Time Machine: Jean Seberg from Iowa found her home in Paris

This Gazette clipping from Nov. 9, 1956, shows Jean Seberg in Marshalltown after she had filmed #x201c;Saint Joan#x201d;
This Gazette clipping from Nov. 9, 1956, shows Jean Seberg in Marshalltown after she had filmed “Saint Joan” in England.

As a little girl, Jean Seberg of Marshalltown — who would become an international film star and die of a drug overdose in Paris at age 40 — spent hours in her room reading.

“She would get a special interest and read all there was on the subject,” her mother said. “She got interested in bullfighting and read everything she could find on the subject. Then she got interested in surgery and borrowed books on anatomy from our doctor and read that.”

She also absorbed as much information as she could find on theater. When she went to work as a teenager for famed Hollywood producer/director Otto Preminger, she impressed him so much he told her, “You’re not the pumpkin I expected!”

Born Nov. 13, 1938, to druggist Edward Seberg and his wife, Dorothy, Jean Dorothy Seberg was a popular student at Marshalltown High School, where she was a member of the Honor Society, Pep Club, Drama Society, Girls-Y and mixed chorus. She was the first teenage chairman of the Iowa March of Dimes campaign. .

Seberg tried out for the plays at Marshalltown High, landing the lead in “Sabrina Fair,” and starring as Emily in a multi-high school production of “Our Town” in Iowa City.

The summer after she graduated, she acted summer stock at Cape May, N.J., portraying Marge in “Picnic” before beginning classes at the University of Iowa in the fall. She pledged Kappa Alpha Theta, her older sister Mary Ann’s sorority, and planned to study dramatic arts.


Without Seberg’s knowledge, her high school drama teacher, Carol Houghton, entered her in an international contest to find an unknown actress to play the lead in Preminger’s film, “Saint Joan,” based on George Bernard Shaw’s play. The contest drew 18,000 responses. Of those, 1,200 were selected for auditions.

Seberg was surprised when a letter arrived from Preminger directing her to audition in Chicago.

Preminger was impressed with Seberg. He advised her to drop out of school and memorize “Saint Joan.” He told the Sebergs their daughter had talent, and he thought delaying her college education was justified.


“It was the toughest decision we’ve ever had to make,” Dorothy Seberg told The Gazette.

A few weeks later, Seberg flew to New York, where she and her parents were interviewed on “The Ed Sullivan Show” when it was announced Seberg would play Joan of Arc.

Her parents returned to Iowa while Seberg remained in New York to learn French for the French version of “Saint Joan.”

She turned 18 and left for London to begin shooting the movie with co-stars Richard Widmark, Richard Todd, Sir John Gielgud and Anton Walbrook.

During the scene where Joan of Arc is burned at the stake, the staged fire got out of control and burned Seberg’s hand and singed her hair.

When filming was done, Seberg spent a week in Paris. She had already signed to star in her second film, “Bonjour Tristesse,” and had dinner with the best-seller’s author, Francoise Sagan, before heading to Iowa March 26, 1957.

Iowa as home

Greeting her at the Des Moines airport were her parents, her sister, Mary Ann, 20, and her brothers Kurt, 14, and David, 7, and her grandmother, Frances Benson.

Sebring told a reporter she was unhappy with a story in McCall’s magazine that made her sound like she was making derogatory comments about her hometown.

“It’s home,” she said. “I wouldn’t say anything against it or the people there. The story has upset my parents and me, and I’m sorry about it. People there have encouraged me.”


Her schedule at home included meeting with family and friends, swimming at the Y pool (because Cecile in “Bonjour” swam), studying French and sleeping. She let her hair grow out of the severe Saint Joan cut.

Seberg attended the world premiere of “Saint Joan” in Paris on May 12 while rumors swirled that Preminger was romantically involved with his protégé. Seberg’s father went around Marshalltown, buying all the copies of the magazine reporting the rumor and burned them.


“Saint Joan” flopped, and the reviews were bad, even the one from The Gazette’s reviewer Nadine Subotnik, but Seberg was already moving on to her next film and into her new life in France.

She returned to Marshalltown to quietly wed French attorney Francois Moreuil in a quiet 1958 wedding at the Lutheran church where she had once taught Sunday school.

After “Bonjour” failed, Preminger sold Joan’s contract to Columbia. She and Moreuil divorced in 1960.

‘has-been’ revives

Labeled a Hollywood has-been at age 21, Seberg began rebuilding her career from France.

Beginning with “The Mouse That Roared,” she filmed the French-made “Breathless,” “Let No Man Write My Epitaph,” and another French film, “La Recreation.” directed by her ex-husband.

She secretly married French novelist and aviator Romain Gary in 1962. The couple had a son, Alexander Diego.

Seberg maintained her Iowa ties. She told a reporter in 1962 that she returned home to Marshalltown to visit every year, and high school friends often stopped to see her in Paris.

“My folks don’t worry as long as I’m happy and write home once a week, which I do, rain or shine,” she told an interviewer.

‘new wave’ FAVE

Seven years later, Parade magazine reported Seberg — petite and beautiful — was “sought after by every New Wave movie director in France.”


The article quoted Gary as saying Seberg “is absolutely fantastic. She reads omnivorously, everything — Tolstoy, Pushkin, Flaubert. And she retains what she reads. Education, culture — these are as necessary to her life as air.”

Seberg and Gary announced in September 1968 they were divorcing while Seberg was in Oregon filming “Paint Your Wagon” for Paramount.

The divorce was in process in 1970 when Seberg went into premature labor following a Newsweek magazine story that claimed the infant girl she was carrying was fathered by a leader of the Black Panthers, a radical group Seberg had supported in the 1960s. Seberg and Gary won a libel suit against the magazine. Seberg returned to Marshalltown on Sept. 18, 1970, to bury the baby.


It was reported that Seberg never recovered from her baby’s death. She underwent psychiatric treatment, writing a book, “Blue Jeans,” about the experience.

In 1973, Seberg was back in Marshalltown for Christmas with her third husband, American director Dennis Berry. They flew with Seberg’s parents to New York City for new year before returning to Paris.

In 1979, Seberg was reported missing after her last love interest, Algerian actor Ahmed Haani, said she had fled their Paris apartment in the middle of the night Aug. 30. Her body was found 10 days later, covered with a blanket in the back seat of her car near their apartment. Investigators said the car apparently had been moved after she had died.

Her death was ruled an apparent suicide when an autopsy showed she had died from a barbiturate overdose. She was buried in France.

Since 2011, Marshalltown has held an annual Jean Seberg Festival of the Arts, honoring its hometown movie star who was, perhaps, discovered too early.

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