Roger Lewis

Beauty and the beast: Jane Birkin’s love affair with Serge Gainsbourg

Serge was moody, sarcastic and violent, but Jane was ‘emotionally completely tied to him’, as she admits in her diaries

Jane Birkin and Serge Gainsbourg. Credit: Getty Images

I met Jane Birkin’s parents, who flit across these pages. Her mother, Judy Campbell, was an actress in Noël Coward plays and
a cabaret singer who’d worked with Charles Hawtrey, and when I invited her to a party once she drove her Mini up the steps and into the hotel lobby. Jane’s father, David, had a good war, his boat picking up pilots and spies hidden by the Resistance on the Breton coast. He told me ’Allo ’Allo wasn’t a comedy, it was documentary realism. He endured many operations on his optic nerve. A piece of hip bone was grafted to his eye socket. His lungs, as Jane says, were weakened by ‘too many anaesthetics’.

The Birkin fortune came from Nottingham lace. There were aristocrats (the Russells) in the background. Jane therefore spent a very comfortable childhood, in big houses with lawns and tennis courts, and, as is clear from Munkey Diaries (Munkey being her toy monkey to whom private thoughts were confided), deprivation has never been on the agenda. The book begins with idyllic Enid Blyton school-days depictions — dorm feasts of sausage, Spam, greengages and Coca-Cola; birthday parties (‘wonderful fun’) with bridge rolls and lemon squash — and then the bulk of it unfolds in grand hotels in Venice and Deauville, or in the Paris apartment block where Edith Piaf died and her corpse was put on show.

Arthur Rubinstein touched her up as if her thigh were a piano keyboard

Nevertheless, despite the posh bohemianism — chateaux holidays, and speeding around Paris in a taxi with her legs sticking out of the window — Jane does not seem happy. Indeed, this book is lachrymose to the point of sogginess. ‘The loo is the only quiet place to cry,’ she says of school. ‘I have fits of depression where I cry and am told to grow up.’

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