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Jean Seberg

Jean Seberg

American actress
Jean Seberg
The basics

Quick Facts

Intro American actress
A.K.A. Jean Dorothy Seberg
Was Actor Film actor
From United States of America
Type Film, TV, Stage & Radio
Gender female
Birth 13 November 1938, Marshalltown, Marshall County, Iowa, USA
Death 30 August 1979, Paris, Seine, Île-de-France, France (aged 40 years)
Star sign Scorpio
Spouse: Romain Gary (16 October 1963-1970)Dennis Berry (director) (1972-30 August 1979)François Moreuil (5 October 1958-21 September 1960)
Children: Alexandre Diego Gary
University of Iowa
Jean Seberg
The details


Jean Dorothy Seberg (/ˈsbɜːrɡ/; [ʒin sebɛʁɡ]; November 13, 1938 – August 30, 1979) was an American actress who lived half her life in France. Her performance in Jean-Luc Godard's 1960 film Breathless immortalized her as an icon of French New Wave cinema.

She appeared in 34 films in Hollywood and in Europe, including Saint Joan, Bonjour Tristesse, Lilith, The Mouse That Roared, Moment to Moment, A Fine Madness, Paint Your Wagon, Airport, Macho Callahan, and Gang War in Naples.

She was also one of the best-known targets of the FBI COINTELPRO project. Her targeting was in retaliation for her support of the Black Panther Party and was a smear directly ordered by J. Edgar Hoover.

Seberg died at the age of 40 in Paris, with police ruling her death a probable suicide. Romain Gary, Seberg's second husband, called a press conference shortly after her death where he publicly blamed the FBI's campaign against Seberg for her death. Gary noted that the FBI planted false rumors with U.S. media outlets claiming her 1970 pregnancy was a Black Panther's child, and how the trauma led to the child's miscarriage. Romain Gary stated that Seberg had attempted suicide on numerous anniversaries of the child's death, August 25.

Early life

Jean Dorothy Seberg was born in Marshalltown, Iowa, the daughter of Dorothy Arline (b. Benson; July 11, 1909 – March 7, 1997), a substitute teacher, and Edward Waldemar Seberg (October 2, 1906 – September 5, 1984), a pharmacist. Her family was Lutheran and of Swedish, English, and German ancestry.

Her paternal grandfather, Edward Carlson, arrived in the U.S. in 1882 and observed, "there are too many Carlsons in the New World". He decided to change the family's last name to Seberg in memory of the water and mountains of Sweden. Jean had a sister Mary-Ann (b. August 27, 1936), and two brothers: Kurt (b. June 1, 1942) and David (February 2, 1950 – March 24, 1968), who was killed in a car accident at the age of eighteen.

In Marshalltown, Seberg babysat Mary Supinger, some eight years her junior, who would later become the stage and film actress known as Mary Beth Hurt. After high school, Seberg enrolled at the University of Iowa to study dramatic arts, but took up movie making instead.

Film career

Otto Preminger

Seberg made her film debut in the title role of Saint Joan (1957), from the George Bernard Shaw play, after being chosen from 18,000 hopefuls by director Otto Preminger in a $150,000 talent search. Her name was entered by a neighbor.

When she was cast on October 21, 1956, her only acting experience had been a single season of summer stock performances. The film was associated with a great deal of publicity about which Seberg commented that she was "embarrassed by all the attention". Despite a big build-up, called in the press a "Pygmalion experiment", both the film and Seberg received poor notices. On the failure, she later told the press:

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. I started where most actresses end up.

Preminger, though, promised her a second chance, and he cast Seberg in his next film Bonjour Tristesse (1958), which was filmed in France. Regarding his decision, Preminger told the press: "It's quite true that, if I had chosen Audrey Hepburn instead of Jean Seberg, it would have been less of a risk, but I prefer to take the risk. [..] I have faith in her. Sure, she still has things to learn about acting, but so did Kim Novak when she started." Seberg again received atrocious reviews and the film nearly ended her career.

She renegotiated her contract with Otto Preminger, and signed a long-term contract with Columbia Pictures. Preminger had an option to use her services on another film, but they never worked together again. Her first Columbia film was the successful comedy The Mouse That Roared (1959), starring Peter Sellers.

Breathless and French career

During the filming of Bonjour Tristesse Seberg met François Moreuil, the man who was to become her first husband, and she then based herself in France, finally achieving success as the free-love heroine of French New Wave films.

She appeared as the main lead in Jean-Luc Godard's Breathless (French title: À bout de souffle, 1960) as Patricia, co-starring with Jean-Paul Belmondo. The film became an international success and critics praised Seberg's performance; film critic and director François Truffaut even hailed her "the best actress in Europe". Despite her achievements, Seberg did not identify with her characters or the film plots, saying that she was "making films in France about people [I'm] not really interested in." Back in the US, she made another film for Columbia, Let No Man Write My Epitaph (1960).

In France, after appearing in Time Out for Love (Les grandes personnes, 1961), Seberg took on the lead role in her then-husband François Moreuil's directorial debut, Love Play (La Recréation, also 1961). By that time, Seberg had become estranged from Moreuil, and she recollected that production was "pure hell" and that he "would scream at [her]." She followed it with Five Day Lover (1962) and Congo vivo (1962). In the French Style (1962) was a French-American film featuring Stanley Baker released through Columbia. Les plus belles escroqueries du monde (1963) was an anthology movie and Backfire (1964) reunited her with Jean-Paul Belmondo.

In the United States, she starred with Warren Beatty in Lilith (1964) for Columbia, which prompted the critics to acknowledge Seberg as a serious actress. She returned to France to make Diamonds Are Brittle (1965).

Return to Hollywood

In the late 1960s she based herself increasingly in Hollywood. Moment to Moment (1965), was shot for the most part in Los Angeles; only a small part of the film was shot on the French Cote d'Azur. In New York, she acted in A Fine Madness (1966), alongside Sean Connery and under the direction of Irvin Kershner.

In 1966 and 1967 Seberg had the leading roles in two French films directed by Claude Chabrol and co-starring Maurice Ronet: in February and March, 1966, she starred in Line of Demarcation, shot around Dole, Jura, in France; and in May and June, 1967, she had the lead role in the French-Italian Eurospy film The Road to Corinth, shot in Greece.

After making Pendulum (1969), Seberg appeared in her only musical film: Paint Your Wagon (also 1969), based on Lerner and Loewe's stage musical, and co-starring Lee Marvin and Clint Eastwood. Her singing voice was dubbed by Anita Gordon. Seberg also starred in the disaster film Airport (1970).

Later career

Seberg was François Truffaut's first choice for the central role of Julie in Day for Night (1973) but, after several fruitless attempts to contact her, he gave up and cast British actress Jacqueline Bisset instead.

Her last US film appearance was in the TV movie Mousey (1974). Seberg remained active during the 1970s in European films. She appeared in Bianchi cavalli d'Agosto (White Horses of Summer) (1975), Le Grand Délire (Die Große Ekstase) (1975, with husband Dennis Berry) and Die Wildente (1976, based on Ibsen's The Wild Duck).

At the time of her death she was working on the French film Operation Leopard (La Légion saute sur Kolwezi, 1980). She had scenes filmed in French Guiana and returned to Paris for additional work in September. After her death, the scenes were reshot with actress Mimsy Farmer.


FBI inter-office memo: "... cause her embarrassment and cheapen her image"
FBI inter-office memo: "Usual precautions to avoid identification of the Bureau"

During the late 1960s, Seberg provided financial support to various groups supporting civil rights, such as the NAACP as well as Native American school groups such as the Meskwaki Bucks at the Tama settlement near her home town of Marshalltown, for whom she purchased US$500 worth of basketball uniforms.

As part of its 'dirty tricks' aimed at black liberation and anti-war groups, which began in 1968, the FBI became aware of several gifts Seberg had made to the Black Panther Party, totaling US$10,500 (estimated) in contributions; these were noted among a list of other celebrities in FBI internal documents later declassified and released to the public under FOIA requests.

The FBI operation against Seberg, directly overseen by J. Edgar Hoover, used COINTELPRO program techniques to harass, intimidate, defame, and discredit Seberg. The FBI's stated goal was an unspecified "neutralization" of Seberg with a subsidiary objective to "cause her embarrassment and serve to cheapen her image with the public", while taking the "usual precautions to avoid identification of the Bureau". FBI strategy and modalities can be found in FBI inter-office memos.

In 1970 the FBI created the false story from a San Francisco-based informant that the child Seberg was carrying was not fathered by her husband, Romain Gary, but by Raymond Hewitt, a member of the Black Panther Party. The story was reported by gossip columnist Joyce Haber of the Los Angeles Times, with Seberg thinly disguised, and was also printed by Newsweek magazine in which Seberg was directly named. Seberg went into premature labor and, on August 23, 1970, gave birth to a 4 lb (1.8 kg) baby girl. The child died two days later. She held a funeral in her hometown with an open casket that allowed reporters to see the infant's white skin, which disproved the rumors.

Seberg and Gary later sued Newsweek for libel and defamation, asking for US$200,000 in damages. She contended she became so upset after reading the story, that she went into premature labor, which resulted in the death of her daughter. A Paris court ordered Newsweek to pay the couple US$10,800 in damages and ordered Newsweek to print the judgment in their publication, plus eight other newspapers.

The investigation of Seberg went far beyond the publishing of defamatory articles. According to her friends interviewed after her death, she reportedly experienced years of aggressive in-person surveillance (constant stalking), as well as break-ins and other intimidation-oriented activity. These newspaper reports make clear that Seberg was well aware of the surveillance. FBI files show that she was wiretapped, and in 1980, the Los Angeles Times published logs of her Swiss wiretapped phone calls. U.S. surveillance was deployed while she was residing in France and while travelling in Switzerland and Italy. Per FBI files the FBI cross-contacted the "FBI Legat" (legal attachés) in U.S. Embassies in Paris and Rome and provided files on Seberg to the CIA, U.S. Secret Service and U.S. Military intelligence to assist monitoring while she was abroad.

FBI records show that J. Edgar Hoover kept U.S. President Richard Nixon informed of FBI activities related to the Jean Seberg case through President Nixon's domestic affairs chief John Ehrlichman. John Mitchell, then Attorney General, and Deputy Attorney General Richard Kleindienst were also kept informed of FBI activities related to Seberg. The FBI made its initial admission about targeting Seberg via the spreading of a false rumor shortly after her death was announced.

Possible Hollywood blacklisting

At the peak of her career, Seberg suddenly stopped acting in Hollywood films. Reportedly, she was not pleased with the roles she had been offered, some of which, she said, bordered on pornography. Conversely, she was not offered any great Hollywood roles, regardless of their size. Experts in the FBI's actions in the COINTELPRO project suggest that Seberg was "effectively blacklisted" from Hollywood films, as was Jane Fonda, for a period of time.

Family reaction to FBI abuse of Seberg

Her father reacted strongly to the story of FBI abuses, stating that "if this is true, why in the dickens didn't they just shoot her, instead of having all this travail that's gone on. I have this flag in the corner, that I used to put out every morning, and I haven't put it out since."

Personal life

On September 5, 1958, aged 19, Seberg married François Moreuil, a French lawyer (aged 23) in her native Marshalltown, having met him in France 15 months earlier. They divorced in 1960. Moreuil had ambitions in movies and directed his estranged wife in Love Play. According to Moreuil he said the marriage was a "violent" one and said that she "got married for all the wrong reasons."

On living in France for a period of time, Seberg said in an interview:

I'm enjoying it to the fullest extent. I've been tremendously lucky to have gone through this experience at an age where I can still learn. That doesn't mean that I will stay here. I'm in Paris because my work has been here. I'm not an expatriate. I will go where the work is. The French life has its drawbacks. One of them is the formality. The system seems to be based on saving the maximum of yourself for those nearest you. Perhaps that is better than the other extreme in Hollywood, where people give so much of themselves in public life that they have nothing left over for their families. Still, it is hard for an American to get used to. Often I will get excited over a luncheon table only to have the hostess say discreetly that coffee will be served in the other room. ... I miss that casualness and friendliness of Americans, the kind that makes people smile. I also miss blue jeans, milk shakes, thick steaks and supermarkets.

Despite extended stays in the United States, she remained Paris-based for the rest of her life. In 1962 she married French aviator, French resistance member, novelist and diplomat Romain Gary, who was 24 years her senior and had been married to Lesley Blanch. Gary's divorce took place on September 5, 1962, and he married Seberg on October 6, 1962. The marriage in Corsica was secret.

Their sole child together, Alexandre Diego Gary, was born in Barcelona on July 24, 1962. The child's birth and first year of life were hidden from even close friends and relatives. Thanks to his contacts in the diplomat services, Gary later "established" Alexander Diego's birth at the French village of Charquemont on October 26, 1963.

During her marriage to Gary, Seberg lived in Paris, Greece, Southern France and Majorca. Their son married and, as of 2009, resides in Spain, where he runs a bookstore and oversees his father's literary and real estate holdings.

While making the film Paint Your Wagon, Seberg reportedly had an affair with Clint Eastwood, both married at the time.

While filming Macho Callahan in Mexico in 1969–70, Seberg became romantically involved with a student revolutionary named Carlos Ornelas Navarra. She gave birth to Navarra's daughter, Nina Hart Gary, on August 23, 1970. The baby died two days later, on August 25, 1970, and is buried at Riverside Cemetery in Marshalltown. Estranged husband Romain Gary had publicly claimed to have been the father during Seberg's pregnancy, but she acknowledged that Navarra was actually the father.

In 1972 she married for the third time, to aspiring film director Dennis Berry. In 1979, while separated from her husband, Seberg went through "a form of marriage" to an Algerian, Ahmed Hasni. Hasni persuaded her to sell her second apartment on the Rue du Bac, and he kept the proceeds (reportedly 11 million francs in cash), announcing that he would use the money to open a Barcelona restaurant. The couple departed for Spain, but she was soon back in Paris, alone, and went into hiding from Hasni, who she said had grievously abused her.


Grave of Jean Seberg

On the night of August 30, 1979, Seberg disappeared. Hasni told police that they had gone to a movie that night and when he awoke the next morning, Seberg was gone. After Seberg went missing, Hasni told police that he had known she was suicidal for some time. He claimed that she had attempted suicide in July, 1979, by jumping in front of a Paris subway train.

On September 8, nine days after her disappearance, her decomposing body was found wrapped in a blanket in the back seat of her Renault, parked close to her Paris apartment in the 16th arrondissement. Police found a bottle of barbiturates, an empty mineral water bottle and a note written in French from Seberg addressed to her son. It read, in part, "Forgive me. I can no longer live with my nerves." In 1979, her death was ruled a probable suicide by Paris police, but the following year additional charges were filed against persons unknown for "non-assistance of a person in danger."

Romain Gary, Seberg's second husband, called a press conference shortly after her death where he publicly blamed the FBI's campaign against Seberg for her deteriorating mental health. Gary claimed that Seberg "became psychotic" after the media reported a false story that the FBI planted about her becoming pregnant with a Black Panther's child in 1970. Romain Gary stated that Seberg had repeatedly attempted suicide on the anniversary of the child's death, August 25.

Seberg is interred in the Cimetière du Montparnasse in Paris.


Six days after the discovery of Seberg's body, the FBI released documents under FOIA admitting the defamation of Seberg, while making statements attempting to distance themselves from practices of the Hoover era. The FBI's campaign against Seberg was further explored at this time by Time magazine in a front-page article, "The FBI vs. Jean Seberg."

Media attention surrounding the abuse Seberg had undergone at FBI hands led to examination of the case by the United States Senate Select Committee to Study Governmental Operations with Respect to Intelligence Activities, a.k.a. "the Church Committee," which noted that notwithstanding FBI claims of reform, "COINTELPRO activities may continue today under the rubric of investigation."

In his autobiography, Los Angeles Times editor Jim Bellows described events leading up to the Seberg articles, in which he expressed regret that he had not vetted the Seberg articles sufficiently. He echoed this sentiment in subsequent interviews.

In June 1980, Paris police filed charges against "persons unknown" in connection with Seberg's death. Police stated that Seberg had such a high amount of alcohol in her system at the time of her death, that it would have rendered her comatose and unable to get into her car without assistance. Police noted there was no alcohol in the car where Seberg's body was found. Police theorized that someone was present at the time of her death and failed to get her medical care.

In December 1980, Seberg's former husband Romain Gary committed suicide. Gary's suicide note, which was addressed to his publisher, indicated that he had not killed himself over the loss of Seberg, but over the fact that he felt he could no longer produce literary works.

In popular culture

The Talent Scout by Romain Gary (1961) features a recognizable portrait of Seberg.

In 1983 a musical, Jean Seberg, by librettist Julian Barry, composer Marvin Hamlisch, and lyricist Christopher Adler, based on Seberg's life, was presented at the National Theatre in London.

In 1986, pop singer Madonna recreated Jean Seberg's iconic Breathless look in her music video for "Papa Don't Preach," sporting a pixie blonde haircut, French striped jersey shirt and black capri pants in her interpretation of the New Wave ingenue that Seberg played in Breathless.

In 1991, actress Jodie Foster, a fan of Seberg's performance in Breathless, purchased the film rights to Played Out: The Jean Seberg Story, David Richards' biography of Seberg. Foster was set to produce and star in the film, but the project was cancelled two years later.

In 1995, Mark Rappaport made a documentary of her life, From the Journals of Jean Seberg. Mary Beth Hurt played Seberg in a voice-over. Hurt had been born in Marshalltown, Iowa, in 1948, had attended the same high school as Seberg, and had been babysat by Seberg.

The 2000 short film Je t'aime John Wayne is a tribute parody of Breathless/À bout de souffle, with Seberg played by Camilla Rutherford.

In 2004, the French author Alain Absire published Jean S., a fictionalized biography. Seberg's son, Alexandre Diego Gary, brought a lawsuit, unsuccessfully attempting to stop publication.

Since 2011, Seberg's hometown, Marshalltown, Iowa, has held an annual "Jean Seberg International Film Festival."

In 2019, Amazon released an original film based on Seberg's life. Seberg focuses on the actress' battle against the FBI, with the title role played by Kristen Stewart.


Year Title Role Language Notes
1957 Saint Joan St. Joan of Arc English
1958 Bonjour Tristesse Cecile English
1959 The Mouse That Roared Helen Kokintz English
1960 Breathless Patricia Franchini French
1960 Let No Man Write My Epitaph Barbara Holloway English
1961 Time Out for Love Ann French
1961 Love Play Kate Hoover French
1961 Five Day Lover Claire French
1962 Congo vivo Annette Italian
1963 In the French Style Christina James English
1964 The World's Most Beautiful Swindlers Patricia Leacock French (segment "Le Grand Escroq")
(scenes deleted)
1964 Backfire Olga Celan French
1964 Lilith Lilith Arthur English
1965 Diamonds Are Brittle Bettina Ralton French
1966 Moment to Moment Kay Stanton English
1966 A Fine Madness Lydia West English
1966 Line of Demarcation Mary, comtesse de Damville French
1967 The Looters Colleen O'Hara French Alternate title: Revolt in the Caribbean
1967 The Road to Corinth Shanny French Alternate title: Who's Got the Black Box?
1968 Birds in Peru Adriana French
1968 The Girls English Documentary
1969 Pendulum Adele Matthews English
1969 Paint Your Wagon Elizabeth English
1970 Airport Tanya Livingston English
1970 Dead of Summer Joyce Grasse Italian
1970 Macho Callahan Alexandra Mountford English
1972 Kill! Kill! Kill! Kill! Emily Hamilton English
1972 This Kind of Love Giovanna Italian
1972 Gang War in Naples Luisa Italian
1972 Plot Edith Lemoine French Alternate title: The French Conspiracy
1973 The Corruption of Chris Miller Ruth Miller Spanish
1974 Les hautes solitudes Silent film without named characters
1974 Mousey Laura Anderson / Richardson English Television film
1974 Ballad for the Kid (Short film) La star French Director, writer, producer
1975 White Horses of Summer Lea Kingsburg Italian
1975 The Big Delirium Emily French
1976 The Wild Duck [de] Gina Ekdal German (Final film role)
The contents of this page are sourced from Wikipedia article on 18 Sep 2020. The contents are available under the CC BY-SA 4.0 license.
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