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Barbara Trentham, artist and ex-wife of John Cleese, dies at 68

Artist BarbarTrentham with her then-husbactor John Cleese.

Artist Barbara Trentham with her then-husband, actor John Cleese.

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Updated: September 11, 2013 6:12AM



Barbara Trentham had dinner with Prince Charles, hung out with Jack Nicholson and Warren Beatty, appeared in movies and wed Monty Python’s John Cleese.

She found happiness and serenity creating her oil paintings, and living in Lake Bluff and Jackson Hole, Wyo., with her third husband, attorney George Covington.

Mrs. Trentham, 68, died Aug. 2 of complications from leukemia at Northwestern Memorial Hospital.

She was born in Brooklyn, and grew up in Weston, Conn. In high school, she began modeling for magazines including Seventeen. Her father, who worked at IBM, did a thorough investigation when she was invited to a fashion shoot in Chile. “I guess she was approached by a talent scout, and he really checked it out” before letting her go, George Covington said.

She studied art at Mount Holyoke College, graduating in 1966. Next she attended the Fine Arts department at England’s Oxford University, known as the Ruskin School. She was briefly wed to a fellow student, Giles Trentham. After they split, she kept his surname and used it in her personal and professional life.

Her photo graced the cover of Vogue, and she began landing roles in movies including “The Possession of Joel Delaney,” a 1972 Shirley MacLaine film; “Rollerball,” a 1975 James Caan movie; the 1976 film “Sky Riders” with James Coburn and Robert Culp, and the 1978 TV movie “Death Moon” with Robert Foxworth.

In the 1970s, she moved to California, where she went out with both Nicholson and Beatty. “She told me they were sort of pretty notorious in Hollywood in those days, and she never engaged in anything more than a kiss,” her husband said. “She knew whatever she did, it would immediately be known to everybody out there.”

In 1980, she met John Cleese, a member of Monty Python, when the groundbreaking, subversively funny troupe did a show at the Hollywood Bowl. “There I was, parading around in drag with this terrible blond wig, false boobs and carpet slippers,” Cleese told People Magazine. “And she thought, ‘this man has to be interesting.’

“Barbara was a wonderfully kind person and a superbly talented artist,” Cleese said in a statement Friday. “She will be dearly missed.”

“She actually did have dinner with Prince Charles — probably because of her marriage to John Cleese, who did know a lot of those people,” George Covington said.

Cleese and Mrs. Trentham had a child, Camilla, before they divorced in 1990. She is collaborating with her father on a possible musical based on the 1988 Cleese film, “A Fish Called Wanda.”

When Barbara Trentham first met Cleese, she was reporting and producing for the TV show “Those Amazing Animals.’’

“She interviewed somebody in Texas. They lived in a trailer and they had a chimpanzee, and she described the chimpanzee walking into the trailer and opening the refrigerator, and taking out a beer and sitting down at the table and lighting a cigarette,” her husband said. Another segment featured a water-skiing raccoon, he said.

In 1993, Mrs. Trentham moved to Chicago. She met her future husband at a dinner party. “She had an electric personality,” George Covington said. “I remember sitting next to her at dinner, and saying, you know, this is a really good-looking woman. She was almost incapable of taking a bad picture.”

They married in 1998 and she moved into his Lake Bluff home, where she installed an art studio. “She built it and paid for it,” he said.

“Her values were wonderful,” he said. She was patient with a family dog who may have been the product of overbreeding — even when it bit her. She believed it wasn’t a mean dog — just a fearful one, he said.

She couldn’t abide snobbery, he said. “It didn’t matter where she was — riding in a cab, or in the hospital. Almost the first thing she would say was, ‘Hi, I’m Barbara.’ ”

Mrs. Trentham spent about half the year at their home in Jackson Hole, where she loved the wide-open spaces, and wearing cowboy hats.

She mentored other artists, inviting them to paint in her Wyoming studio. She shared oil paints, canvases and other supplies, all of which can add up quickly, on an artist’s salary. At a local art fair, she “would set up a tent and had models hired,” said her friend and fellow painter, Rosanna Mitchell. “It was for other people to experience live model drawing.”

“She would spread a big canvas on the wall and get five or six people painting at the same time,” her husband said. “It was important for her to get people to play.”

Her TV background helped with her masterful planning of his 60th birthday celebration. She surprised him with visits from his friends and family. His daughters popped out of his workshop, and she stashed his sister at his childhood home as a surprise, he said. She believed 60 should be the eve of a new kind of childhood, and “She had a treehouse built for me.”

In addition to her husband and daughter, Mrs. Trentham also is survived by her brother, Robert Schilling, and four stepdaughters, Karen Covington, Jean Covington, Sarah Covington, and Cynthia Cleese.

Celebrations of her life are being planned. Her husband said they might be held in her studios in Lake Bluff and Jackson Hole.

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