Jean Seberg and the FBI
The October 21, 1956, airing of The Ed Sullivan Show introduced 17-year-old Jean Seberg to the world. The occasion? After a massive talent search, she had been chosen to play Joan of Arc in Otto Preminger’s marquee film Saint Joan. Fourteen years later a Hollywood gossip column ran a blind item smearing Seberg’s reputation. She never recovered. What dark grudge did the FBI and its megalomaniacal director, J. Edgar Hoover, hold against this pixie-haired star?
George Bernard Shaw’s antiwar writings hurt his reputation in England, and he attempted only one play during World War I. In 1923 he decided to mount his new one, Saint Joan, in New York. The Roman Catholic Church had canonized French medieval soldier Joan of Arc three years earlier, but the playwright wanted to present her as a fully realized character and reclaim the heroine from the “whitewash which disfigures her beyond recognition.” Two years after Saint Joan’s premiere, Shaw won the Nobel Prize in Literature.
Literary critic Richard Gilman called Shaw’s Joan “one of the great roles of the modern theater.” This may be because Shaw wrote the part with 40-year-old actor Sybil Thorndike in mind—even though Joan of Arc is a teenager in the play. But Otto Preminger ignored the theatrical tradition of casting a mature woman, recalling that Shaw once said Joan should be played by an unknown who was not much older than the 17-year-old village maid. Preminger wanted such a girl to play his Joan, and to find her he launched the biggest talent search since the one to cast Scarlett O’Hara in Gone With the Wind.
In the 1950s after leaving 20th Century Fox, Otto Preminger produced and directed three consecutive hits: Carmen Jones, The Man With the Golden Arm and The Court-Martial of Billy Mitchell. His next production—a movie version of George Bernard Shaw’s Saint Joan—did not extend the director’s winning streak, but not for lack of trying. With great fanfare Preminger had announced a worldwide talent search to find a silver-screen Joan of Arc. Among the 18,000 girls who applied was 17-year-old Jean Seberg of Marshalltown, Iowa. Displaying the temper that earned him the nickname Otto the Terrible, Preminger screamed at Seberg during her grueling screen test, “Don’t you have the guts to go on?” Seberg shot back, “I’ll rehearse until you drop dead.” She got the part. But Seberg possessed no training or experience. After whisking her to England to shoot his multimillion-dollar movie, Preminger realized his discovery was out of her depth. He famously yelled at his young protégée, “You are ruining my picture!” Saint Joan was a critical and financial failure, but Seberg emerged a star—so much so that Preminger cast her in his next film, 1958’s Bonjour Tristesse.
Jean Seberg’s second film, Bonjour Tristesse (1958), like her first, Saint Joan (1957), was a financial and critical failure in the United States. But its reception in France was quite different. Influential magazine Cahiers du Cinéma put Seberg on the cover and christened her “the new divine of the cinema.” Reviewing Bonjour Tristesse in Cahiers, François Truffaut wrote, “When Jean Seberg is on the screen, which is all the time, you can’t look at anything else.” Truffaut’s fellow critic-cum-director Jean-Luc Godard was also impressed by Seberg’s performance, especially, he wrote, “the potential for casual destruction that seemed to lurk behind her innocent features.” Godard wanted to pitch Seberg a movie idea—one that became A Bout de Souffle, better known as Breathless. Godard was so desperate for Seberg to star in Breathless, he offered her studio, Columbia Pictures, a choice of $12,000 or half the film’s global profits. Columbia took the $12,000. For Seberg the Breathless shoot was a “long, absolutely insane experience—no lights, no makeup, no sound! Only one good thing—it’s so un-Hollywood.” When she saw the Breathless rushes, Seberg thought the movie “bizarre and interesting” and wondered if it would even be released commercially.
Legendary New Yorker film critic Pauline Kael described Patricia, Jean Seberg’s character in Breathless, as “the most terrifyingly simple muse-goddess-bitch of modern movies.” Seberg was on the cover of film mag Cahiers du Cinéma a second time, and all over France young girls were asking their hairdressers for “la coupe Seberg,” the star’s signature pixie haircut. Breathless had everyone talking, including French writers Jean-Paul Sartre and Jean Cocteau, who both praised Godard’s stylish, moody and decidedly unconventional film.
Along with François Truffaut’s 400 Blows and Alain Resnais’s Hiroshima, Mon Amour, both released in 1959, Breathless brought worldwide attention to the Nouvelle Vague, or French New Wave filmmaking. When Samuel Fuller met Jean Luc-Godard, he playfully accused the French director of cinematic plagiarism. “Not plagiarism,” Godard responded, “Homage!” According to Godard, Fuller’s film Verboten!, about an American serviceman stationed in post-Nazi Germany, made him “want to stop writing about films and start making them.” Godard cast Fuller as himself in Pierrot le Fou, in which Jean-Paul Belmondo’s character asks Fuller about the film he’s making. Fuller takes a break from puffing on his cigar to reply, “A film is like a battleground. Love. Hate. Action. Violence. Death. In one word, emotions.”
Jean Seberg was nearly burned alive as the cameras rolled for Saint Joan. Two gas cylinders misfired and enveloped the star in flames while filming the scene in which Joan of Arc is burned at the stake. Director Otto Preminger watched in horror as his young discovery screamed, “I’m burning!” The crew quickly doused the flames and released the actor from her chains.
Seberg survived fire and Preminger, but she was not strong enough to survive a smear campaign orchestrated by J. Edgar Hoover. In 1968 Seberg donated $10,500 to the Black Panther Party’s Free Breakfast for School Children Program in Los Angeles; Hoover, who called the Black Panthers the “biggest threat to national security,” was so infuriated by Seberg’s association with the group that he wanted the actor “neutralized.” The FBI leaked a blind item to the Los Angeles Times that the baby Seberg was then carrying had been fathered by a Black Panther, not by her husband, author Romain Gary. Seberg miscarried shortly after the libel was published. She committed suicide in 1979, following a decade of perennial attempts. At a subsequent press conference, Gary waved her FBI file and declared, “Jean Seberg was destroyed by the FBI.”
Today J. Edgar Hoover is remembered for his mommy issues, alleged cross-dressing and murky sexuality. But as director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, Hoover was one of the most feared and despised men in the United States. Hoover’s power was based on knowledge, and that knowledge came from spying. It was rumored that Hoover had even bugged the conference room where the Supreme Court met to decide cases. Eventually, he was caught in his own web. “We want no Gestapo or secret police,” President Truman was quoted as saying. “FBI is tending in that direction.”
Hoover was fond of seeking out communist sympathizers in Hollywood. FBI informants condemned It’s a Wonderful Life for advancing a communist message by showing that people “who had money were mean and despicable characters.” Another film that irked Hoover was Samuel Fuller’s Pickup on South Street. A pickpocket, Skip McCoy (Richard Widmark), steals a wallet containing top-secret microfilm intended for communist agents. When the FBI appeals to Skip’s sense of patriotism, Skip shrugs and asks, “Are you waving the flag at me?” Hoover demanded director Fuller and studio head Darryl Zanuck cut the scene. “Mr. Hoover,” Zanuck replied, “you don’t know movies.”
Director Martin Scorsese wrote, “When you appreciate a [Samuel] Fuller film, what you’re responding to is cinema at its very essence.” Jim Jarmusch, Wim Wenders, Jean-Luc Godard and Quentin Tarantino are just a few of the directors influenced by Fuller’s bold, fluid style. In 1957 Fuller received a phone call from Romain Gary, the French consul general in Los Angeles. Gary hoped to convince Fuller to soften the prologue of that year’s China Gate, which was seen as anti-French. Fuller refused to alter his film but struck up a friendship with Gary, and in 1982 he directed an adaptation of Gary’s controversial novel White Dog for Paramount Pictures. Fuller thought the story of a white dog trained to attack black people “had the makings of a helluva movie.” But fearing an ugly controversy, executives at Paramount decided to shelve the film once it wrapped. Fuller was dumbfounded, writing, “It’s difficult to express the hurt of having a finished film locked away in a vault, never to be screened for an audience.” Fuller moved to Paris for a self-imposed 13-year exile from Hollywood. White Dog finally opened in 1991 at New York’s Film Forum, and today the film is widely available.
Romain Gary and his wife, Jean Seberg, were living in Los Angeles in 1968 when a stray dog came to their home along with one of their own dogs. Seberg and Gary adopted the interloping pooch, naming it Batka. But they soon discovered that their new pet was actually a former Alabama police dog trained to attack black people. Gary took the dog to a black trainer to be rehabilitated, but the trainer instead reprogrammed Batka to attack white people—Gary included.
White Dog was a best-seller and a critical success, and in October 1970 Life magazine published an excerpt, calling the book an “explosive treatment of one of the most explosive issues of our time.” One of France’s most popular and prolific writers, Gary authored more than 50 novels under four names, plus essays and memoirs. As a diplomat, Gary was secretary of the French delegation to the United Nations and consul general of France in Los Angeles. Despite his reputation as a war hero who had fought Hitler with the Free French Forces, self-doubt haunted Gary. “I am weak,” he said of himself. “I have no merit.”
By the 1970s Romain Gary wanted a new identity. “I was tired of being nothing but myself,” he wrote. Feeling “classified, catalogued, taken for granted” by the French critics and public, Gary created the pseudonym Émile Ajar. Between 1974 and 1979 he published four books under this name; one of them, The Life Before Us, won the Prix Goncourt, France’s top literary honor, in 1975. An author can win the Prix Goncourt only once, however, and Gary had already won in 1956 for The Roots of Heaven, so Gary convinced his nephew, Paul Paulowich, to play the part of Ajar at the award ceremony. The ruse worked.
On December 2, 1980, Gary shot himself in the head. In his suicide note, he left behind instructions for the publication of The Life and Death of Émile Ajar, his confession to the literary hoax. Gary wrote in the same suicide note that his death had “no connection with Jean Seberg. Lovers of broken hearts are kindly asked to look elsewhere.” But lovers of broken hearts could hardly be blamed: Fifteen months earlier, Gary’s ex-wife, 40-year-old Jean Seberg, had killed herself in Paris. Seberg’s nude body was found in her parked car.