It had been two decades since last a biographer was given the chance to shed light on the life of a woman whose name was written in the bright lights of Broadway and whose radiant presence lit up the silver screen. Considering that the radiant one is my favorite actress, I was eager to clap eyes on Claudette Colbert: She Walked in Beauty (University Press of Mississippi, 2008), a promisingly scholarly tome by Bernard F. Dick. Not that the title inspires clapping, Byronic, bastardized, and bromidic that it is. It sure gave me the first clue, though: whatever it was that Colbert walked in—beauty, grace, wit—was being thoroughly trampled in a clumsy and inept performance that brings out the lambastard in me.
As I advised students attending my seminar in Effective Academic Writing yesterday, a gaffe can be so distracting as to drown out an argument in guffaws and undermine a reader’s trust in a professional writer. Dick’s editors left us with ample occasions to titter and groan. I put down the book often enough just to get some fresh air; but I had not gotten past page two when I was confronted with “the Prince of Whales.” That’s a fine kettle of mammals, I thought.
Not that the royalty thus referred to has anything to do with Colbert; Edward VII, along with Oscar Wilde and Theodore Roosevelt, is merely listed as one of the admirers of Lily Langtry after whom Colbert may have been named. Cumbersomely piled up, trivia like this slows the plodding, meandering account of how She Walked down to a crawl. However thorough a detective, Dick is unable to fashion the evidence he compiled into any cohesive—let alone compelling—narrative. Instead, he rehearses the biographer’s role of examining data:
Without school records, it is impossible to verify whether Claudette was still at Washington Irving in February 1919 [ . . .]. Although she told Rex Reed that she appeared in Grammar in December 1918, she could have graduated at the end of the fall term, in January 1919. Initially, Washington Irving, which opened its doors in February 1913, did not observe the traditional September-June school year. Then, too, there was the matter of Claudette’s missing at least four months of school, and possibly more, in 1916, which would also have affected her graduation date.
The “matter” in question was an accident that very nearly crippled his subject. It is commendable that Dick resists being melodramatic; but his idea of bringing an event like Colbert’s immigration to life for us is to check the records revealing that, “for the end of November, the temperature was a comfortable 45 degrees.” It is difficult to warm to such storytelling.
Fortunate for those who have not burned the book to beat the chill, She Walked gathers momentum once Colbert makes the move from stage to screen. Having watched virtually all of her films, Dick can fill in many of the blanks people are likely to draw when they try to remember any of the films in which Colbert starred before or after It Happened One Night. Most of these movies are not classics; and Dick does not pretend that they are. He nonetheless succeeds in offering a thorough overview of a career that might have been brighter had Colbert not been such a shrewd businesswoman. One of the highest paid actresses, she generally chose projects based on their financial worth to her rather than on their artistic value to us.
Demonstrating that her film career declined in the late 1940s, Dick is faced with an anticlimax that cannot be countered by references to stage performances to which we no longer have access. So, he holds back with the gossip some might have expected from him: was Colbert a lesbian or what? Once again, her biographer lays out the facts with admirable restraint. There is no evidence, besides her childless marriages, the fact that she did not so much as share a house with her first husband, that she had female live-in companions, and that she enjoyed being around gay people. No evidence, in short.
Dick confuses our desire to speculate about an artist’s gender orientation with untoward curiosity. Does it matter whether Colbert (whom Dick refers to as Claudette throughout, while according last names to her male co-stars) ever derived sexual pleasure from the company of another woman? Are those who, like me, are not born heterosexuals, inappropriately trying to appropriate another luminary by pushing her into the dark corner of our longings?
I have often wondered just what attracts me to Colbert, to whose Academy Award-winning performance I was introduced by my grandmother. Even as the pre-adolescent I was then, I sensed that I was gay. It would take nearly two decades more to make me feel cheerful about it. During that time, I rejected most of the gay icons to come out of Hollywood. In the dignified, understated performances of Claudette Colbert I seemed to detect something understood. Her sexuality was not threatening to a boy troubled by the realization that he could not get aroused at the sight of feminine beauty. To me, Colbert was a woman who charmed when others seemed to chide.
When I speculate about Colbert’s intimate life, I do so not with the intention of outing her, but in the hope of learning something about myself. She Walked is designed to put such speculations to rest. Yet no matter how many facts we can gather about others, even those close to us, we never stop wondering about them and our love for them. Once we have people all figured out, they tend to be more dead to us than alive. Such is the effect of setting a queer record straight.
Writing a speech about Colbert in college, I concentrated on her career, of which my fellow students knew little and for which they could not have cared less. That I mentioned the mystique in which her sexuality was shrouded did not seem to have bothered either Colbert or her secretary/companion much. Weeks after sending the only copy of my speech to Colbert’s home in Barbados, I received the autographed image shown here. While I would have liked to engage in conjecture, it was mainly to come out to my own audience, an autobiographical act I ultimately rejected as self-indulgent. A biographer’s predilections and prejudices must not get in the way of the project.
This, I felt, was precisely what kept She Walked from taking flight. Never mind the fanciful title with which Dick tries to evoke the romance he never found or instilled in his subject. Approaching biography with the mind of a bureaucrat, the scholar falls short of meeting the creative challenge at which he balked in duty.
As a failed opportunity to revive interest in someone who, to my great relief, is alive and well in films like the aforementioned Midnight and The Palm Beach Story, She Walked may well put an end to future studies. Yet even if an open-minded publisher can prevent this from being the last word on Colbert, Dick’s eulogy stands out as an act of unpardonable bumbling. Just how graceless a performance it is can be demonstrated by these two consecutive paragraphs, which I have mercifully abridged:
The end came on 30 July. Claudette, barely breathing, said, “I want to go home,” pointing upwards. O’Hagan stayed with her until the end [. . .]
Claudette was fortunate to have a friend in Helen O’Hagan, a celebrity in her own right. Widely known as the voice of Saks, she numbered the leading designers among her circle. In 2000, she hosted a retirement party for Bill Blass at the Waldorf, where she presented a slide show of his career, followed by a luncheon consisting of his favorite foods: meat loaf and oat meal cookies.
Not even if such culinary treats had been served at Colbert’s wake do I want to hear about them, especially not in the wake of the deathbed scene. If “The end came on 20 July” brought a tear to my eye, “oat meal cookies” made me choke—an unpleasant sensation that even the imminent conclusion of book could not alleviate. “A film actor’s life is a palimpsest,” Dick remarks in his Preface; She Walked in Beauty qualifies as an effacement I would like to see overwritten.