• U.S.

Nation: The FBI vs. Jean Seberg

4 minute read

Did a rumor planted by Hoover’s aides lead to her death?

Her casket was covered with yellow roses, lilies and daisies. Among the 200 mourners at Montparnasse Cemetery in Paris were her three ex-husbands. So ended last week the tragic story of Actress Jean Seberg, who was plucked out of obscurity as a 17-year-old Iowan to star in Otto Preminger’s 1957 movie Saint Joan, and who died at age 40 in the back seat of her car of an overdose of barbiturates. But even as she was buried, there unfolded in the U.S. an appalling account of how the FBI in 1970 tried to ruin her reputation with a planted rumor, setting in motion the series of emotional breakdowns that led to her suicide.

Seberg had angered the FBI’S autocratic director, J. Edgar Hoover, by helping raise money for the Black Panthers. According to documents that had been obtained three years ago by Seberg’s lawyers and were released publicly last week by the FBI, an unnamed agent in Los Angeles proposed to Hoover that the actress, who was several months pregnant, be discredited with a rumor that her baby’s father was a Black Panther leader. Said the agent in a memo, which was dated April 27,1970: “The possible publication of Seberg’s plight could cause her embarrassment and serve to cheapen her image with the general public.”

It was the era of FBI dirty tricks —agents had been trying to discredit Martin Luther King Jr. by recording hotel room sounds of his alleged extramarital activities and sending the tapes to his wife. Hoover readily approved the plot against Seberg. Ordered Washington headquarters in a memo: “Jean Seberg has been a financial supporter of the B.P.P. [Black Panther Party] and should be neutralized.” Headquarters had only one caveat: “It would be better to wait approximately two additional months until Seberg’s pregnancy would be obvious to everyone.”

For unexplained reasons, the Los Angeles agent did not wait that long. On May 19, 1970, Los Angeles Times Columnist Joyce Haber reported that an unnamed international movie star who supported the “black revolution” was “expecting.” She added: “Papa’s said to be a rather prominent Black Panther.” Other details in Haber’s column made it clear that she was referring to Seberg, who had moved to Paris in 1958 and become a star in French New Wave films such as Breathless after her amateurish performance in Saint Joan made her name a synonym for miscasting in the U.S. The report was picked up by Newsweek, a French publication, Minute, and American Weekly, a former Hearst newspaper supplement. Soon after reading the account, Seberg, who by then was seven months pregnant, went into labor and three days later gave birth to a dead baby, a white female.

The actress claimed afterward that the shock of reading the false stories had caused her premature labor and led to her baby’s death. At the urging of her husband at the time, French Author-Diplomat Romain Gary, she sued the three periodicals, winning a token out-of-court settlement and a public apology. Last week Gary insisted that the child had been his and that the false reports had made “Jean become psychotic. Every year on the anniversary of this stillbirth she has tried to take her own life.” He blamed the incident for her psychiatric treatment and, ultimately, her death.

Haber insisted last week that her source for the column was not the FBI but “a journalist” whom she would not name. Said Haber: “I am beginning to wonder who my best friends are. Obviously, if I knew then what I know now, I wouldn’t have printed the item. It’s absolutely shocking and appalling. I can now have no trust in anybody.”

FBI Director William H. Webster was also contrite. Said he: “The days when the FBI used derogatory information to combat advocates of unpopular causes have long since passed. We are out of that business forever.”

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com