She was so gentle and loving that her children nicknamed her ‘Marshmallow’. And when Marcheline Bertrand died from cancer in 2007, her family mourned her deeply.

The ripples from Bertrand’s death were still being felt yesterday, when her daughter, the actress Angelina Jolie, announced that she had a voluntary double mastectomy earlier this year.

Angelina took the decision after discovering she had an 87 per cent chance of developing breast cancer, having inherited the faulty BRCA1 gene which indicates increased risk of breast and ovarian cancer. It was this genetic flaw that had led to her mother’s death.

Witnessing her mother’s desperate six-year battle against ovarian cancer, which took her life aged 56, profoundly affected Angelina. Since her death, Angelina has suffered from depression and her relationship with Brad Pitt has experienced extreme lows as a result.

She once paid tribute to Marcheline, saying: ‘I will never be as good a mother as she was. She was just grace incarnate. She was the most generous, loving — she’s better than me.’

So affected has Angelina been that she sometimes checks into the Raffles L’Ermitage hotel in Beverly Hills where her mother lived for the past two years of her life, to try to feel close to her.

Angelina, 37, is now expected to have a hysterectomy and an oophorectomy, where the ovaries are removed, to combat her raised odds of developing ovarian cancer, which stand at 50 per cent.

But despite the prospect of these gruelling procedures, she is positive about her future. In a piece written for the New York Times, she confirmed that the health crisis had brought her closer to Brad Pitt, her partner since 2005.

She wrote: ‘We knew that this was the right thing to do for our family and that it would bring us closer. And it has.’

Brad, too, was upbeat, saying: ‘Having witnessed this decision first hand, I find Angie’s choice, as well as so many others like her, absolutely heroic. I thank our medical team for their care and focus. All I want for is for her to have a long and healthy life, with myself and our children. This is a happy day for our family.’

Brad has been a rock throughout her treatment, spending more time at home, caring for Angelina and their children: Maddox, 11, Pax, nine, Zahara, eight, Shiloh, six, and four-year-old twins, Knox and Vivienne. The three eldest are adopted while the three youngest are the couple’s biological children.

And it was thanks to Brad’s mother, Jane, that Angelina was tested for the BRCA1 gene at all. Jane, who is close to Angelina, is a health activist and founded a children’s cancer unit in Springfield, Missouri. It was she who insisted that the actress go for a blood test.

According to one source close to Brad, Angelina’s decision to take a £1,900 blood test took shape during a family holiday in the Turks and Caicos Islands last Christmas. Brad’s family had gathered at the home owned by the designer Donna Karan on Parrot Cay, and Jane made it her mission to make Angelina confront her health fears.

Indeed, Angelina had long been convinced she wouldn’t live to an old age because of her mother’s health problems. She once told an interviewer: ‘There is no longevity on my mother’s side of the family,’ noting that her maternal grandmother had died aged just 45 from an unidentified illness.

Jane Pitt persuaded Angelina of the advisability of taking a gene test — to address the question of whether she was destined to suffer the same fate as her mother.

Deadly inheritance: Angelina with her mother Marcheline, who died from cancer in 2007 and from whom the actress inherited the faulty BRCA1 gene which indicates increased risk of breast and ovarian cancer

Deadly inheritance: Angelina with her mother Marcheline, who died from cancer in 2007 and from whom the actress inherited the faulty BRCA1 gene which indicates increased risk of breast and ovarian cancer

Marcheline, who was raised in Illinois by a French-Canadian father, married Midnight Cowboy star Jon Voight when she was a 21-year-old actress. After the births of son James in 1973 and Angelina in 1975, she quit her acting career.

Her friend, actress Jacqueline Bisset, who is Angelina’s godmother, said: ‘She worked incredibly hard to raise both Jamie and Angelina, and dedicated herself to them.’

However, she and Voight split in 1976 due to his infidelity. Angelina grew up to be a wild teenager, and her mother was no disciplinarian, permitting the 14-year-old Angelina to bring her boyfriend to live in their home. She even gave the young lovers her bedroom, perhaps seeing an echo of her young self in Angelina’s adventurous nature.

That nature was to show itself again and again. When Angelina was a 19-year-old model, she had a fling with Mick Jagger, without any protest from Marcheline. Wild years of drug-taking, self-harm and promiscuity followed.

Marcheline was diagnosed with ovarian cancer in 1999, the same year as Angelina’s Hollywood breakthrough in the film Girl, Interrupted.

Her treatments included a hysterectomy and chemotherapy. As her mother’s health failed, Angelina moved her to a suite at the Raffles hotel, paying the £60,000-a-year cost.

Family values: Brad and Angelina with Brad's father, William Pitt (far left), and mother Jane Pitt (second left). It was thanks to Brad¿s healthcare activist mother that Angelina was tested for the BRCA1 gene at all

Family values: Brad and Angelina with Brad’s father, William Pitt (far left), and mother Jane Pitt (second left). It was thanks to Brad¿s healthcare activist mother that Angelina was tested for the BRCA1 gene at all

Marcheline’s final wishes were said to be that Angelina would marry Brad, and she chose the name Pax, which Angelina gave to the Cambodian boy she adopted six weeks after her mother’s death. Marcheline is also remembered in the middle name of her granddaughter Vivienne.

In a television interview in 2007, Angelina described her mother with great emotion, saying: ‘Her name was Marcheline, but we used to call her Marshmallow, as a joke, because she was just the softest, most gentle woman in the world. She was really sweet and was never angry — but when it came to her kids, she was really fierce.’

One can see the parallels between the portrait Angelina paints of her mother and her own attitude to parenting. With her many adoptions creating a ‘rainbow family’, and extensive charity work, she has exhibited a big-heartedness that is rather rare in Hollywood.

Indeed, her love for her mother and children resonates through her article in the New York Times. She writes: ‘My mother fought cancer and died at 56. She held out long enough to meet the first of her grandchildren and to hold them in her arms. But my other children will never have the chance to know her and experience how loving and gracious she was.

‘We often speak of “Mommy’s mommy”, and I find myself trying to explain the illness that took her away from us. They have asked if the same could happen to me. I have always told them not to worry, but the truth is I carry a “faulty” gene, BRCA1, which sharply increases my risk of developing breast and ovarian cancer.’

'Rainbow family': Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie with their adopted children Zahara (back left), Maddox and Pax (centre) and their biological offspring Knox, Shiloh and Vivienne (right)

‘Rainbow family’: Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie with their adopted children Zahara (back left), Maddox and Pax (centre) and their biological offspring Knox, Shiloh and Vivienne (right) at Tokyo’s Haneda International Airport

After being advised of her increased risks, Angelina made the decision to have a preventative double mastectomy. She chose the Pink Lotus Breast Center clinic in Beverly Hills, where singer Sheryl Crow had a lumpectomy.

It is known for its surgeons’ extremely high-standard aesthetic and reconstructive work. Crow described her surgeon as ‘an artist’.

Angelina’s procedures began on February 2 with a ‘nipple delay’ procedure, drawing extra blood flow to increase the chance of saving the nipple. On February 16, she underwent eight hours of surgery, removing the breast tissue and replacing it with a temporary filler.

Showing extraordinary fortitude, on March 26 she made a humanitarian trip to the Congo with British Foreign Secretary William Hague as part of a UN initiative. She reportedly fainted in a bathroom during the trip.

Her globe-trotting continued, with a visit to a Women In The World summit in New York on April 4, and on April 11 she went to the G8 meeting in London.

Her reconstructive surgery came on April 20, when she had implants. She wrote: ‘There have been many advances in this procedure in the past few years, and the results can be beautiful. I wanted to write this to tell other women that the decision to have a mastectomy was not easy. But it is one I am very happy that I made.

‘My chances of developing breast cancer have dropped from 87 per cent to under 5 per cent. I can tell my children they don’t need to fear they will lose me to breast cancer.

‘It is reassuring that they see nothing that makes them uncomfortable. They can see my small scars and that’s it.

‘Everything else is just Mommy, the same as she always was. And they know I love them and will do anything to be with them as long as I can.

‘On a personal note, I do not feel any less of a woman. I feel empowered that I made a strong choice that in no way diminishes my femininity.’

Angelina Jolie in the 203 film Tomb Raider: Cradle of Life
Angelina Jolie arriving for the U.S. premiere of 2007 film The Assassination of Jesse James in New York

As they were: Angelina’s breasts, here in the 2003 film Tomb Raider Cradle of life (left) and at the première of the Assassination Of Jesse James in 2007, have long been considered one of her most striking features

Indeed, I am told that Angelina is contemplating doing a topless photoshoot showing her implants for charity, in order to proclaim her femininity all the louder.


Around 100 women a month in Britain undergo a preventative double mastectomy operation similar to the one Angelina Jolie chose to have.

While almost 50,000 British women are diagnosed with breast cancer every year, a family history of breast cancer increases the risk, especially where gene mutations known as BRCA1 and BRCA2 are involved.

Statistics show a genetic mutation gives a woman a one-in-three risk of developing the disease by the age of 70, compared with the usual one-in-nine lifetime risk.

Angelina Jolie’s motivation in going public was to raise awareness of genetic risk after discovering she had inherited the BRCA1 gene. While the actress says her surgery will cut the odds of developing breast cancer to 5 per cent, it cannot guarantee this.

Professor Ian Smith, head of the breast unit at the Royal Marsden Hospital, London, says: ‘This greatly reduces the risk of breast cancer, but does not abolish it since it is technically very difficult to remove all breast tissue.’

Gordon Wishart, professor of cancer surgery at Anglia Ruskin University, said the operation described by Jolie is similar to that carried out here for women at risk.

The breasts are removed and reconstruction is carried out at the same time. However, while British surgeons remove nipples, as they feel this further reduces the risk of developing breast cancer, Jolie had a procedure called ‘nipple delay’. It is believed to involve detaching the nipple from the milk duct tissue, which is sent away for testing for any sign of cancer.

The nipple is then attached to the surrounding skin and forms a new blood supply, although it is unlikely to retain any sensation.

Women in Britain with a strong family history of breast cancer can get a free referral to NHS genetic clinics, where counselling sessions take place before the test is carried out to establish if they carry a gene mutation.

A strong family history of breast cancer is defined as two or more first-degree (mother, sister, daughter) or second-degree (grandmother, aunt, niece) relatives on the same side of the family who have been diagnosed with breast cancer.

While breast cancer is considered a woman’s disease, it can affect men. The BRCA1 and BRCA2 mutations can be passed through the father’s side of the family, too.

There is also a link between BRCA and ovarian cancer in women, and prostate cancer in men.

There may soon be an alternative to radical surgery or close monitoring.

Draft guidance from NHS advisory body Nice says that the drugs tamoxifen or raloxifene — used to stop breast cancer returning — could be prescribed to prevent it altogether.

She hopes that this will raise awareness of the need for gene-testing and preventative treatment, which is expensive and not available to many women.

In terms of the bigger picture, both she and Brad Pitt plan for a substantial life-change in the aftermath of her medical treatment.

Angelina is going to embrace a retirement from the acting business and will instead concentrate on humanitarian work.

I am told that, rather extraordinarily, she is happy never to appear on screen again. After such a life-changing ordeal, she is determined to put family first.

She has only one movie project pending, which she plans to direct and not act in.

In the meantime, she and Brad want to spend more time at their château in Southern France. They currently split their time roughly 50/50 between a compound in Los Feliz, Los Angeles, and the Château Miraval.

Those close to Jolie say that she will marry Brad there, an event which will take place ‘sooner rather than later’, possibly in six weeks’ time. She also looks set to crown their happiness by adopting a fourth and final child.

One New York source tells me: ‘Having children makes Angelina so happy that I don’t doubt there will be a final one, even after these events.’

Only Brad’s family are to be invited to the ceremony — his brother Doug, and sister Jill, and their spouses and children, plus Brad’s parents Bill and Jane. Angelina’s father is a notable absence, and their relationship is still troubled.

Brad has long been making preparations to hold the wedding at Château Miraval, overseeing many months of expensive repairs with a team of architects. Under his guidance, a vintner has also been hired and the first bottles of Château Miraval rosé have just been released, fulfilling his long-time dream to make wine.

It is here that their children will grow up in amiable chaos with six nannies, a similar number of bodyguards and a permanent housekeeping staff.

A source close to Brad says: ‘Brad loves to be home with the kids and Angie. He is never happier than when he is nurturing someone. That is him at his best.

‘When he was married to Jennifer Aniston, his nickname for her was “leaky” because she was always in tears and he was always helping her emotionally.

‘But Angelina would never allow Brad to look after her. He used to get very frustrated when she would fly off to dangerous places when she was pregnant, or with the children even — but she’s always had a very strong desire to do good deeds and save the world, and ends up putting herself second.’

The couple plan to have a small family ceremony and a picnic in the grounds afterwards, with wildflower posies and chocolate cake.

And they plan to toast their happiness with their very own rosé. No doubt they will raise a glass to Marcheline — the woman who shaped Angelina’s life and whose legacy she lives with every single day.