Born in Marshalltown, Iowa on Nov. 13, 1938, Jean Seberg was a young girl who loved the cinema and her aspirations reached far beyond the fields and factories of her hometown. She acted in local theater productions and after high school she studied the dramatic arts at the University of Iowa.
Her life changed when legendary director Otto Preminger conducted a nationwide talent search in 1957, looking for an actress to star as Joan of Arc in his upcoming film Saint Joan. Out of 18,000 contestants, Seberg won the leading role at the age of 17.
That year the Palm Beach Post referred to her as a “Real-Life Cinderella.” Janet Maslin of The New York Times wrote, “Jean Seberg returned home to Marshalltown triumphantly, riding in a Cadillac and wearing a mink.”
After starring or co-starring in numerous films with some of the biggest names in Hollywood, her most iconic performance came in the 1960 French New Wave film Breathless, directed by Jean-Luc Godard, which won her international acclaim.
In the early ‘60s she moved to France to avoid unwanted publicity. “I think for an American girl living in Paris who is doing films, my private life is probably more my private life … whereas if I were living in Hollywood, I imagine my life would be much more of the public’s knowledge.”
On May 19, 1970, gossip queen Joyce Haber published an item in her Los Angeles Times column, Miss A Rates as Expectant Mother. She alleged that “Miss A” was pregnant with the baby of African-American Ray Hewitt, minister of information for the Black Panther Party. As the article goes on, it becomes apparent that Haber is referring to Seberg.
When the rumor surfaced, Seberg was married to her then-husband, French diplomat and novelist Romain Gary. Her nerves were frayed by the negative publicity, only adding to her personal troubles. Months after the story appeared she took an overdose of sleeping pills, giving premature birth to a daughter on Aug. 23. Her daughter, Nina, died two days later.
The reality was Nina’s father was Carlos Navarra, a college student Seberg had an affair with. But the false accusations, political blacklisting and her fading stardom took a toll on the haunted starlet.
On Sept. 8, 1979, after being missing for ten days, Seberg was discovered by two policemen on a side street in Paris. Her body was wrapped in a blanket, sprawled across the backseat of her white Renault. Autopsy reports concluded that she overdosed on barbiturates. Her death was ruled a suicide—she was only 40.
Her suicide note reads, in part, “Forgive me. I can no longer live with my nerves.”
Many of her fans saw the eerie parallels between her suicide and the fate of the martyred heroine she played in her film debut. She wanted to protect her privacy from the open ears and prying eyes of Tinsel town.
Possibly even more invasive to her privacy was the United States government. Six days after her body was discovered, a headline from the Los Angeles Times confirmed what many people had suspected: “FBI Admits Spreading Lies About Jean Seberg.” The Bureau confessed that it had leaked false information to reporters, including Haber and Newsweek, to tarnish the actress’s reputation.
The FBI, under the leadership of director John Edgar Hoover, conducted “counter-intelligence programs,” better known as COINTELPRO, between 1956 and 1971. Author Nelson Blackstock referred to it as “The FBI’s Secret War on Political Freedom.”
The bureau has a long sordid history of targeting citizens for engaging in “subversive activities.”According to author Philip H. Melanson, citing the work of Frank Donner, “records indicate that there were 2,679 ‘action proposals’ [initiated by COINTELPRO] against various groups, and 2,340 of them were implemented.”
At the height of Hoover’s witch hunts, many people were targeted in smear campaigns and illegal surveillance. These groups included antiwar activists, college demonstrators, the Communist Party USA, the Socialist Workers Party and even Martin Luther King, Jr.
One of Hoover’s prime targets was the Black Panther Party, which he labeled a “black extremist” group. FBI records reveal that Seberg was investigated from 1969 until 1972, due to her opposition to the Vietnam War, her lifelong support of civil rights and her relationship with the Black Panther Party.
According to a declassified FBI memo dated Aug. 25, 1967, COINTELPRO was meant to “disrupt, misdirect, discredit or otherwise neutralize the activities of black nationalists, hate-type organizations and groupings, their leadership, spokesmen, members and supporters, and to counter their propensity for violence and civil disorder.”
Seberg’s friends knew the extent this harassment took on her mental and physical well-being.
Writer David Keller said, “Jean knew her phone was tapped … Once she was walking down Sunset Strip, and a fan asked her for an autograph. It got back to Jean that this girl was busted and searched by the Feds less than 10 minutes later, they wanted to know what Jean Seberg had given her.
“Jean didn’t scare easily, but once, in New York, she called to say that someone had been in her hotel room while she’d been out. She had put Scotch tape on the closet doors, and it was ripped when she came in. She was a little paranoid, but with good reason … ”
Singer and actress Nico, Seberg’s co-star in Les Hautes Solitudes, said of Seberg, “Jean was very beautiful and very intelligent, but she had a sad life … She pointed out the FBI men who were constantly following her around. Have you ever seen FBI men? They were exactly what you expect. Vulgar. Can you imagine such a thing? What tragedy … ”
Since her death, she has been the subject of many documentaries and books. In 2011 Marshalltown began hosting the annual Jean Seberg International Film Festival at the Orpheum Theater Center in her honor.