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A Faulty Tip, a Ruined Life and Hindsight

A journalistic lapse allowed the FBI to smear actress Jean Seberg.

April 14, 2002|ALLAN M. JALON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

A new book and documentary about maverick editor Jim Bellows show how he featured celebrity gossip at newspapers he's run since the 1960s and later on TV. Neither, however, looks at what he calls "a big mistake" of his career, an episode in which derogatory information about a famous actress was publicized by the FBI, using a gossip column in the Los Angeles Times. But in recent interviews, Bellows for the first time detailed how the episode unfolded. Bellows was the associate editor for features at the Los Angeles Times between 1967 and 1975, and during those years, he edited the daily gossip column by Joyce Haber.

On May 19, 1970, the lead item in Haber's column was headlined "Miss A Rates as Expectant Mother." Its coy language made clear that "Miss A" was the pregnant actress Jean Seberg, who had won early fame in the title role of Otto Preminger's "Saint Joan" and went on to star in Jean-Luc Godard's "Breathless." And, the item said, she carried the baby of a Black Panther, not of her husband, French diplomat-novelist Romain Gary. The syndicated column appeared in about 100 papers around the country.

Seberg, like a number of other cultural figures of the time, had contributed money to the Panthers and believed the story attacked her for her political views. The complex, troubled actress took an overdose of sleeping pills several weeks after the story appeared, and, on Aug. 23 prematurely delivered a daughter who lived for two days. At the baby's funeral, a traumatized Seberg--she was 31 then--opened the casket to prove the baby was white, the stories lies.

FOR THE RECORD
Los Angeles Times Tuesday April 23, 2002 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 A2 Desk 1 inches; 24 words Type of Material: Correction
Columnist's death--An April 14 story in Southern California Living referred incorrectly to the year former Times gossip columnist Joyce Haber died. It was 1993, not 1983.

The column triggered the actress' downward spiral across a decade, her husband and others close to her said. For nine years, Seberg tried to take her life around the baby's birthday. On Sept. 8, 1979, her body was found naked in the back of a Renault parked on a Paris side street, the death credited to an overdose of barbiturates.

Six days later, the FBI, responding to Freedom of Information Act requests, and working to distance itself from Hoover-era practices, disclosed that it had fed information from a wiretap into Haber's column. Through that September, The Times published stories about Seberg's death and the FBI disclosure. None detailed exactly how the FBI's damaging material had made its way to Haber and into print.

Nor do the new Bellows book, which he wrote with Gerald Gardner, or the documentary, which was directed and produced by Steven Latham, a close friend of Bellows' wife, Keven. Over the course of several recent interviews, Bellows described how he dealt with a story whose publication has long haunted him.

In 1970, Bellows oversaw the section in which Haber's column ran. In mid-March of that year, a tip passed to Haber by Bill Thomas, who was the paper's metropolitan editor, sparked the Seberg item. Speaking separately, the two men--Bellows, 79, and Thomas, 77--searched their memories for details of the incident.

The note, which Bellows has kept for nearly 32 years, reads:

"Memo: "Informant sez actress Jean Seberg is four months pregnant by Ray Hewitt, known as 'Masai,' and identified as present Black Panther minister of information. Informant adds that she has sed she plans to have the baby."

Across the top, Thomas wrote: "Joyce--I don't know if you care, but this comes from a pretty good source." The note bears Thomas' signature. Thomas, who later became editor of The Times during a period of growth under former publisher Otis Chandler and guided the paper to several Pulitzer Prizes, retired in 1989 and lives in the San Fernando Valley. He said recently that he got the note, typed on a half piece of copy paper, from a reporter whose identity he said he can't recall. He said he "probably" put it in Haber's in-box.

Thomas said he remembers a phone call during which the reporter told him that his source was the FBI. He said he passed the note along, assuming that someone would verify the information before using it, which is standard journalistic practice. "It was such a tiny blip," Thomas said. "And it was Hollywoodland and filmland and the FBI screwing around ... all I was saying was what the reporter said," he said. "The way it was told to me by my sources was that the FBI actually believed she was pregnant by this Black Panther, so they believed that. I wasn't in the business of killing off informative tips of any kind, and it was up to others to exercise judgment. I didn't think about it for more than five minutes."

With the note delivered, one part of a wide-ranging FBI project to covertly suppress political expression moved forward. Bellows' book draws from other published sources to describe how J. Edgar Hoover's Counterintelligence Program, or Cointelpro, aimed dirty tricks at black liberation, black nationalist and antiwar groups, starting in 1968.

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