Strolling the red carpet at the Golden Globes on Jan. 15, Angelina Jolie looked as glamorous as ever, supporting her nominated boyfriend Brad Pitt. But it was evident from her unusually withdrawn manner that her heart wasn’t in it. “She was clearly not happy to be there,” says an observer. “Brad was rolling with it, but she seemed hesitant. There was something off—and it was obvious.”
Slammed by some in the press for being aloof, Jolie was in fact grappling with a very private pain: Her mother, Marcheline Bertrand—whom the actress once described as “the most compassionate woman I know”—was then in the final stages of her 7½-year battle with ovarian cancer. On Jan. 27, Bertrand, 56, lost her fight at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, with Jolie and Pitt—who had flown in from New Orleans, where he has been filming—and her son James Haven by her side. “There are no words to express what an amazing woman and mother she was,” Jolie and Haven told PEOPLE in a statement. “She was our best friend.”
Both of Bertrand’s children are devastated by the loss of a woman friends call unfailingly gentle and giving. “Marcheline was the most lovely, lovely person,” said actress Jacqueline Bisset, Jolie’s godmother and a close friend of Bertrand’s. “She worked incredibly hard to raise both Jamie and Angelina and dedicated herself to their happiness. She had a kind of enlightened spirit.” That spirit was a source of strength to her 31-year-old daughter, who has described Bertrand as a constant in a tumultuous life. “She’s like the sun coming up in me,” Jolie told Britain’s Sunday Times in 1999. Jolie’s similarities to Bertrand—in dark-haired beauty and an adventurous nature—were evident early on. “Marcheline set the foundation for Angie to become who she is—from all the wildness to the strong, socially aware woman that she is now,” says a friend. Adds another: “March was so sweet and good and wise, and she raised Angie and Jamie to be good people. Everything they are is Marcheline.”
Born in Chicago (the French name comes from her French-Canadian family roots), Bertrand “grew up in a bowling alley that my grandparents owned,” Jolie told Allure in 2004. Hoping to make it as an actress, Bertrand moved to L.A. as a young woman. “She was an unusually good person in the best sense of the word,” says her friend Anna Strasberg, widow of famed acting teacher Lee Strasberg, with whom Bertrand trained. “It’s rare in your life when you meet somebody like her.” Bertrand’s life would shift radically when she met actor Jon Voight, then fresh off an Oscar nomination for 1969’s Midnight Cowboy. Married in 1971, the couple welcomed son James in ’73—and Bertrand shelved her acting ambitions. “She put her career aside for her children,” says Strasberg. “She didn’t even think of it as ‘putting aside’ or sacrificing. Her children came first.”
After filing for divorce from Voight in 1978, Bertrand threw herself into motherhood with intensity. “She raised me,” Jolie has said. Encouraging her children’s creativity, she enrolled a young Jolie at the Strasberg Institute and frequently took both kids to the theater. She also instilled a sense of social responsibility: Proud of having Iroquois heritage, Bertrand volunteered with an American Indian arts education group. Says Anna Strasberg: “Marcheline helped the children to be their own people.” Although Voight had sporadic contact with his kids over the years, he and Jolie—who, like her brother, dropped her surname in favor of her middle name—remain estranged.
As Jolie’s fame skyrocketed, Bertrand—who avoided the media—remained close to her daughter. In L.A., Jolie was a frequent visitor to her mother’s apartment in the Raffles L’Ermitage Beverly Hills hotel, and Bertrand took enormous pride in her grandchildren—Maddox, 5, Zahara, 2, and Shiloh, 9 months. Although unable to travel to Namibia for Shiloh’s birth, she was ecstatic about the newborn’s arrival. “My heart is overflowing with joy,” she told PEOPLE. Now, as her family copes with their grief, they are also focused on honoring Bertrand’s memory, urging friends to donate to the Women’s Cancer Research Institute at Cedars-Sinai and celebrating her legacy as a devoted mother. “Her kids were her life,” says Strasberg. “She was complete with her children.”