Bellows, Jean Seberg and the FBI

In a "Blowback" piece on the Times' opinion web page, former LAT staffer Allan Jalon goes into the controversy that ensued after Jim Bellows let Times gossip columnist Joyce Haber run a 1970 blind item that arguably ruined the career of actress Jean Seberg. Jalon chides the paper for not fessing up to the episode in its Bellows obituary.

The item made clear that Miss A was the actress Jean Seberg, who starred as the heroine of Otto Preminger's "Saint Joan" and became internationally known for her role in Jean-Luc Godard's classic film, "Breathless." Haber's item claimed that the father of the baby Seberg carried at the time was not her husband, French novelist-diplomat Romain Gary, but an official with the Black Panthers.

Documents from the time show that the smear had been concocted by then- FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover and agents in his Los Angeles bureau to punish Seberg for her political views. Soon after the item appeared, Seberg lost the baby after a premature delivery. At the baby's funeral, the 31-year-old actress had the casket opened to show the baby was white and the gossip started by The Times was false....

"I did not vet the Seberg story enough," [Bellows] told me when he spoke at length with me about the episode for two pieces I wrote in The Times in April 2002 that went into depth about the roles played by Bellows and another high-ranking editor at the paper.

[skip]

The Times' obituary describes Bellows' role as Haber's editor but simply moves on without any mention of the Seberg story that binds them as figures in a well-known, painful part of journalism history. Supported by several Times editors, I spent months reviewing what happened, one of those efforts by a paper to look at itself. I went through FBI documents, interviewed retired FBI agents, Department of Justice officials and key editors and reporters. I wrote two stories, one a profile of Bellows in which he talks about the Seberg incident, the other a long piece going deeply into what happened at the Times.

I find it ironic that The Times, after going to such lengths to explore the record of an egregious journalistic event that shadowed it for decades, should now turn around and act as if it never happened.

Commenters on the piece tend to the anonymously brutal toward the Times, including this one: "One last little stab at Bellows by The Whale (it's a minnow now), on the day of his funeral, no less. Tawdry."

LA Observed on KCRW: Bellows comes up in my KCRW commentary today about media transitions. 4:44 p.m. on the air at 89.9 FM, or on the web.

Previously on LA Observed:
Jim Bellows, editor was 86
Going way back with Bellows


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