Cheapened and neutralized: why the FBI destroyed actress Jean Seberg’s life

Dale Brumfield
Feb 21 · 11 min read
Actress Jean Seberg, late 1960s.

In 1956, the conspiracy-obsessed FBI director J. Edgar Hoover originated on his own, and with no higher authority, the first incarnation of a counterintelligence program called COINTELPRO, to “infiltrate, penetrate, disorganize and disrupt” the U.S. Communist Party following the fall of McCarthyism.

Hoover and fellow Bureau officials were convinced that existing laws were insufficient to control the activities of targeted dissident groups, and they were hamstrung by early 1960s-era Supreme Court decisions limiting the Justice Department’s ability to prosecute American Communists. Accordingly, Hoover directed COINTELPRO’s operations as a personal vendetta, using antagonistic and frequently patently illegal strategies to “contain and disrupt” radical activists he personally deemed threats to the American way of life. In essence, the Bureau simply took the law into its own hands, conducting a high-tech vigilante operation against who it perceived as “domestic enemies.”

These activist organizations included not just communists but the Socialist Workers Party from 1961–69, white hate groups from 1964–71, the Puerto Rican independence movement from 1967–71 and the New Left student movement starting in 1968.

Black Nationalist groups — especially the Black Panthers — found themselves in Hoover’s crosshairs starting in 1967. And this is the program where (white) actress Jean Seberg two years later found herself and her unborn baby ensnared and literally hounded to death.

The highly centralized FBI micromanaged COINTELPRO from its Washington headquarters through 59 field offices across the United States. Each field office’s “Special Agent in Charge” (SAC) was expected to compile a description of all existing targets and key activists in each COINTELPRO program, then submit recommendations for counterintelligence activity to Hoover, who either authorized or rejected them. Not one of Hoover’s “fawning parasite” SACs (as described by former agent Wesley Swearingen in his 1995 book “FBI Secrets”) dared make a move without prior Bureau approval.

Early Activism

A native of Marshalltown, Iowa, Jean Seberg was a fervent activist before she became a movie star. At the age of 14, she joined the NAACP and spoke out passionately for numerous other causes. She, as well as other higher-profile actors as Elizabeth Taylor and Marlon Brando, donated generously to numerous activist organizations, including the Black Panthers.

Seberg taking a break during filming “Saint Joan.”

The “schoolgirl from Marshalltown” gained everlasting Hollywood fame when she was chosen from among 18,000 contestants for the lead role in Otto Preminger’s 1957 film Saint Joan. The film was poorly received, however, and of the experience, Seberg wrote “I have two memories of Saint Joan. The first was being burned at the stake in the picture. The second was being burned at the stake by the critics. The latter hurt more. I was scared like a rabbit and it showed on the screen. It was not a good experience at all.” While her next film under Preminger, Bonjour Tristesse, was even more poorly received, her third film with Peter Sellers, The Mouse that Roared, followed by her role of Patricia Franchini in Jean-Luc Godard’s 1960 masterpiece Breathless finally established her as one of America’s premier new wave actresses.

The FBI Takes Notice

But it was Seberg’s personal activist life that attracted the attention of the FBI, especially when it was discovered by the Bureau in 1969 that the well-respected actress had donated about $10,500 to the Black Panther (BP) Party to expand their popular inner-city children’s breakfast program into other cities.

Since the Black Panthers were a prime target on the FBI’s most wanted list of extremist organizations, on June 5 of that year, permission was granted by Hoover to the Los Angeles field office to initiate an “active, discreet investigation” to determine the extent of involvement of Seberg’s associations with the Panthers. Thus the FBI initiated a concerted and secret campaign into her life by stalking her, tapping her phone and opening her mail.

On February 23, 1970, a Black Panther informant dubbed “source 3” reported that a Panther member told Seberg that they “were broke and needed money.” Seberg then responded with a check for $2,500. The file on Seberg also showed that the FBI funneled intel on her to the CIA, the FBI “legal attaches” at American embassies in Rome and Paris, to military intelligence units and to the Secret Service under the auspices of securing potential presidential security threats in the wake of the 1963 assassination of President John F. Kennedy.

Despite having her name removed as a potential threat to the president in 1969, on December 29, 1970, Seberg was reinstated to the list solely due to her monetary association with the Panthers.

The real shit on Seberg hit the fan eight months earlier on April 21, 1970, when she was called on a tapped phone by Elaine Brown, a top leader in the Panthers, and Seberg admitted to her and to Masai Hewitt, another Panther leader, that she was four months pregnant. She never mentioned in that call, however, that it was by her second husband, French diplomat Romain Gary.

FBI agent and virulent racist Richard Wallace Held, who was in charge of Black Panther Party surveillance for the Los Angeles field office, assumed from this monitored conversation that Seberg was made pregnant by Hewitt. Sensing a magnificent opportunity, Held realized that Seberg was now “ripe for neutralization.” He sent a memo to Hoover back in Washington, suggesting that he publicize the Seberg pregnancy and drop strong hints that Masai Hewitt was the father.

Hoover approved the planted rumor but suggested to protect the Bureau, Held hold off a few more months until her swelling stomach “was obvious to the public,” thus not giving away the Bureau’s wiretaps on her and on the Panther party.

The revelations about Seberg and the Panthers — even though made up — allegedly brought out the absolute worst among the notoriously racist L.A. field office staff. Wesley Swearingen reported in his book that another agent, Roth Tolz, said of Seberg and Hewitt “I wonder how she’d like to gobble my **** while I shove my .38 up that black bastard’s ass?”

In a more even-tempered but still vicious memo, an official with the FBI’s extremist program, G. C. Moore, wrote to Assistant Director Brennan characterizing Seberg as the “alleged promiscuous and sex-perverted white actress.”

On April 27, 1970, Held thought it was time to act, and sent a memo to Hoover finally requesting permission to falsely publicize Seberg’s pregnancy by Raymond Masai Hewitt. “It is felt that the possible publication of Seberg’s plight could cause her embarrassment and serve to cheapen her image with the general public,” he wrote in the request. Once Hoover approved, the LA field office sent anonymous letters to several Hollywood gossip columnists announcing the sleazy and untrue allegation.

The only newspaper editor who took the bait was Los Angeles Times Metropolitan Editor Bill Thomas, who said in 2009 that he received the false tip from an unknown reporter before passing it along to syndicated celebrity gossip columnist Joyce Haber.

The tip read “Informant sez [sic] actress Jean Seberg is four months pregnant by Ray Hewitt, known as ‘Masai,’ and identified as present Black Panther minister of information. Informant adds that she has sed [sic] she plans to have the baby.” Thomas added a note at the top that read “Joyce — I don’t know if you care, but this comes from a pretty good source.”

Thomas said in an April 2002 LA Times story titled “A Faulty Tip, a Ruined Life and Hindsight” that he remembered the reporter telling him on the phone that his source was the FBI. He then passed the note along, assuming that standard journalistic practice would prevail and that another set of eyes, perhaps Haber’s editor Jim Bellows, would verify the information before it was published.

“It was such a tiny blip,” Thomas recounted. “… all I was saying was what the reporter said … The way it was told to me by my sources was that the FBI actually believed she was pregnant by this Black Panther, so they believed that. I wasn’t in the business of killing off informative tips of any kind, and it was up to others to exercise judgment. I didn’t think about it for more than five minutes.”

Bellows recalled in the same 2002 story that Haber had already written the column on May 18 using Seberg’s name when he first saw the note, just prior to their 11:00 a.m. deadline. He claimed that an alarm went off as he read it. “I said to Joyce, ‘What the hell is that?’ I thought it was pretty strong. Like, ‘wow, where did that come from?’

Worried about a possible libel suit, Bellows told her to rewrite the piece without Seberg’s name. “I took it out because it made me nervous,” he said. Haber then re-wrote the article “blind,” meaning she used thinly-veiled aliases to shield herself and the newspaper from lawsuits, referring to Seberg as “Miss A.”

The article, appearing May 19, 1970 in over 100 newspapers and titled “Miss A Rates as Expectant Mother,” ended with the sentence “… And now, according to all those really ‘in’ international sources, Topic A is the baby Miss A is expecting, and its father. Papa’s said to be a rather prominent Black Panther.”

It was an explosive allegation, and Seberg and her husband were shattered by it, sending Seberg into a downward spiral of depression. Compounding the problem was Newsweek magazine, who picked up the concocted story and republished it two months later using Seberg’s real name.

As a result of the stress of the situation, Seberg went into premature labor and, on August 23, 1970, gave birth to a 4-lb baby girl, Nina Hart Gary, who died two days later. The funeral was held in her hometown of Marshalltown, and the casket was left open to prove to reporters that the little girl was white, disproving Haber’s and Newsweek’s stories.

The FBI shrugged.

Seberg visited her sister, Mary Ann Seberg, just after the baby’s funeral and Mary Ann reported that Jean was distraught, withdrawn and “in utter disbelief, too, that her life could be destroyed by something like this.”

While Seberg continued to act throughout the decade she never returned to Hollywood as her life began a long downward spiral. She had suspected for years that the FBI had been following her, tapping her phones and opening her mail and she feared it was still happening.

In the Fall of 1970, she and her then-former husband Romain Gary filed a defamation suit for $200,000 against Newsweek from their home in Paris. While the court ruled that the article in question was not a direct cause of the baby’s death, they still awarded a total of $20,000 to Seberg and Gary, which included $10,800 in civil damages and the order that Newsweek publish the court’s judgment in the magazine and in eight newspapers.

COINTELPRO Abruptly Ends

On March 8, 1971, while most of America was at home watching the “fight of the century” between Joe Frazier and Muhammed Ali, an anonymous group calling themselves the “Citizen’s Commission to Investigate the FBI” raided the bureau field office in Media, Pennsylvania, and carried away over one thousand memorandums and detailed descriptions of COINTELPRO’s wiretapping and infiltration activities. Over the course of several months, the group mailed the materials to newspapers all over America. As a result, all COINTELPRO programs, including Black Extremism, New Left, White Hate groups and others, were abruptly shut down by Hoover April 28, 1971.

Memo from Hoover ending COINTELPRO, 1971

Four years later, and after the 1975 publication of the Bureau’s inner workings by the Church Committee, U.S. Attorney General Edward Levi ordered the FBI to notify all victims of COINTELPRO and send those victims copies of the records collected against them.

When Seberg received the huge box of the records of the campaign to ruin her life, she broke down even worse, and started seeking treatment at various psychiatric institutions and through pharmaceuticals.

The End

In June of 1979, around the time of her fourth marriage to Ahmed Hasni, her condition deteriorated to where she attempted suicide by trying to throw herself in front of a Paris subway train. Then, around August 30, the 40-year-old actress left her apartment on Avenue de Longchamp, carrying only a blanket and a bottle of prescription barbiturates and got into her white Renault. Ten days later her decomposing body was found on the bank of the Seine not far from their apartment. A note to her son Diego was found, stating in part “Forgive me. I can no longer live with my nerves.” Speculation that other family members or friends were involved in her death remains unfounded.

After her death, her second husband Romain Gary called a press conference and directly blamed her death on the FBI harassment and the false story of her pregnancy that led to the premature death of their baby daughter. He also revealed that Seberg had attempted suicide almost every year on August 25 — the anniversary of the child’s death.

Jean Seberg is buried in the Montparnasse Cemetery in Paris.

The FBI never officially apologized to Seberg, her family or to any of the victims of their COINTELPRO program persecution. After Seberg’s death, all documents related to the program were declassified and made public, prompting then-Director William Webster to simply declare that such intimidation and harassment tactics were a thing of the past.

“We are out of that business forever,” he told the Washington Post in 1980.

Gossip columnist Joyce Haber died of liver and kidney failure in 1993 also refusing to apologize or even discuss the Seberg story, only saying that while she would never reveal the true source, it was not the FBI.

David Halberstam, author of a 1979 book about the Los Angeles Times, media and politics titled “The Powers that Be,” claimed that the Seberg/Haber/FBI story was not at all about gossip, but about questionable political reporting. “The Times did not set out to destroy [Seberg],” he said in 2001. “One powerful institution manipulated another. The result was the destruction of a fragile human being.”

See more at www.dalebrumfield.net.

###

Sources:

Bennet, Lorraine. “Actress Jean Seberg found dead in her Auto in Paris.” 9 Sept. 1979. Web https://latimesblogs.latimes.com/photos/uncategorized/2009/03/22/1979_0909_jean_seberg_2.jpg

Brumfield, Dale. (2015) Independent Press in DC and Virginia: an Underground History. Charlotte: History Press.

Federal Bureau of Investigation. Counterintelligence Program: Internal Security, Disruption of Black Extremist Groups. Washington, D.C. U.S. Government declassified memorandums. Washington, D.C.: FBI, 1969–1975.

Haber, Joyce. “Miss A Rates as Expectant Mother.” Los Angeles Times, 19 May 1970. N.p.

Jalon, Allan M. “A Faulty Tip, a Ruined Life and Hindsight.” Los Angeles Times, 14 Apr. 2002, http://latimesblogs.latimes.com/photos/uncategorized/2009/03/22/1970.

Ostrow, Ronald J. “FBI Probe of Actress Jean Seberg Found More Extensive than Reported.” Washington Post, 8 Jan. 1980, pp. 3–3.

Sweringen, W. (1995). FBI Secrets. Boston: South End Press.

Wire services. “FBI Admits Spreading Lies about Jean Seberg.” Los Angeles Times, 14 Sept. 1979, p. 1.

Lessons from History

Lessons from History is a platform for writers who share ideas and inspirational stories from world history. The objective is to promote history on Medium and demonstrate the value of historical writing.

Dale Brumfield

Written by

Anti-death penalty advocate, cultural archaeologist, “American Grotesk” historyteller and author of 10 books. More at www.dalebrumfield.net.

Lessons from History

Lessons from History is a platform for writers who share ideas and inspirational stories from world history. The objective is to promote history on Medium and demonstrate the value of historical writing.

Welcome to a place where words matter. On Medium, smart voices and original ideas take center stage - with no ads in sight. Watch
Follow all the topics you care about, and we’ll deliver the best stories for you to your homepage and inbox. Explore
Get unlimited access to the best stories on Medium — and support writers while you’re at it. Just $5/month. Upgrade