By Garry McGee
Jean Seberg 1938-1979
By Garry McGee
"Between the adventure of life and a successful career,
I chose the adventure of life." -- Jean Seberg
Jean Seberg was born in a small Iowa town in 1938, and became the darling of Paris in the 1960s. She dined with presidents and diplomats, and attended meetings with militants and activists. She balanced a career in acting between big-budgeted Hollywood movies, and small, independent European films. She charmed the people she met with her honesty and intelligence, yet was deemed a threat to the United States. By 1970, she was the idol of many around the world with her style and beauty. By 1979, at the age of 40, she was first missing for a ten days and then found dead in her own car.
During her childhood in Marshalltown, Iowa, Jean Seberg had dreams of becoming a movie star. After graduating from Marshalltown High School in 1956, Seberg appeared in several stock theater plays on the East Coast. She had planned to study at the University of Iowa, then work toward acting on Broadway, and eventually break into film acting.
But before classes began at U of I, she was chosen--out of 18,000 aspiring actresses--by director Otto Preminger in 1956 to star in his film Saint Joan. The publicity surrounding her being cast with the likes of Richard Widmark and John Gielgud in the film resulted in Seberg's becoming a movie star before she had the chance to learn the craft of film acting.
St. Joan failed both critically and commercially, and the second Preminger-Seberg outing, Bonjour Tristesse, fared little better. Despite the failure of those films, she became an international actress with thirty-seven films to her credit, including 1959's Breathless, which critics have marked as the third and most recent turning point in film history [after Birth of a Nation and Citizen Kane].
In addition, Seberg used her position to help launch the careers of first-time film directors including Jean-Luc Godard, Claude Berri, Nicolas Gessner and Francois Moreuil. She said to one first-time director, "Directors are at their best when it's their first film. They are fresh and innovative, and don't usually have the pressures of established directors."
Seberg's command of four languages allowed her to act in several European films directed by leading directors Claude Chabrol, Yves Boisset, Jean Valere and Philippe de Broca. After she became a success in Europe, American film makers began to take notice of the woman they had once dismissed.
After her critically acclaimed performance in Robert Rossen's 1964 film Lilith, Seberg's American career flourished and produced such financial hits as Paint Your Wagon (1969) and the original Airport (1970). Seberg's established name and financial status were enough to allow her to alternate between big-budget Hollywood movies and small budget European films.
In addition to Seberg's contributions to cinema, the involvement of the FBI in her life is an important part of the social history of the United States. A former FBI agent said, "One of the worst things the FBI did was aimed at Jean Seberg," referring to the Bureau's agenda to discredit Seberg.
Through her adult years, Seberg contributed on a personal and/or financial level to several organizations, including some of which were considered politically radical. Unlike many celebrities, Seberg did not use her contributions for publicity. A majority of the public did not even know of her social causes until after her death.
After completing Paint Your Wagon in Los Angeles in 1969, Seberg gave her support to the Black Panthers' Free Breakfast Program, which provided hot meals to underprivileged children. From there, Seberg's financial and personal contributions to the party increased; however, she never joined the party itself.
It was Seberg's support of the Black Panthers that resulted in surveillance by the FBI from 1969 through 1972. Then-FBI director J. Edgar Hoover deemed the Panthers as "the biggest threat to the national security of [America]". Because of Hoover's feelings toward the group, a rumor was instigated by the FBI in 1970 to discredit Seberg in the entertainment industry and in the public eye.
The FBI-instigated rumor stated that the father of Seberg's second unborn child was a "black militant." At the time, Seberg was married to French novelist/diplomat Romain Gary, with whom she already had a son, Alexandre Diego Gary, in 1962. The rumor surrounding Seberg's second child began as a blind item in the Los Angeles Times in the summer of 1970.
But it was after the story was printed as fact in Newsweek magazine and one hundred newspapers across the United States alone in August 1970 that the shock sent Seberg into labor three months early. The child, Nina Hart Gary, lived for two days before dying. Seberg took her dead daughter to Marshalltown for burial to show whoever wanted to see that the rumor was a lie. She also wanted her daughter to rest in peace at a place Seberg always regarded as home.
Seberg and Gary sued Newsweek in 1971, winning the case, but she never again made a film in the United States. Instead, she worked on legitimate European films in France, Italy, Spain and England. In 1973 Seberg became one of the first women to write, direct, produce, edit, and star in her own film project, Ballad for the Kid. Her final completed film was, like her first, based on a classic play: the German production of Ibsen's The Wild Duck (1977).
Despite working steadily in Europe, privately Seberg could not overcome the injustices she felt were handed to her. In addition, Seberg never fully recovered from her daughter's death. It was the beginning of her downfall which resulted in various hospital stays, battles with medications and alcohol, mental instability, and dubious "friends" who "borrowed" money from her, which depleted the small fortune she had earned.
Seberg's life ended in Paris in 1979, a mysterious and still-unsolved death. Friends and family doubt Seberg had killed herself, especially since she was filming a movie at the time of her death which she felt would revive her career, and she had made plans to visit Marshalltown in the autumn.
Seberg had "blamed the FBI for everything" that went wrong with her life and career. A few days after the discovery of her body, Romain Gary held a press conference, produced Seberg's file as evidence, and claimed, "Jean Seberg was destroyed by the FBI."
Although Jean Seberg and Romain Gary divorced in 1970, the two remained friendly. Friends claim Gary could not overcome what happened to his ex-wife. Fifteen months after Seberg's death, Gary committed suicide in the same apartment the two had shared during their marriage.