In the 1970s Jane Birkin and Serge Gainsbourg charmed and scandalised with their explicit love affair. Here, Jane’s brother, Andrew Birkin, recalls their unconventional English childhood, and his own relationship with France’s most glamorous couple.
Serge Gainsbourg — the eccentric French singer, songwriter, actor, poet, composer & director — never conforming to one genre or another, he was revolutionary and progressive, and is regarded as a legend of French music and cinema, as well as one of the world’s most influential musicians.
Jane Birkin, the English actress and chanteuse, was his partner and muse for over a dozen years, and even after it was over, he would continue writing songs for her until the day he died . . .
She was also a style icon, and inextricably tied to her namesake, the Hermès Birkin bag. As the story goes, in 1981, while on a flight from Paris to London, Jean-Louis Dumas, an Hermès chief executive, was seated next to Jane, who had just stowed away her [now iconic] straw bag in the overhead compartment; however, the contents spilled, falling to the floor and scattering everywhere, causing the actress to complain to Dumas that it had been difficult to find a weekend bag that she like. Three years later, in 1984, Dumas created a black leather bag for her, and the Birkin was born . . .
First meeting in the audition for the film, Slogan [trailer], Jane could barely speak a word of French, and Serge immediately dismissed her. It wasn’t until a particularly distressing line in the script, a line where Jane needed to cry, that Serge stopped and took notice — the tears pouring down Jane’s face were not an act — they were tears for her recent break up from English conductor and composer, John Barry [most known for the James Bond films], and tears from the pressure she felt from this potential co-star who was being so horrible — she channeled them into her work, and it landed her the role. Little did Jane know, this moment would shape her entire future.
During a dinner for the cast & crew of the film, Serge & Jane, by chance, were left alone at the dinner table. Jane pulled Serge onto the dance floor, despite his cries of protest, only to be surprised to find he had two left feet; luckily, she found it charming.
After the dancing, they escaped to a Russian nightclub where Serge convinced the musicians to play for Jane on the sidewalk. Many nightclubs later, the pair stumbled back to Serge’s room at the Hilton, where he promptly fell asleep while Jane used the bathroom. In her own words, “it was the most romantic of evenings.”
“His face was so much more interesting than any other face I’d ever seen, with extraordinarily sad eyes and a beautiful mouth. He read me his poetry, and it was always a play on words. That was such an unusual trait—to be that romantic and funny.” —Jane BirkinIt was 1969 in Paris. The very public affair between Serge Gainsbourg & Bridgette Bardot had ended, and fans couldn’t believe that Serge was already wooing another. Flying from one romantic European destination to another, the steamy affair was making headlines all over the globe.
“After that we went off to Venice, and that’s where I fell head over heels. He took away all the pain of it having not worked with John Barry, and I think I helped him get over Brigitte Bardot and her leaving him.” —Jane Birkin
It was this steamy and adventurous rendezvous which led to the release of the couple’s first duet, “Je t’aime…Moi Non Plus“(I Love You…Neither Do I).
The track was so explicit and unequivocal in meaning, it was banned by the Vatican and most countries would only play censored versions — the controversy it caused, of course, made it a top seller! Serge declared it to be “the ultimate love song”.
It was the separation which brought out the best in each of the artists, and some of their best work was released following the break up — especially for Serge, who wrote Baby Alone in Babylone, the name of Jane Birkin’s album, and the first collaboration since their split; it is said to express Serge’s feelings on their severing ties.
Despite separating, Serge & Jane remained close friends — speaking often on the phone. Serge had been a heavy smoker and drinker for years, and this addiction took a toll on his body. At 45, Serge suffered his first heart attack, and many further health complications arose in the following years. It was on the 2nd of March 1991 that Serge Gainsbourg was found dead in his home at 5bis Rue de Verneuil, following a severe heart attack. Committed fans flocked to his house to pay tribute and their respects.
“Our friendship went on until his dying day. He rang me in London to say he bought me a big diamond because I had lost one that he’d given me. I said, “Oh, stop drinking, Serge.” And a day later, on March 2, 1991, he was dead.” —Jane Birkin
Serge Gainsbourg & Jane Birkin shared a unique and exceptional relationship that was undeniably a great love story. Reminiscent of Elizabeth Taylor & Richard Burton, of Farrah Fawcett & Ryan O’Neal — this unparalleled love was so extravagantly passionate, it was both their ailment & their antidote, unable able to live with or without. A great love story like theirs is legendary, and along with the music they made together, will never be forgotten.