The scene was tragic.
A casket covered with lilies, daisies, and yellow roses. A stunned and muted crowd of hundreds gathered at Pariss Montparnasse Cemetery, Friday, September 14, 1979.
The mourners were there to bid farewell to Jean Seberg, internationally renowned actress, activist, and reluctant celebrity. Among those present were her young son Diego and his father (Jeans former husband), notable French author and diplomat Romain Gary.
Parisian police had declared her death a suicide, the result of alcohol and barbiturate poisoning. But the coroner was more cautious, at first issuing a report of probable suicide with unresolved questions, and then the following year filing charges for persons unknown who may have been involved in her death.
Tragedy had followed Jeans brief life (and Jean and Romains brief years together).
Plucked out of Midwestern USA obscurity (and in competition with 18,000 other hopefuls), Jean was cast as Joan DArc for Otto Premingers 1956 big-budget screen adaptation, Saint Joan. It was not a happy debut. Critics savaged her performance as lackluster, and the film failed commercially.
But fast-forward a few years and fate had seemingly reversed. Resident in Paris and married to a French lawyer, Jean was cast by Jean-Luc Godard (a Preminger fan) in A Bout de Souffle (aka Breathless), a 1960 film that would define French New Wave cinema. The film was a resounding success, and Jean Seberg was declared the best actress in Europe (from no less an authority than François Truffaut), providing her with years of screen work on an appreciative continent.
Come 1964, and Jean returned to Hollywood to star in a string of films, including Lilith, musical Paint Your Wagon, and aviation/disaster potboiler Airport. During this period, Seberg became involved in a number of progressive political causes, donating time and money to civil rights and Native American groups. She displayed a particular affinity for the Black Panthers, donating large sums of money and becoming close friends with many in the groups leadership.
Evidence exists that J. Edgar Hoover was personally aggrieved by Seberg fraternizing with the Black Panthers, as a blonde Aryan Hollywood icon, her racial betrayal was deemed
It was this last relationship that particularly irked FBI director J. Edgar Hoover. Evidence exists that Hoover was personally aggrieved by Seberg fraternizing with the Black Panthers, as a blonde Aryan Hollywood icon, her racial betrayal was deemed acutely unacceptable.
The Bureau began a smear campaign against Jean, with Hoover reporting directly to President Richard Nixon on the matter. According to declassified 1970 FBI memos (some reproduced here), it was decided to insinuate via friendly contacts in the press that the then-pregnant Seberg had not conceived with her husband (Romain Gary) but in fact been impregnated by a member of the Black Panther leadership (specifically Raymond Hewitt).
The aim of the COINTELPRO operation was the neutralization of Seberg, and to cause her embarrassment and serve to cheapen her image with the public. COINTELPRO was a secret FBI program that ostensibly ran from 1956 to 1971, targeting subversives and dissidents, infiltrating and disrupting domestic and grass-roots political organizations.
Accordingly, the manufactured rumor appeared in gossip writer Joyce Habers August 21, 1970, column in the Los Angeles Times. The story was then syndicated into Newsweek and many other publications.
Upon reading the report, Jean went into premature labor, and her daughter Nina was stillborn just two days later. Heavily traumatized, Jean held an open-casket funeral in her hometown (Marshalltown, Iowa) to disprove the slander. The baby was White and claimed by Romain as his. Gary and Seberg sued Newsweek for defamation, prevailed in a Paris court, winning damages and a belated retraction.
The FBIs malicious behavior did not end there, however. Jean suffered years of politically motivated burglaries, wiretapping, stalking and (in what is surely an incredible example of malevolent institutional overreach) international surveillance from U.S. military intelligence, U.S. Secret Service, and CIA, among others. In 1980, the L.A. Times published transcripts of her wiretapped Swiss phone calls.
After her death, Romain Gary would reveal the extent of Jeans trauma; she was left barely functional by the FBIs assault, unable to work, and reportedly attempting suicide on every anniversary of her daughter Ninas death. Numerous death threats led her to hire two bodyguards, and soon her mental health deteriorated rapidly. One source reports that Seberg claimed her refrigerator was spying on her and she would converse with it in the middle of the night.
In the tumult, Jean and Romain had separated, but Gary was still deeply concerned with Sebergs plight. According to extent correspondence between the pair, the 1971 film Kill! is the direct result of Romains desperate desire to see Jean working and functional again. He felt a new project with an international social conscience and major stars might replenish Jeans self esteem and career (rumors circulated that she was on an unofficial Hollywood blacklist). Romains repute as an oft-awarded novelist and Jeans star power enabled Kill! to happen quickly; Romain penned the script and directed across the shoots exotic locales (including Yemen and Afghanistan).
In many ways, the postscript to Kill! is a troubled one. Jeans mysterious death in Paris in 1979 and Romains tortured suicide by gunshot to the head a year later (soon after the anniversary of Jeans funeral) are moments etched in tragedy.
The circumstances of Jeans death have never been satisfactorily explained. Romain declared on September 10 in an anguished press conference that he suspected foul play, and for the first time publicly, denounced the FBI for hounding them for years. Suspicions fell on twenty-nine-year-old Algerian actor Ahmed Hasni, who had become Jeans consort just before her death. Parisian police admitted to searching for Hasni for almost a year with no resulthe had disappeared completely after quickly selling Jeans apartment, possessions, and diaries (he has never resurfaced). Those close to Jean disliked him and questioned his motives and links to drug trafficking.
Hasni had reported Jean missing ten days before her body was found. Judge Guy Joly noted that when found (oddly in her own unlocked car just around the corner from her apartment, yet unnoticed for over a week), Sebergs naked corpse had an alcohol content twice the amount that would have rendered her comatose (opening the obvious questions of how she got to the car itself, let alone ingested significant quantities of barbiturates and drove in that state). In some ways, Hasni gives the appearance of being the classic intelligence operativeflamboyant with underworld links and an almost magical ability to disappear when necessary.
Tortured by Jeans fate, Romain Gary kept her room in their 108 rue du Bac apartment untouched, Jeans letters and clothes scattered across the floor as they were the day she left. Visitors tell of Romains rage at the years of clandestine FBI harassment, pounding the table expounding on Jeans torment to any who would listen.