Hollywood and the Star System in general represent a weird two-faced monster: from one side a dream factory able to look after the lives of those who invested on the industry; on the other a gear of a cruel system able to grind mercilessly all those who got stuck in it with no gentle way out.
From the 80’s, books like “Hollywood, Babilonia” by Kenneth Anger and “The Casting Couch” by Selwyn Ford have widely described the concept of destruction or self-destruction of the many stars of the showbiz. Even if we wanted to make a sum up article on the topic, it would result in a thick encyclopaedia-like volume, most likely. It is necessary then to select a few cases, maybe the ones which stand out, in order to give an insight of the phenomenon.
One of those is certainly the one about Jean Seberg
Jean Seberg is a strange celebrity. She played in several films as the main character and some successful ones too, but all of them had happened in a brief period at the beginning of her career.
She was someone who wanted to stand out from the others, instead of taking the safe route. Jean was of German and Scandinavian origin and could play the card of the breathtaking blondie such as Marilyn Monroe, Carroll Baker, Kim Novak or Virna Lisi, but she didn’t. Her trademark was her “pixie hairstyle”, a strong position against the cliché of long feminine hair. The only film where she has it long was “Lilith”, forgotten masterpiece of Robert Rossen, 1964, where two rising stars meet here, Warren Beatty and Peter Fonda. In this film the beauty of the actress is beyond real.
But this has maybe to do with the inexperience of the young actress at the time. Jean was born in Marshalltown, in Iowa, in a quiet middle class family of a chemist and a teacher with 4 children, on the 13th of November 1938. In 1955 she was discovered by the director Otto Preminger through a lottery: amongst 180,000 adolescents who had sent their picture for the casting of a new film about Joan of Arc. Joan got the role as the main character but, as she commented later, she was a disaster:
“The first was being burned at the stake in the picture. The second was being burned at the stake by the critics”
Despite the result though, Joan convinced Preminger to have what it took to be an actress for real. For this reason, with not little courage, Preminger used Jean as main character of his next film, “Bonjour Tristesse” even when Audrey Hepburn was suggested by the production.
This was one of the main success of the decade. The story had a huge resound; based on a novel written by Françoise Sagan, who had published it in his 19 years old in 1954 and that had gained a plaudit by the critics, the book was put on the index by the Vatican as well as had a planetary success. The story talks about a middle class family where there is a girl who does not know how to free herself from the subconscious Oedipal bond she has with her father, who raised her on his own after the death of her mother. For this reason she obstacles his relationship with the new partner of the father, charming and brilliant woman. The tension that the daughter creates blasts in an argument that pushes the woman to run away. During the escape she dies in a car accident, leaving father and daughter oppressed by the remorse.
The film is American, yet the success is mainly French and because of this, after another well received film titled “The Mouse that Roared” where her performance was shadowed by the volcanic presence of Peter Sellers, Jean was asked to work in France. Here the cinema was going through a period of radical renovation: a group of young dynamic guys coming from a magazine called “Cahiers du cinéma”, where they had vivisected the worldwide way of making films, had decided to move behind a camera and start giving life to those ideas they had about what modern cinema was supposed to be like. This way the “Nouvelle Vague” or “New Wave” begins; they suggest low- budget productions shot in daily settings rather than lavish environments; the actors look more like common people instead of unreachable stars; the plots resemble common situations that could take place in everyone’s life. The names which popped up in this context were the ones of Jean-Luc Godard, Claude Chabrol, Alain Resnais, François Truffaut and many others, all destined to leave a deep mark in the history of the Seventh Art.
Jean was hired for that one which became the Manifesto of the Nouvelle Vague, “Breathless” by Godard, from the 1960. It is the story of the odyssey of a young criminal, played by an extraordinary Jean-Paul Belmondo forced to escape from Marseille to Paris after the accidental killing of a cop. Beside him there is an American student, interpreted by Jean Seberg, who tries to convince him to turn himself in to the police while he would like to move to Italy. It would seem like a film noir but the vibe is light, almost frivolous, up until the conclusion, where he gets killed on the street by the police. The atmosphere is surreal though and it all comes across as a joke: the last picture shows Jean’s face, who has an air of who has no clue whatsoever on what’s going on.
Below: a scene from the film “Breathless” in the original language
A remake of the film with the same title was produced later on in 1983 directed by Jim McBride, with Richard Gere and Valérie Kaprisky.
Everyone prized the performance of Jean, Truffaut defined her as “the best actress in Europe”. Jean though made sure to specify that she did not feel represented whatsoever by her character, light-years far from herself as a person.
The actress remained in France especially because she fell in love with one of the many men that will scar her both positively and especially negatively. François Moreuil, a young lawyer with ambitions in the film industry. He engages her into his projects which turned out to be ruinous as well as he showed himself to be violent. During the production of “La récréation”, only film that they shot together, he treated her awfully, making fun of her in front of the troupe every day.
Luckily, what kept her busy were the American and French productions that she managed to be chosen for; “Lilith” is one of the most important one while the following ones became increasingly less memorable. In 1965 though, she had a discreet success with “Moment to Moment” a dramatic film with a noir side where she perform perfectly in the role of the femme fatale. In 1960, after 2 years of marriage she decided to divorce from the hysterical Moreuil, as a new, more important man has entered her life.
He was an ex aviator and diplomat, born in 1914 in Vilnius in Lithuania back then part of the Russian Empire. His name was Roman Kacew, but naturalized French with the name of Romain Gary. The man was a successful writer and he even won the prestigious national prize of the Goncourt in two ways: with his own name in 1956 and with the pseudonym of Émile Ajar in 1975. The identity of Émile remained secret up until Gary himself revealed it in a later message.
The age gap was 24 years but that didn’t scare them and the fact that Gary was already married did not represent any problem for the couple. The famous English intellectual Lesley Blanch, wife of Gary later defined Jean as superficial, stuck up and extremely ignorant; after all that was the comment of an ex wife abandoned. In the October 1962, as soon as Gary managed to get the papers for the divorce, the two got married; in the meantime in July 1962, the couple had a son, Alexandre Diego. For not making the situation worse, Gary and Jean hid the event to family and friends and the woman went to Barcelona to deliver the baby. As a veteran and ex diplomat, Gary had many influential acquaintances and he got to postpone the date of birth of the son to the 26th of October 1963.
The married life of Jean and Romain Gary was not unhappy, and even though she cheated on him and eventually left him, Gary remained always by her side up until the end
The two were connected by mutual views, especially ideological and political: they believed that the world needed to change, they were willing to support whoever claims to be a revolution bearer and they were committed firsthand to help out with public initiatives aiming at expanding social awareness of the causes they believed in.
It was the time of the Cold War, when the Western governments accepted democracy to some extent, but they didn’t think twice to began the police repression when things started to push a little too further. Beside this, each country had, with organizations and budget that eluded the governments control, Secret Services which knew everything and with the power of destroying careers in no time.
For her political commitment Jen started seeing herself as increasingly more alienated both from the Hollywood productions and the French ones. So she start accepting any sort of option like the Italian “White Horses of Summer” from the 1975, a “tearjerker movies” or “lacrima movies”; here Jean met the main actor Renato Cestiè, specialised in the role of child who died prematurely after being abused or neglected by his parents, typical plot of the time. The same happened in the US where in the 1970 Jean was chosen for a secondary role in another second-rate production, this time of the catastrophic kind named “Airport”. The film was defined by the same main actor Burt Lancaster as the “worst piece of junk ever made”. The same film was afterwards turned into a parody with the title “Airplane!” in 1980.
Her problems did not involve just her career though. After all amongst her and Gary, the economical situation was prosperous and they could very well enjoy their life between Greek and Spanish islands which they favoured. The main issue was that someone in Washington wanted Jean Seberg and Romain Gary to pay for their political engagement
and eventually they did pay for it
From 1956 to 1971, the United States Federal Bureau of Investigation FBI had started a program named Cointelpro (Counter Intelligence Program) where they were publishing fake dossiers with the intent of discrediting the inconvenient personalities. This program, from which we have very little information still today, used to resort to the infiltration of spies and agents provocateur inside organizations considered as subversive; this for example would include the feminist groups looking to recognise the rights for the black community. Beside this, the program did not dislike to collaborate with far-right criminal organizations, apart from the Ku Klux Klan, considered way too dangerous therefore kept under control.
In particular the Cointelpro persecuted the Black Panther movement, Afro-American organization which was trying to become political party in order to represent the minorities; they were putting in place initiatives to support the poorest sections for example by creating mobile hospitals or distributing food; the movement was accused to be funded by drugs trafficking and the racket of the business owners. It is not clear how true these accusations were but it is known that many of the funds available to the Black Panther was coming from donations of artists and intellectuals.
Jean Seberg and Romain Gary in this sense were amongst the most active ones. The FBI was already keeping an eye on Jean because she was engaged with many donations and public statements, with the support of many organizations of both Afro-Americans and Native Americans. For several years the actress underwent constant stalking from the agents provocateur: they were reaching her wherever she would move to, entering her house and intimidating her in any possible way, systematically intercepting her calls and mails while the police did not do anything after she pressed charges.
The top of the persecution was touched in 1970 when the popular magazine “Newsweek” saw a fake dossier containing obscene disclosures on the relationship which saw Jean connected to Raymond Hewitt, black teacher one of the leaders of the Black Panther. It was said that the child the actress was about to deliver was result of this relationship, that Raymond was her toyboy and that this was the true reason of her donations, while Gary was the happy unaware cuckold.
the scoop was published without anyone making sure to verify the content and truthfulness of it
For the anger, Jean had a severe crisis and went into premature labour. After a few hours of sorrow, the mother gave birth to a healthy girl but asphyxial and too small. Nina Hart Gary was only 1.8 kg (4 lb) and at the time the techniques to treat premature newborns were limited, so the girl survived only 3 days. Before burying the little Nina, Jean summoned a press conference showing the little lifeless light corpse of her daughter, giving proof that the “Newsweek” article was just a made up lie. Later on the magazine was convicted of defamation and had to refund Jean and Gary, even though the sum was way lower than what they had asked for.
A further detail was discovered later in the years. Although Gary had been called himself the father of the little girl, she was not his child. Between 1969 and 1970, Jean was in Mexico for one of her B-movies where she was still able to get a role in, a Western called “Macho Callahan”. On the set she met a student belonging to a revolutionary organization, Carlos Ornelas Navarra, who became her lover. Nina Hart had been conceived during that relationship. The episode marked the end of her marriage with Gary from whom she divorced soon. The couple however remained in good terms for the rest of their lives though.
In 1972, Jean got married with Dennis Berry, a young actor and film director-wannabe. The man was son of the film director John Berry that during the McCarthyism was forced to leave the US and go to France to continue to work. The love story between the two did not work, and one of the reasons was that Jean had started using psychiatric drugs after the loss of her daughter, in the attempt of fighting her depression.
At the beginning of 1979, a new man arrived, this time an Algerian adventurer, Ahmed Hasni, who convinced her to sell some properties in Paris to fund his own project of opening up a restaurant in Barcelona. The project though did not take off, she lost some good money and Hasni showed himself to be a violent and arrogant man, so she quickly come back to Paris.
Hasni though came back to her and somehow convinced her to take him back. It’s the summer of 1979 and Jean’s life was rapidly going downhill. The evening of the 30th of August the two went to the cinema and then they went back home but, the following day, she was not there. Hasni woke up and noticed her absence: he was a profiteer but he knew her and understood that something was not right, so he called the police. The investigation did not lead to anything up until the 8th of September, when someone had the idea of checking Jean’s car, the Renault, parked in front of another apartment of the actress in Paris. Jean was there, on the back seat, wrapped in a blanket in advanced state of decomposition. Next to her, apart from the water and the pills that caused the death, there was a message for her son Alexandre Diego where she wrote
“Forgive me, I can no longer live with my nerves”
She killed herself in that same night of the 30th of August with an overdose of barbiturates.
Hasni revealed that a few weeks earlier, Jean had tried to jump under a train. The ex husband Romain Gary openly accused the persecution made by the FBI which had caused her psychotic behaviour and mentioned other cases of attempted suicide all after the 1970.
The French film whose Jean was working at “Operation Leopard” was refilmed with Mimsy Farmer taking over her role.
On the 2nd of December 1980 in Paris, Romain Gary shot himself to his head. He left a message as well, explaining his artistic vein had run out and that his life had lost any meaning. He also explained that there was no correlation between his and Jean’s death, even though he missed her terribly.
The son of the couple, Alexandre Diego, today lives in Spain. There he manages a book shop and organizes cultural events, especially the ones dedicated to the personality and bibliography of his father.