Her friends reserved a table for eight at Le Palmyre, a chic St. Tropez restaurant, and planned a festive celebration for Brigitte Bardot's 49th birthday. Hoping to cheer up the onetime sex symbol, who had been lovesick and depressed for weeks, they ordered not one but three birthday cakes—one chocolate, one lemon, one strawberry—each decorated, according to her wishes, with a single candle. But Bardot never tasted the cakes. That afternoon, Sept. 28, while her guests sipped aperitifs at La Madrague, her beachfront St. Tropez hideaway, Bardot took a handful of sleeping pills or tranquilizers, washed them down with red wine and then, according to unconfirmed press reports, wandered out to the beach, where she was later pulled from the surf. She was rushed to the nearby L'Oasis clinic, where her stomach was pumped before she was released that evening.

"She didn't want to be with anyone that night," says Gérard Montel, a longtime intimate. "It was her birthday and she was depressed. She wanted to forget, so she took some pills to sleep and—voilà. I don't think she wanted to go that far. She's never wanted to die."

Bardot's nonconformist behavior is legend, and her much-publicized obsession with animals has become a staple of French comedians' routines. In the last few months, however, her eccentricities have taken a turn toward the tragic. The slide began in August when she had a spat with her lover Allain Bougrain-duBourg, 35, producer of a French TV series on animals who met Bardot in 1977 in Canada, where she was protesting the slaughter of baby seals. In 1982 Bougrain-duBourg interviewed Bardot for her three-part televised memoirs, which he produced. That, ultimately, led to the quarrel. "Brigitte accused Allain of making money off her," recalls a friend. "She accused him of using her the way the film industry used her, manipulating her as a money machine. Nothing was further from the truth. Allain genuinely cared for her."

After repeated arguments over money, Allain packed his bags and returned to Paris. A week later Bardot called to ask him to come back to St. Tropez. He did, but the reconciliation was short-lived. "The same old argument blew up," says a friend, "and Allain walked out for good."

Bardot, seeking consolation, took up with a local Don Juan she met in a St. Tropez bar. "Their fling lasted only three days before Brigitte threw him out of her house," says a friend. Then she took to drinking heavily, sometimes starting at midmorning and spending the entire day with a bottle of red wine. "It became commonplace for her to telephone acquaintances apparently drunk out of her mind," says an intimate.

Concerned for Bardot's health, her friends hoped the party would help snap her out of her depression. To that end, they asked Bougrain-duBourg to attend. He promised to try to leave work early enough to catch a flight to the Côte d'Azur, but apparently he instructed a friend to call and say he couldn't make it.

Bardot's flirtation with death did not surprise her friends. "This is typical Brigitte behavior," said one. "I think she is desperately crying out for love and attention—something she claims she finds in her dogs alone. But for heaven's sake, she's not a dog, she's a human being. I'm seriously worried that she could be going crazy. Her behavior gets stranger and stranger."

BB—the initials alone are sufficient identification anywhere in the world—has already lived a very strange life. Daughter of a Parisian factory owner, Bardot has been in the public eye since 1950, when a family friend asked her to pose for the cover of Elle, a leading French magazine. The fresh 15-year-old face on the magazine attracted the attention of French film director Marc Allégret, who instructed his assistant, Roger Vadim, to find her. Vadim did more than that: He married her (at age 18), coached her on the art of projecting sex on the screen and made her an international sensation in his 1956 movie And God Created Woman.

During the next 17 years Bardot made 40-odd movies, many of them instantly forgettable. Yet her sex appeal was rivaled at the time only by Marilyn Monroe, and seldom since. Bardot became "the sex kitten," a national treasure, an international superstar with the power to move American adolescents and French intellectuals. Jean Cocteau called her "a pouting young sphinx but with perfect curves." Simone de Beauvoir said, "She incarnates passion for the absolute, a sense of the imminence of death." And Charles de Gaulle, who received her at the Élysée Palace remarked, "This young woman seems to be made of sterling simplicity."

In private, as well as in public, she filled the role of sex goddess. She was married three times—to Vadim (1952-57), to actor Jacques Charrier (1959-62) and to German industrialist-playboy Gunther Sachs (1966-69). Before, during and after her marriages, she enjoyed many celebrated affaires de coeur. "When I love, I do it without counting," she told an interviewer. "I give myself entirely. And each time, it is the grand love of my life."

In 1960 she gave birth to her only child, Nicolas Charrier, but she quickly gave him up to her former husband and in-laws to raise. "I didn't bring up Nicolas because I needed support, roots," she said later. "I couldn't be Nicolas' roots because I was completely uprooted, unbalanced, lost in that crazy world...." Nine months after delivering the baby, Bardot swallowed an overdose of sleeping pills and was found unconscious and bleeding from cuts on her wrist. It was not, Vadim told the press, her first suicide attempt; he said she had already tried to kill herself at least twice. "She has a real suicidal tendency," he said. She later admitted that he was right. "For me, then, death was like love, a real romantic escape," she said. "I couldn't throw myself off the balcony—they would have photographed me landing below—so I took sleeping pills."

Bardot sometimes seemed to be heading for the same tragic fate that befell her American counterpart, Monroe. But, suddenly, in 1973 she took her life into her own hands, dropping out of the rat race of stardom, quitting the cinema cold. Like so many of her decisions, it was spontaneous. During the filming of L'Histoire de Colinot Trousse-Chemise, she looked into a mirror, beheld herself attired in a ridiculous turban and was struck by the absurdity of her life as an actress. "I thought, as I looked at myself, 'Poor girl, what are you doing here?' I decided at that precise moment that between me and the cinema, it was a final divorce."

At the time her retirement seemed like a publicity stunt, but her decision stuck. She took up residence in a St. Tropez beachhouse and at a farm outside Paris and began to devote her life to animals. "She is ultrasensitive to all the misery on earth," says Bougrain-duBourg. "She is happiest living with her animals. On her farm she has goats, dogs, horses. She spends her time walking at least an hour a day to exercise her eight dogs, and she also does work with protection societies, animal shelters and so on."

Bardot's crusade to make the world safe for animals caused her last year to lead a raid on a dog pound that she considered inhumane. About the same time, she was sued for defamation of character by a St. Tropez florist after Bardot marched into the florist shop and accused the owner of beating a cat to death. (Bardot was found not liable.) Several months ago, when her beloved black-and-white mongrel dog drowned in a neighbor's swimming pool, Bardot hired a private detective to ferret out the dog's "murderer." And once, when a friend brought six live lobsters to her St. Tropez home as a surprise dinner gift, Brigitte, who is not a vegetarian, threw the crustaceans into the sea. "Murderer," she yelled. "Why can't people leave living things alone!" Such stunts have caused friends to question her mental health. "Brigitte lives in an almost paranoid fear of the world," says one. "She is convinced that people are just waiting to do her wrong."

While so much of Bardot's love has been lavished on her animal friends, she has found plenty left over for men—generally younger men. During her retirement, she has enjoyed two long relationships. In 1975 she met Miroslav Brozek, then 33, a Czechoslovakian-born sculptor. Smitten, she moved "Mirko," as she called him, into a studio at La Madrague and for the next five years served him as patron, muse, model and housekeeper. "With him, there have been ups and downs," she said at the time. "Before, when there were downs, I used to leave. I have understood that the most important things are tenderness and kindness. I can't do without them."

The tenderness and kindness did not last, however. In December 1979 Brozek moved out, leaving Bardot alone at Christmas to gaze morosely at a lighted tree without presents. Soon her romance with Bougrain-duBourg heated up. In 1982 she agreed to sit for a series of television interviews if Bougrain-duBourg did the interviewing. "People have already dirtied my name too much," she explained. "Now it's my turn to talk. I want to set the record straight."

In the interviews—entitled Brigitte Bardot Telle Quelle (Brigitte Bardot as herself)—she showed her claws, offering a slightly misanthropic view of life. She was candid about her acting talents: "I was no good as an actress. I never had the vocation." She was acerbic about her celebrity: "For 20 years I was cornered like an animal. I had crazy people stealing into my bathroom to take my toothbrush. I was treated as a husband-stealer. One woman wanted to disfigure me with a fork. Even the clergy made me the incarnation of evil." And she revealed a macabre side, confessing that she ponders death daily: "It must be our punishment. And we deserve it. It's the decomposition that gets me. You spend your whole life looking after your body. And then you rot away."

Since her birthday disaster, Bardot has resumed her usual routine, shopping for groceries in St. Tropez and dining in the local restaurants with friends. She has also resumed her old habits. She still cannot bear to leave a restaurant without collecting scraps to feed the stray cats she meets along her walk home. Her behavior concerns those who are closest to her. "Lately she has not been in good shape," admitted her sister, Mijanou Bardot, a former actress. "I sense that she is disturbed, tormented and unhappy. I know that she was going through a bad period—that of age and an unhappy love."

  • Contributors:
  • Janice Gregory,
  • Cathy Nolan.