Only Jane Fonda could upstage Oprah Winfrey. It happened on February 10, 2001, during a performance of Eve Ensler’s Vagina Monologues, which was being acted out by sixty megastars in front of a sold-out crowd at Madison Square Garden. The show was a fundraiser for V-Day, the international organization that works to prevent violence toward women.
I’ll never forget it.
All the celebrities, including Oprah, stood in a semicircle reciting their vignettes about women’s sexual triumphs and tragedies from index cards—all the celebrities except Jane, who had memorized her piece and when it was her turn stepped out of the circle and gave a spellbinding rendition about what it’s like to watch one’s grandchild emerge bloody and screaming from his mother’s womb. By turns anxious, tender, and emotional, Jane ended the monologue with “and I was there in the room. I remember.”
The audience gave a loud cheer. At that point, Jane curtsied to a dark-haired young woman who was seated in the front row. It turned out the young woman was Jane’s daughter, Vanessa Vadim. Months before, Jane had assisted the midwife at the birth of Vanessa’s son, Malcolm. Jane was paying her homage.
Afterward there was a noisy party at the cavernous Hammerstein Ballroom. Jane was surrounded by so many admirers that I had to push my way through the crowd to congratulate her.
“I did it! I did it!” she exclaimed to me, eyes sparkling. She hadn’t acted in thirteen years and she suffered from “such God-awful stage fright I was petrified I wouldn’t be able to get through it,” she confided to me, “but I did.”
We gripped hands.
Jane and I have known each other since the 1960s. We were kids then, studying with Lee Strasberg at the Actors Studio. I was an actress for ten years on Broadway before switching to journalism, while Jane was refashioning herself as Barbarella.
I wrote my first article about Jane in 1970 for McCall’s magazine. She had just been nominated for an Academy Award for her searing performance as the suicidal marathon dancer in They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? She went on to win Oscars for both Klute and Coming Home, movies that defined her political evolution.
For the next three decades I continued to write stories about her: when she was burned in effigy as Hanoi Jane, and a couple of years after, when the Gallup Poll listed her as one of the most admired women in the world along with Mother Teresa.
Jane polarizes, and the public remains fascinated by her. She has an extraordinary ability to reinvent herself in response to the times. Consider that she transformed herself from movie star to political activist to exercise guru to tycoon wife and now, in the twenty-first century, she’s turning into an exemplary philanthropist. She doesn’t generate, she reacts—to people, places, and events; everything about the fast-paced, chaotic reality that is American life turns her on.
But then I realize that above all she is a consummate actress who has an uncanny ability to inhabit various characters at will. She once told me, “The weird thing about acting is that you get paid for discovering you have multiple personalities.” Jane can will herself into becoming whatever she wants to become. Which is why I wanted to write this book about her.
In 2000 I began researching. Jane had given the project her blessing, so I interviewed scores of her friends and colleagues. But Jane herself refused to speak to me. She said it was because she was writing her own memoir and didn’t want to give anything away. Then in January 2003, she suddenly changed her mind and invited me to come to her ranch in New Mexico for a week. “I’m going over my FBI files and you can help me. I don’t feel like doing it alone,” she said. I agreed, and I wasn’t surprised; Jane constantly changes her mind. That’s the way she is—full of contradictions.
I wasn’t surprised either to receive the following e-mail from her a couple of days later:
Sat 18 Jan 2003
From: Jane Fonda
To: Patricia Bosworth
Deep breath. Big gulp. Here’s why: I have my own special personal stories about my life and I do have a big fear that I will give them away to you, because I do tend to let things just spill. YET, I do trust you and would like to spend time with you so here goes:
I do have all my FBI files like I said and you are welcome to go through them provided you share what’s interesting (most isn’t) with me. This is a good way to avoid having to do it myself in exchange for you’re [sic] being there. How’s that? If it’s just us, it’s truly just us. I am not a cook and eat sparingly when left to my own devices. . . . Aside from that, when not writing I am engaged in heavy manual labor such as cutting down trees and clearing trail. You would be welcome to come along but not required to participate.
Two months later I arrived at Jane’s 2,500-acre ranch outside Santa Fe. After she showed me around her comfortable, spacious home, we sat down in her vaulted living room, in front of a crackling fire, and drank red wine from oversize goblets. She told me how glad she was that I was writing her biography. There had already been nine published biographies of her, all written by men—all of whom, she believed, felt threatened by her. “I’m glad a woman is writing about me,” she said.
I began explaining why I wanted to write this book. Jane has fulfilled every female fantasy, achieving love, fame, money, and success on a grand scale. She’s a genuine American icon who won’t be remembered for her movies but rather for her outsize serial lives.
Jane interrupted. “I’ve already written five hundred pages of my book. How many have you got?”
“Not that many,” I admitted.
With that, she grinned. “What I really want to know is, who’s gonna be first?”
She is the daughter of Henry Fonda. His portrayal of Tom Joad in The Grapes of Wrath is embedded in the American consciousness. Jane has always willed herself to be the best at everything. She is also heir to a terrible childhood tragedy: her mother, 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.
My 2003 visit to her ranch coincided with a turning point. Although she still considers herself primarily a social activist, Jane had decided to recycle herself as a movie star after thirteen years away from the screen. At sixty-five, “It won’t be easy,” she joked. She’d hired a new agent; she had braces on her teeth; and she was trying out color contacts for her eyes. She’d also just had her breast implants removed. “My kids are so relieved. They tell me I look normal again,” she said.
She’d already turned down the remake of The Manchurian Candidate because she didn’t want her Hollywood comeback to be as a villainess. She told me that Cameron Crowe, who wrote Fast Times at Ridgemont High and Jerry Maguire, was writing a new movie for her. She said she would be playing Leonardo DiCaprio’s tap-dancing mother in the film. She did not say she was now often obliged to audition for parts, including another role for which she was in competition with Anne Bancroft. I found it hard to believe these two Oscar-winning actresses had to compete against each other, but in the end the face-off was merciful: neither got the part. Ultimately, the Cameron Crowe project didn’t work out either.
How can I accurately describe our conversations in the five days that followed? Jane is a prodigious talker. I taped and took notes, and everything she said ended up, in one way or another, in this book. She talked and talked and talked on a vast range of subjects: The importance of Michael Moore’s documentary on the Columbine massacre; Jimmy Carter; the United Nations; her travels to New Delhi, Mumbai, and Jerusalem. Marilyn Monroe. The joys of being a grandmother. Her first husband, Roger Vadim, and his sexual vulnerability; her dreams; her brother, Peter’s, courage; her son, Troy, and his dynamite performance in Soldier’s Girl where he played a GI in love with a transsexual.
She also talked about Sue Sally Jones, her beloved tomboy friend from grade school, with whom she’d recently reunited. Simone Signoret. The glories of a good martini and the ecstasies of pot. She talked about Carol Gilligan’s In a Different Voice, the book that has meant more to her than any other book. She talked about her daughter, Vanessa’s, talent as a filmmaker. She talked about her obsession with trees—big old trees, with thick, twisted roots. She talked about moving full-grown trees from one of Ted’s ranches in New Mexico to her ranch, oak, fir, maple, and poplar. “I am too old to plant young trees.” She talked about when she had planted trees at her farm outside Paris and the way Henry Fonda had planted trees years ago at their family home called Tigertail.
While I was listening to her, I decided Jane looked exactly the way she did when I first met her at the Actors Studio, over thirty-five years ago. The same long, sad face, an exact replica of her father’s. The same clear-eyed gaze and elegant remoteness. She was warmer than I expected, and sometimes quite funny, but she was so tightly wound I wondered if she could ever really relax. She was impeccably groomed. When I commented on the cut of her tight blue jeans, she said. “Oh, I have fifty pairs.” I expressed surprise. “Well, Ted has twenty-seven ranches. I used to keep clothes at every ranch so I would never have to pack.”
Every so often the phone rang. Once it was Kofi Annan, the secretary-general of the United Nations. Then it was Ted Turner. Jane spoke to him soothingly, as one might to a child. “You’re a good man, Ted. Don’t rush into anything too quickly.” They talked for quite a while. When she hung up she explained what had just transpired. She spoke in staccato sound bites—a habit she had honed over years of interviews. “Ted is trying to break up with his old mistress Frederique. They just aren’t getting along. He’s met some new girl, Rebecca something. Ted and I are close. Sometimes we even travel together. He’ll probably come to the ranch again. He gave me this ranch as a divorce present. I like to see him. I like to see him go. I feel sorry for him. He can’t be alone. Sometimes I take him into my lap and rock him like a baby.”
“Aside from the womanizing, what broke you up?” I asked.
“Ted needs constant companionship. Keeping up with him was absolutely exhausting. His nervous energy almost crackles in the air. He can’t sit still, because if he does, the demons will catch up with him.”
Suddenly she confided she was happier than she’d ever been in her life. “I’m free!” And then she added, “I love living alone for once.” She was about to move into her new home in Atlanta, four lofts renovated into a single gigantic apartment in Buckhead, one of the city’s wealthiest enclaves.
As she spoke, I was conscious that all around us were photographs of Henry Fonda, reminders that he remained the central presence in her life. She did not deny it. “My dad shadows me,” she said. “I dream about him. Think about him. Wonder if he’d approve of what I’m doing now.”
She will eventually write in her memoir, My Life So Far, “All my life I have been my father’s daughter. Trapped in a Greek drama like Athena who sprang from the head of her father Zeus. Discipline and drive started in my childhood. I learned love through perfection.”
But she is also her mother’s child. Obsessed with her looks. Obsessed with money. Obsessed with sex.