Monday, 23 September 2013

My sister Jane Birkin"s love affair with Serge Gainsbourg

I was thrashed more times than any other boy at school, and every holiday was

marred by the arrival of my dreadful report. Shaking his head, my saddened

father would entreat me to try to do better thereafter, to which I willingly

– and genuinely – pledged my solemn promise, only to fall from grace within

hours of the new term’s commencement. It was not that I intentionally broke

the school rules – I was simply oblivious to them. Jane, however, was a

model student. ‘A joy to have in the school, unfailingly helpful and kind,’

my father read out loud from her glowing reports.

But the fact that we were in many ways polar opposites never caused any rift

or jealousy between us: such things did not penetrate our bubble.

Until she was 15 Jane was as much a brother as a sister. She was far braver

than me – she also looked like a boy, albeit a very fetching one, with short

hair and a flat body, and was never interested in dolls, preferring the

company of a stuffed monkey, which became as real to us as if he had been

made of flesh and fur instead of felt and cotton wool. Misspelt Munckey

would always send his love in her longed-for letters to me at boarding


But then one holiday the dread moment arrived (that moment when Louis Jourdan

cries out in bewildered awe and dawning delight, ‘Oh where oh where did Gigi

go?’). We were going to one of those ghastly Christmas dances to which

parents of our station and generation were wont to dispatch their children.

I was 16, Jane 15. Waiting on the landing, I looked up to see a dazzling

beauty descend the stairs, her hair piled high, wearing a short turquoise

dress. ‘It’s over,’ I said.

Jane Birkin, photographed by her brother, Andrew, 1964.

That was in 1963, by which time I had wormed my way into the film business (I

had fallen madly in love with Hayley Mills while watching her first film,

Tiger Bay, at school, and assumed that becoming a dir­ector would give me my

best shot at winning her). Having cut my tea-boy teeth on a couple of

forgotten films in England, I set my sights on hiking to Hollywood – and

Hayley. I bought a 35mm camera for the journey, and after six months of

mooning around America, surviving on the proceeds of selling fake Beatles

autographs forged as and when hunger struck, I reached my Tinseltown goal.

Hayley was there, making a film for Disney, but once it was over she was

gone, leaving me to pine for her, for Jane and for English rain.

By Christmas I was home, to find Jane on the stage, playing a deaf-mute in

Graham Greene’s Carving a Statue, followed by Passion Flower Hotel – a

musical comedy about a gaggle of English schoolgirls trying to lose their

virginity to the boys in the school next door. It was not long before Jane

was losing hers to the composer of the piece – one John Barry, better known

for his James Bond scores. Against all advice, Jane succumbed to John’s

proposal of marriage that summer; stowing my jealousy, I couldn’t resist

kissing her on the lips at Heathrow, just as they were about to set off for

Rome on their honeymoon. Jane later told me that John refused to speak to

her for the entire flight. I was delighted.

Birkin with her eldest daughter, Kate, in Majorca, 1967.

After working on a film with Hayley – an unhappy arrangement, since she was

the star and I still a tea-boy – I got a job as a runner on a mysterious

science-fiction film being directed by Stanley Kubrick, 2001: A Space

Odyssey. For weeks I vegetated in the production office, but following a

lucky break he dispatched me to Scotland in a helicopter to shoot alien

landscapes, and thence to Africa, in 1967, to find and photograph locations

in the Namib Desert for the opening sequence. There I got a telegram to say

Jane had had a baby, followed by further details in a letter: ‘I think we’re

going to call her Kate as she looks like a Kate with her mousy soft hair

elegant hands feet she’s got a terrible temper, she’s screaming

as I write this – all she wants is food food food – you’ll love her!’

Later that year Jane and John broke up. I can’t pretend I was too upset,

although it saddened me to see Jane unhappy. After a brief interlude working

with the Beatles (who wryly demanded a share of my forged-autograph spoils),

by the following spring I was back with Kubrick, this time on his aborted

attempt to film the life of Napoleon. My mission was to follow in the

tyrant’s footsteps, starting in Paris. Jane was also in Paris, with Kate,

making a low-budget French film about which she complained bitterly.

‘He’s horrible!’


‘Serge Bourguignon! The man in the film with me. He’s meant to be my lover but

he’s so arrogant and snobbish and he absolutely despises me!’

A family party in St Tropez, 1968, where her parents met Gainsbourg for

the first time

But days later Jane asked me to join them for dinner. For my part, it was love

at first sight. Serge was so utterly different from anyone I had ever met:

shy and flamboyant by turns, with a boy-like lust for fun and a scabrous

sense of humour. He could speak little English, and my French was no better

than Jane’s, yet we managed to have a lively debate about Napoleon,

communism, and the student riots that were then gripping Paris. Serge was no

fan of any of these, and doubtless attributed my own enthusiasm to youthful

naivety. But for all his capitalist airs, Serge was a true socialist:

instead of using a wily accountant to save him money, once a year he would

walk down to his local tax office and pay his taxes – in full.

I began to gather highlights of his history: his parents had fled the Russian

Revolution in 1917 and finally wound up in Paris, where his father – a

brilliant pianist – was reduced to playing Chopin in casinos and

transvestite bars. Serge lightly recounted how he had spent most of the war

up a tree, hiding from the Nazis (his sister Jacqueline claims that it was

one night at most). Being Jewish, he had had to wear a yellow star pinned to

his coat – which his mother would carefully iron, telling him to wear it

with pride.

Gainsbourg composing Je suis venu te dire que je m’en vais in 1974

At the end of July 1968 Jane and Serge

headed south to St Tropez, because Jane had landed a part alongside Alain

Delon in La Piscine. This seemed like a good opportunity to combine work

with pleasure and head south myself to photograph Toulon – the scene of

Bonaparte’s first victory against the English. Our parents came to visit –

it was their introduction to Serge – and as I was by now in the habit of

carrying a camera wherever I went, I felt no inhibition about snapping away.

Our parents’ love for Serge was as immediate and spontaneous as my own. Not

that our parents were exactly good examples of middle-class normality: our

mother, Judy Campbell, had become Noël Coward’s leading lady during the

Second World War after her then-boyfriend had penned A Nightingale Sang in

Berkeley Square for her, bringing her the same kind of celebrity that

another song would soon be bringing Jane, albeit without the notoriety. Our

father had joined the Royal Navy during the war and navigated motor torpedo

boats across the Channel – without radar on moonless nights – to rescue

allies stranded in occupied France. Having suffered appalling eye injuries

as a teenager, which had led to permanent pain and double vision, he briefly

tried farming before moving to Chelsea, where he took up painting, as well

as helping former convicts to rehabilitate. It was not surprising that Serge

should take to this odd family with brazen relish.

‘Corny capers’ in Oxford, 1969

I set off for Milan in September, following the route of Bonaparte’s Italian

campaign. Meanwhile Jane and Serge had gone to Nepal, where Jane played a

hippie in Les Chemins de Katmandou – and where they both got so stoned that

they never dared repeat the experience. In mid-December Kubrick’s Napoleon

met its Waterloo when MGM put his project on hold. Reluctantly I returned to

England, where Serge was about to get his first taste of a traditional

family Christmas. Jane cautiously produced a demo LP that she and Serge had

recorded and played it to us. Only later did she come up to visit me alone,

clutching the demo. There was another song on the album, one she had not

dared to play in front of our parents: Je t’aime… moi non plus.

Gainsbourg and Kate in Bladon churchyard, 1969

In 1969 the new year brought the news that MGM had pulled the plug on Napoleon

for good. To learn something about film editing, I took a job in the cutting

rooms at Pinewood Studios, but not before gasping a last breath of freedom

in France with Jane and Serge, holed up near Deauville. That night Serge and

I played chess, the first of many games. He was undoubtedly the better

player when sober, but I had the advantage once the wine began to flow. He

liked to play for money, and Jane was less than pleased to note how often he

would wind up drunk at the end of a game while I counted my winnings. On the

surface we were polar opposites: I was a deeply antisocial socialist,

whereas Serge was a gregarious capitalist – or so he seemed. But alone with

him, I caught my first real glimpse of his Russian melancholy and essential

loneliness, despite his surface gaiety. As Jane later wrote to me, ‘Serge

has no friends. All the names in his fat address book are business relations

or past mistresses – but not one real friend.’

Reluctantly I returned to England, where I became so absorbed in Apollo 11’s

flight to the moon that I barely realised that Je t’aime had been released,

but tracking its steady climb up the hit parade became as thrilling as

watching Saturn V lifting off from Kennedy Space Center, and by the time

Armstrong took his one small step, the main obst­acle to the top slot was

Creedence Clearwater Revival’s Bad Moon Rising. By the beginning of August

the Vatican had banned the song for its overt eroticism, and the BBC quickly

followed suit, thereby creating a cause célèbre and propelling it to the top

of the charts.

Gainsbourg and Kate in Bladon churchyard, 1969, ‘a foretaste of Stan the


A few weeks earlier Jane had rung to ask me to take photographs of her and

Serge for a French glossy magazine. I retained a few trappings from my

Kubrick days, including my Pentax and GT6, so I drove to Oxford, where she

was filming May Morning. There was a night shoot in progress, in which Jane

seemed to be dancing one moment and being ravaged the next. Serge sat

disconsolately in the wings, making notes for an album that after two years’

gestation became Histoire de Melody Nelson.

Serge had the shoot all worked out. ‘Nothing too subtle,’ he said. We sought

out the Oxford bus depot, deserted at the weekend, and bribed the watchman

to turn a blind eye while Serge took to the wheel of a double-decker with

Jane at his side. Serving her a large hot-dog was the follow-up, before

heading for Oxford’s venerable seats of learning. All pretty corny stuff,

but what larks we had, spiced as always by Serge’s sardonic wit and sense of


Charlotte with her father, 1979

The next day we went to Bladon churchyard as Jane and I wanted to see the

grave of Sir Winston Churchill. Kate was with us, and Serge suddenly

conceived the notion of acting out her worst nightmare – a sort of preview

of his 1990 film Stan the Flasher. With Kate happily playing his victim,

Serge crept among the tombstones, then – his eyeballs rolling and limbs

flailing – he pounced and carried her off to her doom.

In all, a wonderful weekend, shattered on Sunday night by the news that Sharon

Tate – a friend of Jane’s and mine – had been murdered in Los Angeles. We

knew then that the 1960s honeymoon was over.

The new decade began well for me: I was finally being paid to direct, albeit

in the second unit on a small movie for David Puttnam. This led him to give

me my first commission as a scriptwriter – on a musical with Bob Dylan in

mind. One of the few joys of writing is not being tied to any particular

location, and as Jane and Serge were making Romance of a Horsethief in

Yugoslavia with Eli Wallach and Yul Brynner (our Magnificent Seven heroes

from childhood), where better to hole up for a few weeks? I drove from

England to the little town of Ilok, where they were entrenched with Kate in

a huge castle overlooking the Danube. As Yul B and EI Wallop (as Kate

christened him) had their rooms down the corridor, entertainment was

guaranteed and little writing done.

Charlotte being photographed by her mother, 1979

The adventure extended to several months when Jane and Serge went on to make a

Yugoslav war film, way off the beaten track in the Serbian hinterland. The

producer gave them a soulless modern house on the edge of a village called

Gacko, in which I took happy refuge on their kitchen sofa, tapping away on

my portable Olivetti while they engaged with thespian Nazis. Most evenings

Serge and I would play chess, with more or less success on my part thanks to

a large supply of Russian vodka.

After a month in Gacko, Serge suggested we drive to Dubrovnik for the weekend.

He booked us into a romantic hotel overlooking the harbour, then we went

shopping and bought an enormous toy train set, which we soon had running

between our two bedrooms. When Serge wasn’t shooting, he worked on his

Melody Nelson album, which turned out to be a triumph, a symphonic poem that

I thought the most wonderful thing I had ever heard. Melody seemed to

epitomise the two sides to Serge’s Jekyll and Hyde personality – the cynic

and the romantic, in constant oscillation with one another, but never a

tepid compromise between the two. The album cover depicted Jane, hiding her

four-month pregnancy behind the symbol of her childhood, Munckey.

Playboy was not a magazine I regularly indulged in, but faced with a

fortnight’s stint on location in Germany, I equipped myself with a copy. In

addition to the fleeting distractions of Miss June, it contained a long

interview with a man I had never heard of – Albert Speer, Hitler’s architect

and armaments minister. By the time we reached Berlin, I knew what my next

project had to be. As it happened, David Puttnam had read the same interview

and felt exactly as I did. Six weeks later we were cruising down an autobahn

to meet Speer in his Heidelberg eyrie, liberated after 20 years in Spandau

and now enjoying the fruits of fame derived from his autobiography, Inside

the Third Reich. We found him to be in fine fettle, exuding the same

insidious charm he cast on Hitler, the Playboy interviewer – and us. When we

left next day Speer blushingly asked if Jane and Serge would sign a copy of

Je t’aime for him. Later I popped the question to Jane, who thought it a tad

tactless to ask Serge, given his Jewish pedigree, but in the event he was

only too happy to sign, doubtless relishing the irony. A couple of years

later Serge made his album Rock Around the Bunker and gave me a copy to send

to Speer.

‘Kate indulges Charlotte’s passion for dressing-up,’ 1977

By July I was working with Speer in Heidelberg, writing a script based on his

memoirs. Then a telephone call came to say that Jane was due to give birth

at any moment, so I hoofed it back to London, where I found Serge pacing up

and down the hospital corridor, knee-deep in Gitanes butts. We went to the

pub across the road, and by the time we got back to the hospital, Charlotte

had arrived, with Kate in attendance. Serge was ecstatic.

The following summer Jane and Serge took a chateau near St Tropez, big enough

to house both their extended families. This now included Nana, a bull

terrier frequently mistaken for a pig, compared with which Serge felt

beautiful. Whenever she felt pangs of homesickness, Jane would head across

the Channel with Serge, Kate and Charlotte in tow. Occasionally I made trips

to France, including one in 1975 to make a brief appearance in Serge’s film

Je t’aime moi non plus as a punk motorcyclist – a role that wound up on the

cutting-room floor. That winter I spent New Year’s Eve with Serge and Jane

at Maxim’s in Paris, where Jane secreted a few monogrammed pieces of

crockery into her voluminous wicker basket – a precursor of the Birkin bag,

which was designed by Hermès in 1981, after she told the company’s chief

executive of her difficulty in finding a leather bag large enough. As we

were leaving bleary-eyed in the dawn someone stopped her for an autograph.

Jane put down the top-heavy basket, whereupon it capsized, and, to her

toe-curling embarrassment, out rolled a dozen saucers and plates across the

dining-room floor. The head waiter nonchalantly gathered them up and handed

them back to Jane. ‘A gift from Maxim’s. If you require more, you only have

to ask,’ he said.

Gainsbourg with the bull terrier Nana, 1977 (‘Serge felt their profiles

perfectly complemented each other’)

In November 1977 my first child, David, was born – a bright-eyed joy, and

Jewish to boot, thanks to his American mother, Lisa – a fact that elicited

some light-hearted jealousy in Serge, since Charlotte could never be so,

given Jane’s gentile status. One evening I played a new LP of Mussorgsky’s

Boris Godunov, extolling the virtues of digital recording. Serge was less

than impressed and asked whether I had ever heard Feodor Chaliapin, the

Russian bass. The next day he tracked down a copy of Chaliapin singing Boris

in 1921. Despite the hiss and crackle of antiquity, Chaliapin’s voice

resonated with an emotion entirely absent in the pristine digital recording.

Later, and a little drunk, Serge listened again to Chaliapin on headphones,

his face racked with sublime suffering. It is an image that has survived in

my memory more clearly than any photograph.

Although not apparent at the time, the rhythm of our lives was in one of those

periodic shifts that in retrospect mark the end of an era: in the case of

poor Nana, terminally so. Then our sister, Linda, left the parental nest and

married, with Serge in attendance wearing elegant attire and a sardonic


I moved in with Bee, the mother of my next two boys, Anno and Ned, while Jane

and Serge returned to France, more or less for good. I still visited them

whenever I had the chance, the last occasion being in July 1979, ostensibly

for Charlotte’s birthday. She was about to turn eight, and was as mysterious

and secretive as Kate was extravagantly wild. Jane had bought an old

presbytère in Normandy, a place where she could impose her own taste rather

than forever acquiesce to Serge’s style. Here Kate and Charlotte held court

during the holidays, redistributing flowers among neglected gravestones in

the local cemetery, or playing with their pet rabbits. The country life was

never really Serge’s thing, and after a week or so he would be hankering for

the city.

After 10 years together, Jane still loved him, but her patience with his

alcoholic bouts was beginning to wear thin, especially when he became

aggressive. The following year they separated. For Jane it was a new

beginning – with Jacques Doillon, with their daughter, Lou, and with Serge,

too, who remained as close a friend as ever. Only then did her dormant

potential begin to blossom, into the politically and socially activated

person she’s become.

But for me their break-up was the end of my special relationship with Serge,

and although we met several times thereafter, it was never with quite the

same sense of clandestine intimacy. I last saw him in Paris at the end of

the 1980s. We went out to dinner, then repaired to his house on the rue de

Verneuil. Although little had changed, the place seemed somewhat soulless

without Jane, Kate and Charlotte.

Serge was the love of Jane’s life, and when he died, in 1991, her grief was

agonising to behold, made even more painful by the death of our father two

days later. It therefore seemed fitting that she should bury a part of

herself in the coffin with Serge: her beloved Munckey.

Jane Serge – a Family Album (Taschen, £34) by Andrew Birkin is

available for £31.50 plus £1.35 pp from Telegraph Books

(0844-871 1514;

My sister Jane Birkin"s love affair with Serge Gainsbourg

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