Full of love stories and daring adventures – her life could be a movie! Jane Birkin lent her voice to one of the most sensual and erotic songs ever, but the singer and actress are much more than the interpreter of “Je t’aime… moi non plus.” A pioneer of a style that defied conventions, she was a fan of wicker baskets, which she used in the city, and gave her name to one of the most iconic handbags from the Hermès fashion house.
Her look remained almost unchanged throughout her life, with long hair and her inseparable fringe accentuating her blue eyes. Jane Birkin was a living legend until the day of her death in July 2023. Today, she is a contemporary myth. Birkin is much more than the singer of “Je t’aime… moi non plus” and the personality behind the handbag named after her by Hermès. Jane, representing the image of a sexy, open-minded, free, and emancipated woman, has a life story with successes and triumphs, applause and controversies, many adventures, frustrated loves, betrayals or overcoming obstacles, but also marked by disappointments and illnesses.
Love from her parents and rebellion
Jane Birkin was born in London in 1946. Her mother was the actress Judy Campbell (a star and a woman of great beauty), and her father, David Birkin, was a lieutenant-commander in the British Royal Navy. The upper-class couple raised their children with love and respect for aristocratic origins. Jane was a descendant of King Charles II, and the whole family respected the British monarchy. As a child, Jane even offered a bouquet of flowers to Queen Elizabeth II when the queen visited her grandfather’s lace factory. Later, she was presented to the sovereign again during the premiere of the film “Meurtre au soleil” in 1982, based on an Agatha Christie novel, and during the centenary of the Entente Cordiale in 2004.
The artistic influence of her mother and relative Sophie Hunth, a personality in theater and opera, was decisive for Jane and her brother, who would become a director. However, the creative vein did not make her extravagant; on the contrary, as she described herself years later, “I was a shy English girl.” The family lived in the elegant Chelsea neighborhood, in a happy existence that was interrupted when she was sent to a boarding school on the Isle of Wight. It was a radical break from the calm life she had, and she was referred to not by her name but as 99, the number of her room. The environment was hostile, she was teased for her tomboy appearance, and poor grades followed. Her parents were sensitive to her pain, but instead of removing her from the boarding school, they encouraged her to write about her sorrows, a habit she never abandoned. This writing experience would lead to “Munkey Diaries” in 2018, a book recounting her life between 1957 and 1982, and a year later, she decided to make more revelations in “Post Scriptum,” covering the years from 1982 to 2013.
Her career began when she was still a minor, as a model, and at the age of 17, the teenager met composer John Barry, the author of James Bond soundtracks, who invited her to join the musical comedy “Passion Flower Hotel.” “I wasn’t the best in the casting, but he saw something in me.” It was with John Barry, thirteen years her senior, that she would experience her first love. They got married in 1965. Despite parental objections and rumors of Barry being a womanizer, Jane, with unwavering determination, ignored them. “My father didn’t want me to marry as a minor, but I didn’t listen.” She didn’t give up on her dream and started a family. In the meantime, she starred in her film “Blow-Up” in 1966, where she appeared nude. Imagine the impact at the time! A year later, she gave birth to her first daughter, named Kate Barry, but, unhappy in love due to her husband’s infidelities, she decided to divorce a year later. She returned to her parents’ home and began looking for more opportunities in cinema. That year, she filmed “Wonderwall.”
Forbidden sexy music
Wanting more, Jane tried her luck in France. In 1968, she met Serge Gainsbourg, the former partner of the legendary Brigitte Bardot, with whom she would achieve fame and international recognition. It was with this singer and actor that she would form a musical and romantic partnership that would cause a stir in the 1960s and 70s. The film “Slogan” in 1968, their first collaboration, marked the beginning of their relationship. It is said that at the beginning of filming, they didn’t get along well, and he teased her English accent, but this “tension” was only at the beginning. The director of “Slogan,” Pierre Grimblat, believed in the potential of the two actors but noticed the discomfort between them. He then had the idea to invite them to go out on a Friday night at Maxim’s, a mythical space in Parisian nightlife where the atmosphere between them became more relaxed. Afterward, Serge invited Jane to dance. “They only played slow songs. He stepped on my feet, and I loved it, just as I liked his shyness and clumsiness,” Jane would recount regarding her first outing with Gainsbourg. The coup de foudre happened there because on Monday, they arrived at the set holding hands. “Each had come out of a strong relationship. Each had their wounds. He with Brigitte [Bardot], me with John Barry. Together, we took care of each other, created a great affection, and in a lasting way. For life,” said Birkin.
The two would become a legendary and colossal duo, as the press wrote at the time, not only praising the actors’ talent but also the couple they formed. The first album of the singer followed, and in 1969, Jane and Serge starred in the controversial song “Je t’aime… moi non plus,” a duet that would generate a lot of talk. The almost whispered song, with an explicit sexual tone and small erotic moans, sweet and sharp, was written by Serge for Bardot but would be Birkin who made it famous. At the time, a true anthem to sex without love, desire, and freedom, “Je t’aime… moi non plus” was a scandal that was banned in several countries, including the Vatican and Portugal, as it was considered an attack on the morals of a country immersed in Salazar’s regime.
Serge Gainsbourg was a true milestone for Jane. He was one of the most important figures in French chanson, famous for his works that always had a touch of scandal and provocation. Serge wrote for big names in music such as Juliette Greco, Françoise Hardy, Brigitte Bardot (the famous “Bonnie & Clyde”), or Vanessa Paradis.
Jane’s parents liked Serge. “After seeing me so sad with John Barry, they finally saw me happy.” They formed one of the most iconic couples in the artistic world until they separated in 1980, after twelve years of marriage. “Jane left home because of my failure. I committed many abuses,” admits Gainsbourg.
Even separated, Jane and Serge continued to work and remained united by affection that went beyond their daughter, actress Charlotte Gainsbourg, who would later produce the documentary “Jane by Charlotte,” dedicated to her mother.
Serge continued to write for his ex-wife until his death in 1991, and one of Jane’s most successful albums, “Baby alone in Babylone,” became a gold record. “Arabesque,” released in 2002, also achieved gold record status.
After the age of 40, Jane made her debut on stage and faced the audience, vibrating with her successes. The shows at Bataclan, Casino de Paris, and Olympia were a success.
Cinema and music never strayed from Jane’s path, and she fell in love again, this time with filmmaker Jacques Doillon, during the filming of “La fille prodigue,” with whom she would marry for the third time and have a daughter, model and actress Lou Doillon, whose godfather is Serge, Birkin’s ex.
With Doillon, Jane would lead a life completely different from her second husband’s. “In our first year of marriage, I asked Jacques where we were going, and he told me, ‘Nowhere.’ With Serge, we went out to Maxim’s until four in the morning. With Jacques, I felt like I had entered a convent. But at the same time, we rode bicycles, had picnics… so many things that I had previously ignored.” However, the couple eventually separated. Her last love was the writer Olivier Rolin, but the relationship also did not work out.
Failure in her private life did not make her stop! Her long career also included comedic roles like “La moutarde me monte au nez” or “La course à l’échalote.” Her last film was “Boxes” in 2007, and a year later, she recorded “Enfants d’Hier,” her last album, but she would still film “La femme et le TGV,” a short film, in 2016.
In the various countries where she performed, Jane Birkin also visited Portugal. In 2017, she performed the show “Gainsbourg Symphonic” in the gardens of the Gulbenkian Foundation in Lisbon.
The straw basket and the Birkin bag
Uncomplicated, the singer represented a breath of fresh air in a still closed society, whose winds of change were already beginning to be felt. Standing at 1.73 meters tall, Jane became sexy but did not cultivate the image of a sex bomb. Her unmistakable voice gave her charisma, as did her undeniable androgynous style, fringe, and separated teeth. Wearing jeans and unisex T-shirts, Jane was a cosmopolitan who did not conform to the world of that time. She fought to end the death penalty and became an advocate for women’s rights and an activist for refugees and other humanitarian and ecological issues.
The Birkin bag, one of the most famous models from the luxury house Hermès, bears her name thanks to an unexpected fact. In the 1980s, on a flight from Paris to London, Jane dropped her purse, and her personal items scattered on the floor, all in plain view. Sitting next to her on the plane was Jean-Louis Dumas, the then director of Hermès, who helped her gather her belongings. Without knowing who she was talking to, she commented that she would like to have a “large bag to carry many things.” Hermès asked the singer for permission to use her name, and after accepting, the contract established an annual royalty, making her earn a fortune over the years. This is how the Birkin Bag was born, one of the most desired and exclusive models in the world. Although many may not know this story or the origin of the name of this coveted item, Jane became a fashion icon and a symbol of French excellence and savoir-faire. She amusingly recounted a story that confused her name with the Hermès model: “When I go to America to sing, they ask me, ‘Birkin? Like the bag?’ and I reply: ‘Yes, of course, and now the bag is going to sing.'”
But Jane’s aesthetic influence did not only impact the luxury market. On another scale, Jane also helped make the wicker basket famous, which she used as an accessory in the city when it was only used in the countryside and by the lower classes for storage. One day, her third husband “purposefully ran over it with the car,” as she recounted, without revealing whether it was because he didn’t like the basket or if it was in a moment of anger between the couple. Unintentionally or unwillingly, Jane became a style muse or, to use a modern expression, an influencer, in a time still far from social media. The bohemian spirit combined with her creativity always went hand in hand.
Heartbreaks and personal dramas
Recognition came from all sides, and success, although not sought, was not denied either. She was pleased to receive the Order of the British Empire medal from then-Prince Charles, now the King of England, in 2001 because, even though she lived in France, Jane Birkin never forgot that her origins were in Great Britain.
Her life also involved overcoming health challenges, and in recent times, she was very fragile. In 2012, she suffered acute pericarditis, a scare that would be nothing compared to the death of her eldest daughter in 2013. Kate Barry, a photographer who had lived amidst strong addictions, fell from a fourth floor and did not survive the injuries. “When my daughter died, I didn’t know what to do (…). I lived a parallel life.” In 2017, leukemia, as she revealed herself, brought her more suffering, but she fought, and whenever possible, she liked to go to the theater, which now, more than ever, had a therapeutic function for her. “Because beautiful things can help you live,” she confided.
In 2021, she suffered a stroke, and since then, she lived practically withdrawn but was aware of who she was and what she represented. A few months before leaving the world of the living, forced to cancel a show, she wrote to the fans: “I love being with you. You are sorely missed.”
She died at her home in Paris at the age of 76, but Jane Birkin, the favorite Englishwoman of the French, did not truly die because those who love her music and consider her a cult actress will not forget her. Isn’t it the great ones that history remembers?
By: Alberto Miranda