The scene was tragic.
A casket covered with lilies, daisies, and yellow roses. A stunned and muted crowd of hundreds gathered at Paris’s Montparnasse Cemetery, Friday, September 14, 1979.
The mourners were there to bid farewell to Jean Seberg, internationally renowned actress, activist, and reluctant celebrity. Among those present were her young son Diego and his father (Jean’s former husband), notable French author and diplomat Romain Gary.
Parisian police had declared her death a suicide, the result of alcohol and barbiturate poisoning. But the coroner was more cautious, at first issuing a report of “probable suicide” with “unresolved questions,” and then the following year filing charges for “persons unknown” who may have been involved in her death.
Tragedy had followed Jean’s brief life (and Jean and Romain’s brief years together).
Plucked out of Midwestern USA obscurity (and in competition with 18,000 other hopefuls), Jean was cast as Joan D’Arc for Otto Preminger’s 1956 big-budget screen adaptation, Saint Joan. It was not a happy debut. Critics savaged her performance as “lackluster,” and the film failed commercially.
But fast-forward a few years and fate had seemingly reversed. Resident in Paris and married to a French lawyer, Jean was cast by Jean-Luc Godard (a Preminger fan) in A Bout de Souffle (aka Breathless), a 1960 film that would define French New Wave cinema. The film was a resounding success, and Jean Seberg was declared “the best actress in Europe” (from no less an authority than François Truffaut), providing her with years of screen work on an appreciative continent.
Come 1964, and Jean returned to Hollywood to star in a string of films, including Lilith, musical Paint Your Wagon, and aviation/disaster potboiler Airport. During this period, Seberg became involved in a number of progressive political causes, donating time and money to civil rights and Native American groups. She displayed a particular affinity for the Black Panthers, donating large sums of money and becoming close friends with many in the group’s leadership.
Evidence exists that J. Edgar Hoover was personally aggrieved by Seberg fraternizing with the Black Panthers, as a blonde Aryan Hollywood icon, her “racial betrayal” was deemed acutely unacceptable.
It was this last relationship that particularly irked FBI director J. Edgar Hoover. Evidence exists that Hoover was personally aggrieved by Seberg fraternizing with the Black Panthers, as a blonde Aryan Hollywood icon, her “racial betrayal” was deemed acutely unacceptable. The Bureau began a smear campaign against Jean, with Hoover reporting directly to President Richard Nixon on the matter. According to declassified 1970 FBI memos (some reproduced here), it was decided to insinuate via “friendly contacts” in the press that the then-pregnant Seberg had not conceived with her husband (Romain Gary) but in fact been impregnated by a member of the Black Panther leadership (specifically Raymond Hewitt). The aim of the COINTELPRO operation was the “neutralization” of Seberg, and to “cause her embarrassment and serve to cheapen her image with the public.” COINTELPRO was a secret FBI program that ostensibly ran from 1956 to 1971, targeting “subversives” and “dissidents,” infiltrating and disrupting domestic and grass-roots political organizations.
Accordingly, the manufactured rumor appeared in gossip writer Joyce Haber’s August 21, 1970, column in the Los Angeles Times. The story was then syndicated into Newsweek and many other publications. Upon reading the report, Jean went into premature labor, and her daughter Nina was stillborn just two days later. Heavily traumatized, Jean held an open-casket funeral in her hometown (Marshalltown, Iowa) to disprove the slander. The baby was White and claimed by Romain as his. Gary and Seberg sued Newsweek for defamation, prevailed in a Paris court, winning damages and a belated retraction.
The FBI’s malicious behavior did not end there, however. Jean suffered years of politically motivated burglaries, wiretapping, stalking and (in what is surely an incredible example of malevolent institutional overreach) international surveillance from U.S. military intelligence, U.S. Secret Service, and CIA, among others. In 1980, the L.A. Times published transcripts of her wiretapped Swiss phone calls.
After her death, Romain Gary would reveal the extent of Jean’s trauma; she was left barely functional by the FBI’s assault, unable to work, and reportedly attempting suicide on every anniversary of her daughter Nina’s death. Numerous death threats led her to hire two bodyguards, and soon her mental health deteriorated rapidly. One source reports that Seberg claimed her refrigerator was spying on her and she would converse with it in the middle of the night.
In the tumult, Jean and Romain had separated, but Gary was still deeply concerned with Seberg’s plight. According to extent correspondence between the pair, the 1971 film Kill! is the direct result of Romain’s desperate desire to see Jean working and functional again. He felt a new project with an international social conscience and major stars might replenish Jean’s self esteem and career (rumors circulated that she was on an unofficial Hollywood blacklist). Romain’s repute as an oft-awarded novelist and Jean’s star power enabled Kill! to happen quickly; Romain penned the script and directed across the shoot’s exotic locales (including Yemen and Afghanistan).
The film paints a darkly political portrait of international drug commerce (directly implicating Western governments and intelligence agencies in the trade), opening with urban twelve-year-olds addicted to heroin and then following a bewildering web of intrigues and corruption. Reportedly, Romain (a well regarded French diplomat) took heroin and other drugs (under medical supervision) to better understand the topic. Perhaps ironically (given the film’s staunchly anti-drug position), Kill! features many bizarre and surreal sequences (Memphis Slim beats out heavy piano number at a naked prostitute market, for example), more at home in some proto–David Lynch landscape than your standard crime thriller.
Released at the same time as the gritty realism of The French Connection, Kill! was (to put it plainly) just too weird for mass acceptance. The film quickly vanished and is basically unavailable today.
Not only is the film an odd and undiscovered gem, but it features a superb and largely forgotten score—the extremely rare original 1972 General Music Italy LP being a very expensive and sought-after item today (if you can actually find one). The only copy of the LP I’ve ever actually seen (apart from the one in my collection) was at the old Intoxica store in London on Portobello Road for a few hundred pounds (and that was years ago).
It’s fair to say that the very height of the Italian screen-composing idiom is on display here. Umberto Pisano had a distinguished pedigree in Italian jazz and cinema, being at various times bassist in both Piero Umiliani’s and Armando Trovaioli’s bands. Also responsible for a handful of superlative and forgotten scores (masterpiece Interrabang being just one example), Pisano is ripe for reappraisal. His collaborator “Jacques Chaumont” is another matter altogether. In fact, so little is known about Chaumont that it is speculated that the name is actually a pseudonym (perhaps for Berto’s talented elder brother Franco), although the passing of the sands of time make it difficult to be definitive on the matter.
Not only does the legendary Edda Dell’Orso lend her velvety vocal chords to proceedings, but the strikingly powerful Doris Troy (perhaps best known for her contribution to Pink Floyd’s seminal Dark Side of the Moon) growls a particularly nasty theme song (with lyrics by director Romain Gary). Unreleased on the original LP are additional cues including Jean Seberg’s haunting vocalization of “Hiasmina” and an alternate take of the thunderous fuzz-guitar epic “Inchiesta.”
While I researched the film, its score, and their joint pedigree for an upcoming OST LP reissue, the harrowing story of Jean Seberg’s persecution was revealed piece by malevolent piece.
In many ways, the postscript to Kill! is a troubled one. Jean’s mysterious death in Paris in 1979 and Romain’s tortured suicide by gunshot to the head a year later (soon after the anniversary of Jean’s funeral) are moments etched in tragedy.
The circumstances of Jean’s death have never been satisfactorily explained. Romain declared on September 10 in an anguished press conference that he suspected foul play, and for the first time publicly, denounced the FBI for hounding them for years. Suspicions fell on twenty-nine-year-old Algerian actor Ahmed Hasni, who had become Jean’s consort just before her death. Parisian police admitted to searching for Hasni for almost a year with no result—he had disappeared completely after quickly selling Jean’s apartment, possessions, and diaries (he has never resurfaced). Those close to Jean disliked him and questioned his motives and links to drug trafficking.
Hasni had reported Jean missing ten days before her body was found. Judge Guy Joly noted that when found (oddly in her own unlocked car just around the corner from her apartment, yet unnoticed for over a week), Seberg’s naked corpse had an alcohol content twice the amount that would have rendered her comatose (opening the obvious questions of how she got to the car itself, let alone ingested significant quantities of barbiturates and drove in that state). In some ways, Hasni gives the appearance of being the classic intelligence operative—flamboyant with underworld links and an almost magical ability to disappear when necessary.
Tortured by Jean’s fate, Romain Gary kept her room in their 108 rue du Bac apartment untouched, Jean’s letters and clothes scattered across the floor as they were the day she left. Visitors tell of Romain’s rage at the years of clandestine FBI harassment, pounding the table expounding on Jean’s torment to any who would listen.
But no matter how grey the clouds, how long the night, the darkness can never fully extinguish the light of day. For the first time ever, the manic yet sublime score of Kill! is being reissued on a glorious vinyl LP. And just recently, after many reclusive years spent underground in Barcelona (after being orphaned, he was adopted and raised by the family of his former nanny Eugenie), Diego Gary surfaced to publish his acclaimed memoirs of those painful years and his survival of them.
September 8, 2014, marked the twenty-fifth anniversary of the discovery of Jean Seberg’s decomposing body (in her white Renault) on that lonely Parisian street. Beyond being a lucid history lesson, the tragic story of Jean Seberg, Romain Gary, and Kill! has clear relevance today. In a dark lineage passed down from the Gestapo, through the FBI, Stasi, and NSA, our unaccountable and rogue intelligence agencies and their operatives have a stark and pathological résumé of destroying lives. And, in an era where we know that surveillance, blackmail, and social engineering technologies (on a scale never before imagined) watch our every electronic gesture, surely the alarms of history must be ringing.
Dedicated to the memories of Jean Seberg (November 13, 1938 – August 30, 1979) and Romain Gary (May 21, 1914 – December 2, 1980).