If you had to explain to a young person now who Jane Birkin was, and why she was not only important but, for a particular sliver of our cultural history, iconic, you would find it a challenge. She was an actress, yes, but if they had seen any of her work it would most likely be as a supporting part in one of the Agatha Christie adaptations, Death on the Nile (1978) or Evil Under The Sun (1982). She was a singer, too, a fine one, but she embraced, and was embraced in return by, that peculiarly introspective, wordy, intense form of chanson, which is ineffably French and utterly foreign to anyone else.
Her name was most famous for a collaboration with the legendary Parisian luxury goods maker Hermès, who created the ‘Birkin’ handbag after her, but her involvement was fleeting. It was based on a chance meeting on an aeroplane with the brand’s chief executive, Jean-Louis Dumas, in 1984 leading to her lending her name to the holdall.
Lasting fame, however, came in the form of notoriety. In 1969, she recorded the most famous version of Je t’aime… moi non plus, a breathy, seemingly explicit love song written by Serge Gainsbourg, the French polymath who was by then her lover. For Anglophone audiences, it was like nothing they had ever heard, and it was both chart-topping and widely banned. But Birkin’s soft voice and heavy sighs will, for most people, stand as her epitaph.
Jane Mallory Birkin was born in Marylebone on 14 December 1946. Britain was a grim place, still battered and pounded by six years of war, and rationing was in fact stricter at that point than it had been during the conflict. When she was only five weeks old, the country was struck by one of the worst winters in its history, heavy snow blocking roads, cutting off vital infrastructure and leading to two months of freezing temperatures, power disruption, blackouts and food shortages. It was exacerbated by a shortage of coal, to which the minister, Manny Shinwell, never publicly admitted responsibility; but for many the lustre had come off the post-war Labour government and would never return.
Birkin was born into several overlapping segments of privilege. Her father, David, began adult life in appalling health; a bungled sinus operation at 17 had seen him spend much of his youth in hospital, and by the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939, he had undergone 34 procedures on his lungs and eyes, leaving him with double vision, chronic headaches and chronic diffuse alveolar haemorrhage, meaning persistent bleeding in one lung. Nevertheless, with extraordinary connivance from the medical board, he joined the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve in 1941 and trained as a telegraphist.
He was spectacularly unfit for military service, but he was also well connected: friends with Lord Louis Mountbatten, newly appointed Chief of Combined Operations, and Brendan Bracken who was Minister of Information and one of Churchill’s closest cronies. At the beginning of 1942, despite his general health and the fact he suffered from severe seasickness, David Birkin joined the 15th Motor Gun Boat Flotilla, an irregular formation under the immediate direction of the Secret Intelligence Service. Birkin served as a navigator, guiding their small boats across the English Channel in absolute secrecy and in the darkness of moonless nights, to drop off or collect agents of the Résistance. He proved brilliant at his task, and ended the war with a Distinguished Service Cross and a love of the French, in particular the Bretons whose coast he had come to know so intimately. Like so many veterans, especially those involved in espionage, David Birkin rarely talked about his wartime experiences, but the recent discovery of his personal papers and taped interviews contributed to A Dangerous Enterprise, a history of the unit by former army officer and mercenary Tim Spicer.
Jane Birkin’s mother came from a more glittering if no less illustrious background. Judy Gamble was born to theatrical parents; her mother had been a Gaiety Girl, at the furthest edge of respectability which could co-exist with a career on stage. Her father was an actor and playwright who published under the name of J.A. Campbell (Judy would take the same surname professionally). He managed the Theatre Royal in Grantham, where they were on good terms with the family of local grocer and preacher Alderman Alfred Roberts – whose daughter Margaret would go on to substantial success in politics.
Judy Campbell made her stage debut at the age of 19 in 1935, and had her first film role five years later. In 1942-43, she toured with Noël Coward, creating the parts of Joanna in Present Laughter and Ethel in This Happy Breed; she also played the spectral Elvira in Blithe Spirit. She captivated the playwright, who pinpointed her qualities as a performer, good and bad: “It takes talent,” he told her, “to put over a song when you haven’t got a voice.” She became in some ways Coward’s muse.
After the war, Judy and David settled in Old Church Street in Chelsea and she was able to choose the acting roles she wanted to take on. She would describe her family, including Jane, her children and her elder screenwriter-director brother Andrew, as “like the Redgraves, except we all have different names”.
Jane Birkin would come to embody all of these family qualities: theatrical, Francophile, an unselfconscious ease of the well-born, a stubborn streak and no small dash of her father’s physical courage. But her life began in a relatively conventional atmosphere. Educated at Miss Ironside’s School in Kensington and Upper Chine School on the Isle of Wight, she was shy, and at boarding school especially was bullied because of her looks. She would recall, “The others said I was half boy, half girl. I had no breasts, not even a developing bosom. It was horrible.” She was hardly the first posh girl to have a miserable time being bullied at boarding school; it is almost a cliché. But things were about to change.
By 1965, London was in full sixties swing. The Beatles were international pop stars and had just released the film A Hard Day’s Night. Top of the Pops and Ready, Steady, Go! were appointment viewing for young people. In April, Diana Vreeland, the revered editor of Vogue, declared, “London is the most swinging city in the world at the moment”. And Jane Birkin was about to embrace that mood almost stereotypically.
She had first met John Barry when she was 17. He was already a successful composer, having written for Adam Faith and led the John Barry Seven, one of the resident bands on the BBC’s Drumbeat. In 1962, he had been brought in to arrange Monty Norman’s existing James Bond theme for the first 007 film, Dr. No, he was retained for From Russia With Love (1963) and recommended to Stanley Baker for his South African War epic Zulu (1964). While casting for a musical adaptation of Rosalind Erskine’s novel The Passion Flower Hotel, he met Birkin and gave her the part of Mary Rose Byng-Bentall, one of the Syndicate Girls.
In late 1964 they began a relationship, then married in October 1965, when he was not quite 32 and she was 18. The wedding was performed “in secret”, although photographs of the couple seemed to be taken, at Chelsea Town Hall; it had recently become the principal register office for the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea and would see many celebrity unions from Judy Garland to Hugh Grant. They seemed the epitome of Swinging London, the gamine, gap-toothed schoolgirl and the composer for some of the biggest films of the era. Newsweek called Barry the man ‘with the E-type Jag and the E-type wife’. But Birkin, as she would later, admit, was still scarred by her bullies; she could not think of herself as attractive, and slept with an eye pencil under her pillow for use if Barry woke up in the night. She was worried he would think she had “tiny piggy eyes”.
Her life was an exercise in hiding. Feeling in the shadow of her glamorous actress mother, she welcomed cosmetics as a shield. “I was just a painted face, hiding behind a mask of make-up. I suppose I fitted into the 1960s ‘English pretty’ look at the time.” Birkin remained deeply subservient and eager to please not just her husband but all men.
A rising star
Regardless, her career was slowly blossoming. Before she married in 1965, she had made her screen debut with the small part of ‘Motorbike Girl’ in the Richard Lester-directed The Knack… and How To Get It, a rather grisly sex comedy starring Michael Crawford and Rita Tushingham. The former plays a sexually inexperienced teacher confronted by 1960s feminist liberation who ends up living with the shy young Tushingham through process of larks involving rape and sexual assault (the film has not aged well).
Birkin had another small part in Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow-Up (1966), although she auditioned without knowing who the Italian director was, as he had previously worked primarily in Italian cinema. The film, starring David Hemmings as a fashion photographer who believes he has captured a murder on film, won the Palme d’Or at that year’s Cannes Film Festival, but Birkin, playing a model billed only as ‘the Blonde’, grabbed headlines by appearing entirely naked and giving British cinema its first, if fleeting, glance of pubic hair. She was still motivated by a desire to please her new husband. “I was offered a role in Blow-Up and he said I wouldn’t have the courage to go naked, so I thought: ‘Well, I’ll do it and that will thrill him’.”
The film was greeted with almost hysterical adoration and reverence. Academic and film critic Arthur Knight, writing in Playboy, called Blow-Up “as important and seminal a film as Citizen Kane, Open City, and Hiroshima, Mon Amour—perhaps even more so.” Nearly 60 years later, it is easier to see the film’s flaws as well as its virtues, but it is distinctly and distinctively of its time.
Birkin claimed not to have thought that her full frontal display would be shocking, and perhaps she was naïve enough to have been telling the truth. But it raised her profile further and framed her as an actress willing to take risks, one who represented the sexual liberation of the times. The same year, she had played a slightly larger, if still nameless, role as ‘Exquisite Thing’ in Kaleidoscope, a more conventional crime caper starring Warren Beatty and Susannah York. It was less high-concept than Blow-Up and was originally slated to star the 24-year-old American actress Sandra Dee largely because Beatty wanted to have sex with her. But it was received reasonably well, audiences giving it as much (or as little) deep thought as the filmmakers had intended.
By the time the films were released, however, Birkin was pregnant with her first child. She gave birth to a daughter, Kate, in April 1967, but it was evident that Barry was tiring of her. Despite her burgeoning acting career, she felt—and sensed that her husband also felt—that she was a housewife, tending to the needs of the star she had married. She recalled that she “just waited at home for John Barry to come home… and cook his favourite, Guinea Fowl, or his Turtle soup… to run his bath.” And, she confessed, she was deeply upset when Barry would come home late, assuming he had been socialising without her. Inevitably this tension led to arguments, Birkin desperately seeking reassurance and Barry retreating into sarcastic humour. The outcome was inevitable.
That summer, 1967, they holidayed separately. When Birkin returned, Barry told her he thought it was time for them to go their different ways. Her reaction? “I just walked out of the front door and never went back again.” It transpired that Barry was having an affair with a friend of Birkin’s. His friend and colleague Don Black recalled after Barry’s death, “I never really got to know any of his early wives—I’m not sure he did”. Although he gave Birkin a house in Cheyne Walk in Chelsea when they separated, she barely used it. Instead, she moved to France with her infant daughter to pursue her career in cinema.
Birkin’s crossing of the Channel was the pivot of her life. It is extraordinary now to think that she was barely 21 (at that time, the age of consent) and a new mother, and that she spoke no French, as well as suffering from dreadful problems with confidence and self-image. But her father’s bravery perhaps came to the surface, along with the pluck and practicality expected of her social class. She auditioned for the female lead in Slogan, directed and co-written (with Melvin van Peebles) by Pierre Grimblat, and won the part as Evelyne, a young British woman who has an affair with a French director, Serge Fabergé, at an advertising festival in Venice. Playing Fabergé was the 36-year-old singer-songwriter Serge Gainsbourg, whom at first Birkin hated. But after a night out in the clubs of Paris, which ended at the Hilton hotel where he was asked by the receptionist “Your usual room, M. Gainsbourg?”, she fell in love with him. (He passed out on the bed. She was too excited to sleep.)
Her life had changed in that evening-to-dawn, and one senses that she knew it. Gainsbourg was neither easy to be with nor attractive, not least in being physically filthy: he rarely washed and was a heavy drinker and smoker (though had no interest in drugs). On that first night, they had danced and he had stepped on her toes, leading Birkin to realise that he was not, as she had assumed, arrogant but shy. His whole persona was a defensive performance, and it is hard to overlook the fact that, as the child of Ukrainian Jewish émigrés, he had spent the Second World War first in Paris and then (the family using forged papers) in Limoges, wearing the yellow star of David prescribed by the German authorities. Gainsbourg had the kind of outrageous, off-beat charisma that only the French would revere without any hint of self-consciousness, but its effect was undoubted. Before he met Birkin, he had been having an affair with Brigitte Bardot, by then in her pomp as an international sex symbol.
Slogan was filmed in the summer of 1968, delayed by the nationwide rioting and disorder which seemed to presage wholesale revolution but by June had petered out with the Gaullists winning a crushing victory in the Assemblée Nationale. After the filming ended, Brikin was due to return to England, but she was cast in an Alain Delon psychological thriller, La Piscine. She played the 18-year-old daughter of one of the main characters, who is—somewhat inevitably—drawn towards Delon’s lead, although no physical intimacy takes place. Filming ran from August to October, and, unusually for the time, two versions, one in French and one in English, were shot alongside each other.
La Piscine, released in English as The Sinners, was well received by the critics. The Guardian summed up its unshakeably Gallic sensibility: “Erotic languour turns gradually into fear and then horror in this gripping and superbly controlled psychological thriller.” Box office returns in the UK were more muted, but Birkin was building a track record of rewarding, if not vastly demanding, performances as an ingénue with a shimmering undercurrent of sex. And, of course, now she had Gainsbourg.
Birkin and Gainsbourg never married, though rumours would always stalk them that they had. But in 1969 the couple produced the defining image of their relationship, when they recorded a sexually charged version of a song he had written two years before, Je t’aime… moi non plus. Gainsbourg had written it at the behest of his then-girlfriend, Brigitte Bardot, and the pair had recorded it in a cramped glass booth where they engaged in what one of the sound engineers described as “heavy petting”. But its explicit nature caused Bardot’s husband, Gunther Sachs, to demand it was withdrawn.
“an anti-fuck song about the desperation and impossibility of physical love”
Gainsbourg asked Birkin to record a new version of the song with him after they finished filming Slogan. She agreed, though admitted it was largely because “I didn’t want anyone else to sing it”. Having heard the 1967 recording with Bardot, she’d deemed it “so hot”, and so towards the end of 1968 they went to a studio in Marble Arch, not necessarily synonymous with brooding lust, and created a 4’22” clarion call to the sexual act. Birkin, asked by Gainsbourg to sing an octave higher than Bardot had “so you’ll sound like a little boy”, took heavy breathing to a new level and had to be told to tone it down by the sound engineers. Inevitable rumours sprang up that the pair had recorded it while actually having sex, but Gainsbourg reflected with a Gallic ruefulness: “thank goodness it wasn’t, otherwise I hope it would have been a long-playing record”. But, for all the furore over its sexual nature, its composer described it as “an anti-fuck song about the desperation and impossibility of physical love”.
It seems unfair to say so of an event which took place when Birkin was just short of 22, but this was the fulcrum of her career and, in some ways, her life. It fixed in place forever her image as a girlish-but-wanton sexual being – on the one hand impossibly young, slight and vulnerable, yet at the same time possessed of an air of knowingness and experience which at least matched that of the lascivious Gainsbourg. It established her as a star primarily in France, somehow already an émigrée from a country which was less stylish, less sophisticated and less free in its manners.
Try to imagine the kind of career Birkin might have had if she had returned to Britain as the 1960s became the 1970s. Can you honestly say she would never have appeared alongside Robin Askwith in a Confessions… film? Her charisma, which was singular but undeniable, was much more potent as a stranger in a strange land than it could ever have been among the people and places of her childhood, among the trite tribes of Kensington, Chelsea or Mayfair. Only among the French could her core of English gentry be exotic.
Was she trying to escape something? “The thing I love about France,” she told an interviewer around this time, “is that I don’t have to understand everything”. There was a lot of meaning in that sentence. She was more at liberty to be herself, or perhaps invent herself, in France than she would have been at home. She had no pattern to which she was expected to conform: provided she maintained the charming, artless Englishness which came to her naturally and satisfied her French hosts, she could do whatever her instincts told her. And at that time, they told her to cleave adoringly to Gainsbourg.
Birkin played a few roles in French cinema in the early 1970s, and contributed to Gainsbourg’s 1971 album Histoire de Melody Nelson, but the same year she gave birth to their daughter, Charlotte, who would have a successful career as an actress and singer, and she stopped working for a while, almost as if to catch her breath. When she returned to work, she never sought out pedestrian roles. She scrambled millions of male imaginations by playing Bardot’s lover Clara in Don Juan, or if Don Juan Were A Woman in 1973. It is a peculiar film, directed by Bardot’s ex-husband Roger Vadim, and it is a measure of the film and the director that he remarked “I was interested in the idea of seduction, not what happened in bed—though I would love to make a documentary on how they fucked”.
Vadim said something more profound and insightful when he talked about the dynamic between the characters played by Bardot and Birkin. “If there’s homosexuality between men, they have to be queer. But women can have relationships with other women without being dykes.” For her part, Birkin took the controversial story in her stride, and said she immediately accepted the idea of being in bed with Bardot. “She’s the most utterly perfect woman. There’s not a fault. God knows, I looked. Even her feet are pretty.” Don Juan was not received well by the critics on either side of the Channel. Some complimented Vadim’s image-making and cinematography, but Russell Davies, writing in The Observer, gave the ultimate British response: “I have seen as much passion, and almost as much flesh, at the Test match.”
A comfortable muse
For the rest of the 1970s, she pursued a comfortable career in the French film industry, with occasional guest appearances on a larger stage: she appeared in adaptations of two Agatha Christie stories: 1978’s Death on the Nile and Evil Under The Sun in 1982. At the same time, she recorded three albums—inevitably, one of them was called Lolita Go Home—many of them featuring songs written by Gainsbourg, but the decade was spent largely being Jane Birkin. She developed a distinct fashion aesthetic which on her was effortless, a Bohemian kaleidoscope of T-shirts, flared jeans and mini-dresses accompanied by the wicker basket she used instead of a handbag. It is hard to nail down the impression she gave because it changed almost with a blink or a change in the light: she could be rawly sexual, the clothes barely concealing tanned limbs and a flat, slender torso; she could seem sweetly bucolic and innocent, unaware of any carnal possibilities; and sometimes she appeared just supremely comfortable in herself, at ease in her world and in her relationship with Gainsbourg.
Birkin was also immortalised at this point as the artist’s muse. She was undeniably beautiful, and with long legs and a sylph-like figure she seemed taller still than her five-foot-eight; her long hair and heavy fringe were characteristic of the fashion of the time, and her slight diastema gave her a distinctive smile. It was all in sharp contrast to Gainsbourg, who described himself as “freakishly ugly”, with a hooked nose, hooded eyes, prominent ears and who went habitually unshaven (which was Birkin’s preference) and smoking.
Their lifestyle was self-consciously louche. Gainsbourg was a very heavy drinker who famously did not possess a driving licence: “you cannot drink and drive, and I have chosen”. Unlike some notorious drinks, he had an eclectic taste. He liked Krug champagne, mint juleps, Gibsons (essentially a martini in which the olive or lemon twist is replaced with a cocktail onion) and a whole swathe of liqueurs, as well as beer and wine. Birkin’s alcohol intake was less daunting but their routine was still shaped by the pursuit of intoxication: they would wake around 3.00 pm, when Birkin would collect the children from school and take them to a park, and then they would come home and the children would have dinner. While an au pair bathed them and put them to bed, the parents would go out to bars and clubs, and would return “with the dustman”, in time to see the children go to school, after which they would go to bed.
There is a strange irony that Birkin’s life with Gainsbourg ended because of boredom. They maintained the routine of partying, and gradually it became ossified. Eventually it was no longer one of four or five nightclubs, but always the Élysée Matignon in the Eight Arrondissement “and it was the Élysée Matignon until four in the morning because everyone gave Serge something to drink and it was just systematic and boring,” she told Vanity Fair years later. The process became like a dry, formalised waltz for Birkin, as her partner was lauded, persuaded to play the piano and plied with drinks. It suited Gainsbourg very well, since he was an alcoholic with no apparent desire to change. For Birkin, though, it palled, and she knew that she would have to drag him away as four o’clock in the morning drew near, and that she would have to tell people not to buy him any more drinks. “Now I feel like I was living with Frédéric Chopin going, ‘Hey, Frédéric, you’ve got to go home’,” she recalled with a wry shaft of wit.
The dream died an inevitable death. Birkin found she could, or would, no longer tolerate Gainsbourg’s drinking and the outbursts of temper and violence it brought on. Gainsbourg was shocked to the core—some felt he was never the same afterwards—but a profound connection remained between the two. They had burned together for as long as they could, perhaps too long, and it had consumed both of them. When Birkin published her diaries in 2021, reviewers dashed headlong to intone about the “toxic” nature of her relationship with Gainsbourg, but can one ever know the truth of a couple from the outside? It was true she had described him as “a very difficult man to live with”, and that he had sometimes hit her with a ruler when she could not sing a part to his satisfaction; and yet when she gave birth to her third daughter Lou, with her new partner, director Jacques Doillon, in 1982, he sent a parcel of clothes for the new baby, with a card signed “Papa Deux”. “He was so essential in our lives,” Birkin remembered. “I was proud of the relationship.” Maybe not so toxic after all.
Immortalised in song – and handbags
There is a sense that Birkin was more settled, as if, by ending her relationship with Gainsbourg, she had drawn a line under something, declared an achievement complete. She continued to sing and act, and in 1984 was nominated for a César for best actress for her role as Alma in The Pirate. But she was now confirmed in her fame simply for being Jane Birkin. When she found herself next to Jean-Louis Dumas, the chief executive of Hermès, on a Paris-London flight in 1983, she placed her famous Portuguese wicker basket in the overhead locker, but the contents spilled out. After she had recovered them all, she explained to Dumas that she had never found a weekend bag she liked, or that was large enough. The following year, under Dumas’s instruction, Hermés produced a soft leather bag called the Birkin; her status as a French icon, albeit an imported one, was not so much assured as demonstrated, and they became highly coveted status symbols.
Serge Gainsbourg died in 1991, just short of his 63rd birthday. A heart attack was the proximate cause but his health had been in a steep decline for some years. He had undergone a liver operation in 1989—he insisted it was unconnected to cirrhosis—and more heart trouble six months later. But as with so many stubborn or irredeemable alcoholics, it was simply a matter of time. Birkin was distraught, and her grief was magnified four days later when her father David died. They were two men who had, in her eyes, loved her without qualification, and it knocked her off her feet. “My world was left in chaos, silence and darkness. Serge is dead. Impossible… everything seems fuzzy but with the precision of a nightmare.” Her husband Jacques said later that he could not compete with her grief, and they separated the following year.
There would be one more great love, the distinguished novelist and reporter Olivier Rolin. In her memoirs, Birkin recalled thinking “Olivier will be my last love”. In sharp contrast to her relationship with Gainsbourg, that with Rolin would be almost entirely out of sight of the public. They met on a humanitarian visit to Sarajevo in 1995 and they were together from 1996 to 1997; she called him “Tiger”, and had wanted a baby with him, but Rolin had not wanted another child. He had grown up in Senegal, and was naturally restless. Even in her fifties, Birkin retained schoolgirl French, littered with errors and spoken with a clear English accent; some wondered if it had become an affectation, another manifestation of her eagerness to charm, while Rolin simply called it “the Birkin Creole language”.
When she parted from Rolin in 1997, she seemed to make the decision that she would henceforth be alone, living in Saint-Germain-de-Prés on the famously intellectual and bohemian Left Bank. To describe her as a local ‘celebrity’ would be far too vulgar a concept for Parisians to contemplate, but she was a familiar sight, instantly recognisable, still tall and slender. But challenges would begin to arrive. In 2002, she was diagnosed with leukaemia, which, happily, was susceptible to treatment, though the steroids she was prescribed made her, for the first time in her adult life, fat. But they worked, and she recovered for a while. The first illness, however, brought on another form of leukaemia which could only be treated by destroying her red blood cells, and at one point she was undergoing three transfusions a week.
Worse was to come. In 2013 her eldest daughter, the fashion photographer Kate Barry, died falling from the balcony of her fourth-storey apartment. Kate’s half-sister, Charlotte Gainsbourg maintained it could have been accidental and an open verdict was returned. However, Birkin accepted what was widely assumed: that Kate, who had endured long battles with alcohol and drugs, had committed suicide
Birkin was left desolate. Interviewed by The Times three and a half years later, she was still emerging from a cloak of grief. Asked how she had coped, her mournfully brilliant English answer was “Not very well.” But she went on, “Strangely enough, when you are shocked there is no emotion. It means that anything could have happened and I don’t think I’d even have batted an eyelid.”
Two years ago, Birkin suffered a minor stroke, though was reported to be recovering well. She was found dead at her home on 16 July 2023. She was 76 years old.
How do we sum up Jane Birkin? In the UK she was often forgotten, a memory from a sun-dappled and increasingly distant past. She had, after all, made her home in France in 1968, and eventually become a citizen of the Republic. Much about her was English until the end, from her accent to some of her sensibilities, and to the French she was le petite anglaise. Yet her career and her life, if one can distinguish the two, were wholly Gallic. Her glamour, simple yet devastating, her joie de vivre (though underpinned by English anxiety), her span of cultural expression, her ease at drifting between genres, and her effortless embrace of chanson français were idiosyncratic and inimitable.
What is most remarkable is how she created her own iconic status. She was a good actress, very fine at times, a distinctive singer held in great affection, a trend-setter, a campaigner of fervent belief and a muse to Gainsbourg of irreplaceable power. Yet these parts were tiny compared to the whole, and none would have sustained her fame on its own. What made her great, what made her an icon, the role at which she excelled, was simply being Jane Birkin.