Character assassination —
Jean Seberg and
information control

by Margia Kramer and Renee Shafrensky

from Jump Cut, no. 28, April 1983, pp. 68-71
copyright Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 1983, 2005

— the Editors

Jean Seberg (19384979) was a prominent entertainment figure here and in France who contributed money to the Black Panther Party in the late 1960s. The FBI targeted her as a "sex pervert" and a dissident and, through their counterintelligence program (COINTELPRO), they sought to "tarnish her image with the public." In May 1970, the Los Angeles FBI office was authorized to plant a false letter with a gossip columnist. The letter stated that Seberg (then pregnant) had confided to the letter writer that the father of her child was a member of the Black Panther Party. The "story" ran in the Los Angeles Times and later in Newsweek. Seberg saw the story, went into premature labor, and the baby died shortly after delivery.

According to her second husband, Seberg's paranoia, despair, and suicide followed her surveillance and victimization by the FBI. Seberg's tragic life included an unusual commercial and avant-garde film career from 1956 to 1979, in which she played a range of roles which reflected the socialization patterns of women during that time. Her personal and professional life tells an important story about relations between individuals, the mass media, government repression, civil liberties, and political dissent. Unlike other Hollywood suicides — notably Judy Garland and Marilyn Monroe — in Jean Seberg's private life, films, and political victimization, the personal really becomes the political.

One month after Seberg committed suicide in Paris, New York artist-activist Margia Kramer petitioned the FBI for the actress's files under the Freedom of Information Act. The result was a series of exhibitions, film screenings, books, and a videotape constituting an extended biography of Seberg called "Secret." Materials used in recent installations have included giant negative photostat blow-ups on transparent film of FBI documents on Seberg and the Black Panther Party. The videotape contains manipulated sequences of an ABC-TV documentary on Seberg and her harassment by the FBI. It also includes interviews with Seberg and her mother; a brief history of her life and film roles; and some sequences from the film BREATHLESS — such as Seberg's being followed/ chased by a man in dark glasses and, later, confessing to being pregnant.

In the following photo/text montage, JUMP CUT hopes to capture the essence of Margia Kramer's work on Jean Seberg and the issue of information control.

Jean Seberg, the FBI, and the Media
— Margia Kramer


If we start from the conception of the symbolic discourse and mental reflection in art, language, and experience as social and mediated, rather than individual, practices, then it follows that artists who do communicative work in society — alongside journalists — must be concerned with First Amendment issues, the Freedom of Information Act, and the government's circulation of information. Fundamental to expression is open access to past, present, and future information and our determination of its historical interpretation. This history reclamation project has been primarily a feminist, Third World, and left issue.


Soft- and hard-core secrecy and the withholding of information by government and business are weapons to manipulate communication and ways of preempting interpretation, meaning, and discourse. The trend in our country is toward information control — anticipatory, illegitimate classification of materials relating to health, safety, crime prevention, and everyday life, as well as "national-security" — stored in centralized, electronic data banks.


We live in a "junk food" information world, subsisting on a debased diet. The staggering amount of data we encounter tends to destroy and neutralize any sense of meaning. In the mass media, a hyperreal, staged and simulated content and form are broadcast, in which differences are homogenized to facilitate commodity production and consumption. This extinguishes any sense of reality, dominates the sphere of social communications and introduces a kind of "entropy of communications."


We live in a society where the culture industry subordinates culture to the demands of capital profits, masking the capitalist formation of political, social, and psychological functions. This commodification of culture degrades activity in the public sphere as culture no longer expresses human hope or the "unnatural" viewpoint but ratifies the alienation of individuals, the fetishism of consumer society, and the exploitation of labor for commodity production. Individual subjectivities are "collapsed" into the legitimated, ideosymbolic objects, images, and structures of multinational oligopolies, their interlocking directorates, and government.

A culture that belongs to us should be as diverse as ourselves and return to us the opportunity for reflection, leading to discourse about our real lives and condition.


The causes of the "collapse of meaning" in modern life are various: the lack of critical analysis in an atomized society with a homogenized culture; the social surveillance of meaning in the media by the government and by business, whose goal is to keep the mass audience in a state of continual "reception"; the industrialization and commodification of life; the control of information and desire by means of obfuscation; the expansion of technological domination within the "free market"; the gap between experience and communication.


U.S. society was founded on the ideals of individuality, personal liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, which took the form of wealth, personal advancement, and power. Ironically, since the eighteenth century, while the majority of the population has gained representation, enfranchisement, and apparent political freedom, it actually suffers decreasing liberty through ecological impoverishment, hazardous environments, routinized labor, subordination to technology, and socially induced, internalized mechanisms for individual self-control. The founding myth of universal, personal freedom is contradicted by the total precision, bureaucratic homogeneity, and inexorable rationality instrumental to progress, expansion, and domination.

In any society where the production and consumption of surplus commodities by individuals in isolation are the primary activities, the capacities for generating meaning and action atrophy. The public sphere is reduced to a system for the distribution of neutral opinions and contingent relationships. Excessive isolation of individuals, a by-product of the extreme individualism of capitalism, leads to a gap between experience and communication, which divorces people from communal life. This encoded alienation works against linking cultural production to social and political production. Hence, the opposition of activist art to the pernicious and egregious aspects of unmodified individualism, as commodified in stardom.


As non-instrumental controllers of the production, distribution, and interpretation of culture, artists constitute one of many minority groups within society. However, artists are potentially more powerful than other groups or individuals because their materials are consciousness and communication. Artists gain immeasurably by organizing and collaborating, enabling us to initiate actions by developing an advocacy culture, rather than by responding as adversaries to existing programs. The mass media tailor stories and information to fit the context and format of the media "sandwich." That is, news/ entertainment/ advertising (which, ironically, often remains our source for "true" information). Reversing this, artists can create new contexts for information. They can confront the "collapse of meaning" by forming epistemologies, rather than by following given structures of knowledge and meaning.


The message of the Jean Seberg story is multileveled. The government entered her private life, rescinding her civil liberties justification. In a deliberate way, the FBI overlay one false image of Jean Seberg, that of a dangerous and immoral revolutionary, upon the star image manufactured by Hollywood. Hollywood’s image was that of the provocative virgin whose sexual daring and social nonconformity has tragic consequences. Only by understanding and unmasking these codes of contradictory meaning can the artist effectively demystify, derail, and combat the hegemonic social and political manipulation of information and culture. Artistic expression opposing repression and "collapse of-meaning" is severely hampered by visible and invisible obstructions to information access, interpretation, and circulation. The circulation of information and the circulation of resistance, dissent, and opposition are all imperiled by current trends toward secrecy classification in the name of "national security."


From 1956 to 1971 the FBI carried on an aggressive secret war against American citizens in the name of "national interest," often without the knowledge of Presidents or Attorneys General. The extent of this illegal and covert defamation of information and of civil liberties was largely revealed by documents, such as the Jean Seberg file, made available through the Freedom of Information Act. But this has done little to curtail the proliferation of such activities. Currently, the Reagan administration is attempting to construct a secret government in thrall to monopoly business; to curtail once again civil liberties and the "public interest" in the name of "national security." Recently, three new Executive Orders have been signed on intelligence operations and classification. Systematic attacks on the freedom of Information Act, the passage of the Intelligence Agents' Identities Protection Act, which prohibits citizens from publicly disclosing already declassified information, and the formation of the Subcommittee on Security and Terrorism in the Senate (along with the proposed House Internal Security Committee), all contribute to forming a legitimate base for the type of illegalities exposed in the aftermath of the Vietnam War and Watergate.


Modernism, as it emerged in the early nineteenth century, was partly a reaction against the tyranny of closed systems, specifically in the form of political oppression. But its early naturalism and the notion that art is the only revolutionary force to change life and to liberate fully an inherently aesthetic world of the future were transformed by its later subjectivism. Modernism itself became authoritarian with an overriding faith in individual genius and universal truth.

Since 1968, however, it has become possible to perceive and continue a different direction based on the works of Walter Benjamin, Bertolt Brecht, the Russian avant-garde, the documentary movement, and the feminist movement. They demonstrate the need to work collectively and collaboratively in order to promote a symbolic discourse, among specific audiences, which clarifies moral and ethical views. In order to develop the critical faculties of these audiences, and to raise the individual's critical consciousness of everyday life, artists/ communicators in postmodern society must mix models from high culture and mass culture, reflecting images, forming strategies, and mapping routes from the materials and technologies of contemporary life. By developing art languages which delineate and encompass contemporary contradictions, we attempt to examine our shared political, social, and psychological environment. We do this so that reflection can lead to real participation in the self-government of pleasure and desire, so that public and private spheres can interface in real consensus.


The physical setting of the documents in the installation is like dirty laundry in closets. They have the sense of an autopsy — black and red. And they're physically imposing and oppressive, so you have to squeeze around them in the small room. You can see through the words of one document to another, to the video screens, and hide and spy on people around you. The filmy, black screens of negative film which hang from the ceiling are like huge carbon papers sprung out of dossiers and drawers into the open. They are shiny and reflect the video monitors and people like fun house mirrors, swaying when you rub against them. They act as metaphors for the interlocking layers of fictions, slanders and propaganda; for the orders of meaning and the meaninglessness of contradictory information conveyed in conflicting, overlapping structures in society.


The FBI was very cooperative in this case. I asked for the information in October and got about 300 documents by December — with massive deletions. I sent the documents out to four experts on FBI material. They would send them back to me and I would reproduce their marginal comments exactly the way they arranged them. It's real notation, not something I made up. The black bars over the deleted words convey their meaning almost subliminally. You don't have to be able to read them. They act as a barrier between you and information. They released information to show that Jean Seberg was really in the wrong, that the father was black and therefore she was bad. But what the information really does is indict the FBI for meddling in her affairs. For example, they taped phone calls which they had no business taping in the first place and named her a ‘sex pervert.’ She gave a total of $10,000 to the Black Panther Party. The rest of her involvement is unclear. There are telephone transcripts in which she says she is doing some kind of translation work in Europe. The CIA obviously thought she was doing a lot of things in Europe because they put her on the Security Index and monitored her movements. But whatever she was doing has remained completely unknown, it's. never been let out. If it's in any of the documents it's been so deleted I can't find it.


Every time I see BREATHLESS it deconstructs more and more. I keep seeing parallels to her life and her political involvement, paranoia and persecution.

The character of Joan of Arc extends the taxonomy of female types of the Eisenhower years, from wife, mother and muse, to upstart and firebrand: the self-defined woman who threatens established social conventions by mixing masculine and feminine characteristics. This shift away from the fifties atmosphere of peacetime affluence and quiescent gender roles, during the Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon years, fixed Jean Seberg's mass culture archetype. Female daring and virginal innocence counterpointed and predicted the real events in which she participated: the civil rights and anti-war movements. Jean Seberg's subject/ideology connotes outsider female victim at the same time that it denotes insider stardom. Constructed in contradictions, negations and pseudo-events, her life and death are like one of the many unresolved detective stories in which she starred.

Jean Seberg: an American dream?
— Renee Shafrensky

[Renee Shafrensky is a film critic for The Villager and The New York Rocker and a free-lance producer. She is also the former director of the Collective for Living Cinema in NYC.]

The book jacket of Played Out, David Richards's new book on the life of Jean Seberg, describes her as "a Cinderella who didn't fit the shoe in a kingdom of suspect princes." Like Cinderella, Seberg was the stuff of fairytales, but the end to her story was tragic. She was found dead in September 1979 at the age of 40, parked in her Renault in a wealthy section of Paris with massive amounts of alcohol and barbiturates in her bloodstream.

Seberg joined a long list of "burned out" female stars who've suffered slow victimization, emotional exhaustion, and eventual nervous collapse.

We've seen it before in the life stories of Marilyn Monroe and Judy Garland. The "American Dream" gone sour again, played out — or was it snuffed out? (At first they called it suicide, but now they are wondering …) What went on behind the screen to make this life so short? Harassment, overt and covert.

Seberg was married three times and each of her husbands became her director. The FBI wiretapped conversations of her personal affairs with members of the Black Panther Party. They went so far as to plant a story in the press citing the father of her second child as a black activist. She was often betrayed and spied upon by men.

Just as Garland came to represent the image of the forties and Monroe the fifties, Seberg was a sixties myth. Her life embodied the contradictions of that time.

First, there's her hair — a sexy, androgynous boy-cut highlighting cheekbones and framing her heart-shaped face in soft blonde — indicative of the sexual ambiguity of the sixties.

Next, picture the opening sequence of Godard's BREATHLESS (1959) with Seberg as an "innocent" flirting with danger, adventure, and death. Hawking the Herald Tribune in a T-shirt on the boulevards, she is the quintessential "American in Paris," an early American flower child.

The real story of Seberg's life starts in Marshalltown, Iowa, population 19,000, where her father was a pharmacist. After some acting in high school, she went off to do summer stock on the Cape, then fell into the hands of Otto Preminger.

As part of a huge publicity stunt to gain attention for his version of Shaw's SAINT JOAN, Preminger conducted a nationwide talent hunt for a young unknown to play Joan. Seberg found herself on the Ed Sullivan show, introduced as the girl who got the part. Beginning with SAINT JOAN, Seberg made more than thirty-even films between 1957 and 1976. Despite bad reviews, she continued working with Preminger and starred with Deborah Kerr and David Niven in BONJOUR TRISTESSE (1957). Based on a novel by Francoise Sagan and filmed on the French Riviera, BONJOUR TRISTESSE began Seberg's mythic persona in France. She played the part of the nihilistic daughter of a wealthy American playboy, the first of many roles that would capitalize on her as a "free spirit." While filming, she met her first husband, Francois Moreuil.

Moreuil introduced Seberg to Jean-Luc Godard, and BREATHLESS followed. It was Godard's first feature film — Seberg often chose to work with unknown directors. Cast as a Bohemian expatriate, opposite the magnetic Jean-Paul Belmondo, Seberg's mythic proportions began to fall into place. As Mel Gussow of the Times put it, "She became a symbol to the young American women who dreamed about going to Paris to become Jean Seberg."

After Moreuil directed her in PLAYTIME (1962), their marriage ended. Romain Gary, a noted French novelist and diplomat, became her second husband in 1963. Seberg continued her career, developing her skills as an actress in Robert Rossen's LILITH (1964), with Warren Beatty and Peter Fonda. She gave what was generally considered as her best performance as the self-possessed Lilith Arthur, a sensitive, borderline psychotic whose pursuit of love (read: sexuality) is limitless and dangerous. Seberg was frequently cast as a woman run by her emotions. In Mervyn LeRoy's MOMENT TO MOMENT, made the following year, she's a lonely woman on the French Riviera who accidentally shoots her lover in a quarrel and pays a heavy psychological price for it.

In 1968, at the height of the cultural upheaval in the United States, Seberg returned to Hollywood. There, like many other liberal celebrities of the time, she became involved with social issues and radical activists. But unlike most of them, she became involved on a deep emotional level, which led to an affair with Hakim Jamal, a militant follower of Malcolm X.

In the same year, Gary directed her in BIRDS OF PERU, a film he also wrote and produced. It was typical of sixties art films on sexual obsession. Seberg portrayed a nymphomaniac tortured by her sado-masochistic husband. This was the first film to receive an “X” rating under the new Motion Picture Association of America code.

From that point on, Seberg's life was what Dennis Berry, her last husband, called "an objective paranoia": full of harassment, unsuccessful films, and affairs. In 1969, the FBI ordered an "active discreet investigation to be instituted on the American actress Jean Seberg who is providing funds and assistance to black extremists including leaders in the Black Panther Party."

In 1974, Seberg managed to complete a short called BALLAD OF A KID, directed, written by, and starring herself. It was about the meeting of two myths: the movie queen and the outlaw. There are obvious parallels between the film and her life.

Seberg blamed the premature birth and subsequent death of her second child on the FBI story. Her husband Gary stated, "Jean became psychotic after that," and he believed that the FBI rumors had driven her to suicide.

By the time of her death, Seberg was no longer the corn-belt innocent Preminger had encountered. She was a victim of a rightwing, moralistic government, her public's need for mythology, and her own emotional instability. Maybe this was the payoff for going to France as a "free spirit" and giving up on the American Dream.

Excerpt from a gossip column in the Los Angeles Times.

Let us call her Miss A, because she's the current "A” topic of chatter among the “ins” of international show business circles. She is beautiful and she is blonde.

Miss A came to Hollywood some years ago with the tantalizing flavor of a basket of fresh picked berries. The critics picked at her acting debut, and in time, a handsome European picked her for his wife. After they married, Miss A lived in semi-retirement from the U.S. movie scene. But recently she burst forth as the star of a multi-million dollar musical.

Meanwhile, the outgoing Miss A was pursuing a number of free-spirited causes, among them the black revolution. She lived what she believed which raised a few Establishment eyebrows. Not because her escorts were often blacks, but because they were black nationalists.

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."

— Margia Kramer

You see her reconstructed through the FBI, through the media, through her film roles, through gossip columns, through her own sentimental recollections about her hometown. All these reconstructions stand along side each other and contradict each other. She's lost behind all that.

I had been in Czechoslovakia, Romania and Yugoslavia. I had experienced things in Eastern Europe which I had read about but had never actually concretely experienced: surveillance, the bugging of my room and telephone, being followed. I felt very "surveilled." and I felt very much the political presence of repressive elements. I decided that when I returned to the United States, I would do work that really pushed the limits of freedom — so that I would experience how free I was and other people too. I returned to Paris, which was my first step into the "free world" in about five months. Jean Seberg died a couple of days after I arrived in Paris. Her death was really a shock to me. She was everybody's dream girl.

The mass media reports stories to fit a prevailing format. Reversing this, the artist creates the context to suit the story. An activist artist's task is to produce and reproduce critical consciousness in everyday life. It's a critical way of dealing with information around you. If your goal is revolutionary change and if you unmask it, you can be a more conscious, reflective, responsible person in the process of your political and social actions. If you realize the degree of repression and hegemony in terms of censorship of information — this is what the piece is really about. We think we're free and we live in a free, democratic society. Yet we have to be aware of the limits that are imposed on us as citizens. Looking at her films and her career makes us aware how this affects all of us.