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Thursday, 25 February 2021

She acted as if she Hated Typewriters, but there was no reason for the FBI to Hound Jean Seberg to Death

“You know what I hate?”



--- Jean Seberg, as Christina James, to one of her lovers, British foreign correspondent Walter Beddoes (Stanley Baker), In The French Style (1963). At the time Christina damns all typewriters, she is waiting expectantly in bed while Walter types a news story on an Olivetti Studio 44. Admittedly, Christina later added “international darlings”, airports and telephones to her hate list.

Q: Which American author used an Olivetti Studio 44 semi-portable typewriter to write short stories and a screenplay based on two of those stories, then allowed the same Olivetti to be used as a prop in the movie made from his screenplay? A: Irwin Shaw, the anniversary of whose birth (in The Bronx in 1913) will be marked this coming Saturday (February 27). And the movie in question is 1963’s In The French Style, starring Jean Seberg.

Irwin’s Studio 44 was brand new when in late 1952 he wrote one of the short stories which would later be emerged into the screenplay. It was also called In The French Style and it was published in The New Yorker on January 10, 1953. The other short story was called 
A Year to Study the Language. The movie was directed by Shaw’s close friend Robert Parrish and was panned by the critics. The New York Times review said Shaw’s “literary penchant for the romance of remorse - for the sentiments of fairly bourgeois people who burn the candle at both ends and have regrets - is exercised too profusely …” TIME was even less charitable. “Year after year, Irwin Shaw wept bitterly in his champagne. The cinemoguls gave him heaps of dough to write movie scripts (Act of Love, The Big Gamble), but a man cannot live by bread alone. As an artist, Irwin earnestly and frequently explained to the press, he was hurt by what happened to his scripts after he turned them in. Words were changed. Sometimes whole scenes were struck out by some thick-fingered fur salesman who had never read anything more difficult than a ledger. Sizzling from Hollywood's ignominies (and loaded with Hollywood's gold), Scriptwriter Shaw last year at last devised a stratagem to baffle the barbarians. He wrote a picture and then produced it himself - at a cost of about a million. This is it and he loves it. ‘For the first time,’ he says proudly, ‘I have a feeling that a movie is mine.’ Well, he can have it. For one thing, his script urgently requires the attention of that fur salesman. Seberg wins the customer's sympathy … she tries so hard. So does Irwin, and he can really use some sympathy. If this picture does as well as it deserves to, he may soon be weeping bitterly in his beer.”

I must admit, as hard as Jean Seberg did try, it’s years since I gave her even a single thought. Then last night I read William Boyd’s Diary column in Literary Review (December 2020-January 2021) and was, quite frankly, shocked to see what became of her. Boyd has had Seberg on his mind a lot lately, because he has based a character in his latest novel, Trio, on Seberg, and that had meant Boyd reading as much as he could about the life of the late star. The character is called Anny Viklund – Anny uses three of the letters in Jean and the Scandanavian-sounding Viklund is simply a play on the invented surname Seberg (Jean’s paternal grandfather, Edward Carlson, arrived in the US in 1882 and decided there were “too many Carlsons in the New World”, so changed the family's last name to Seberg in memory of the water and mountains of Sweden.) Trio is set mainly in Brighton in England in the summer of 1968, with the trio in question being its three main, vunerable characters, all connected to the making of a film. Viklund is a pill-popping American actress, divorced from her American terrorist husband whose escape from prison and arrival in Britain brings personal threats and the unwanted attention of the FBI. It's a beat-up version of Seberg's real life in the late 60s.

Boyd wrote in Literary Review, “Seberg was hounded - and smeared - by the FBI for her left-liberal politics and her support for the Black Panther Party. There is convincing circumstantial evidence that the FBI was involved in her mysterious death. She disappeared from her Paris apartment [on August 30, 1970] and, nine days later [on September 8], her body was discovered [on rue du Général-Appert] in the 16th arrondissement in her car [a white Renault 5 registered 334 APK 75] wrapped in a blanket. It looked like a suicide but the Paris police autopsy pronounced that there was so much alcohol in her body she would have been incapable of walking, let alone driving. There was no alcohol in the car.”

Seberg was just 40 when she died. The circumstances were certainly squalid and pathetic, both on account of the FBI’s involvement. There was a bottle of barbiturates and a suicide note beside the corpse. Seberg’s body had “baked in the sun” and the odour was “unimaginably foul”. This was an actress who, at the start of her career, was described as “so unimaginably fresh” and “the golden sunflower girl”. Days after her death the FBI admitted that its agents had plotted to ruin her reputation as part of their counter-intelligence programme, Cointelpro, authorised by FBI founder, J. Edgar Hoover himself. Seberg’s crime, in Hoover’s eyes, was her involvement in political causes and her support of the Black Panthers. In particular, they were suspicious of her close links with Black Power leader Hakim Jamal. Seberg’s involvement with the Panthers came from a chance meeting with Jamal on a flight from Paris to Los Angeles in 1968. When they landed, she gave him a raised fist salute, in full view of the assembled press. Jamal, married to a cousin of Malcolm X, acted as a go-between for the movement and Hollywood, often courting high-profile celebrities for their support. Seberg reportedly contributed an estimated $10,500 to the cause after their first meeting, and hosted a 1969 fundraiser for the Black Panthers party at her home. The guestlist included Jane Fonda, Vanessa Redgrave and Paul Newman. Seberg also acted as an emissary for the Black Panthers abroad.  Her commitment to the values of the movement was in being supportive of the Panthers’ local social initiatives providing education and food to disenfranchised children. But in 1974 Seaberg said, “I’ve analyzed the fact that I’m not equipped to participate absolutely and totally. I had a very, very bad mental breakdown, and now I realise I wouldn’t want a person like me in a group I was a member of, as Groucho Marx would put it.”

A 1970 FBI memo read: “Bureau permission is required the publicize the pregnancy of Jean Seberg, well-known movie actress, by [redacted] Black Panther party, [redacted] by advising Hollywood gossip columnists in the Los Angeles area of the situation. It is felt that the possible publication of Seberg’s plight could cause her embarrassment and cheapen her image with the general public.” The memo suggested planting an item along the lines: “I was just thinking about you and remembered I still owe you a favor. So I was in Paris last week and ran into Jean Seberg who was heavy with baby. I thought she and Romain [Gary] had gotten together again but she confided the child belonged to [name deleted] of the Black Panthers. The dear girl is getting around. Anyway, I thought you might get a scoop on the others.” The plan worked. It was dispiriting but inevitable that some gossip columnists followed the false leads that the FBI dangled in front of them. From the FBI’s point of view, she was involved in radical politics, had contributed financially to the Black Panthers and was therefore fair game.

The story was picked up by gossip columnist, Joyce Haber (seen left in a 1970 photo, with claws out], who referred obliquely to it in The Los Angeles Times. Newsweek also wrote about it and named Seberg. At the time of the leak, Seberg had indeed been seven months pregnant. In the wake of reading the false stories about herself, she went into labour. Her baby daughter was born prematurely and died a few days later, on August 23, 1970.  The week after Seberg’s own death, Alistair Cooke said in one of his “Letters from America” broadcasts on the BBC that Seberg took her baby’s corpse back home to Iowa “in a glass coffin as a glaring proof that the baby was white - an excessive reaction perhaps, but in 1970 she knew that the FBI could and did destroy hundreds of radicals and non-radicals”.

Seberg was a pharmacist’s daughter who had grown up in Marshalltown, Iowa. She landed the lead role in Otto Preminger’s Saint Joan in 1957, and she really was a special talent. One biographer said, “She had a spontaneity, mischief and lambent grace on screen that immediately enraptured the young critics and would-be filmmakers from Cahiers du Cinéma in France … [she became] the sacred muse of the French Nouvelle Vague.” Seberg was thus more highly valued back in Hollywood. One of her greatest roles was as the beautiful schizophrenic opposite Warren Beatty and Peter Fonda in Lillith (1964), but then Hoover and the FBI set about destroying her. On each anniversary of her baby’s death, she had attempted suicide.

Jean Seberg at home in Paris with her cat in 1970.


Bill M said...

I'm always surprised at how you find so many interesting people and write about them.
Well done, Robert.

Anonymous said...

Tragic, truly tragic.
I really love "Paint Your Wagon", and she was just superb in it.