Jean Seberg’s legacy soaring again at home

by Michael Swanger

While the legacies of legendary entertainment figures with Iowa roots such as John Wayne, Donna Reed and Johnny Carson are safely ensconced in our collective consciousness, history proves that there is room for Jean Seberg, too.

Seberg, a blonde-haired beauty from Marshalltown who starred in 37 Hollywood and French films such as “Saint Joan” (1957), “Bonjour Tristesse” (1958), “Breathless” (1960), “In the French Style” (1963), “Lilith” (1964), “Paint Your Wagon” (1969) and “Airport” (1970), was once considered to be Iowa’s answer to Grace Kelly and Ingrid Bergman.

As Iowa biographer Garry McGee wrote in his 2008 book, Jean Seberg – Breathless, the Iowa-born actress, activist and fashionista had it all: “Beauty, talent, wealth. At least, so it appeared … As an international film star and continental sophisticate, it was especially her beauty and charm that captivated men. For an entire generation of women, she was the epitome of freshness as the free-spirited American in Paris, and she made every young girl’s dream of fame seem possible.”

But a (not so) funny thing happened to Seberg on the way to fame, fortune and a European iconic status deserving of more recognition in the United States. Her personal life and professional career were each devastated by a ruthless, undercover smear campaign waged by J. Edgar Hoover and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). It was carried out by the mainstream American press (Newsweek, Los Angeles Times) as the government’s retaliation for her support of civil rights and activist groups during the 1960s.

In 1970, when she was seven months pregnant, Hoover issued instructions that Seberg be “neutralized”. The FBI leaked a fake letter to Hollywood gossip columnists that suggested that the father of the child was not Seberg’s husband, but instead a member of the Black Panther Party. The reaction traumatized Seberg so badly that she gave birth prematurely and her infant daughter died two days later.

Although she continued to work successfully in France, Seberg reportedly suffered from severe bouts of depression and was hospitalized several times. On September 8, 1979, some 11 days after being reported as missing, she was found dead of an apparent overdose of barbiturates and alcohol in the back seat of her Renault car in Paris. She was 40 years old.

A French coroner ruled it was a probable suicide after a brief suicide note addressed to her son (“Forgive me. I can no longer live with my nerves.”) was found in the car, but the circumstances and precise date of her death remain a mystery.