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Jane Fonda's Very Public 'Private Life'

New biography examines controversial star

Oct. 3, 2011
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When Jane Fonda was about to turn 60, she asked her daughter Vanessa to help her put together a short video of her life. Replied Vanessa: “Why don't you just get a chameleon and let it crawl across the screen?”

How sharper than a serpent's tooth, even in a grown-up and not necessarily thankless child, for that sums up much of what Patricia Bosworth describes in the more than 500 pages of text of Jane Fonda: The Private Life of a Public Woman (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt). Fonda was a chameleon moving through phases of her life—daughter, actress, sex symbol, political activist, fitness guru. She changed protective coloration but not her basic nature.

Bosworth, a longtime acquaintance of Fonda's and the author of other celebrity biographies, says Fonda has been obsessed all her life with looks, money and sex—as was her mother, Frances Seymour. But the most influential person in her life and that of her brother Peter was their father, Henry. He was silent, cold, remote, quick to anger and slow to approve—and sexually promiscuous.

Fonda has always admired her father, yearned to be like him—she believes she should have been a boy—and sought his love and approval, which were so slow in coming that it took until the end of his life. And she was sexually promiscuous; indeed, in that capacity she probably way outdid him, if the evidence herein is any indication.

That fractured relationship, Bosworth's interviewees agree (she appears to have interviewed nearly everyone ever connected with her subject), affected her relationships with other men. She sought out men who were in various ways like Henry and deferred to them, sought their love and approval, as she did with Henry.

Her first two husbands, the French director Roger Vadim and the California activist/politician Tom Hayden, she supported financially. Vadim took the money cheerfully with Gallic ease, Hayden ungraciously and with resentment of her fame. Both taught her lessons she put to use—Vadim on acting and Hayden on political activism—and both treated her shabbily in different ways.

Not that Fonda is without blame in the failure of relationships, Bosworth concedes. Even readers who are not particularly prudish may find unpalatable the moral messiness of her international-celebrity lifestyle, constantly seeking love but finding mostly sex.

Others continue to be turned off by “Hanoi Jane” for her traveling to North Vietnam in 1972 to protest the war. Bosworth points out, as have many others, that what she did was no different from what millions of others, including veterans and active-duty soldiers, were saying and doing at the time—except that she allowed herself to be photographed sitting at a North Vietnamese antiaircraft gun, an act she admits was exceedingly naïve and foolish and for which she has apologized over and over again for nearly 40 years.

Bosworth's writing is competent, though marked by occasional carelessness. “The Eisenhower era of repression” is simply an ignorant, hackneyed generalization, and to characterize the works of Dashiell Hammett and James M. Cain as “pulp fiction” is not to understand them.

Arthur Goldberg was not chief justice of the Supreme Court and I don't believe William Manchester was ever editor of the New Hampshire Union Leader, though the newspaper is located in the city of Manchester.

Four-fifths of the book is given over to Fonda's first 50 years (she is now 73). The last decade, after the 2001 divorce that ended her 10-year marriage to media mogul Ted Turner, receives but a few pages. That is a reasonable division; by her early 50s her hectic pace had begun to slacken.

And by that time she had long been what she is best known for: a terrific actress who has won two Oscars (Klute, Coming Home) and is easily the equal of the father who she constantly wanted to be like.


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