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Jane Birkin, actress, singer and style icon, dies at 76

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Jane Birkin, the London-born actress and singer who made France her home and charmed the country with her English grace, natural style and social activism, died July 16 in Paris. She was 76.

Her death was confirmed by French President Emmanuel Macron, who hailed Ms. Birkin as a “complete artist” and “the incarnation of freedom.” French media reported that she was found dead at her home, but information on the cause was not immediately available.

Ms. Birkin was known for her musical and romantic relationship with French singer Serge Gainsbourg, with whom she recorded the steamy 1969 duet “Je t’aime … moi non plus” (“I love you … me neither”). Ms. Birkin’s ethereal, British-accented singing voice interlaced with Gainsbourg’s gruff baritone, and the song helped launch her to international prominence, topping the pop charts in Britain and peaking at No. 58 in the United States. The song was forbidden in Italy after being denounced in the Vatican newspaper because of its erotic lyrics.

The style Ms. Birkin displayed in the 1960s and early 1970s — long hair with bangs, jeans paired with white tops, knit mini dresses and basket bags — still epitomizes the height of French chic for many women around the world.

Ms. Birkin was also synonymous with a Hermès bag that bore her name. Created by the Paris fashion house in 1984 in her honor, the Birkin bag became one of the world’s most exclusive luxury items, with a stratospheric price tag and years-long waiting list to buy it.

In her adopted France, Ms. Birkin was also celebrated for her political activism and campaigning for Amnesty International, Myanmar’s pro-democracy movement, the fight against AIDS and other causes. “You can always do something,” she said in 2001, drumming up support for an Amnesty campaign against torture. “You can say, ‘I am not OK with that.’”

Ms. Birkin joined five monks on a march through the Cannes Film Festival in 2008 to demand that Myanmar let foreign aid workers into the country to help cyclone victims. Last year, she joined other screen and music stars in France in chopping off locks of their hair in support of protesters in Iran. Actress Charlotte Gainsbourg, Ms. Birkin’s daughter with Serge Gainsbourg, cut off a snippet of her mother’s hair for the #HairForFreedom campaign as Iran was engulfed by anti-government protests.

Jane Mallory Birkin was born in London on Dec. 14, 1946. Her father, David Birkin, was an officer in the Royal Navy; her mother, Judy Campbell, was an English screen and stage actress.

Ms. Birkin’s early movie credits included Michelangelo Antonioni’s “Blow-Up” (1966), which was credited with helping introduce French audiences to her Swinging Sixties style and beauty. She and Gainsbourg met two years later, and she remained his muse long after the couple separated in 1980.

Ms. Birkin had a daughter, Kate, with James Bond composer John Barry. Kate Barry died in 2013 at age 46. Ms. Birkin had her third daughter, singer and model Lou Doillon, with French filmmaker Jacques Doillon.

Complete information on survivors was not immediately available.

Ms. Birkin suffered from health issues in recent years that kept her from performing and her public appearances became sparse. French broadcaster BFMTV said she suffered a mild stroke in 2021, forcing her to cancel shows that year. She canceled her shows again in March due to a broken shoulder blade.

A return to performing was put off in May, with the singer saying she needed a bit more time and promising her fans she would see them again come the fall.

Appreciation: Jane Birkin made the simple things feel luxurious

Despite her decades-long screen and music career, Ms. Birkin suspected that, for some people, the bag named after her might be her most famous legacy.

The fashion accessory was born of a fortuitous encounter on a London-bound flight in the 1980s with the then-head of Hermès, Jean-Louis Dumas. Ms. Birkin recalled that they got to talking after she spilled some of her things on the cabin floor. She asked Dumas why Hermès didn’t make a bigger handbag and sketched out on an airplane vomit sack the sort of bag that she’d like.

Dumas then had an example made for her and, flattered, she said yes when Hermès asked whether it could commercialize the bag in her name.

In a CBS Sunday Morning interview in 2018, Ms. Birkin joked that it might be what she’s best known for. “I thought, ‘Oh gosh, on my obituary, it will say, ‘Like the bag’ or something,’” she said. “Well, it could be worse.”

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