for a few anyway, to show Sherry I was earning my keep and to cover alternate side timings for cassette duplication. She did so well that we had ample time in the booking slot to sit and chat. She talked and we listened. Claudette packed her own lunch every day in the same pink lunch pail, vegetarian low cholesterol. And she smoked my brand. “I always smoke the brand of the person I’m asking for a cigarette. I gave them up years ago.” Between takes she sat in the control room and hustled my cigarettes. We reminisced about New York. She was not really French. “Belgian, like Hercule Poirot. Colbert is my grandparents’ name.”

We agreed horse-drawn streetcars were something that should be brought back. “I suppose I really should carry credit cards or something.” The very rich never carry money.

Claudette had pocket cash squirreled away and always on her person, refugee memories. She had arrived from Belgium in 1914, a fugitive from the war in Europe. The crosstown trolleys on Fourteenth Street were her first enduring impression of America.

Three days with Claudette Colbert, my first star. And last.

“May I have the flower?” she asked.

“Please. Tomorrow I’ll get one with a sprig of baby’s breath.”

An afterthought

Checking in from 2015. I read some thoughts on character—the character of the actor, not her role, and when the two might converge—from the New York Review of Books. The article was “Waking Up at the Movies” by Jana Prikryl:

“By the early Thirties the teenaged [Pauline] Kael (whose Polish immigrant parents were failing to maintain their once prosperous chicken farm) sought sanctuary with a gang of tough, fun, independent heroines at the movies. As she told Mademoiselle, “in the ’30s, the girls we in the audience loved were delivering wisecracks. They were funny and lovely because they were funny…. They could be serious, too. There was a period when Claudette Colbert, Ann Harding, Irene Dunne and other actresses were running prisons, campaigning for governor or being doctors and lawyers.”

RESOURCES:

Claudette bio and filmography http://query.nytimes.com/
Lindberghs newsreel footage www.archive.org/
Ann Morrow Lindbergh www.pbs.org/wgbh/

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