By DANIEL P. FINNEY | Copyright The Des Moines Register
Feb. 27, 2020
Jean Seberg was an Iowa Cinderella story with a nightmare ending. She rose from theater productions at Marshalltown High School to international fame. She shared her fortune with social causes across the country, including in her home state.
But that generosity brought her into conflict with feared FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, whose smear campaign robbed Seberg of her happily ever after. Seberg died 40 years ago this year and would have celebrated her 81st birthday on Wednesday.
The second child of a Marshalltown pharmacist and a substitute teacher decided at 5 years old that she would become an actress. She starred in high school plays and performed in summer stock production.
In 1956, at 17, Seberg won a national contest to star as Joan of Arc in an Otto Preminger film, “Saint Joan.”
The film flopped. Critics savaged her acting.
“I have two memories of ‘Saint Joan,’ ” Seberg would say later. “The first was being burned at the stake in the picture. The second was being burned at the stake by the critics.”
She survived and even thrived, acting in 40 films between 1957 and 1976 alongside Hollywood all-stars including Clint Eastwood, Peter Sellers, Burt Lancaster, Kirk Douglas and Warren Beatty.
Her career blossomed in Europe after her collaboration with filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard for the cinephile favorite, “Breathless.”
Seberg grew up socially conscious. She sought to join the NAACP at age 14.
After achieving film success, she donated money throughout her career to aid the Meskwaki Settlement in Tama County. Seberg also bought a house for black students attending Iowa Valley Community College.
“That house was over on West Church Street, and that was not where black people went in Marshalltown back then,” Roger Maxwell, Seberg’s friend and a Marshalltown native, told the Register in 2011. “Black folks were down on North 11th Street. Marshalltown never forgave (Jean) for that house.”
But a donation to her friend Hakim Jamal’s Montessori school in the Compton neighborhood of Los Angeles put Seberg in the crosshairs of the FBI.
Jamal was a member of the Black Panther Party, a far-left group that fought conditions for African Americans in Oakland, California. The group was involved in both social outreach to the poor and under-served, and violent clashes with police.
Founder Huey Newton shot and killed Oakland Police Officer John Frey in a shootout with Frey and another officer in 1967.
Eldridge Cleaver led an ambush on Oakland police in 1968 that left two officers wounded, along with Cleaver and another member of the Black Panthers.
Seberg donated money to Jamal’s school breakfast program. It came to the attention of the FBI, whose agents kept files on celebrities and others who had ties to the Black Panthers.
FBI agents investigated Seberg. Hoover, who was later proven to have kept illegal files on thousands of private citizens never charged with a crime, found Seberg’s association with the Black Panthers so egregious that he wrote, “Jean Seberg … must be neutralized,” FBI records showed.
From 1956 to 1971, the FBI ran COINTELPRO, covert and sometimes illegal operations to discredit groups Hoover found objectionable. The operations targeted communist organizations, feminists, anti-Vietnam War activists, civil rights activists and others.
The FBI would later admit that agents followed Seberg and monitored her phone. The agency also planned to plant gossip with celebrity columnists claiming the child she was expecting with her second husband, Romain Gary, was actually fathered by a Black Panther member, a major scandal in the racial climate of the 1960s.
Publications worldwide, including the Register, picked up the story.
Seberg sued Newsweek and eventually received an out-of-court settlement. But the stress took its toll. The pregnancy had been difficult. She delivered the baby three months early. The girl, Nina, died a few days later.
An angry, heartbroken Seberg brought Nina back to Marshalltown to be buried in the family plot. She insisted on a public viewing through the glass casket lid. Thousands viewed the infant’s remains.
After losing the baby, Seberg’s mental health deteriorated. Gary, her second husband, said she tried to take her own life each year on the anniversary of Nina’s death.
On Aug. 20, 1979, Seberg disappeared. French police found her in the backseat of her car 11 days later in Paris. Authorities ruled the cause of death an overdose of barbiturates and alcohol from a “probable suicide.”
She was buried at Montparnasse Cemetery in Paris.
Seberg’s Iowa family held a private memorial at the Trinity Lutheran Church in Marshalltown.
The day after the service, the FBI revealed its role in the gossip about Seberg.
Hoover’s successor, William Webster, issued a statement: “The days when the FBI uses derogatory information to combat advocates of unpopular causes have long since passed. We are out of that business forever.”
The revelation and contrition came too late for Jean Seberg. Her parents, Ed and Dorothy Seberg, had flown an American flag outside their Marshalltown house every day.
After the FBI admitted its involvement in attempting to smear their daughter, her parents never flew the flag again.
Register Storyteller Daniel P. Finney grew up in Winterset and east Des Moines. He wrote his first story for the Register in 1993 at age 17. He has stacked paragraphs ever since. Reach him at 515-284-8144 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @newsmanone or Facebook at @danielpfinney.