CHRISTOPHER STEVENS: Jane Birkin's effortless style

Jane Birkin’s earthy sexuality, effortless style – and an unforgettable contribution to the world’s most erotic song Je T’Aime – turned her into a living legend… CHRISTOPHER STEVENS remembers the actress after she dies aged 76

The BBC decreed it should never be heard on its airwaves. The Pope deplored it. In Italy, when Phonogram Records released Jane Birkin’s highly sexually explicit duet with lover Serge Gainsbourg in 1969, the head of the company was thrown into jail.

Yet it thrilled the public, especially teenage boys, the world over and became the first banned single to reach the top of the UK charts — also the first foreign language song to do so — selling more than eight million copies.

And Birkin, who recorded the world’s most erotic record, Je T’Aime . . . Moi Non Plus, weeks after meeting the famously louche Gainsbourg, adored the No 1 hit and never disowned it.

 It was the song she wanted to be played at her funeral, she once said, with the curtains closing over her coffin to the sound of her ecstatic gasps and sighs. 

Yesterday, the French Press reported the actress and singer had been found dead at her home by her carer. She was 76, and had been fighting a long battle with cancer.

Jane Birkin (pictured in 1968), the actress and singer, was found dead at her home by her carer today 

Serge Gainsbourg pictured with Jane Birkin while they were dating (circa 1970)

But to generations of fans and especially to the French who adored her and embraced her as one of their own, she will always be the epitome of Gallic romance and earthy sexuality.

French president Emmanuel Macron said yesterday: ‘Because she embodied freedom, because she sang the most beautiful words of our language, Jane Birkin was a French icon.

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‘A complete artist, her voice was as sweet as her engagements were fiery. She bequeaths us tunes and images that will never leave us.’

And Anne Hidalgo, the mayor of Paris, called her ‘the most Parisian of the English,’ adding, ‘We will never forget her songs, her laughter or her incomparable accent .’

Of all her hits, Je T’Aime seemed to be the soundtrack of her life. Yet Gainsbourg, who was 18 years older than her, wrote it for his previous lover…Brigitte Bardot, who recorded it first. 

She begged him to withhold it because it made her playboy husband Gunther so jealous. The song’s title in English means I Love You…Me Neither.

The Birkin version was so overtly orgasmic that a rumour spread among French journalists that the couple had actually taped themselves having sex. Gainsbourg scoffed at the claim — if that were true, he said, Je T’Aime could never have been a single. It would have to be a long-playing record, at least.

A combination of philosopher, actor and songwriter as only a Frenchman could be, Gainsbourg met Birkin in Paris in 1968 on the set of a romantic movie called Slogan.

He wooed her with an extraordinary night on the town, taking her in turn to a Russian nightclub where he bribed the violinists to serenade her, then to a Mexican cafe where the American blues singer Big Joe Turner was performing, and finally to a transvestite club called Madame Arthur.

 ‘These gentlemen dressed up as ladies, who I had never seen the like of, came and sat on Serge’s knee,’ she reminisced years later. ‘After that, at dawn, we went to have a croissant on the Pigalle and all the prostitutes said hello to Serge. I just thought, Wow!’

There was, however, no sex on that first date. Gainsbourg, an unrestrained drinker, took her back to his apartment in the 7th Arrondissement and fell asleep.

But they were soon inseparable. Aged 22, Birkin was intimidated by the idea of replacing Bardot, France’s greatest living sex symbol, in his bed, but Gainsbourg admitted he had always been afraid of Bardot too. 

He felt safer, he said, with his new lover’s flat chest. Though she seemed the archetypal wide-eyed ingenue, a perpetual innocent, Birkin was already a mother and a divorcee when she met Gainsbourg.

Born in London in 1946, she grew up a tomboy, the daughter of actress Judy Campbell and a naval war hero, David Birkin, who wore an eye-patch and had fought alongside the French Resistance in World War II.

She went to a boarding school on the Isle of Wight, telling reporters a few years later: ‘There were no public schoolboys near us — just village boys, and we had hockey sticks to deal with them.’

At 15, she began to fall for older men. To attract the attention of a middle-aged man whose flat across the street overlooked her family’s front room, she practised ballet poses at the window ‘with a parrot on my shoulder’ – until her mother realised what she was up to. 

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Aged 17, she caught the eye of Graham Greene, who cast her as a deaf-mute in his play Carving A Statue. 

Always fond of a poetic turn of phrase, Birkin once said that the great novelist’s eyes ‘were so blue, it was like looking straight through to a blue sky through a skull’.

She followed that appearance with a 1965 West End musical, Passion Flower Hotel, co-starring with Pauline Collins and Francesca Annis as debutantes who set up a brothel and strip club at their finishing school. 

The show’s composer was John Barry, famous for the James Bond theme and 13 years her senior. After a brief romance, they married.

Within weeks, Birkin provoked more scandal with full-frontal nudity — and, shockingly, showing her pubic hair during a threesome in Michelangelo Antonioni’s 1966 arthouse thriller Blow-Up — goaded to perform naked by Barry, who complained that she always turned the lights out in their bedroom.

The following year, and still only 20, she had their daughter, Kate. Newsweek magazine profiled the couple, describing the composer as ‘John Barry, with his E-Type Jaguar and his E-Type wife’. 

But within a year Barry had left her for another woman. Birkin blamed herself: ‘I must have been a disaster in bed.’

Disillusioned with the British stage and the attentions of the Press, she decamped to Paris. 

Years later, she admitted she had needed to escape from the shadow of her mother, who had been celebrated as Noel Coward’s leading lady in plays such as Blithe Spirit. The 1940s ballad A Nightingale Sang In Berkeley Square was written for her.

‘My mother was a diva, so beautiful and so dark and ravishing. I felt like a mouse by her side, which is why the mouse went off to France. 

Jane Birkin and French singer-songwriter Serge Gainsbourg (right), at home in Paris

She used to say that if you’re 6 ft and glamorous like she was, no one asks if you’re all right, but with me they’re always concerned I’m about to faint so they look after me.’

To capitalise on the success of Je T’Aime, Gainsbourg persuaded Birkin to record more of his songs. They went on to make 15 albums together. 

She learned French from cassettes, augmented with the slang Serge delighted in teaching her, and they plunged into a complicated love affair, each as needy as the other.

‘After the misery of boarding school and my marriage to John Barry,’ she said, ‘it was incredible finding someone who found me beautiful and decidedly erotic. When a man loves you, it changes everything.’

Controlling and demanding, Gainsbourg twice set a date for the wedding but then avoided marrying her — playing on her hippyish contempt for the authorities and warning that French officials would insist on taking her blood and her fingerprints before permitting the ceremony.

They had a daughter together, Charlotte, born in 1971, but despite Birkin’s longing for a son, Gainsbourg was reluctant to have more children. 

‘I’m far too old to have a son. I would prefer to be young with a son. Anyway, I already have children,’ he said, alluding to his two children — a son and a daughter — from his previous relationship with Francoise-Antoinette Pancrazzi, known as Beatrice.

Their public rows became the talk of Paris. Once, in a restaurant, he emptied her favourite straw basket over the floor, sneering at the contents. 

She threw her dessert in his face and stormed out into the Boulevard St Germain. Dashing down the riverside steps, she leapt into the Seine.

She nearly didn’t manage to clamber out: ‘There was a whirlpool, which made it tricky.’ When she did struggle on to the bank, ‘my top, which was Saint Laurent, hand-made, had shrunk to nothing. 

Serge, of course, was absolutely delighted. We gaily walked home arm in arm. He was, you might say, a fan of the grand gesture.’

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Alcohol fuelled their passions. Desperate for people to drink with him, even after the clubs closed, Gainsbourg would take bottles of champagne to the local police station and regale the gendarmes with dirty jokes before inviting them back to his apartment, where Birkin would serve breakfast.

His sexual demands sometimes scared her. More than once, he chained her unclothed to radiators in the flat to photograph her. ‘That might have been quite hard for the children,’ she admitted.

In 1971 she allowed herself to be dipped naked into plastic, to create a mould for a sculpture by a French artist. 

The lifesize model was bought by painter Salvador Dali for £1,000 (£13,500 today). She nursed Gainsbourg after his first heart attack in 1973, but he refused to moderate his drinking or 100-a-day cigarette habit. 

And though the Bohemian romance of his escapades enthralled her, Birkin was drained by his melancholy moods and angry outbursts.

He revelled in cruelty, once inscribing a record to her with the words, ‘Take women for what they are not and leave them for what they are.’ She refused to speak to him for days.

‘I began to change. I no longer corresponded to the ‘doll’ person that Serge wanted,’ she said.

In her 30s, she cut her hair, to Gainsbourg’s disgust. When she left him, in 1981, she felt all France was aghast at her audacity in dumping their eternal enfant terrible –— and, worse still, leaving him for another man, the director Jacques Doillon.

Gainsbourg took his revenge by getting together with the actress Bambou (Caroline von Paulus), and having a son with her. 

He also recorded a duet called Lemon Incest with his teenage daughter Charlotte, releasing a disturbingly suggestive video with the song that appalled even his most supportive French fans.

As Gainsbourg’s public image disintegrated in a series of drunken chatshow appearances, Birkin remained a vocal supporter and part-time carer.

‘We sat on benches and nattered. I took care of him, so he wouldn’t go back to his cold house. In the end, we were like old friends. I loved being his confidante, that suited me fine.’

When he died aged 62 in 1991, wracked by cancer, cardiac disease and liver damage, she was bereft.

Reflecting the childlike elements to their love affair, she placed her favourite stuffed toy in his coffin — a doll called Munkey that had gone everywhere with her since she was a small girl.

It had a special significance: Gainsbourg once photographed Birkin topless, hugging the toy to protect her modesty, for the cover of album Histoire de Melody Nelson. For more than two decades, she performed and recorded his songs.

She also continued to act. Though her early roles after moving to Paris were in sex comedies, she went on to appear in the Agatha Christie adaptations Death On The Nile and Evil Under The Sun with Peter Ustinov, and in 1990 starred opposite Dirk Bogarde in These Foolish Things.

In Don Juan in 1973, she filmed a naked bedroom scene with Brigitte Bardot, directed by Bardot’s husband Roger Vadim.

‘Bardot was extremely generous to me, which can’t have been easy in view of our shared interest in Serge,’ she recalled.

‘In bed, we didn’t know what to do, so we thought we ought to sing a song. Bardot said, ‘Why couldn’t we sing Je T’Aime… Moi Non Plus?’ I refused, and finally, we sang My Bonnie Lies Over The Ocean.’

READ MORE: Video: Emmanuel Macron leads tributes to ‘French icon’ Jane Birkin who ‘incarnated liberty and sang the most beautiful words in our language’ as singer and actress dies aged 76 – as floral tributes are laid outside the late star’s Parisian home 

Birkin was also a true style icon, known for her quirky and understated fashion sense that was the epitome of aspirational Parisian chic. She required minimal cosmetic enhancement of that unique, ‘wild-child’ face.

She was famously celebrated by the fashion house Hermes, which designed what would become an iconic handbag for her, after she accidentally spilled the contents of the straw basket she was rarely without over the company chairman, Jean-Louis Dumas, on an Air France flight.

The Birkin bag became a lucrative investment: in 2020, one in Niloticus crocodile skin, embellished with white gold and diamonds, sold at auction for £230,000. ‘In New York,’ she joked last year to the Mail’s Joanne Hegarty, ‘people often ask whether I am Birkin the Bag, and I say, ‘Yes, and the bag is going to sing now!’

She had a third daughter, Lou, with Doillon, but the relationship broke down in 1991, with him saying he was unable to ‘compete with her grief for Gainsbourg’. 

More tragedy followed in 2013 when her oldest daughter Kate, a fashion photographer, died in a fall from her fourth-storey Paris flat.

Devastated, Birkin ceased to write the diary she had kept her adult life, and which provided the material for two volumes of memoirs.

 But she never stopped performing Gainsbourg’s music: ‘I find it difficult morally to sing songs that weren’t his.’

Audiences flocked to see her. At one rock festival, she opened the show for Lou Reed and had the crowd singing along to Gainsbourg’s ballads. 

But she always claimed the fans came to pay homage to her lover, never to her.

Jane Birkin married John Barry (right), famous for the James Bond theme and 13 years her senior

She wrote a play inspired by their affair, a two-hander called Oh Sorry, Were You Asleep? For all her own talent and fame, she always believed her most important role was to mirror what she believed was his genius.

Birkin never regarded this as strange, or even interesting. ‘I was very boring,’ she insisted. ‘I got married [to John Barry]. I had a baby at 19, I went to France, fell in love with the main actor, Serge — very conventional.

‘We stayed together for 13 years, then I walked out — that’s conventional too.’

If that’s true, no conventional and boring woman ever lived a more extraordinary life.

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