8 American Women Who Moved to Paris– & Made History

Last Updated on October 17, 2023

Josephine Baker, one of several American women who moved to Paris and became legends.

Many people interested in American contributions to Parisian art or literary history beeline to the Hemingway Bar at the Ritz, but couldn’t tell you where Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas lived, nor who Sylvia Beach is. They may know that Stein and Beach both featured in Ernest Hemingway’s 1964 Parisian memoir A Moveable Feast, but can tell you little else about their life and work, outside the latter’s decidedly limited perspectives. By focusing on prominent women and their brilliant Parisian legacies, this piece serves as a (modest) corrective to the typical “expat history” fare that you’ll find in most guidebooks. Keep reading for notes on 8 remarkable American women who moved to Paris, built new lives in the capital– then made history.

Gertrude Stein

Gertrude Stein by Alvin Langdon Coburn
Gertrude Stein in 1913, by Alvin Langdon Coburn/Public domain

Arguably the leading member of the so-called “Lost Generation” of American artists and writers who moved to Paris during the early 20th century, Gertrude Stein has a literary and cultural legacy far too complex to do justice to in a short piece. Still, I’ll attempt to briefly outline why she looms so large, not only as a notable American in Paris before World War II, but as one of the early 20th-century’s most influential writers and intellectuals, writ large.

Born in Allegheny County, Pennsylvania in 1874, Stein was part of a well-to-do family. The Steins moved to Vienna and then to Paris for business pursuits when Gertrude was only a young child, exposing her to French and German from an early age. The family later settled for several years in Oakland, California.

Stein’s parents both died before she reached adulthood, at which point her brother, Michael, became her guardian, moving the family to Baltimore. A brilliant student, Gertrude first attended Radcliffe College (an offshoot of Harvard) before enrolling in medical school at Johns Hopkins; while a promising student, she lost interest by the fourth year.

In 1902, her brother Leo moved to London in hopes of becoming an artist, and Gertrude went with him. They moved to Paris the following year– and the rest is history.

Gertrude Stein in her Paris studio, with a portrait of her by Pablo Picasso, and other modern art paintings hanging on the wall (before 1910). Public domain
Stein in her Paris studio, with a portrait of her by Pablo Picasso, and other modern art paintings hanging on the wall (before 1910). Public domain

Stein arrived in Paris as the city’s 20th-century avant-garde was fomenting, and she quickly immersed herself in circles of leading artists, poets and novelists. She and her brother bought and took up residence in a studio at 27, rue de Fleurus, in close reach of the Jardin de Luxembourg.

There, they began collecting artworks from the likes of Matisse, Picasso, Juan Gris, Paul Cézanne, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, and many others.

Gertrude Stein in New York/Carl Van Vechten - Van Vechten Collection at Library of Congress
Gertrude Stein in New York/Carl Van Vechten – Van Vechten Collection at Library of Congress

By 1914, Leo had moved out, and Stein continued living at 27, rue de Fleurus with her lifetime partner, San Francisco-born Alice B. Toklas. The two met in 1907, a day after Toklas had arrived in Paris, and together formed one of the 20th century’s most important salons from their living room.

The “dream team” of regular visitors to Rue de Fleurus included Henri Matisse, Pablo Picasso, Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, the painters Francis Picabia and Marie Laurencin, Ezra Pound, Sinclair Lewis, and French poet Guillaume Apollinaire.

Pablo Picasso, Portrait of Gertrude Stein, 1906, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.
Pablo Picasso, Portrait of Gertrude Stein, 1906, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Saturday evenings were generally designated as the day to gather at the salon, which reportedly allowed Stein to focus on her own literary efforts on other days.

Stein apparently credited Matisse for coming up with the idea for Saturday gatherings, and he brought along many friends and fellow artists.

As several historians have noted, Alice B. Toklas was the de facto host on most occasions, though her role in the salon and the intellectual movements that came out of it is often understated.

Stein (left) and Toklas, date unknown. Public domain
Stein (left) and Toklas, date unknown. Public domain

Of course, while many focus on Stein’s role as a salon host and patron to artists and writers who would later become famous, she’s a literary heavyweight in her own right. From around 1909 and the publication of Three Lives, consisting of three interconnected stories , she began writing novels, plays, poems, and other works, drawing attention from critics and intellectuals interested in avant-garde literary experiments.

Her experiments with “automatic writing” and poetic, sprawling novels in prose didn’t earn her widespread readership or acclaim, but continue to be seen as important contributions to modernist literature. Some even argue that James Joyce’s Ulysses (1922– see more below in relation to Sylvia Beach) was likely influenced by Stein’s own experiments.

Irrespective of her influence (or not) on Joyce, Stein’s challenging, often witty and effeverscent prose deserves much closer attention. Works such as The Making of Americans (1925) are often written off as incomprehensible and boring– but Ulysses, read widely and considered a masterpiece, is no less “difficult”, mind-bending, and, often, maddeningly repetitive and numbing than Stein’s novel.

In short, there’s an odd resistance to taking Stein’s work seriously that can’t be explained away by its challenging qualities. I (and other critics) have often wondered whether that would be different had Stein published under a “masculine” pseudonym– or been a man.

Nevertheless, public recognition would come through more accessible books from the author. Her 1933 Paris memoir– confusingly (and to my mind, infuriatingly) called The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas— propelled Stein and Toklas to mainstream fame. The book was published for a mass-market audience by Harcourt, Brace & Company, and it’s considered to be the most conventional of Stein’s works.

The original cover for The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas shows Stein seated at her desk, with Toklas at the doorway. Public domain
The original cover for The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas shows Stein seated at her desk, with Toklas at the doorway. Public domain

That hasn’t stopped some critics, including British novelist Jeanette Winterson, from seeing the Autobiography as an experimental take on the genre that is comparable to Virginia Woolf’s Orlando. Written from Toklas’ perspective, it’s a dizzying and fascinating account of early 20th-century Paris and the figures that moves through the Rue de Fleurus salon, as well as offering details on other periods in the couple’s lives.

And while they have often been overlooked, Toklas (genuinely) authored two autobiographical works that are well worth reading: The Alice B. Toklas Cookbook (1954) and What is Remembered (1963). The former is a fantastic interweaving of recipes with memoir, and deserves a much closer look.

In 1946, Stein passed away from complications of stomach cancer. She was 72. She was buried at Pere-Lachaise Cemetery in Paris. Toklas died in 1967 and was interred beside Stein.

For more on the life and work of both, see this page (including the resources listed at the bottom).

Josephine Baker

Josephine Baker performing the Charleston in the Revue Nègre in Paris, circa 1925. Public domain.
Josephine Baker performing the Charleston in the Revue Nègre in Paris, circa 1925. Public domain.

The legend of Missouri-born, Black American performer Josephine Baker tends to reduce the remarkable woman behind it to a problematic caricature. Probably the most famous person on this list in terms of name recognition, it’s easy to primarily imagine her as an elegant figure with short-cropped hair, possibly topless and in a banana skirt, dancing the Charleston in black-and-white archival footage, or gracing a vintage poster.

The legacy of Baker’s cabaret performances– controversial then and now, for largely different reasons– is indeed an important one. But they should be considered as one of several key achievements in her life, rather than the only one. Many are unaware that she was also an important civil-rights activist and member of the French Resistance.

Josephine Baker is among the famous American women who moved to Paris and launched a stunning career there.

Born in 1908 in St. Louis, Baker moved to Paris in 1925 to star in the cabaret show that would launch her fame, the Revue Nègre. While today it’s easy to identify (and condemn) the racist tropes present in both the performances themselves and the illustrations used to advertise the show, Baker’s free, openly erotic, yet playfully self-conscious bodily expression was also seen as potentially liberatory for women, during a period when they were gaining unprecedented rights.

{These 5 Places in Paris Aren’t Usually Associated With African-American History. They Should Be.}

By 1930, Baker had become a genuine star both in France and abroad, and headlined a new show at the Casino de Paris, accompanied by a real cheetah named Chiquita. The show saw her debut her most famous song, J’ai deux amours, in which she proclaimed her love for both her native country and Paris.

Advertisement for Baker's show at the Casino de Paris, 1930.
Advertisement for Baker’s show at the Casino de Paris, 1930.

When France was invaded by Germany in 1940 and split the country into two zones– Occupied and so-called “Free” zones, both essentially controlled by Nazis, Baker joined the French Resistance movement. She notably gathered intelligence for anti-Nazi forces led from London by General Charles de Gaulle.

{The Pretty Paris Building With a Dark History of Antisemitism & Collaboration}

After the war she was awarded the Croix de guerre by the French military and was named a Chevalier of the Légion d’honneur (Legion of Honor) by De Gaulle himself.

Exhibit at Paris City Hall pays tribute to Josephine Baker, including her role as a member of the French Resistance in the 1940s.
Exhibit at Paris City Hall pays tribute to Josephine Baker, including her role as a member of the French Resistance in the 1940s.

Later, during the 1960s, Baker became a prominent civil rights activist, refusing to perform to segregated audiences in the US and becoming part of the inner circle led by Martin Luther King, Jr. and Coretta Scott King. In 1963, Baker was a featured speaker alongside Martin Luther King at the March on Washington.

While she eventually renounced her American citizenship (double nationalities were rarely allowed at the time,) Baker remained deeply committed to her native country and civil rights movements there. She was a longtime member of the NAACP, advocating passionately for the rights of Black Americans throughout her life.

In 1975, and following a 50-year career of exceptional artistry and activism, Baker died in Paris. She has since been enthusiastically adopted as an important French citizen and Parisian, with a swimming pool and street named after her, as well as recent exhibits paying homage to her political efforts as part of the French Resistance.

Place Josephine Baker, Paris in Montparnasse

To explore her legacy further, see our full guide to Josephine Baker’s Paris, which takes a much deeper look at Baker’s life, artistic and political achievements, and the traces she left in the French capital.

Mary Cassatt

Mary Cassatt, Self-Portrait, c. 1880, gouache and watercolor over graphite on paper, 32.7cm x 24.6cm, National Portrait Gallery, Washington DC. NPG.76.33
Mary Cassatt, “Self-Portrait”, circa 1880, National Portrait Gallery, Washington DC.

Born and raised in Pennsylvania, artist Mary Cassatt moved to Paris in 1866 at only 22– and became an important member of the group of painters whose radical use of color and light earned them the initially pejorative “Impressionist” label.

As part of a well-to-do family that had the means to travel abroad, Cassatt was in Paris for the 1855 World Exhibition, where she was likely exposed to the work of Impressionist painters such as Gustave Courbet, Edgar Degas, and Camille Pissarro.

The latter two would later become colleagues and mentors, although according to some historians Degas often made snide comments about women’s supposedly inferior artistic capacities, straining the friendship.

Mary Cassatt, "Little Girl in a Blue Armchair",  circa 1878.
Mary Cassatt, “Little Girl in a Blue Armchair”, circa 1878.

After returning to the US for a few years, Cassatt again moved to Paris, this time settling in France permanently. After showing her work at various salons and galleries in the 1870s, her real breakthrough came in 1879, when she displayed several pieces at the Impressionist exhibit in the capital. Art critics continued to offer withering critiques of Impressionist artists, but noted the work of Cassatt and Degas as exceptional highlights.

Cassatt’s paintings are distinctive for their startling realism and use of vibrant, immediate color, but also for their impressionistic dynamism and sense of movement. Her work often focused on domestic and intimate moments, ones generally treated by wider culture as unimportant-because-belonging- to-the-“feminine” sphere.

Mary Cassatt, Young Woman in a Black and Green Bonnet, c. 1890, Princeton University Art Museum
Mary Cassatt, Young Woman in a Black and Green Bonnet, c. 1890, Princeton University Art Museum

Critics have too often overlooked or underrated the importance of Cassatt’s oeuvre for the same reason, even though other impressionists, including Dégas — also depicted worlds and spheres primarily occupied by women (think young ballerinas).

There’s also been an irritating but unsurprising tendency to lump Cassatt’s work in with the oeuvre of two other prominent women who happened to be members of the same circles, Berthe Morisot and Marie Bracquemond. While they were friends and associates, there’s little reason to consider them as a stylistic triad merely because they’re all women.

{French Paintings of Paris That Take You Straight There}

Nevertheless, Cassatt’s distinctive and experimental approach to materials and genres– portraits in particular– have ensured her masterpieces permanent spots public and private collections around the world.

Cassatt would spend her life in Paris, residing for much of it in an apartment at 10 Rue Marignan, near the Champs Elysées. A plaque in front of the building now commemorates her life and work. She died in 1926.

While much of her work is collected at museums in the US, you can see masterpieces from Cassatt at Paris museums including the Musée d’Orsay and the Petit Palais.

Sylvia Beach

Sylvia Beach at the original Shakespeare and Company bookshop in 1920/Public domain
Sylvia Beach at the original Shakespeare and Company bookshop in 1920/Public domain

The Shakespeare & Company bookshop that stands opposite Notre-Dame Cathedral is beloved, and rightly so. But it’s not the original English-language bookseller and literary powerhouse to bear the name– a fact many visitors aren’t aware of.

Opened in 1951 at 37 rue de la Bûcherie by American-born George Whitman, the current-day bookshop was originally called Le Mistral. Whitman changed its name in April 1964, paying tribute to the original Shakespeare and Company shop founded in 1919 by Sylvia Beach.

{Related: Our Interview With Kerri Maher, Author of The Paris Bookseller}

Beach, born in Baltimore, Maryland in 1887, moved to France as a teenager, when her father was appointed assistant minister of the American Church of Paris. She later returned to study in the capital.

Sylvia Beach, date and author unknown. Public domain
Sylvia Beach, date and author unknown. Public domain

She would soon meet bookshop owner Adrienne Monnier, who operated a small shop and lending library on Rue de l’Odéon, near the Luxembourg gardens. Beach joined as a member of the lending library, and she and Adrienne became a couple, living together in Paris for over 35 years.

At Monnier’s shop, La Maison des Amis des Livres (The House of Book Lovers/Friends), Beach attended readings from prominent early 20th-century French writers including André Gide and Paul Valéry.

Deeply inspired by the vibrancy of Left-Bank literary life in the capital, she wanted to open a New-York based bookshop to promote contemporary French literature to American audiences. But she lacked the capital to do so, instead opting to open an English-language bookshop at  8 rue Dupuytren, in St-Germain.

{Take the Quiz: Are You More Right-Bank or Left-Bank Paris?}

It would soon become the beating heart of Anglophone literary life in Paris between the two World Wars, and by 1921 had become so successful that Beach moved it to a larger space at 12 Rue de l’Odéon, just doors down from Monnier’s shop.

Sylvia Beach and James Joyce outside the Shakespeare and Company shop at 12, Rue de l'Odéon, 1920.
Sylvia Beach and James Joyce outside the original Shakespeare and Company shop in Paris, 1920.

After meeting a struggling Irish novelist named James Joyce at a Parisian dinner party, Beach befriended him and offered to publish his novel Ulysses— it had thus far been unsuccessful. She published it in 1922 from her apartment, located in the same building as her shop. A memorial plaque now stands there.

While this act of generosity would later cause serious financial problems for Beach after Joyce signed a contract with another publisher, it gained her and her humble shop considerable renown. It attracted other so-called members of the “Lost Generation” of American writers, including Ernest Hemingway, Stein, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Djuna Barnes (see below), and T.S. Eliot, as well as Gide and numerous other French authors.

In late 1941, in the midst of the Occupation of Paris, Beach was forced to close the shop, reportedly in part because she refused to serve Nazi officers as customers. She was interned for six months at the Vittel camp in northeastern France (reserved for American and British prisoners) until a friend secured her release in 1942.

Throughout the war years, she reportedly safeguarded her collection of books and letters in a vacant upstairs flat at 12 Rue de l’Odéon, above the defunct shop. Sadly, it would never re-open. But in her quiet way, Beach supported the French Resistance movement, notably by reading and befriending poets and writers opposed to the Nazi cause and offering aid to allied airmen who had been shot down in France.

In 1955, Adrienne Monnier committed suicide, a year after being diagnosed with a debilitating and painful illness called Menière’s disease. The loss of her life partner devastated Beach, who wrote in one letter: “I’ve a queer feeling about Adrienne—that not only is she gone but I’ve gone away myself somewhere.”

Sylvia Beach and partner Adrienne Monnier at Monnier family home in Savoie, France/date unknown

Beach, who published a 1956 memoir on the founding of her iconic shop, died in Paris in 1962. Sylvia Beach Whitman, George Whitman’s daughter and current owner of the shop at Rue de la Bûcherie, was named after the founder of the original store.

Interested in learning more about Sylvia Beach and her fascinating legacy, literary and otherwise? Read our long interview with Kerri Maher, author of a historical novel called The Paris Bookseller that pays tribute to Beach’s life, work, and loves.

Julia Child

Julia Child is another American woman who moved to Paris and gained fame there.
Chef and French cookbook author Julia Child is another American woman who moved to Paris and gained fame there.

Probably doing more to import French cultural and culinary traditions to the English-speaking world than anyone else in recent history, legendary chef and cookbook author Julia Child is a beloved cultural ambassador.

Julia McWiliams was born in Pasadena, California in 1912. Like Josephine Baker, Child also had a fascinating additional career that in fact preceded her rise to culinary fame, gathering military intelligence during the Second World War.

After working for several years as a researcher on top-secret projects for the US Office of Strategic Services (OSS) during World War II– and accepting posts in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) and China– she married OSS colleague Paul Cushing Child. They moved to Paris in 1948, after Paul was assigned to a post in the State Department there.

As many now know from popular films such as Julie and Julia, Child enrolled in Le Cordon Bleu culinary school and, managing to endure its famous vicissitudes, graduated in 1951. At the Parisian women’s cooking club Le Cercle des Gourmettes, Child met Simone Beck, who was at the time compiling recipes (alongside Louisette Bertholle) for a French cookbook in English– one aimed at American audiences.

Child was invited to join as a third co-author, and three opened a private informal cooking academy called L’ecole des trois gourmades (School of the three food lovers) out of Child’s Paris apartment.

While the Childs moved back to the US and later bought a home in Provence, near Cannes, Julia’s Parisian years were formative ones in her culinary career. With her debut cookbook, Mastering the Art of French Cooking (1961), she and her co-authors successfully introduced classic French recipes into English-speaking kitchens.

From beef bourguignon to ratatouille and whole roasted chicken, Child’s recipies combined simplicity with an strong emphasis on high-quality ingrediemts and what we would today call “whole foods”– hardly in vogue during the convencience and industry-obsessed 1960s and 1970s.

{Related: Traditional French Christmas Desserts to Try at Home}

And in the decade that followed Child would become a beloved fixture on television, especially with her show The French Chef.

Her zany, unedited monologues and spirited wishes for our collective “Bon appetit!” arguably forged a new generation of Francophiles– not mention inspired everyday cooks and chefs alike to expand their horizons.

Child was awarded the French Legion of Honor award for her work in 2000, as well as numerous honorary Doctorates. She died in California in 2004, just two days prior to her 92nd birthday.

Djuna Barnes

Portrait of Djuna Barnes by Berenice Abbott, circa 1926. CC BY-SA 4.0

Writing during roughly the same period as Virginia Woolf, US-born novelist, poet, illustrator and journalist Djuna Barnes is by comparison an obscure figure. But with her slim yet boldly experimental 1936 novel Nightwood, set largely in Paris, the New York-born Barnes would gain cult status among readers of experimental and modernist literature.

Barnes lived in Paris for only nine years, between 1921 and 1930. Yet through her work and stylish persona, she remains deeply associated with the capital’s literary golden period of the 1920s and 1930s. She looms large in both journalism and literary memoirs from the period.

Barnes, who had numerous relationships with women, is also renowned for being one of the first to publish literary works that feature queer desire and love, but skipping the tragic or violent endings that have too often featured in such novels.

Djuna Barnes, circa 1921. Author unknown, public domain
Djuna Barnes, circa 1921. Author unknown, public domain

Prior to Nightwood, which revolves partly around a love triangle between three women and alludes to artist (and Barnes’ longtime partner) Thelma Wood, she published the Ladies Almanack, a witty 1928 satire on Parisian lesbian culture whose central character is based on famous salon hostess, fellow writer and American Natalie Barney.

Barnes lived for years with Wood, an illustrator and sculptor born in Kansas, in an apartment on Boulevard St-Germain in Paris. In 1927, following the success of Barnes’ autobiographical modernist novel Ryder (which became a bestseller), the couple moved into a flat on Rue Saint-Romain, also in the 6th arrondissement.

{Exploring Saint-Germain-des-Prés, Past & Present}

By 1928, they had separated. But Barnes would dedicate both Ryder and Ladies Almanack to Wood, and the artist continued to haunt the literary world of the former, as Nightwood attests.

In addition to her works of fiction and illustration, Barnes was also a prominent journalist, notably interviewing (and illustrating a portrait of) James Joyce for Vanity Fair in 1922. They would remain friends.

Portrait of James Joyce by Djuna Barnes for Vanity Fair, 1922. Public domain.
Portrait of James Joyce by Djuna Barnes for Vanity Fair, 1922. Public domain.

On a side note– one I find amusing since I voraciously read the diaries of the famous Parisian diarist Anaïs Nin as a teenager– Nin was a big fan of Barnes, even naming a central character after her in her 1950 autobiographical novel, The Four-Chambered Heart. According to numerous sources, Barnes did not return the admiration and was irritated by the use of her name (adopted as Nin’s alter-ego) in the novel.

Carole Fredericks

Portrait of musician Carole Fredericks by Claude Gassian/Private collection/Creative Commons 3.0
Portrait of musician Carole Fredericks by Claude Gassian/Private collection/Creative Commons 3.0

While not generally a household name in her native US, vocalist Carole Fredericks is something of a legend in the French musical scene. Born in Springfield, Massachussetts in 1952, Fredericks had grown up in a family of professional and talented musicians. Her mother, Mildred, performed in both a Gospel choir and a big-band jazz troupe, while her elder brother Henry became a Grammy award-winning blues musician, performing under the name Taj Mahal.

In 1979, Fredericks moved to France to pursue a career as a vocalist. A colleague from San Francisco promptly introduced her to contacts in Paris, and she began working as a studio performer, first recording a disco album called Black Orchid. Another American singer, Ann Calvert, also appeared on the album as a vocalist.

The two teamed up with Baltimore-born Yvonne Jones to form a professional trio, and together performed background vocals on albums from leading French artists including Johnny Hallyday, Dalida, and Sylvie Vartan.

{Related: 25 Songs About Paris That Take You There}

Later, as Frederick’s reputation grew, she would go on to perform onstage alongside the likes of France Gall and Eddy Mitchell, as well as other big names in chanson française and pop. She would later also work with Vanessa Paradis, Eric Clapton, Elton John, and Céline Dion.

Carole Fredericks/portrait by Claude Gassian/Wikimedia Commons
Carole Fredericks/portrait by Claude Gassian/Wikimedia Commons

Fredericks held several film roles during the 1980s and 1990s, including in Roman Polanski’s Pirates, opposite Walter Matthau.

In the 1990s, she began an enduring collaboration with popular French musician Jean-Jacques Goldman. With Goldman and another artist, Michael Jones, Fredericks formed a new trio, simply called Fredericks Goldman Jones. They released several hit albums, touring around the world.

Following from a 1996 solo album entitled Springfield, Fredericks released Couleurs et Parfums, which included four hit singles. The album, written entirely in French, is a favorite among French teachers, who frequently use the songs in their instruction.

A group of French language educators even opened a foundation in Frederick’s name in 2006, dedicated to her work and the instruction of French through music and intercultural exchange.

In short, while Fredericks never gained true global fame, she reached the heights of her craft as a vocalist and songwriter, earning profound respect and acclaim in the French musical community and beyond. When she died in 2001, at only 49, from a heart attack during a tour of Senegal, she was deeply mourned.

Fredericks was laid to rest at Montmartre Cemetery in Paris, apparently at the request of the French Ministry of Culture. You can see more about her life and music here. This post from Carole’s sister Connie is also a moving and important tribute.

Jean Seberg

Jean Seberg in “Recréation”, photo by Peter Basch, 1961. 

She may be best-known as the young student with the pixie haircut and striped shirt selling the International Harold Tribune on the Champs-Elysées in Jean-Luc Godard’s cult 1960 film A Bout de Souffle (Breathless). But American-born actress Jean Seberg left behind a considerable and complex legacy, especially given that her life was cut short at only 40.

Contrary to widespread belief, that legacy involved more than acting in a few European arthouse films. Like some of the others artists featured in this piece, Seberg was also a devoted civil-rights activist– so much so that she fell onto the FBI’s radar towards the end of her life.

Born in Marshalltown, Iowa in 1938, Seberg is principally remembered for embodying early 1960s ideals of tomboyish glamour. If you’ve seen Godard’s most famous film, you may remember her Breathless alter ego, aspiring journalist Patricia, pulling her sunglasses down coyly onto the bridge of her nose as she interviews a celebrated but pompous author in stilted, heavily accented French.

At least during her early period as an actor, Seberg emblematized the chic gamine— a slender, slightly androgynous young woman who manages to remain *unthreateningly* feminine and appealing to men.

Promotional poster for Bonjour Tristesse, starring Jean Seberg and directed by Otto Preminger (1958)
Promotional poster for Bonjour Tristesse, starring Jean Seberg and directed by Otto Preminger (1958)

Yet in many roles, including Otto Preminger’s underrated 1958 adaptation of Françoise Sagan’s novel Bonjour Tristesse (Hello, Sadness) Seberg pushed the envelope by playing uncompromisingly independent women with complex inner lives.

She had started her career by starring, a year earlier, as Joan of Arc in Preminger’s Saint Joan, adapted from George Bernard Shaw’s eponymous play of 1923.

And even in Breathless, Seberg’s Patricia seems to gain the upper hand over her thuggish boyfriend during the film’s tragic but unnervingly unemotional denouement. While I’d never be tempted to call Breathless feminist, it suggests genuine power in its central female protagonist– one that’s as intriguing as it is problematic.

During her short life, Seberg would earn roles in over 35 films and plays, primarily in France and Hollywood. She also made a short film herself— a fact that has been largely occluded. While she never sought French citizenship, she remains beloved in France as one of the leading actors of the Nouvelle Vague school of cinema– and an enduring cultural icon.

50th anniversary poster for Breathless

She met her first husband, François Moreuil, on the set of Bonjour Tristesse, subsequently moving to France. It was there that she was introduced to Jean-Luc Godard– and skyrocketed to global fame.

Shuttling back and forth between Hollywood and Paris, Seberg became increasingly involved in civil-rights activism during the 1960s, and was a prime target of the American FBI’s COINTELPRO project. It was led by the notorious J. Edgar Hoover, notably to surveille and intimidate supporters of the Black Panthers.

Some historians suggest that Seberg was effectively blacklisted in Hollywood. Her second husband, film director Romain Gary, has even speculated that her death in 1979– an apparent suicide– may have resulted in part from the FBI’s campaign against her.

Whatever the circumstances of her death, one thing remains certain: Seberg’s legend as an American actress and adopted Parisian has only continued to grow. In 2020, Kristin Stewart starred in a biopic from director Benedict Andrews that attempted to restore some much-needed complexity to our understanding of Seberg’s life. While the film was widely panned, it seemingly represents a desire to get beyond the worn caricatures of Breathless.

And Karina Longworth’s acclaimed podcast on Hollywood history, You Must Remember This, devotes a whole season to exploring the nuances of Seberg’s legacy, alongside Jane Fonda’s. Be forewarned: this one’s highly addictive listening.

Seberg was buried at Montparnasse Cemetery in Paris. You can peruse her filmography here.

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