Jane Fonda (born 1937) was a member of a famous American theatrical family and recipient of the industry's highest awards. Her numerous radical activities during the period of the Vietnam War brought animosity from some and adoration from others. In the post-Vietnam era, her multi-faceted career included films, television, exercise videocassettes, and writing.
Jane Fonda, her father Henry, and her brother Peter comprise the "Fantastic Fondas" of the theater. Jane was born in New York City on December 21, 1937, to Henry and Frances Seymour Brokaw Fonda. Born into wealth, her maternal lineage can be traced to the American Revolution leader Samuel Adams. She herself became something of a revolutionary.
When Fonda was 13 her mother committed suicide after learning of her husband's interest in a much younger woman, Susan Blanchard. Told that her mother died from a sudden heart attack, Fonda learned the truth a year later from a magazine story. Both she and Peter had difficulty coping, although Fonda believes Blanchard, whom her father married, did much to provide a stable home life for them. Fonda attended schools in New York and Vassar College, where she admittedly "went wild." Thereafter, she engaged in a whirlwind of studies in Paris and New York. Her first stage appearance was in 1954, but she did not seriously decide on an acting career until four years later while visiting her father, who lived next door to Lee Strasberg, director of the Actors Studio in Malibu, California. Friends urged her to go into the profession; Strasberg accepted her as his student, and she paid for her acting lessons with a brief but successful modeling career.
Fonda probably inherited some theatrical genius; certainly hers was a meteoric rise to stardom. A number of persons influenced her career, including her godfather, Joshua Logan, first husband, Roger Vadim, and director Sidney Pollock. She received many of the industry's highest awards, including two Academy Awards for Best Actress (Klute, 1971, and Coming Home, 1979). Both came before her famous father received one and after she was a controversial figure for her lifestyle, her rejection of many American traditional beliefs, and her outspoken anti-Vietnam War views.
Fonda became a heroine of the New Left for her activities in such causes as constitutional rights for American servicemen, Black Panthers, Native American rights, the Vietnam War, the anti-nuclear movement, and women's rights. Her life reflected the uncertainties, confusion, and rapidly changing values which began to rock America in the mid-1960s. To many she seemed mercurial, contradictory, and driven as the fighter for justice and peace. To others, she was naive, irritating, and an anti-American fool. Her causes were so numerous and undiscriminating that Saul Alinsky, fellow American radical, claimed that Fonda was "a hitchhiker on the highway of causes."
Fonda's first act of civil disobedience came in 1970 when she was arrested for illegally talking to soldiers against the military. Her radicalization was completed by what she saw and the people she met on a cross-country journey. Having left California as a left-wing liberal, she arrived in New York where she announced that she was a revolutionary woman, ready to support all struggles that were radical.
Fonda's support and fund-raising for the sometimes violent Black Panthers, including her relationship with Panther leader Huey Newton, led the FBI to place her under surveillance. Meanwhile, many differences with her father became public. As a life-long liberal, he sympathized with many of her views, but emphatically rejected her methods. Jane, in turn, rejected his idea that changes could be effected by electing the right officials into public office.
As her activities increased, government surveillance grew to at least six agencies at one time. Returning from Canada, she was infuriated when U.S. customs officials in Cleveland confiscated vials thought to be drugs. They proved to be vitamins and non-prescription food concentrates which she used to stabilize her weight.
Critics decried Fonda's exaggerations of American atrocities in Vietnam, which even supporters admitted were inflated. Many were astonished when she spoke as if she had visited Vietnam and witnessed the horrors she described. Ultimately, supporters arranged for her to go to Hanoi. When she publicly denounced American involvement there, she was labeled a "Communist" and "Hanoi Jane" by many back home. The State Department rebuked her, letters of protest filled newspapers, and at least one congressman demanded her arrest for treason. Yet Fonda seemed unperturbed by it all.
As the Vietnam War was ending, Fonda's radicalism diminished. Reconciliation with her father came in the early 1980s as they filmed On Golden Pond, a story which paralleled their own relationship in many ways. By the mid-1980s Fonda's popularity in films and television was such that to speak ill of her in Hollywood was to invite professional suicide. Her exercise salon, books, and videotapes became so popular that she may be remembered as much for them as for her films.
By 1985 she rarely spoke for radical causes. Rather, she seemed to have mellowed considerably. On a CBS Morning News television program she spoke of a new spiritual awareness during the filming of Agnes of God, and on CBS's America her comments and dress were quite subdued as she "plugged" her latest exercise videotape. She had moved from the radical to the respectable Jane Fonda.
Her personal life seemed stable as she and husband, former activist Tom Hayden, lived with her daughter Vanessa and their son Troy. Hayden sought a Senate seat from California in 1986, apparently both thinking that changes could be made by electing the "right" officials. Although her interests seemed to lie with her multi-faceted career and family, it seemed likely that Fonda could return to her former radical activism if she perceived that conditions demanded it.
In 1988 the "Hanoi Jane" issue raised its head again during filming of Stanley and Iris, which was being shot in a small Connecticut town. Old resentments among the towns-people about Fonda's role in Vietnam flared, leading her to issue her first public apology for her activities during the Vietnam War. She admitted that she'd been misinformed about aspects of the war, as well as some of her other causes at the time.
Fonda and Hayden were divorced in 1989. In 1991 she married media mogul Ted Turner, and settled into a much more domestic phase of her life. She announced that she was leaving her film career behind, and in 1996 confirmed that statement in a Good Housekeeping interview: "After a 35-year career as an actress, I am out of the business. That's a big change. Work, in many ways, defined me." Although she left behind her acting and producing career, Fonda was far from idle. In 1996 she published a cookbook, Jane Fonda: Cooking for Healthy Living. She also created a new series of workout tapes with the help of a physiologist called The Personal Trainer Series. Her goal with the new series was to design a program that anyone could stick with, stating in Good Housekeeping, "Anybody can do 25 minutes."
Further Reading on Jane Fonda
Although both are unauthorized biographies, Jane Fonda: The Actress in Her Time by Fred L. Guiles (1982) and Jane: An Intimate Biography of Jane Fonda (1973) by Thomas Kiernan provide interesting additional insights into the life of Jane Fonda and the sub-title of each accurately describes the contents. James Brough's The Fabulous Fondas (1973) gives considerable attention to Jane's life, but she shares space there with her father Henry and brother Peter. Also see Christopher Anderson's Citizen Jane: The Turbulent Life of Jane Fonda (1990) and Good Housekeeping (February 1996, page 24)