Remembering Jean Seberg: A Marshalltown Legend

Jean Seberg

Little is known about Jean Seberg, the Iowa native and notorious actress. Seberg was born in Marshalltown, Iowa on November 13, 1938. She would have been 77 years old today. The famous actress is best-known for her early career, which turned deadly when the FBI began tracking her involvement with the Black Panthers Militant Civil Rights Activists. Her life was much more than her downfall.

Seberg announced at an early age that she wanted to be an actress. Using her passion for good, she took active roles in community rights organizations, joining a local animal rights group and had the Des Moines NAACP by the age of 14.

Just days before her 18th birthday, Seberg was cast for her first role as Saint Joan, by director Otto Preminger. Even though the film didn’t do well in the box office, Columbia Pictures agreed to sign a contract with Seberg leading her to additional roles, including Patricia Franch in the 1960 hit “Breathless”.

By this time in Seberg’s life she had taken great interest in Black Panthers, a civil rights advocacy group noted for its militant behavior. Because of her donations to the organization, the Federal Bureau of Investigation began to track Seberg’s actions. They tapped her telephones and planted stories in the Los Angeles Times, causing her great heartache.

Seberg’s involvement with the advocacy organization wasn’t uncommon for the time. Other Holloywood stars, including Paul Newman and Elizabeth Taylor were also known to support the organization.

Not long after the FBI began following Seberg, she gave birth to a premature daughter who died only a few days after delivery. The baby’s funeral was held in Marshalltown. With the death of her daughter and the ongoing FBI investigation, Seberg’s life would never bet the same.

Seberg continued to appear in films, including the 1970 blockbuster “Airport.” Although she was a hit on the American big screen, Seberg choose to move to Europe to pursue a more peaceful life.

In 1979, Seberg’s life came to a tragic end when she was found dead in the backseat of her car in Paris. The official report said she died of an overdose and alcohol. Seberg was buried in Paris.

Only months after her death, the FBI admitted to defamation for articles published in the Los Angeles Times. The aftermath of her death led to a major investigation into the practices of the FBI that necessitated agency reform.

Learn more about Seberg’s life and work at the State Historical Museum of Iowa’s Hollywood in the Heartland Exhibit.

Throughout her life, Seberg remained one of Iowa’s most renowned actresses. Her story, though sad, remains a testament to the talent grown in the state. You learn more about Jean Seberg in the State Historical Museum of Iowa’s Hollywood in the Heartland Exhibit or by visiting Orpheum Theatre at Marshalltown Community College as they celebrate the life and work of Jean Seberg during this weekend’s Celebrating Jean Seberg Event and Exhibit opening.

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