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Book Review: Jane Fonda: The Private Life of a Public Woman by Patricia Bosworth

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Patricia Bosworth’s soon to be released biography, Jane Fonda: The Private Life of a Public Woman, is a good companion novel to Brooke Hayward’s Hollywood coming-of-age biography, and recent re-release, Haywire. Not only did Jane and Brooke grow up together, both the daughters of Hollywood stars — Henry Fonda and Margaret Sullavan, respectively— but their parents were also married to one another once upon a time, and the families’ fates seemed to be intertwined. They were neighbors, first in Hollywood, and then later in Connecticut, when their actor parents pursued their New York stage careers. Both of the girls’ mothers also committed suicide.

Jane Fonda and Henry Fonda

From the prologue:

Frances Fonda, slit her throat when Jane was twelve. Her suicide is the crucial event in Jane’s life and it haunts her to this day. After the suicide Henry Fonda, always the perfectionist, became even more remote, escaping into his work and three more marriages; each wife seemed younger than the last. Jane kept on battling for his love. She triumphed on Broadway and then went on to make forty-one movies, creating characters as disparate as the naive cowgirl in Cat Ballou and the giddy newlywed Corie in Barefoot in the Park to the tough-talking call girl Bree Daniels in Klute, for which she won her first Oscar.

In her twenties she began to reinvent herself to attract and please a succession of father substitutes. She shifted seamlessly from playing film director Roger Vadim’s Parisian sex kitten, to political activist and exercise guru when she was married to radical Tom Hayden. Finally, she became the trophy wife of maverick billionaire Ted Turner, a man as famous as she is.

That is Bosworth’s, a frequent contributor to Vanity Fair, nutshell version of Jane and the relationships in her life. Her book proceeds to try to give details of Jane’s career, her demons, and her many romances. In a way it’s really all you need to know about Fonda, who always seemed to define herself by the people (men, primarily) and trends that surrounded her. Yet that paragraph also tells nothing about her, as Jane constantly changes direction, on an endless quest for self-knowledge. After reading this fairly comprehensive biography, one wonders if she actually does knows herself, but just doesn’t want to admit it, own it.

Brooke Hayward is one of many people who Bosworth has interviewed to put together this informative biography. Besides sessions with Jane herself, Bosworth also spoke to her brother Peter Fonda, her children, Henry Fonda’s ex-wives as well as many people from all facets of her life.

As much as Jane was profoundly affected by her mother’s death, it is clear that her father was always the more influential of the two in her life, even when Frances was still alive. Jane wanted desperately to emulate him, and by all accounts she has succeeded, although she doesn’t seem to see that for herself. Like her dad, family is extremely important to her, but also like him, she rarely can find the time or energy to actually spend time with them.

Bosworth dutifully chronicles Fonda’s recurring laments since childhood that she couldn’t get her father’s attention, or that she never got an emotional enough reaction from him in the form of compliments or hugs or words. Even when he praises her in print it isn’t enough — he didn’t do it to her face. It doesn’t seem to matter to Jane that he cried for her — he didn’t do it it front of her, he didn’t act it out for her.


Roger Vadim directing Jane in Barbarella

Paradoxically, Jane has only weak excuses when trying to explain why she was able to leave her baby daughter Vanessa with father Roger Vadim to drive across the United States to participate in the anti-(Vietnam) war movement. It is clear from quotes later in the book that Vanessa was raised primarily by her father — she even called him “maman,” and has never completely forgiven her mother for her desertion. These are precisely the same issues Jane had with her own mother — Frances ignored her and lavished attention on “preferred” son Peter while she hopelessly and fruitlessly tried to attract attention and approval from husband Henry.

Jane closely resembled her father, in personality and physicality. Her long-term bulimia was both a product of her Hollywood existence and her desire to look more like him. She has assumed a more traditionally male role in her life — she was away from home a lot, relegating the raising of her kids to others, finally wanting to reconnect with family in her 60s, when her many careers were on the back-burner.

On the surface her story reads like the evolution of a feminist, and Jane did live through the beginnings of that movement. But of all the political causes she has leant her voice to, she never really fully committed to feminism, probably because she realized that she wasn’t completely walking the walk. As independent as she was, there was always a man in her life that she was trying to impress or help. She’s the embodiment of the modern female paradox — wanting to support and nurture, but also wanting to be in charge, independent.

The book, like her life, is divided into sections. The first part centers on her youth as the daughter of a movie star, with a focus on Henry Fonda and the people he brought into her orbit. She literally met everyone in Hollywood, in the last great era of the studio system — Tyrone Power, Jimmy Stewart, Gary Cooper. Fonda’s ex-wife Margaret Sullavan was a close family friend.


A playbill from The Actors Studio’ production of Strange Interlude, which featured Jane and an all-star cast 

It must have been obvious to everyone but Jane that she was born to be an actress. Bosworth chronicles her reluctant pursuit of an acting career. Even after appearing with her father on stage she still seemed in denial and only got serious about acting after a lot of hesitation and encouragement from others — mainly Susan Strasberg urging her to meet with her father Lee, the famous guru of the Method style of acting and The Actors Studio.

Fonda was a bit of a late bloomer, considering her “in” to the industry. She finally found her way to the Actors Studio and made her first movie, Tall Story (1960). She also met Marilyn Monroe, who became a huge influence and was the initial impetus for Jane’s evolution into a sex kitten, which was finalized by her life and films in France in the mid ’60s and first husband Roger Vadim’s casting her in sexy romps like La Curée, Circle of Love and Barbarella.

Bosworth relates how Vadim molded and celebrated Jane’s sexy persona as well as their private life, which reflected his ideas of sexual freedom, as they explored multiple partners and ménage à trois. After she and Vadim had their daughter Vanessa, she got bored with acting and threesomes and seized onto politics. Prompted by the more politically outspoken French intellectuals who opposed the war in Vietnam, like her friend the great French actress Simone Signoret, Jane desperately wanted to channel her excess energy into a worthwhile cause. And to escape her recent motherhood.

Jane’s dissatisfaction with career, marriage and motherhood sounds eerily like Henry Fonda, who only seemed to check in with his family when it suited him. When he was home he preferred to spend his time puttering in the garden or his paint studio than interact with his family.

Jane was a dilettante in the beginning, attaching herself to so many causes that she quickly gained criticism, with many doubting her sincerity. The most glaring example was her infamous “Hanoi Jane” episode, which still causes trouble for her on occasion. Jane’s anti-war campaigning got her invited to visit Hanoi in 1972. One of the stops on her North Vietnam tour was an air defense installation. Jane, either on her own, or responding to a request from someone there, climbed up on the gun, while photographers snapped photo after photo. “I simply wasn’t thinking about what I was doing …” Not thinking that posing on a gun potentially aimed at American airplanes overhead might be misconstrued by some as hostile. She came home to an outraged public and a Nixon White House all too eager to charge her with treason.

 Tom Hayden and Jane

Jane weathered the subsequent ostracism, investigations and criticism. And then she met Tom Hayden, who was only too happy to help her focus her activism and to benefit from her star power. Exit Vadim, enter new husband Hayden. She was the main breadwinner in her marriage to Hayden. Her revolutionary Workout empire in the ’80s was originally designed to fund his political career and causes. She also managed to make some movies during their marriage, her “comeback” in Hollywood, as much funding his campaigns as fulfilling her own artistic ambitions: Fun with Dick and Jane and Julia (1977), Coming Home and California Suite (1978), The China Syndrome (1979), Nine to Five (1980), On Golden Pond (1981), Agnes of God (1985), The Morning After (1986).

Her marriage to Hayden ended when he told her he had fallen in love with another woman, much like Henry Fonda had told Frances he was leaving her for another woman so many years before. But Hayden, according to Bosworth, had been having extramarital affairs for years, as well as concealing his alcoholism. Whether Jane had been faithful or not isn’t stated, but she did apparently embark on an affair with costar Kris Kristofferson during the filming of the flop Rollover in 1981, when their marriage was on the skids.

She may have tried to steer clear of marriage for a while, but soon the extremely charismatic and over-the-top pushy Ted Turner started to pursue her. She managed to hold him off for a while, reluctant to embark on a relationship with someone who was such a blatant womanizer. But he promised to devote himself to only her and they were wed, in 1991. She was the ultimate trophy wife to Turner, helping him promote CNN and follow his empire-building dreams. They were constantly on the go early in their marriage, which may have kept the straying hounds at bay for a while, but ultimately people don’t change, and according to Bosworth, Jane became fed up with the lifestyle and his extra women and the marriage ended in 2001.

Jane with Ted Turner

Turner actually gets short shrift in the book, compared to the longer sections with Vadim and Hayden. But Jane’s most important male relationship is always with her father. Even after he passed away, she continued to try and emulate him, always searching for his approval.

As interesting as it is to read about Jane and her sometimes manic lifestyle, the book made me want to know more about her brother Peter. He always seems on the outskirts of Jane’s life, but he was battling the same demons, and it seems, more successfully. Why did she never seek him out, try to share experiences with him? They did once see a therapist together:

Jane ranted on and on about Tom [Hayden] and their parents. After about fifteen minutes, the therapist interrupted with “What do you have to say about this, Peter?”

He hadn’t known how to react, because “Jane was cutting to the chase — leaving out all the details. Yeah, our mother was a victim, yeah our father was larger than life — and we had survived, we were survivors, almost in spite of ourselves. But Jane didn’t get what happened along the way. Anyhow, her version of our life is different from my version. But what the fuck? The end result is the same.

Jane, look how he’s looking at you — how much more proof do you need?

Maybe an over-examined life just leaves  a person with questions — too busy asking, never pausing for any answers. At least that seems to be a recurring theme for Jane. I was fascinated reading about Jane Fonda and her whirlwind life that touched on Hollywood, American politics and business in Jane Fonda: The Private Life of a Public Woman. But I’d much rather grab a cup of coffee with her brother Peter, who might actually listen to the conversations around the table.

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  • http://www.lunch.com/DrJosephSMaresca Dr Joseph S Maresca

    There is a considerable story to tell and this book review conveys some important highlights.