Jean Dorothy Seberg (November 13, 1938 – August 30, 1979) was an American actress who lived half of her life in France. Her performance in Jean-Luc Godard's 1960 film Breathless immortalized her as an icon of French New Wave cinema.
Seberg appeared in 34 films in Hollywood and in Europe, including Saint Joan, Bonjour Tristesse, Lilith, The Mouse That Roared, Breathless, Moment to Moment, A Fine Madness, Paint Your Wagon, Airport, Macho Callahan, and Gang War in Naples.
Seberg was among the best-known targets of the FBI COINTELPRO project. Her targeting was in retaliation for her support of the Black Panther Party, 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 at which he blamed the FBI's campaign against Seberg for her death. Gary noted that the FBI had planted false rumors with American media outlets claiming that her 1970 pregnancy was a Black Panther's child, and claimed that the trauma had resulted in the child's miscarriage. Gary stated that Seberg had attempted suicide on numerous anniversaries of the child's death, August 25.
Jean Dorothy Seberg was born in Marshalltown, Iowa, the daughter of Dorothy Arline, a substitute teacher, and Edward Waldemar Seberg, 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 changed the family surname to Seberg in memory of the water and mountains of Sweden. Seberg had a sister, Mary-Ann, and two brothers, Kurt and David, the younger of whom was killed in a car accident at the age of 18 in 1968.
In Marshalltown, Seberg babysat Mary Supinger, some eight years her junior, who became stage and film actress Mary Beth Hurt. After high school, Seberg enrolled at the University of Iowa to study dramatic arts, but took up filmmaking instead.
Jean Seberg made her film debut in the title role of Joan of Arc in Saint Joan (1957), based on the George Bernard Shaw play, having been chosen from among 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, Seberg's only acting experience had been a single season of summer stock performances. The film generated a great deal of publicity, but Seberg commented that she was "embarrassed by all the attention." Despite great hype, called in the press a "Pygmalion experiment", both the film and Seberg received poor reviews. On the failure, she later told the press:
I am the greatest example of a very real fact, that all the publicity in the world will not make you a movie star if you are not also an actress.
She also recounted:
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 promised her a second chance, and he cast Seberg in his next film, Bonjour Tristesse (1958), which was filmed in France. 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 negative reviews and the film nearly ended her career.
Seberg renegotiated her contract with Preminger and signed a long-term contract with Columbia Pictures. Preminger had an option to use her on another film, but they never again worked together. Her first Columbia film was the successful comedy The Mouse That Roared (1959), starring Peter Sellers.
During the filming of Bonjour Tristesse, Jean Seberg met François Moreuil, the man who was to become her first husband. 15 months later, On September 5, 1958, at the age of 19, Seberg married François Moreuil, a French lawyer (aged 23) in her native Marshalltown.
Afterwards, Seberg based herself in France, finally achieving success as the free-love heroine of French New Wave films.
She appeared as the female 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 as "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."
Jean Seberg's husband Moreuil had ambitions to work in film. After appearing in Time Out for Love (Les grandes personnes, 1961), Seberg took the lead role in 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]."
They divorced in 1960.
Seberg followed the film Love Play with Five Day Lover (L'amant de cinq jours, 1962), Congo vivo (1962) and In the French Style (1962), a French-American film featuring Stanley Baker released through Columbia.
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.
In 1961 Seberg met French aviator, French resistance member, novelist and diplomat Romain Gary, who was 24 years her senior and married to author Lesley Blanch. Seberg gave birth to their son, Alexandre Diego Gary, in Barcelona on July 17, 1962. The child's birth and first year of life were hidden, even from close friends and relatives. Gary's divorce from Blanch took place on September 5, 1962, and he married Seberg secretly on October 6, 1962 in Corsica.
During her marriage to Gary, Seberg lived in Paris, Greece, Southern France and Majorca.
After starring with Warren Beatty in the American film Lilith (1964) for Columbia, which prompted the critics to acknowledge Seberg as a serious actress, she returned to France to make Diamonds Are Brittle (Un milliard dans un billard, 1965).
In the late 1960s, Seberg was increasingly based in Hollywood. Moment to Moment (1965) was mostly filmed 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) with Sean Connery.
In 1966 and 1967, Seberg played the leading roles in two French films directed by Claude Chabrol and co-starring Maurice Ronet. In May and June of 1967, she played the lead role in the French-Italian Eurospy film The Road to Corinth, shot in Greece.
She filed for divorce from Romain Gary in September 1968, and the divorce was finalized on July 1, 1970.
In 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).
While filming Macho Callahan in Durango, Mexico in the winter of 1969–70, Seberg became romantically involved with a student revolutionary named Carlos Ornelas Navarra. She gave birth to Ornelas's daughter, Nina Hart Gary, on August 23, 1970. The baby died two days later on August 25, 1970 as a result of complications sustained when Seberg had overdosed on sleeping pills during her pregnancy. Ex-husband Gary assumed responsibility for the pregnancy, but Seberg acknowledged that Ornelas was the father. Nina is buried at Riverside Cemetery in Marshalltown.
On March 12, 1972, Seberg married director Dennis Berry. The couple separated in May 1976, but never divorced. Her next lover was aspiring French filmmaker Jean-Claude Messager, who later spoke to CBS's Mike Wallace for a 1981 profile of the actress.
Seberg was François Truffaut's first choice for the central role of Julie in Day for Night (La Nuit américaine, 1973) but, after several fruitless attempts to contact her, he gave up and cast British actress Jacqueline Bisset instead.
Seberg's last American film appearance was in the TV movie Mousey (1974). She remained active during the 1970s in European films, appearing in Bianchi cavalli d'Agosto (White Horses of Summer) (1975), Le Grand Délire (The Big Delirium, 1975, with husband Dennis Berry) and Die Wildente (1976, based on Ibsen's The Wild Duck).
In 1979, while still legally married to her estranged husband Berry, Seberg went through "a form of marriage" to 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 claimed had grievously abused her.
Besides her husbands and lovers, Seberg reportedly had affairs with co-stars Warren Beatty (Lilith), Clint Eastwood (Paint Your Wagon) and Fabio Testi (Gang War in Naples).Writer Carlos Fuentes also claims to have had an affair with her.
On August 30, 1979, Seberg disappeared. Hasni told police that the couple had gone to a movie and when he awoke the next morning, Seberg was gone. After Seberg went missing, Hasni told police that he had known that 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, Seberg's 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 by Seberg addressed to her son Alexandre Diego Gary. 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 at which he blamed the FBI's campaign against Seberg for her deteriorating mental health.
Seberg is interred at the Cimetière du Montparnasse in Paris.
At the time of Jean Seberg's death, she was working on the French film Operation Leopard (La Légion saute sur Kolwezi, 1980) which was based upon the book by Pierre Sergent. She had filmed scenes in French Guiana and returned to Paris for additional work in September. After her death, the scenes were reshot with actress Mimsy Farmer.
Six days after the discovery of Seberg's body, the FBI released documents under the Freedom of Information Act admitting its defamation of Seberg, while making statements attempting to distance the agency from the practices of the Hoover era. The FBI's campaign against Seberg was further explored by Time magazine in a front-page article titled "The FBI vs. Jean Seberg."
Media attention surrounding the FBI's abuse of Seberg led to an examination of the case by the Church Committee of the U.S. Senate.
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 enter her car without assistance, and no alcohol was found in the car. Police theorized that someone was present at the time of Seberg's death and failed to seek medical care.
In December 1980, Seberg's former husband Romain Gary committed suicide. His suicide note, addressed to his publisher, indicated that he had not killed himself over the loss of Seberg, but because he could no longer produce literary works.
As of 2009, Jean Seberg and Romain Gary's son Alexandre Diego Gary resides in Spain, where he runs a bookstore and oversees his father's literary and real-estate holdings.