Jean Seberg’s obituary, published in the New York Times on September 9, 1979, is less than 500 words long and sad as hell. Before she died by suicide, the movie star had been missing for 10 days, having left her apartment in Paris with a stash of prescribed barbiturates, wearing nothing aside from a blanket. When her decomposing body was found in the back seat of her white Renault, parked on the street, she was still wrapped in it, having been dead nearly that whole time.
It was a tragic end for a Hollywood actress who had one of the most meteoric rises to fame in the history of the industry. Born in 1938 in Marshalltown, IA, Seberg made her acting debut in famed director Otto Preminger’s Saint Joan in 1957, beating out 18,000 other aspiring actresses for the part. Over the next two decades, she starred in at least 32 films, making her mark on pop culture both on and off-screen.
Today, the gamine Seberg is probably best known for her blonde pixie cut, a trendsetting symbol of her liberation from the repressive social mores of the 1950s. Her name evokes a flash to her most famous scene as Patricia in French New Wave pioneer Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless (A Bout de Souffle), handing out copies of the New York Herald Tribune, chic and sleek in a T-shirt, cigarette pants, and flats. But she had a fascinating career, and an even more storied life.
Seberg, the upcoming political thriller starring Kristen Stewart, who plays the titular actress, touches on some of that history. The film, directed by Benedict Andrews, focuses on a particularly fraught time in Seberg’s life, when she was targeted and harassed by the FBI because of her political leanings and association with the Black Panthers.
Who Was Jean Seberg?
In a 1974 New York Times profile of Seberg, Bart Mills wrote: “Jean Seberg is a living argument against winning a Hollywood talent search.”
The daughter of substitute teacher Dorothy Arline and pharmacist Edward Waldemar Seberg, Seberg’s big break came courtesy of her neighbour, who submitted her to a nation-wide $150,000 contest to find the lead for Preminger’s Saint Joan. The press went wild for the ingenue, and the lead-up to release was a frenzy of publicity meant to build up her image as Hollywood’s next big thing. And then...people actually saw the film. The reviews were brutal, and Saint Joan and Seberg’s performance were panned.
Later, Seberg would describe the experience in no uncertain terms: “I have two memories of Saint Joan. The first was being burned at the stake in the picture. The second was being burned at the stake by the critics. The latter hurt more. I was scared like a rabbit and it showed on the screen. It was not a good experience at all.”
She gained more acclaim as a star of the French New Wave, helping to coin the aesthetic of a world-weary American woman, free in her body and her thoughts. In her personal life, however, Seberg was less fortunate. She married four times, first to French director and writer Francois Moreuil (1958-1960); then to French diplomat, novelist and intellectual Romain Gary (1962-1970) with whom she had a son, Diego and a daughter, who tragically died soon after birth (more on that later); director Dennis Berry (1972-1979); and 29-year-old Algerian actor Ahmed Hasni, the last person to see her alive.
What Movies Was Jean Seberg In?
Seberg is best known for her iconic role as Patricia in 1960’s Breathless, the enigmatic and mysterious love interest to Jean-Paul Belmondo’s Michel, but she starred in dozens of films, bringing a mix of aloof cool and genuine vulnerability to her roles. And though she helped coin the image of the 1960s “gamine,” there was something extremely modern and mature about her.
Take the fact that in 1974, she talked to the New York Times about directing her first film, a short called Ballad for the Kid, which she also co-wrote. “It won't be that much different from a home movie,” she said at the time. “Everyone else is doing it — why not me too? I want to find out if it's the kind of thing I want to do. I have no illusions about it. I'm not going to be on the stage come Oscar night.”
Later, she added: “I'm in a funny age bracket for an actress. I'm not young enough to play the ingenue any more, and I'm not old enough to get into the character thing. It is perhaps for your own sanity that you go into other areas.”
Her words echo a conversation we’re still having today. Much like Sharon Tate, who died at the hands of the Manson Family in 1969, Seberg appears to have been completely aware of the inherent limitations of the system she was operating in, and determined to carve out a place for herself. Who knows what she could have accomplished had she been left to thrive?
Recently, I watched Bonjour, Tristesse, her second collaboration with Preminger from 1958 co-starring David Niven and Deborah Kerr, and based on the novel by Francoise Sagan. Seberg’s performance, now over 60 years old, feels incredibly prescient. As Cecile, the 17-year-old daughter to Niven’s charming dilettante philanderer, she’s playful and petty, teasing her dad about his affairs. She flirts, studies philosophy, and rocks some incredible styles. But underneath that “cool girl” veneer, there’s a darkness, a woman searching for her place in the world, and realising that it’s in her power to use that carefully crafted image to manipulate men into doing what she wants.
Other titles to add to your queue: Robert Rossen’s Lilith (1964), co-starring a young Warren Beatty and Jane Fonda, and George Seaton’s Airport (1970).
How Did Jean Seberg Get Involved With The Black Panthers?
In Seberg, Jean’s involvement with the Black Panthers stems from a chance meeting with Hakim Jamal (Anthony Mackie) on a flight from Paris to Los Angeles in 1968. When they land, she gives him a raised fist salute, in full view of the assembled press. What she doesn’t know is that the FBI, then led by Director J. Edgar Hoover, is also paying attention. Jamal, married to a cousin of Malcolm X., acted as a go-between for the movement and Hollywood, often courting high-profile celebrities for their support.
According to The Guardian, Seberg was one of many Hollywood actors involved in left-wing civil rights campaigns at the time, including the Black Panther movement. She reportedly contributed an estimated $10,500 to the cause after their first meeting, and hosted a 1969 fundraiser for the Black Panthers party at her home. The guestlist included Jane Fonda, Vanessa Redgrave, and Paul Newman, among others. Seberg also acted as an emissary for the Black Panthers abroad.
Despite her commitment to the values of the movement — she was apparently especially supportive of the Panthers’ local social initiatives providing education, food, and community to disenfranchised children — Seberg eventually distanced herself from them. In that same 1974 Times interview, she explained: “I’ve analyzed the fact that I’m not equipped to participate absolutely and totally. I had a very, very bad mental breakdown, and now I realise I wouldn’t want a person like me in a group I was a member of, as Groucho Marx would put it.”
Though the movie paints Jamal and Seberg as lovers, it’s not clear what their relationship was in real life. (Her biographer, Gary McGee, denies it.)
Did The FBI Really Make Seberg’s Life Hell?
Short answer: Yes.
Seberg shows new FBI agent Jack Solomon (Jack O’Connell) and his partner Carl Kowalski (Vince Vaugh) being tasked with investigating the actress’ connections to the Black Panthers, and later, with slandering her reputation. But though Solomon eventually develops a conscience, even warning Seberg about what’s going on, the actual story is a lot uglier, and with far less moral ambiguity.
In real life, Seberg was targeted by the FBI’s COINTELPRO program, a counterintelligence operation that ran from 1956 to 1971, and used intimidation and defamatory tactics to discredit suspected Communists and radicals. Like her contemporary Jane Fonda, who famously raised her fist in a Black Panther salute at the 1971 Oscars and was also subject to COINTELPRO, Seberg was blacklisted from Hollywood for a number of years, contributing to her mental health issues, and eventual demise. Her phones were tapped, she was followed, and her house broken into, making her feel unsafe, and constantly paranoid.
It gets worse, though. A memo from 1970 shows that Hoover allowed agents to plant information in the press claiming that Seberg’s then-pregnancy was the result of an affair with a Black Panther, rather than fathered by her husband, Romain Gary.
“Bureau permission is required the publicize the pregnancy of Jean Seberg, well-known movie actress, by [REDACTED] Black Panther party, [REDACTED] by advising Hollywood Gossip columnists in the Los Angeles area of the situation. It is felt that the possible publication of Seberg’s plight could cause her embarrassment and cheapen her image with the general public.”
The memo suggests planting an item, structured as follows: “I was just thinking about you and remembered I still owe you a favour. So I was in Paris last week and ran into Jean Seberg who was heavy with baby. I thought she and Romain had gotten together again but she confided the child belonged to [name deleted] of the Black Panthers. The dear girl is getting around. Anyway, I thought you might get a scoop on the others.”
The request was approved, with the suggestion that agents hold off until Seberg’s pregnancy was too obvious to conceal.
The rumors were picked up by Newsweek and several other publications, and Seberg went into premature labor as a result. The baby girl died three days later. To prove to the public that the rumors were false, she held an open casket funeral.
“I began cracking up then, without knowing it,” Seberg told the New York Times. “I decided to bury my baby in my home town. I did the whole deal. We opened the coffin and took 180 photographs, and everybody in Marshalltown who was curious what color the baby was got a chance to check it out. A lot of them came to look.”
In a press conference at the Deauville Film Festival earlier this year, Stewart stressed that in taking on this role, she sought to give voice to a woman who had largely been robbed of hers. "She was really impulsive, idealistic, naive at times but always really well-intentioned," she said. "I felt like vindicating her and sort of validating her."
“Seberg” is in UK cinemas from 10th January 2020