A Faulty Tip, a Ruined Life and Hindsight
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.
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.
Documents from the spring of 1970, showing communications between Hoover and agents in Los Angeles, appear in “The COINTELPRO Papers: Documents From the FBI’s Secret Wars Against Dissent in the United States,” by Ward Churchill and Jim Vander Wall (South End Press, 1990).
Hoover oversaw the Seberg smear, ordering agents in Los Angeles to wait until Seberg’s pregnancy grew more visible. He didn’t want the wiretap--which agents apparently misinterpreted--to be suspected. Ronald Ostrow, a former Los Angeles Times reporter who worked in the Washington bureau, obtained documents in 1980 showing that FBI officials in Washington and agents in Los Angeles targeted Seberg for giving $10,500 to the Panthers. Bellows said he’s been disturbed by his failure to at least try to check out the story with Seberg or someone close to her.
He said Haber had already written the column when he first saw the note, as their 11 a.m. deadline approached on May 18. He said recently that an alarm went off as he read it. " ... According to all those really ‘in’ international sources,” the item read, “Topic A is the baby Miss A is expecting.... Papa’s said to be a rather prominent Black Panther.”
“I said to Joyce, ‘What the hell is that?’ I thought it was pretty strong. Like: ‘Wow, where did that come from?’ Joyce went to her desk and came back with the note from Thomas.”
Haber’s first draft named Seberg. Bellows told her to rewrite the piece without the name. “I took it out because it made me nervous,” he said. He worried, he said, about possible libel action if he used Seberg’s name.
Why, if he was so anxious, did he risk printing an unconfirmed tip aimed so plainly at her reputation?
Bellows answered: “The question is whether it is true. You are trying to tell the truth. You must have an authority for whether it is true or not, and I took as my authority the name of Bill Thomas on that note. Editors have a responsibility for what they have a hand in. One must look at the note and make up one’s own mind.”
Said Thomas: “Bellows is the one who made the big error. He was her editor!”
Haber’s column, syndicated to about 100 papers, was soon picked up by Newsweek, which printed Seberg’s name. She reacted with anguish. Her husband wrote a piece for a French magazine expressing outrage.
Haber, who died in 1983, was asked about the item repeatedly after Seberg’s suicide. “The FBI was not my source,” The Times quoted her as saying in a Sept. 16, 1979, story that reported the FBI’s admission. The story added: “Beyond that, Miss Haber refused to discuss the story, except to say she would never reveal the source.”
In 1979, a theater critic for the Washington Star named David Richards quit his job to write a Seberg biography. That year, he received a copy of the unconfirmed tip in the mail with no return address. He said he had no idea where it came from, though Bellows said recently that he “may have sent it.”
When Richards visited The Times to ask Thomas about the note, Thomas said he could not recall where it came from and was passing on one of many tips in the course of a day. Richards said that after his book, “Played Out,” was published in 1981, he was surprised that none of its many reviews mentioned that Thomas had passed the tip to Haber.Six years earlier, in 1975, Thomas had fired Haber because of problems with the accuracy of her work. “Her stuff was perilous,” he said.
Bellows said he always felt “Joyce took a real beating on the Seberg thing.” Asked why, when Haber was put on the spot after Seberg’s 1979 suicide, he didn’t step forward to take some of the blame, he said: “I didn’t do that, and I should have. That’s true. That’s why I’m going into all this now.”
But Bellows’ memoir barely hints at his role as the editor of Haber’s Seberg story. He said a desire “to be nice” prompted him to leave Thomas out. He said he called Thomas about a year ago and asked if he could name him and describe his role in the memoir he was working on. Thomas, he said, asked him not to.
Thomas said that he didn’t tell Bellows what to write but that he rejected Bellows’ belief that they shared responsibility for putting the story into print.
David Lawrence Jr., former executive editor and publisher of the Detroit Free Press, publisher of the Miami Herald and a past president of the American Society of Newspaper Editors and the InterAmerican Press Assn., says there is accountability on both sides. “It seems to me that if a significant editor sends a reporter or columnist a note that says: ‘This comes from a good source,’ that indicates that the source is someone he trusts and that he thinks has great credibility,” Lawrence says.
“You get a major editor sending the kind of note that was sent here, and there is at least a potential signal implied that ‘I know this to be true’ or ‘this is probably true.’ And you would hope that this would be given to someone who was so well-educated in journalism that this person would say, ‘I don’t care who this comes from. I have to check this out.” He adds: “I would say that the mistakes of both these men are equally significant.”
The Bellows film, soon to run on various PBS stations, omits the Seberg saga. Director-producer Latham said he made various “editorial choices,” but not one to spare Bellows. One problem, he said, was that “there were no living people I could’ve talked to to make a Seberg segment work.”
But he could have asked David Halberstam, who is in the film and who wrote about the Los Angeles Times in “The Powers That Be,” his 1979 book about media power and politics. He finished his book before the FBI smear became public but had heard rumors.
“This is not about gossip,” Halberstam said recently. “This is really about political reporting of a very dubious kind. The Times did not set out to destroy her. One powerful institution manipulated another. The result was the destruction of a fragile human being.”