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Actress Jean Seberg And The Black Panthers: Did The FBI Have Her Killed?

Entertainment | March 22, 2019

June 18: 1957: Actress Jean Seberg (1938 - 1979) arriving at London Airport a week before attending the premiere of Otto Preminger's film Saint Joan in which she stars. (Photo by Cox/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

In 1960 Jean Seberg flashed onto the screen in Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless (A Bout De Souffle). While it wasn’t her first film, it's the one that she's most famous for, and the French New Wave masterpiece brought this Iowa girl into an international spotlight. While Seberg tried to use her fame and fortune for good by giving to causes that aided Civil Rights programs, she was also an outspoken proponent of the Black Panthers, an anti-fascist, black political organization that J. Edgar Hoover described as "the greatest threat to the internal security of the country."

Over the course of nearly a decade, the FBI stalked Seberg, tapped her phones, and spread malicious rumors about her. All of this weighed down on her and many people believe that the government’s drive to embarrass Seberg on a national scale lead to her death. 

A Girl From Iowa Becomes A French Superstar

Jean Seberg during the shooting of A Bout De Souffle (Breathless). Source: (imdb.com)

Before she was the "it" girl of French New Wave cinema, before she was on the FBI’s hit list for donating minor sums to the Black Panthers, Jean Seberg was just a gal growing up in Iowa. Born in 1938 in Marshalltown, Iowa, Seberg was like a lot of young would-be stars: she loved the theater and ended up studying drama at the University of Iowa.

In 1957 Seberg was hired by director Otto Preminger to star in Saint Joan. The film was a disaster both critically and commercially, and because this was Seberg’s first picture she took the whole thing personally. She later said of the experience:

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.

Seberg Never Enjoyed Working In France

Source: (criterion.com)

After filming another disastrous picture with Otto Preminger, Bonjour Tristesse, Seberg worked with Peter Sellers in The Mouse That Roared and then finally moved to France where she co-starred opposite Jean-Paul Belmondo in Jean-Luc Godard's Breathless as Patricia Franchini. That role led to her international fame, with critics changing their tune on the young girl from Iowa.

As vindicating as this praise must have been, Seberg never connected with the films she was making at the time. She claimed that while working with French New Wave directors she was “making films in France about people [she was] not really interested in." In spite of her disdain for French films, she continued to work in the country until her death. 

The Newly Minted French Starlet Returns To Hollywood

Clint Eastwood, Lee Marvin, and Jean Seberg during filming of Paint Your Wagon. Source: (reddit.com)

As the ‘60s wore on Seberg left France to return stateside, and in 1965 she appeared in Moment to Moment, her first American picture in five years. She stuck around Los Angeles but maintained her home in Paris and career as the star of French pictures like Line of Demarcation and Eurospy. In 1969 she appeared in the western-musical Paint Your Wagon with Lee Marvin and Clint Eastwood.

Shortly after filming Paint Your Wagon Seberg was caring for her son by former husband Romain Gary, and carrying on a relationship with Carlos Ornelas Navarra, a student and revolutionary from Mexico. They had one child that passed away two days after its birth.

Throughout this tumultuous part of her life, French director François Truffaut claims that he consistently tried to contact Seberg so he could cast her as the central role of Julie in Day for Night but that she ignored his calls. (The part went to Jacqueline Bisset.)

She Donated To Many Different Civil Rights Causes

Maurice Ronet and Jean Seberg in Les oiseaux vont mourir au Pérou (Birds In Peru, 1968). Source: (imdb.com)

Seberg popped up on the FBI’s radar in the late ‘60s when she made multiple small donations to various civil rights groups. She gave money to the NAACP and the Native American school on the Tama settlement near her birthplace of Marshalltown. According to reports, the actress gave the Native settlement $500 so they could purchase new basketball uniforms.

Along with her donations to the Tama settlement and the NAACP, Seberg donated money to the Black Panthers and even helped one member open his bank account by writing him a personal check for $5,000. The FBI really hated Seberg's generosity to the Black Panthers, and they began monitoring her actions, including relationships that she carried on with Hakim Jamal and Raymond ''Masai'' Hewitt, both members of the Black Panthers. 

The FBI Embarrassed And Discredited Seberg

Maurice Ronet and Jean Seberg in Les grandes personnes (Time Out For Love,1961). Source: (imdb.com)

It’s unclear exactly when the FBI decided to carry out a silent campaign against Seberg, but it’s likely that the government agency began tapping her phones and circulating stories about the actress when she became involved in the two interracial relationships. In 1970 the FBI floated a false story from a fictional informant that Seberg was carrying the child of Raymond Hewitt, one of the men she was seeing at the time, and not that of her then-husband Romain Gary.

The story was printed in the gossip column of the Los Angeles Times, as well as in Newsweek. All of the stress of the FBI’s pressure cooker sent Seberg into a depressive spiral. She started drinking and taking pills, and she went into early labor on August 23, 1970. Two days later her child passed away and she held an open casket funeral so the world could see that her child was, in fact, not mixed race.

Following the death of her child, Seberg and Gary sued Newsweek for libel and defamation to the tune of $200,000. A French court awarded the couple $10,800 and stated that Newsweek was to print the judgment in the pages of their magazine. 

The FBI Wanted To Ruin Seberg’s Life

Jean Seberg in Saint Joan (1957). Source: (imdb.com)

The FBI didn’t stop at publishing stories about Seberg’s romantic life in gossip columns and national periodicals, and while they continued to disseminate false stories about the actress they also aggressively tailed her with surveillance agents, tapped her phones, and committed every means of intimidation that they could carry out, simply for the crime of being sympathetic to the Panthers.

Hers was a case that was so important to the FBI that J. Edgar Hoover made sure to keep President Richard Nixon abreast of the comings and goings of the actress. Why they would care about how Seberg spent her time is mind-boggling -- were there not more important things to worry about in America in 1970?

Seberg wasn’t blind, and the FBI’s intrusive behavior was both frustrating and tedious to the actress. On one recorded phone call to an unidentified member of the Black Panthers made by the actress while in Switzerland she plainly states, “Everybody knows I’m here anyway so it doesn’t matter, you know, I’ve got little friends who follow [me].”

Seberg's Death Was Mysterious To Say The Least

Jean Seberg and Warren Beatty in Lilith (1964). Source: (imdb.com)

In 1972, Seberg moved back to Paris, where she married Dennis Berry, but by 1979 she was in an intense relationship with Ahmed Hasni, and allegedly still suffering from the mental anguish of both losing her child and dealing with the FBI’s obsessive crusade against her. On August 30, 1979, she disappeared in the middle of the night and she wasn’t found until September 8.

Her body was discovered decomposing in the back seat of her car next to a bottle of barbiturates, an empty mineral water bottle, and a note written in French from Seberg addressed to her son. It read, in part, "Forgive me. I can no longer live with my nerves."

Even though the Parisian police ruled her death a suicide in 1979, one year later they stated that there was so much alcohol in her system at the time of her death that she wouldn’t have been able to get into a car without help. They also reported that while there were barbiturates in the car, there was no trace of alcohol. They believe that an unnamed person was present during Seberg’s death and that the person refused to come to her assistance.

Seberg’s Second Husband Blamed The FBI For Her Death

Lobby card for Pendulum (1969) featuring George Peppard and Jean Seberg. Source: (imdb.com)

Following Seberg’s death, Romain Gary (her second husband) went on the attack against the FBI. He stated that they were to blame for her downward spiral and that she “became psychotic” after the FBI’s false story about her love child with a Black Panther went national. Gary also claimed that Seberg annually attempted suicide on the anniversary of her child’s death, which occurred on August 25.

Later that year, Gary killed himself as well, although he made it clear in his suicide note that his reasons had nothing to do with the death of Seberg, but rather because he was out of ideas. His suicide note partially read: “Lovers of broken hearts are kindly asked to look elsewhere.” 

Tags: A Brief History Of... | Black Panthers | Breathless | FBI | French New Wave | Jean Seberg | Jean-Paul Belmondo

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Jacob Shelton

Writer

Jacob Shelton is a Los Angeles based writer. For some reason this was the most difficult thing he’s written all day, and here’s the kicker – his girlfriend wrote the funny part of that last sentence. As for the rest of the bio? That’s pure Jacob, baby. He’s obsessed with the ways in which singular, transgressive acts have shaped the broader strokes of history, and he believes in alternate dimensions, which means that he’s great at a dinner party. When he’s not writing about culture, pop or otherwise, he’s adding to his found photograph collection and eavesdropping on strangers in public.