In September 1973 Jane Birkin appeared on The Russell Harty Show. Best known for her orgasmic gasps on the 1969 single Je t’aime… moi non plus, the British singer-actress was in a playful mood, coquettishly giving Harty a cigarette sweet, saying: “Suck it.”
Although you can’t tell from the YouTube video, according to her new memoir, Munkey Diaries, she was also “absolutely pissed”. The evening of “sheer hell”, with its mix of insecurity, alcohol, sex and backstage drama, epitomizes much of Birkin’s life. Covering 1957-1982, the memoir is based on diaries written to her treasured toy monkey and begins with her privileged childhood. Her father’s family had made a fortune in lace, her godmother was Winston Churchill’s daughter Sarah and the family home was in Chelsea.
But Birkin, born in 1946, wanted more excitement than a life of rabbit for lunch and games after dinner.
All School and No Play
Aged 12 at her Isle of Wight boarding school she writes: “Dull dull, very dull.” The girl who was to become infamous for a banned record that attracted opprobrium from the Pope found an escape from her genteel life in demanding, older men.
First was the film composer John Barry, of James Bond fame, whom she married in 1965 aged 18, despite her father’s protestations and a 13-year age gap. They quickly had a daughter, Kate, but Barry turned out to be cold and physically unexciting. Birkin would fantasize about having sex standing up, or in a bath. “I do wish I didn’t think about sex so much, but I’m only 20… and I’ve only done it with John,” she writes. By August 1967 Barry is bored too, probably with her incessant crying, telling her: “The time has come for us to go our separate ways.”
Enter Serge Gainsbourg, her co-star in the 1969 film Slogan, with whom she begins a turbulent 13-year relationship that would dominate her life and produce another daughter, Charlotte. In the early days, France’s maverick pop star, poet and composer was “sensual and sexually marvellous”. At his museum-like house on Rue de Verneuil, totally unsuitable for children, the 60-cigarettes-a-day singer was so controlling he had the fridge door replaced by glass, with “everything inside… put on tiny plates, [to] look pretty”.
Was Birkin just another pretty plate? Perhaps, but she appeared willing to endure his obsessive ways in exchange for an exciting life. When Birkin once pronounced, “I want to go to a brothel”, off they charged into the Pigalle quarter, with Gainsbourg barking, “Act like a prostitute”, and the night ending prematurely with the brothel owner banging on their door, convinced Birkin was underage and being abused. Yet there were times even she couldn’t keep up with Gainsbourg’s libido. After an unmentionable sex game involving dice, Birkin concludes: “Serge must be the most perverted person possible.” Which is perhaps why she stayed with him so long. It certainly wasn’t for his hygiene. In August 1973 she writes: “The event of the year! Serge has a bath!! The first for three months.”
Birkin appeared willing to endure Gainsbourg’s obsessive ways in exchange for an exciting life.
Her writing style is as breathless and erratic as her personality, peppered with exclamation marks and bizarre metaphors. After a flight to Tokyo, she describes herself as “a crumpled hanky over a melon”. Her most compelling anecdotes follow bouts of drinking — the time she planted a lemon pie in Gainsbourg’s face in a Paris nightclub and then threw herself into the Seine, or the night their sommelier forced him to sing at gunpoint.
Amid the madness, Birkin comes across as a frail soul, a childlike mother with few close friends. On the set of Death on the Nile in 1977 she is fascinated with Maggie Smith, writing: “I wish she needed me, even to help her to her room.”
Birkin’s diary entries ultimately expose the toxic reality behind one of the 20th century’s most glamorous couples. The woke-at-heart will be surprised a man like Barry didn’t pay for his child’s upkeep and successful women like Birkin crept around their partners. Birkin manages to escape Gainsbourg in 1980 for the film director Jacques Doillon (and there’s a second tranche of diaries still to be published here that will take up that story).
But what of Munkey, the toy that witnessed “all the joys and all the unhappiness” of her life? After his death in 1991, Gainsbourg got him too, with Birkin laying him beside her greatest love, “to protect him in the afterlife”.
Jackie Annesley was the editor of The Sunday Times’s Style magazine