The Adventure of Life
Jean Seberg was an American actress who became a big movie star in France on the strength of her performance in Jean Luc Godard’s Breathless. She made American films as well, most notably Otto Preminger’s St. Joan, Lilith with Warren Beatty, the ultimate ‘70s disaster movie, Airport, and Paint Your Wagon, a musical with Clint Eastwood and Lee Marvin. She made a total of thirty-seven films and died tragically at the age of forty.
Ms. Seberg grew up right in the heart of America’s Midwest in Marshalltown, Iowa. Marshalltown was a blue-collar town, with major employers being Pella Windows, Fisher Controls, and Swifts meat packing plant, now owned by Con Agra Foods. Known as the Pittsburgh of the Midwest, Marshalltown was a Norman Rockwell painting with rich black, fertile earth where people grew irises and rhubarb and corn in their home gardens.
While you wouldn’t call it the height of sophistication, Marshalltown was not so backward as to deserve a Hee-Haw Sa-lute, either. Stone’s Restaurant, Marshalltown’s fine dining establishment under the viaduct, garnered favorable review from Duncan Hines, no less.
Born during the Great Depression, Jean still had a comfortably middle class upbringing. Her father was a pharmacist and owned the local drugstore, Seberg Pharmacy. Her mother was a substitute teacher. They attended the local Lutheran Church.
Jean had a fairly normal childhood and adolescence. She babysat as a teenager. She dreamed of movie stardom and got fired from her own father’s drug store for hiding in cubbyholes with movie magazines when she should have been working. Her own mother acknowledged that she was a different sort of girl, growing up. She frequently sang songs she made up to herself while walking down the street.
When she graduated she was planning to attend a state college in Iowa. She never had a role on stage until the summer she graduated from high school, when she performed in a summer stock theater. What happened next was like a young girl’s fairy tale.
Her high school speech teacher took a film of Jean and sent it in to a national contest that was being sponsored by the director Otto Preminger to find his St. Joan. It was the most famous casting call since the search to find Scarlett O’Hara. And little Jean Seberg from Marshalltown, Iowa was plucked from obscurity to instant stardom.
Preminger, like Hitchcock, was known for having a thing for his leading ladies and for being a sadistic son of a bitch with his leading ladies. Jean was probably picked more for her beauty than any talent she displayed. She was a natural blonde of Swedish ancestry, petite with fine bone structure, a pale complexion, and an hourglass figure.
She did prove that she had considerable talent later in her career, but playing St. Joan was beyond her talents at the time. What comes across on screen is such a train wreck that you almost have to cover your eyes. Despite actually physically burning his starlet in the scene at the stake, Preminger can’t get a credible performance from her. But it’s not laughable in the way that a really bad movie can be made fun of on Mystery Science Theater.
Rather, Jean’s performance engenders sympathy, and you wonder what on earth inspired Preminger to throw such a young girl to the wolves in such a demanding role. You can still see the movie occasionally on broadcast television, late at night or in the wee hours of the morning on TBN.
Jean went on to do a second film with Preminger, Bonjour Tristesse. In this one she played a daughter who has a daddy crush on her widowed father, David Niven and consequently sabotages his relationship with a potential girlfriend played by Deborah Kerr. This movie was a much more pleasant experience for her, and although the reviews were still not favorable they weren’t as cruel as they had been for St. Joan.
Jean married for the first time to a French man named Francois Moreuil. She settled in France. She learned to speak the language fluently. This should have been a happy time for her. Her husband was much older than her and thought himself something of an intellectual, so she most likely got a better education out of her first marriage than she would have from a state college in Iowa. The marriage only lasted two years. She labeled it “abusive,” and said of the decision to marry him, “My first marriage was not happy. I married him because I was impressed that he knew which wines to order and how to leave his visiting card. Ridiculous reasons.”
She got her big career break in 1960 with the role of journalist Patricia opposite Jean-Paul Bemondo in the definitive film of the French New wave cinema, A bout de Souffle, otherwise known as Breathless in the States. For the rest of her career she would alternate between working in the United States and in smaller European films, but her greatest success was in France.
She divorced in 1960 and remarried in 1962 to another much older man, Romain Gary. He left his wife to marry her, and she was pregnant at the time. She gave birth to a son. They named him Alexandre Diego but called him Diego. Romain directed her in some films. He was a very talented writer but a horrible filmmaker. Mostly he exploited her in roles with a lot of nudity where she played sex addicts and whores. Jean is frequently lumped with Jane Fonda and Vanessa Redgrave because they were contemporaries who shared similar political views, and all three had husbands who enjoyed objectifying them on screen.
In 1969, Jean made Paint Your Wagon with Lee Marvin and Clint Eastwood. She had an affair with Clint Eastwood, and her husband famously challenged Eastwood to a duel. Romain and Jean separated.
It was during this time that Jean became pregnant with a baby girl. Jean, known for deep commitment to the cause of civil rights, had given over $10,000 to the Black Panthers. Undoubtedly, in her naivete, she had meant for the money to be used for the Black Panthers’ school lunch program, and not to fund a paramilitary organization. Her political stance and her generosity had her put on a list of subversives kept by J. Edgar Hoover and his FBI.
In an attempt to discredit and humiliate Jean, the FBI had an unfounded rumor published in an L.A. Times gossip column. The gossip column failed to mention her name, but it was clear who the actress was, and a legitimate news source repeated the lie and published it, this time with her name. The rumor was that Jean’s baby’s father was a prominent leader of The Black Panthers.
There is some question as to the father of the baby, but Romain Gary came forward and publicly claimed paternity and wrote scathing articles in the French press over the American press’s treatment of Jean. Subsequently, his wife gave birth, and the premature baby girl she carried died two days later on August 25, 1970. She was later buried in a glass coffin, as proof for the journalists and photographers that the baby was white. Nina was laid to rest in Riverside Cemetery in Marshalltown with Jean’s family members.
The tragedy led the already fragile Jean to a mental breakdown, not her first. She battled depression all her adult life. Each year, on the anniversary of Nina’s death she would attempt suicide until she was finally successful in 1979. At the time she was separated from her third husband and living with an opportunist named Ahmed Hasni who sold Jean’s belongings and drained her estate following her death.
She died from an overdose of alcohol and prescription barbituates. She was missing for ten days. When she was found, she was wedged between the drivers and back seats of her car, in a Paris alley, naked except for a blanket that she had covered herself with.
Today, Jean has been dead for over thirty years. Her father’s pharmacy is now a tattoo parlor. Stone’s Restaurant closed in 2008. What was once known as the Pittsburgh of the Midwest is now touted by the media as the Meth Capital of the Midwest.
Few people remember Jean, Marshalltown’s most famous citizen. A musical with score by Marvin Hamlisch opened in London and closed soon afterward. Mary Beth Hurt, another celebrated daughter of Marshalltown, played Jean in a 1995 docudrama titled From the Journals of Jean Seberg. Jodie Foster purchased the film rights to her life in 1991, and Kirsten Dunst has talked of her desire to play Jean in a movie, but to this date no one has satisfactorily told her story in the manner it deserves to be told.