[above: donna reed composite, 2006. below: jean seberg composite, 2006]
look out for those iowa women… coming from generations of them, i know the strength of which they’re capable. two principled iowa women of note quickly come to mind: donna reed of dennison and jean seberg of marshalltown.
best remembered for her work on her own television series, the donna reed show, which aired from 1958 through 1966, reed played the role of a midwestern mother much like her real self. revolutionary for that time was donna reed’s role behind the cameras. the true producer and director of the show (though without an industry credit), reed studied and mastered both lighting and cinematography. while personifying the ideal homemaker on her namesake sitcom, and girded by that same “all-american” suburban mom image, she refused to be reigned in by the role hollywood had consigned to women.
despite network and sponsor pressure, reed pushed for episodes considered controversial at the time: the one involving an “interracial couple” and another the “typical housewife” come to mind. from the beginning of her show, reed wanted african-american characters in roles that defied stereotypes, but the pressure of advertisers prevented that. in episode #257, “trees,” which aired on november 11, 1965 in the final 8th season, one can see shades (no pun intended) of the free speech sit-ins at berkeley nearly a year earlier. when the city attempts to cut down a tree outside donna’s house, it is clear that one can “fight city hall” with grass-roots organizing and civil disobedience!
donna reed (among others in fifties television) employed those hounded by the mccarthy-era horror, such as banned screenwriter alfred lewis levitt. (subpoenaed by the house un-american activities committee in 1951, levitt was never charged with any crime—but the smear destroyed his career. he was forced to use an assumed name, tom august, for nearly 20 years after his huac hearing. long after that darkness, levitt led the screen-credit correction effort to put the real names on scripts of those writers forced to jettison them for pseudonyms in the fifties.)
always angered by the treatment of women in the entertainment industry and arrogance of sponsor and network power—and faced with indefensible escalation of the vietnam conflict—in 1967 reed co-founded “another mother for peace” with the late barbara avedon and others. remember their famous logo created by lorraine schneider—“war is not healthy for children and other living things”? a staunch republican, reed was also the mother of two draft-age sons. (avedon, who died in 1994, wrote for many of the era’s leading television shows and co-created “cagney and lacy.”) donna reed was—said avedon—a feminist before there was a feminist vocabulary.
due to her influence—particularly in europe—jean seberg had the misfortune to have war declared on her by the seamy fbi director j. edgar hoover. active in left-wing groups and a well-known supporter of the black panthers and other anti-racist initiatives, seberg was ordered neutralized by hoover when she was seven months pregnant in 1970 (as part of the outrageous cointelpro program to stifle legitimate dissent in the united states).
suffering from serious depressive illness, seberg was the victim of an fbi cointelpro fabrication in which that government agency colluded with the los angeles times and columnist joyce haber to leak that seberg was “pregnant with the child of a prominent black panther.” haber's nationally syndicated column of may 19, 1970 reported just that. the psychologically fragile seberg—so traumatized by the false allegation—gave birth prematurely, the child stillborn. at a press conference called the next day, seberg presented shocked reporters with the body of her dead white child. this rebuttal put an end to the rumors, but put fbi hounding of seberg on overdrive—forcing her into exile in paris. depression continued to debilitate the harassed progressive actress and star of “airport”—leading several times to her hospitalization. seberg attempted suicide on every subsequent anniversary of her child's death. (she even threw herself under a train of the paris metro in 1978.)
the fbi got their wish to “neutralize” seberg when her rotting body was found in the back seat of her car in a paris suburb on september 7, 1979. (seberg had taken a massive overdose of barbiturates, and had been dead for eleven days.) yet nothing—absolutely nothing—done by j. edgar hoover, the fbi, the los angeles times, joyce haber, or others could take away her special infectious quality, voice, and manner. celluloid preserves her work as a great actress who always looked cool and classic.
sadly, seberg was only one among many thousands of u.s. activists and groups whose respective lives and work were torn asunder by the criminal activities of fbi’s cointelpro—which routinely put out phony leaflets, posters, pamphlets, newspapers, and other publications in the name of movement groups to discredit those groups and turn activists against each other. if that failed, troublesome misinformation could always be dredged out to activists’ financial backers, employers, business associates, families, neighbors, school administrators, landlords, and whomever else might cause trouble to those activists—and prevent work vital to necessary social change.
the rich and principled lives of donna reed and jean seberg—who refused to back down despite the consequences—are a beautiful example of strength in this, more cynical, age.