The Making of a White Liberal: Part 2
Jean Seberg was born on November 13, 1938 in Marshalltown, Iowa. Her family was the descendant of Swedish immigrants whose original name was Carlson. The name was changed to Seberg because "there were already too many Carlsons in the New World."1 One of Jean's childhood friends remembered the Sebergs fondly. "I always had nice feelings about the Sebergs. Of All my friends' families, Jean's was the happy one. Ed Seberg was the traditional father figure, solid and dependable. Dorothy was usually bustling about the kitchen, baking bread and cookies."2 This was an ideal existence in a now vanished White America. It was different and isolated from most of the world.
The Seberg household was devoutly Lutheran, "attending church every Sunday, without fail; at home, grace preceded each meal."3 The children were often sent to Bible study camps during the summer. After being confirmed in the Lutheran church, Jean became a Sunday school teacher in 1952.4 5 Jean would spend the rest of her life doing good deeds and attempting to redeem herself in the eyes of those around her. Perhaps this was the natural conclusion of a small child being taught she was a born-sinner who could only be saved by divine intervention. In her adult life she had less correspondence with Lutheran church leaders and more with the local Rabbi, Sol Serber.
Jean spent her childhood often adopting small animals, helping the elderly, and even tutoring a fellow student who struggled with school. Childhood friend Lynda Haupert later said, "She always had something she was working toward not only to better herself, but society." But Jean did not limit her kindness to family and friends. Her sister Mary Ann recalled that on a bus trip to her Uncle's farm, Jean took pity on a man and gave him ten dollars - the only money she had.6
This often naive altruism was typical for a small Midwestern town. Jean's father, Ed, was the town pharmacist. It was not uncommon for him to work after-hours to help a customer. Once he opened the store late at night to get medicine for a woman's sick baby. Another time he personally took a prescription to an elderly man who had planned to walk to the pharmacy in the rain.7 Although Jean Seberg would later become a well-traveled celebrity, this small-town altruism would form a key part of her character.
The effect of popular culture also had a personal effect on Jean. She recalled reading a book when she was eight in which a black woman and her daughter were given strange looks while riding a bus. Jean later said, "I understood that racial prejudices existed ... I saw how far [blacks] were excluded, isolated from the others. I understood the problems of human relations which they had to confront every day and the objects of contempt they had become."8
Jean's experience with the local black population was limited, as they tended to live in a separate part of town and their behavior in public was restrained by an unstated code of racial conduct that was common to White America. Jean later told Cosmopolitan writer Joan Barthel, "There was a black athlete at our high school who fascinated me. There would always be after game parties at which he'd dance with the white girls. He could hold them as aggressively close as he wanted to, which he sometimes did with a vengeance. But when the dance was over, the iron curtain fell and that was it. One night he asked to walk a white girl home and he [was] beaten up."9
Although racial mixing was unofficially disallowed, the White townsfolk had no hatred of the black citizens. "One winter an abandoned black infant was found frozen in a snow drift. When doctors brought the baby back to life, the miraculous news merited headlines in the Times-Republican."10
At the age of fourteen she mailed an application for membership in the Des Moines chapter of the NAACP. Her father cautioned her by saying, "[people] will think you're a Communist." Jean replied that she didn't care what people say.11 The NAACP, for those unaware, was a Jewish-led organization that recieved high praise from the American Communist Party.12
Jean would later say of the incident, "I can think of a thousand reasons for my joining the NAACP that make me sound terrific, but the only valid reason I can think of is a kind of alienation. I was raised in a rather strict atmosphere, and I thought that other people who were alienated in other ways must feel much more deeply."13
This sense of alienation would be explained in more detail to reporter Helen Eustis in a piece for McCall's. "I've never felt as if I belonged here. I know my parents love me - I don't mean it that way and I know this is silly - but I always felt as if I didn't fit in. I'd look at all the people in this town who just get up in the morning and go to work and go home to bed and I'd think, if that's all there is to life, I don't want it."14
In high school Jean showed both her passion and also talent for acting. She was featured in numerous school plays and productions. Jean became good friends with Marshalltown teacher and theater actress Carol Hollingsworth. Jean was impressed by James Dean's performance in Rebel Without A Cause and dragged her teacher to the theater with her. When James Dean died she sent a letter of condolence to his aunt and $5 for flowers to be put on his grave. She received a note of thanks for her act of kindness.15
Immediately following her graduation from high school she was recommended by teacher Carol Hollingsworth and Bill Fisher, a wealthy local philanthropist, to audition for the role of Joan of Arc in the film Saint Joan. After several auditions in front of director Otto Preminger, Jean was chosen for the role. On her eighteenth birthday, Jean Seberg would be flying from small-town Iowa to New York, and then to London, the location of filming.16
Already in the early years of her life there were certain personality traits that are apparent. Jean was altruistic in her actions, alienated from her identity, and isolated from reality beyond small-town America. These factors would play a huge role in shaping her life.
Continue to Part Three.