Tuesday, March 3

Jean Seberg

In some ways she reminded me of Marilyn Monroe and perhaps I needed someone to remind me of her.  I guess I was drawn to beautiful blonde actresses who were troubled and hurting.  I always wanted to help.   MM's death was particularly painful as I lived only blocks from her.  Seberg was a world away but the saddest thing was I saw it coming.  I hovered around the news on her like hummingbirds at a feeder.  She was beaten down at the beginning of her career and it went downhill from there.  The curtain call was not unexpected.

She was born in 1938 in Marshalltown, Iowa.  In the mid 60s when I was in college in Iowa, a friend asked me if I wanted to accompany him on an errand to Marshalltown, some 150 miles away.  I said I would go if we could stop by the house where Seberg was raised.  He agreed.  As I sat in front of it, I wondered how it had all gone wrong for her.  I imagined, I think rightfully, that Midwestern values probably get corrupted when one becomes an international movie star.  I expect they got corrupted when she was still living in the house I had sat in front of.

Her folks, Ed and Dorothy, were a pharmacist who owned his own drugstore and a housewife.  Jean was the second of four children.  She always felt she never measured up to her older sister which left her with a second-best mentality all her life.  Her Swedish background meant that emotions were left at the door.  Conversation was minimal and rarely whimsical.  Behavior was always kept in check and the good values taught to all those who hailed from Marshalltown would be respected.  Most of those in her orbit were staunch Protestants and Republicans.  She knew from a young age that she never really fit in and she found it necessary to escape into a fantasy world.

Days of innocence... vanishing

Early religious training, the fire and brimstone variety, where everyone was told what sinners they were, did further damage to her weakened psyche.  She felt so vulnerable in a world where everyone seemed tougher than she was.  She was always bringing home stray or sick animals and begging her parents to let her keep them.  Others spoke of the infinite compassion she seemed to have for the downtrodden and disenfranchised. 

Her empathy for blacks may have started when she met some kids at a camp.  She saw them as outsiders and since that's how she felt about her own life, she wanted to help.  She was likely told by her parents to leave things alone.  She never did.  While blacks would eventually take up a lot of her energy, time and money, she reserved some for hippies, Indians, revolutionaries and would-be artists.  By the time she reached her teens, she was simply stunning to behold, popular with her peers, overly sensitive, given to dramatics, girlishly dreamy and a winsome idealist.

It was inevitable that part of her fantasy life would involve acting.  At age 13, after seeing Marlon Brando in The Men, she told everyone she knew that one day she would become a famous actress.  After James Dean died, Seberg said she knew she would not live past 40 and she would repeat it throughout the rest of her life although the Dean reference was long gone.

She began working in local theater.  Some early mentors found her more eager than talented but they felt the talent could be developed.  What there was no doubt about in anyone's minds was that she was quite beautiful.  Her face was not one that could be picked apart.  It all worked and she could add to it a beautiful, if not chirpy, speaking voice.  People often thought of her as not being as strong as she wanted them to think she was.  She could not only put on a good front, she always thought it was actressy.

A friend of the Seberg family saw an ad in the newspaper about a contest that Hollywood director Otto Preminger was holding.  He was looking for an unknown to play the title role in St. Joan (1957).
Jean was more than surprised when she opened a letter telling her to report for an audition.  While she became more and more ecstatic as the date grew near, her parents never failed to say they didn't want her becoming a Hollywood actress.  (I wonder if they ever knew that they would, in a sense, get their way.  She really never did become a Hollywood actress.)

Jean, the Sebergs and all of Marshalltown were dumb-founded when Jean got the role over 17,999 others.  Her time on the set of St. Joan was life-altering.  It could have been very life-altering when carelessness surrounding the burning-at-the-stake scene resulted in Jean catching on fire.  But that was the least of her troubles.  Otto the Terrible has always allowed rather neutral musings about Jean Seberg, but the truth was much worse.  He treated her shabbily, yelling, beating her down, being unclear and unkind.  He may have thought he was molding her into a fine actress but he was killing her fragile soul.  Always racked with pain and self-doubt, she winced when he yelled at her and crumbled in his presence.  Clearly, Preminger traumatized the 17-year old, away from her structured, wholesome life in Marshalltown, away in London being burnt at and away from the stake.

Seberg would one day say he used me like a Kleenex and threw me away.  Critic Hollis Alpert added... I felt that if Preminger hadn't discovered her, she would have been on Broadway within a couple of years and eventually would have attracted the attention of a film company.  Preminger interrupted her natural growth  and development as an actress.  He forced her talents and in the process destroyed her confidence. 

Oh, I did love this face

Adding to her woes, St. Joan was not a success and the critics would lay most of the blame at Jean's burning feet.  Some of the things she read were cruel and she was very hurt.  Marshalltown, of course, treated her as though Sarah Bernhardt had been born among them.  She thought of quitting and marrying the boy next door, giving him 4-6 kids and being the secretary for the city council, but she was under personal contract to Preminger.  

Preminger had purchased the rights to François Sagan's semi-racy little tale of teenage angst in the south of France and thought it would be right for his little protégée.  Bonjour Tristesse (1958) concerned a jaded teen and her playboy father who lived in a gorgeous villa and spent a lot of time talking about him getting laid.  It all seemed terribly inappropriate especially when one factors in a teensy little feeling of incest, but doncha know, it remains my favorite Jean Seberg movie.  With short-cropped hair (like a boy's, for which she would become famous), she was so youthfully gorgeous cavorting in and out of the water surrounding a posh villa.  David Niven played her rascally father and Deborah Kerr (in an offbeat role) a family friend with whom Seberg's Cecile at first barely manages to hide her hostility.  The relationship of this trio is at the heart of the most-colorful film.  It was not too successful at the time which further distressed the young actress.

Then Preminger discarded her.  He sold her contract to Columbia Pictures who immediately put her into the Peter Sellers comedy, The Mouse That Roared (1959).  While Seberg was not roasted by the critics in this one, she was hardly noticed what with Sellers playing multiple roles.  She had a brief part as James Darren's girlfriend in the better-than-you-might-think Let No Man Write My Epitaph (1960) but her part was the least interesting of all.

After Bonjour Tristesse, Seberg decided to stay in France... and for the most part, it became her home for the rest of her life.  She impulsively married handsome François Moreuil, still looking to build some sort of a film career.  They moved to Paris and fought through the two-year reign.  Afterwards, he would come to think of her as a drama queen who would flee when things got too rough.

Seberg brought in the 1960s via dizzying heights.  She's as appropriate for this piece I'm doing on the 60s as anyone I have written about.  She became a resident of France around the same time French New Wave came into being and it changed France's way of making movies.  While a number of artists and directors could rightfully claim head-of-the-class status with New Wave, certainly one of those was Jean-Luc Godard and his film Breathless (A bout de soufflé).

Moviemakers wanted to make films about rebelliousness, anti-establishment and antiheroes and Breathless was right there at the beginning.  Jean-Paul Belmondo stars as a small-time thief on the run from the law along with his pregnant American girlfriend, an aspiring journalism student.  The timing was right and the film, its message, the two stars and the director shot into the stratosphere.  All three became cult heroes.  For young French girls and women, Jean Seberg represented the liberated woman.  Soon they were all getting the Seberg haircut.  Interviewers wanted to interview her, directors wanted to direct her, young Frenchmen wanted to... well, you know what young Frenchmen wanted to do.

And that was just fine with Jean.  She would readily admit that she was probably a nymphomaniac and she would say it throughout her life.  She had also begun a lifetime of hysterics and breakdowns, flying off into the night or staying home and breaking things.  The fame that came with Breathless was almost impossible for her to take in. 

Her performance was rightly lauded but she was certainly not comfortable with the adulation.  She never quite got over that either.  Doubt remained her closest ally.   John Gielgud, a costar from St. Joan, would say she learned to be a star before she became an actress.  And liberated... people looked up to her as a role model for the liberated woman?  Now that was a laugh and she felt like a fraud.  But she was certainly on the cusp of giving liberation a valiant try.

Part of her problem was that those Midwestern voices were never still.  Marshalltown never left her head and yet she never felt a part of them... ever, she said.  Truthfully, she never truly fit in in France either.  The French films she would make, for the most part, were not good.  It's likely the French never really connected with her anyway... at least not beyond forever showcasing her as an expatriate in some sort of a mess.

So much of her work in French films dealt with sex.  Either she was a virgin about to become a woman with some languid-eyed French stud or she was a nymphomaniac and often as an added bonus, she was cast as schizophrenics.  All of this was near typecasting for Jean.  She might have had to study a bit on the virginal stuff, but the rest she had down pat.   It's been said by others of those years that mental illness was already showing in Jean.  Her mood swings could be terrifying to the unaware and irritating to those she lived with.  In a few short years she would also become an alcoholic.

Seberg would forever remember 1962.  She had insinuated herself into the marriage of writers Romain Gary and Lesley Branch.  Actually, at the time, Gary was more involved in a diplomatic career.  He was reluctant to end his marriage to Branch but Jean Seberg offered the 24-year older man a lilt in his step that he had long since misplaced.  Then she became pregnant and begged Gary to marry her but time got away from them.  Let's agree that 1962 isn't 2015. 

With 2nd and longest husband, Romain Gary

Having a baby out of wedlock (it's possible I may never type that expression again) was not on the list of must-dos for a fledgling actress.  So Seberg went off to Spain in her early pregnancy and didn't return until after the birth.  She would lie about her son's age when the introductions came and would hold on to that myth years after it mattered.  Most years the child lived with his devoted nanny in Spain while Seberg lived in France.  This was all kept from Ed and Dorothy Seberg... he would have run to his pharmacy for something for them to calm themselves.

She would also finally marry Gary in 1962 and would remain married to him through 1970, the longest of her four marriages.  Even as she was married to others, she and the new husband would live in the same apartment complex as Gary.  He was never out of her life, although he would frequently say he would like to be.  Theirs was unquestionably a father-daughter thing.  Their craziness centered around the issue of her liking, even seeking, advice on any number of subjects and when he gave it to her, she fought him like a wild animal. 

There were long times when they were together 24/7 because Gary got it into his head that he would become a film director.  Some of his movies were based on his own novels.  Seberg would be in most of them and for awhile they entertained the notion they would be the French Power Couple.  None of his films were all that successful and her reputation suffered as well.

In 1963 Columbia was thinking it should make some overtures to its little cash cow but they would do it so as to hardly ruffle her flighty feathers.   For In the French Style (1963) she would get to play an American living in France (imagine...!!!) whose wealthy father wants her to come back home.  While no great shakes, I liked its breezy style and it is one of the four Seberg films I own.

Lilith (1964) was an interesting movie for Seberg.  She would always claim it was her favorite and many would say it contains her best work.  I found it just too depressing.  For her role as a mental patient in a hospital, Seberg sat among real patients and it's possible she peeled back some of her own layers and saw something she'd previously not paid a great deal of attention to.  Some of her friends claimed they saw a different Seberg after she made Lilith.  She and costar, Warren Beatty, never much understood the other, professionally or personally.

From now on whether her films were American or European, I think her good films had come to an end.  She never seemed to make very good choices.  She may not have recognized good material if it came up and introduced itself to her.  In her later years she took anything she could get for the money.  On the American side, there were two films certainly worth a paragraph or so but her life was about to become far more interesting off screen than on.

One movie I quite liked was A Fine Madness (1963), ostensibly about an angry poet trying to make a living in New York.  It is one of my favorite Sean Connery roles... first because it's a comedy and two because his name isn't Bond.  Seberg's role was almost unnecessary but what I noticed about her was that she seemed to play parts with a sense of detachment and haughtiness.  Some who worked with her would have said the same.

She became visibly upset to her friends over the deaths of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy and she put down America, often citing it as a country she knew little about and related to even less.  She often administered blistering attacks on the treatment of blacks and would say she wanted to help them somehow but didn't know how.

She was hired for the female lead in Joshua Logan's Paint Your Wagon (1969) and with it began the second part of Jean Seberg's life.  The woman we had known up to this point had evolved from the innocent girl of Marshalltown to chic Parisian and if that bore witness to the climb up, now was time for the descent.

No wonder Clint found her fetching

Paint Your Wagon opens with an exciting scene of a covered wagon hurtling down a steep hill on its way to total destruction.  It might have been a metaphor for the entire film.  Don't be fooled into thinking I didn't like it.  I quite liked it.  It was a big blustery musical about the Gold Rush and a town of all men with the emphasis on two of them, partners in everything, including a woman who comes to town and marries them both. 

Seberg was mighty fetching as the wife of Lee Marvin and Clint Eastwood.  Her marriage to Romain Gary was unraveling and she not only engaged in an Oregon location romance with Eastwood, she said she fell madly in love with him.  So much money was poured into this production and so much was wasted that the rumors were that it would never recoup its costs.  The public mainly stayed away and the critics ravaged it.  Too bad, too, because Seberg badly needed a hit film.

While on location she became upset when it looked as though Eastwood was trying to wean himself away from her but she was also edgy about the Vietnam war (she wasn't exactly Jane Fonda but she was fairly vocal about it) and the Manson murders unnerved her.  Hippies invaded the location (a goodly number were cast in the film as extras) and they provided an outlet for her to champion the whole tribe which she saw as disenfranchised and alienated.  She provided them with lodging, food, money, her time, her driver and her ear.  Gary could no longer understand her and said she was an easy mark.  She was eager to divorce him.

Her years with Gary were mixed with a number of suicide attempts and hospitalizations, excessive drinking and sexual escapades.  If she tended to put the blame on him somewhat, one wonders who she would fault after her divorce from him when everything else remained the same. 

In 1968 she met married black activist, Hakim Jamal, a cousin of Malcom X through marriage.  Jamal founded US, an organization which promoted African-American cultural unity.  While he could be violent and challenging, he was sweet to Seberg.  She rewarded him with sex and a generous pocketbook full of money for a Montessori school he and his wife were starting.  She would follow him all over the world, participating in his activities and always giving him money or buying items for him.   Ultimately she tired of his ways and at the same time took up with Raymond "Massai" Hewitt, the leader of the Black Panthers, pouring out money for his causes.  Some eight or nine years after becoming involved with them, she felt utterly used, her money was nearly gone and her sanity more precarious than usual.

She interrupted her gallivanting to make Airport (1970), a mega-blockbuster that she very much did not want to be a part of but she desperately needed the money.  She was cast as the airport's public relations person and dispatched her duties with her usual imperiousness.  Most of her scenes were with Burt Lancaster, as her boss and married lover, but some years later he would not recall working with her at all.  Somebody needs to help me with that one.  Airport turned out to be her last large salary and her final movie to be made in America. 

With all that had been happening to her, the FBI took an interest.  They hounded her by calling her endlessly, sending mail and leaking all sorts of spurious reports to the press.  Their intent to discredit her with Hollywood was beginning to take hold.  Blind items in newspaper columns fooled no one.  She was called St. Joan of the Arc of the Guerrillas.

The only reason for mentioning Seberg's 1970 western, Macho Callahan, is because of behind-the-scenes activities.  There was a mining strike on at the time near the Mexican location and involved in it were student protests.  Ever the do-gooder, Seberg began listening to, feeding and giving money to the students and eventually became pregnant by one of them.

She became more freaked-out about this pregnancy than she had about her first one, although she desperately wanted the child.  Her friends felt she wanted to have another child to prove that she could be a good mother.  Then the FBI found out about the pregnancy.  They didn't think the father was Gary because of the impending divorce and they knew nothing of the Mexican tryst so they concluded it was Hewitt (or Jamal) or simply elected to say the father was black.  Whatever the case, Seberg's pregnancy by a Black Panther made news all over the world.  Denials were furnished but the intended damage had been done.  Due to listening in on the actress's phone calls, the FBI knew she was teetering on the brink of madness and they hoped to push her over.  In December, 1970, the organization put her on their Securities Index which meant she posed a danger to national security.

She and Gary had agreed to postpone their divorce until the child was born but it was difficult because she was becoming more and more paranoid.  She became so unhinged during the later stages of her pregnancy that she took pills in another suicide attempt.  When her premature baby died two days after birth, she suffered guilt for the rest of her life.  She would usually attempt suicide on every anniversary of the child's death.  The child was quite white and she and Gary made sure everyone knew it.

Shortly after divorcing Gary, she married Dennis Berry, six years her junior and someone she only briefly knew.  He was an American living in Paris who was attempting to become a director.  Though married for several years, their marriage was fraught with fighting, drinking, more suicide attempts and more hospitalizations.  Many would say that without liquor, Seberg reverted to her sweet Marshalltown side but with it she was a damned mean drunk.  She would somehow make more awful European films but eventually became too fat to work.

Over the years she had made many pilgrimages to Marshalltown... either for holidays, birthdays or anniversaries, to introduce new husbands or simply because she hadn't visited for awhile and perhaps to gloat a bit.  But in her last years she hadn't visited so much.  Obviously the notoriety had filtered into Marshalltown and those sweet Protestant Republicans just couldn't abide her any longer and she knew it.

Several months after divorcing Berry, in May of 1979, Seberg impulsively married the nephew of the owner of a Moroccan restaurant she frequented in Paris.  Ahmed Hasni apparently had not represented himself quite correctly but one thing was clear...he wanted to be a movie star.  Actually he had already appeared in a few films, so maybe we should say he wanted to be a bigger movie star.  Perhaps being married to one, however fading, however self-loathing and self-destructive, could help.  Who knows?

He never got a chance to find out.  In the early morning of August 30, Jean slipped out of bed, wrapped herself in only a blanket, grabbed her keys, pills and a water bottle, hopped in her Renault and drove around the corner.  Hasni would report her missing almost immediately and her body, slumped in the backseat on the floor, was not found for 10 days.  The street, a short one, was barely traveled and no one paid attention to the parked car.  Discovering her wrapped in a blanket in a car with rolled-up windows in the summer sun of Paris was apparently memorable for those in attendance.

Close to the end 

They found a note addressed to her son... Forgive me.  I can no longer live with my nerves.  Understand me.  I know you can and you know that I love you.  Be strong.  Your loving mother, Jean
Jean.  That always got to me.  She felt the need to sign it Jean. 

She was desperate to feel love.  It came out for her in sex, promiscuity, applause.  I understand that she lived a life of feeling unworthy but where was the inner strength to pull herself up?  Where were the friends and relatives and doctors to help?  Didn't that Swedish background tell her to buckle up, get a hold of herself?  How sad the little Midwestern girl from Iowa who would (not really) grow up to be a beautiful, blonde movie star, move forever to Paris and die a washed-up alcoholic at the ripe old age of 40.  How sad is that?

She probably should have stayed in Marshalltown.  She was not tough enough for the world outside of there.  All she had wanted to do back then was get married, have babies, sprinkle around some animals, think the good thoughts and help people.  How sad it worked out so differently.

If you are a Seberg fan, you have undoubtedly read David Richards's 1981 biography on her, Played Out (Random House).  It was obviously exhaustively researched and is a true page-turner.  I have read it three times over the years and consider it the best biography I have ever read (and that's saying a mouthful).  If you are interested in reading more about Jean Seberg, I highly recommend this book.

A Good 60s Movie


  1. thought of another Nordic blonde, Inger Stevens, as I was reading this posting & noting the parallels. So sad! Sarah

  2. I can certainly get our fascination with this actress just my the length of your piece. What a roller coaster ride life must have been for her. Thanks for a great read.