Speed Read

‘Jane Fonda: The Private Life of a Public Woman’ Speed Read

Has there ever been a dull moment in Jane Fonda’s life? Not according to biographer Patricia Bosworth.

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There have been nine biographies of Jane Fonda published, all written by men who were, Fonda is certain, threatened by her. Finally, in Patricia Bosworth's Jane Fonda: The Private Life of a Public Woman, a woman tells her story. It’s about time, considering that so many of Fonda’s struggles and successes reflect those of an entire generation of women. Throughout her life, as the book makes clear, she has wrestled with self-doubt, obsessed over her looks, and sacrificed everything for men she loved. But what's most fascinating about Fonda is that in spite of all these issues, she is no less a fiercely independent and remarkable woman, making her something of a walking contradiction and, as Bosworth reveals, a natural-born chameleon.

For each of Fonda's myriad reinventions, from wanton sex symbol to political activist to trophy wife, she has started life anew. “I live in the present,” she declares to Bosworth, and her brother, Peter, agrees, saying, “Jane has one version of her life, but you should get the others because they are equally interesting.”

Compiling stories from Jane’s numerous lovers, friends, and enemies, Bosworth presents a new biography of one of the century’s most legendary female icons.

Lady Jayne

When Jayne Seymour Fonda was born on December 21, 1937, her father, Henry, obsessively snapped photos of his baby. “There is a strong Fonda Look,” the 32-year-old actor told The New Yorker. As a little girl, Jane was enamored of her father, but he was too self-involved to notice. Occasionally he would give her crumbs of attention, carrying her into their pool and teaching her to swim. “I would bury my nose in his shoulder on the way down the steps and smell his skin,” Jane recalled. “He always had a delicious musky smell that I loved … the smell of Man.” She would crave that smell and the longing for attention she associated with it for the rest of her life.

Mommy Dearest

Frances Seymour Fonda had wanted Jane to be a boy, since she already had a daughter from a previous marriage. She got her wish when Jane’s brother, Peter, was born, though postpartum depression kept her in the hospital for weeks. When she finally came home, Frances would coo into Peter’s crib as Jane stood scowling in the nursery corner. Frances’ depression lingered in the form of manic mood swings, which worsened when [Henry] Fonda enlisted in the Army for two years. She would spend weeks in a state of frenzied activity and then hole up in her bedroom for days, shutting out the light and letting only Peter in. Jane would occasionally sneak into her room to find Frances staring wildly at her reflection in the mirror. She’d say to her daughter, “Lady, if I gain any extra weight I’m going to cut it off with a knife!”

Tragedy Strikes

When Fonda returned from the Army, he was offered the lead in Broadway’s Mr. Roberts and uprooted his family from Hollywood to Greenwich, Conn. A year later he dropped another bombshell: he was in love with another woman, and wanted a divorce. Frances put up a stoic front and wished him well, but Hank’s rejection ultimately sent her over the edge.

Frances was admitted to a psychiatric hospital in 1950. One day that spring, Jane and Peter were playing on the third floor of their house in Greenwich when Jane heard her mother’s voice, “Jane! Jane!” She clutched Peter’s arm, willing him to stay with her, but he slipped out of her grasp and left Jane alone upstairs. Her mother’s cries would haunt Jane for life. Peter remembers hugging his mother that day, but he doesn’t remember when she locked herself in her bathroom, emerging flushed and holding a porcelain box—a “keepsake” to bring back to the hospital. A razor was hidden inside, and a week later a nurse found Frances lying dead on the floor of her room in a pool of blood. She had slit her throat from ear to ear.

Jane Toys With Acting, Hank Takes Another Wife

The Fondas spent the summer of 1956 in a large rental house in Hyannis Port, Cape Cod, next to the Kennedy compound. Jane and her father acted together in a community production at the Dennis Playhouse, with Jane playing the role of the ingénue. Father watched daughter from offstage and thought, “If that girl ever wants to do this professionally she’ll make out all right.” But he never praised her directly.

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When Henry married Afdera Franchetti, a 23-year-old countess, in 1957, Jane felt an urge to escape. She dropped out of Vassar to study painting in Paris, where she modeled for Vogue. Her father showed off the magazine backstage on Broadway, “See how beautiful my daughter is!” He loved how much she resembled him. When Jane returned to New York, her friend Susan Strasberg encouraged her to take lessons with her father, the legendary acting coach Lee Strasberg. Jane dismissed the idea. Susan didn’t know her well enough at the time, but she would later realize that “Jane always contradicts herself, saying the opposite of what she is thinking and feeling and wanting to do.”

Dramatic Entrance

As Susan predicted, Jane would eventually study with Strasberg, who had coached stars like Marlon Brando and Marilyn Monroe. Jane was singled out for her talent in her Broadway debut, There Was a Little Girl. She immediately set her sights on being “the best stage actress in the world.” She was drawn to superlatives—she wanted to be the prettiest, thinnest, and most talented girl on Broadway. She purged to stay fit and popped Dexadrine before dance lessons. Acting became Jane’s coping mechanism, a way of exorcising her demons that made her performances riveting. “Jane quivers like a tuning fork,” Kenneth Tynan wrote in The New Yorker. She was living with Andreas Voutsinas, her unofficial manager (and gay lover) at the time, who vividly recalls her bulimia spiraling out of control. “I watched Jane consume three roast chickens, a couple of Sara Lee cheesecakes, a loaf of cheap white bread. She literally stuffed her face with food, gagging, then eating; then she rammed her knuckles down her throat and scraped the skin off.”

Jane was constantly at the end of her emotional tether, which manifested brilliantly on stage. During her audition for Strasberg’s elite Actors Studio, she strayed from the script in a dramatic scene from Butterfield 8. She turned away from the audience to smash a glass goblet, raising a shard to her throat. Andreas seized the glass from her hand, holding her in a long embrace until one of the judges yelled, “Cut!” Jane later told him about her mother’s suicide. “Yes, I think Jane considered killing herself,” Andreas said. “We slept in the same bed and she would talk in her sleep. She had many nightmares, and in nightmares her voice sounded almost subhuman, like another person. It was a hoarse, monster voice.”

Sexual Reawakening

When she wasn’t acting, Jane modeled for famous photographers like Richard Avedon and Arthur Penn. She was morphing into a sex symbol, and producers wanted to capitalize on her look. While filming Joy House in Paris, Jane was introduced to the famous director Roger Vadim, who begged her to star in his sexual comedy of errors, Circle of Love. Vadim was a notorious Lothario whose mistresses had included Brigitte Bardot and Catherine Deneuve. Jane went to bed with him immediately. “I thought my heart would burst,” she said. “What Vadim gave me when I was young was huge. Huge. He reawakened me sexually.” She was also drawn to qualities in Vadim that reminded her of her father: his introversion, his moodiness, his seductive demeanor.

Ménage à Trois

Three years into their marriage, Vadim and Jane began inviting other people into their bedroom. It was Vadim’s idea to have un arrangement; he confessed he’d had affairs since they got married, but insisted the other woman would never interfere with their love. The trysts reflected his philosophy of sexual freedom on which he built Jane’s movie-star persona. She felt betrayed by his affairs but acquiesced to his arrangement, convinced that he “validated” her. The first time he brought home another woman, Jane “threw myself into the threesome with the skill and enthusiasm of the actress that I am.” Occasionally she would solicit women in attempt to reassert her power in the relationship. “And the women do invariably fall in love with me,” she would say, grinning.

Cross-Cultural Icon

Jane made some of her most iconic films over the next few years, including La Curée, Barefoot in the Park, and Barbarella. La Curée was Vadim’s fantastical, erotic, over-the-top Technicolor film in which Jane plays a young woman experiencing the pleasures of sexual awakening. Barbarella was even more ahead of its time, based on a French comic strip about a spage-age adventuress whose mission to save the universe is punctuated by a series of bizarre sexual encounters. Vadim directed Barbarella and Jane was his marionette: she simulated multiple orgasms while perched atop a “pleasure-making machine”; she performed a strip tease; she crammed herself into a tiny cage where she was bait for killer wrens that were supposed to peck off her costume (when the birds wouldn’t budge, Vadim covered Jane with birdseed).

In between Vadim’s films, Jane starred opposite Robert Redford in Barefoot in the Park, which many critics hailed as the best performance of her career. The New York Times noted, “Jane Fonda has managed to maintain two different public images simultaneously in France and the United States.” In films like Barefoot, she “sounds and dresses like the pretty roommate of the girl you dated in college, and everyone still thinks of her as Henry Fonda’s daughter.” In La Curée and Circle of Love, “she undresses like Brigitte Bardot and everyone knows her as the latest wife of Roger Vadim.”


On the heels of Barbarella, Jane jumped at the opportunity to star in a film adaptation of Horace McCoy’s 1935 novel They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? It was a Depression-era story and Jane’s role nothing like the sex kitten archetype she had played too many times. She cut off her long, luscious blond hair, a defining feature of her image during her years with Vadim. There was little chemistry left between them, but he still coached Jane through the trauma of playing a suicidal woman. She felt possessed by Gloria’s character even after they stopped shooting.

They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? opened in mid-December to rave reviews. Newsweek called Jane’s performance “bold, admirable … a wounded soul swathed in scar tissue.” Meanwhile, Jane was already plotting her next act.

Actress Turned Activist

In the spring of 1970, not long after Vanessa Vadim was born, Jane left her baby in Vadim’s care and took off to support the antiwar movement, throwing herself into any and every cause. At a University of Michigan student rally, she met Tom Hayden, one of the leftist founders of Students for a Democratic Society, and a future [California state] senator. His cold, taciturn manner reminded her of her father.

In 1971, Jane wowed critics as a no-nonsense call girl in Klute. She won her first Oscar for the film, which had a tremendous impact on women of her generation. Susan Brownmiller, the author of Against Our Will, recalled, “Jane Fonda was the woman of our time up to a point. We all wanted to be like her—the liberated, sexually free woman. Everybody copied her shag hairdo, the miniskirts and boots, but she wasn’t a feminist; she was still into depending on powerful men to find her identity.” To wit: her relationship with Tom Hayden, whose political career would become her biggest cause.

Hanoi Jane

In the spring of 1972, the Vietnamese Committee for Solidarity with the American People invited Jane to visit Hanoi. She had planned to document the effects of the war in a film, and brought her video camera along while visiting ruined hospitals and schools. Before leaving the country, Jane went to see the air defense installation on the outskirts of Hanoi. She was escorted to an aircraft gun and told it was protecting the city from American airstrikes. Everyone laughed as Jane climbed atop the gun, unaware of a camera crew filming her every move. Flashes popped, at which point Jane realized how her skit to please the Vietnamese would look back home. The next day, “Hanoi Jane” was all over the American press. “That two-minute lapse of sanity will haunt me until I die …” she said years later. “I simply wasn’t thinking about what I was doing, I was only feeling—innocent of what the photo implies.” The White House pressed the Justice Department to bring treason charges against Jane. Though she was never convicted, she was vilified by the far Right for the next 30 years. By 2002, there were 7,000 hate websites dedicated to Jane Fonda.

Making History With Tom Hayden

In the early years of their marriage, Tom protected Jane from the backlash of her Hanoi trip. When Troy Hayden was born in July, 1973, the newlyweds were ecstatic. “Troy was emblematic of all the things they were fighting for: a new order in America, a place where men and women could be respected equally,” a friend recalled. Tom was the center of Jane’s universe, but he was never comfortable with her fame. “No one person deserves that much attention,” he said in an interview with Barbara Walters. The couple would make headlines for the next 17 years, though they always began, “Tom and Jane,” because Hayden insisted his name go before his wife’s. No one understood why Jane put up with his bullying, but she idolized him. “I simply didn’t think my ideas or feelings were as important or credible as his.”

Doing the Jane Fonda

Jane put all her energy into making money over the next couple of years for Tom’s campaigns. She had taken dance lessons with the exercise tycoon Gilda Marx and decided to open her own studio, the Workout, where she would teach ballet, jazz, and other aerobic classes. By 1980, the Workout was making money and Jane’s accountants encouraged her to turn it into a franchise. She would soon open two other studios in California, write a Workout book, and make Workout videos that would become as famous as her films. By the end of 1982, Jane’s $20 million Workout chain was an emblem of America’s new fitness craze. “This was feminism in the age of narcissism,” wrote Judith Warner. “Jane Fonda was the great standard-bearer for this new self-empowerment ethic.” But the Workout’s success would be the undoing of Jane and Tom’s marriage. He acted out by having multiple affairs. Jane swept them all under the rug until discovering he slept with another woman in their bed. She packed his belongings into plastic bags and threw them out the window.

Power Couple

Jane’s first date with billionaire media mogul Ted Turner confirmed her suspicions that he was trouble. He talked endlessly about himself throughout dinner, touting his political and social connections and his expanding media empire. Jane hadn’t gotten in a word when he gushed at the end of the night, “I’m smitten!” As far as success stories go, Turner was on par with Jane. He had revolutionized the news industry and owned CNN, TNT, TBS, New Line Cinema, and the Atlanta Braves. There was no question that they had similar personalities, goals, and ambitions. They could make a great team—and for a while they did. By 1996, they had been happily married for nearly eight years, but she found herself slipping back into subservient wife mode. She was approaching 60 and still wrestling with her identity. When she asked her daughter if she would help make a short movie of her life as a birthday gift, Vanessa laughed half-heartedly. “Why don’t you just get a chameleon and let it crawl across the screen?”

In the next year, Jane would become a grandmother and a born-again Christian. Turner wasn’t happy. “She was not a religious person,” he said. “That’s a pretty big change for your wife of nine years to tell you.” Turner was a smart guy, but had he missed the memo that Jane Fonda was inclined to act on impulses? That when she was passionate about something, no one could stop her from going after it at warp speed? When Ted and Jane finally separated, it was fairly amicable. Jane told friends they had mind-blowing sex right before splitting for good. Leave it to Jane Fonda to go out with a bang.