ONE OF THE MOST REMARKABLE THINGS ABOUT Patricia Bosworth’s moving new biography, Jane Fonda: The Private Life of a Public Woman, is discovering that just about everything you ever thought about Jane Fonda is true. The conventional wisdom—that Fonda’s a brilliant actress and fierce activist with an unsettling knack for adapting her personality to whomever she happens to be married—is an accepted view even by those closest to her. When, to celebrate her 60th birthday, Fonda asked her daughter, filmmaker Vanessa Vadim, for help creating a documentary of her life, Vadim quipped: “Why don’t you just get a chameleon and let it crawl across the screen?” Snap.
Despite her many accomplishments, Fonda’s marriages provide the most effective means of organizing what Bosworth calls “her incredible serial life.” Each of Fonda’s husbands—the haute French film director Roger Vadim, the political radical Tom Hayden, and the cable-news tycoon Ted Turner—was a pretty mixed bag. But her worst husband was Tom Hayden. Allow me to say how grateful I am that I never married Tom Hayden. Not only did he cheat on Fonda left, right, and sideways, and publicly criticize, humiliate, and condescend to her, he also made her do the laundry by hand, because his precious political sensibilities didn’t allow for washing machines. So while Fonda supported him, ultimately contributing more than $10 million to his political campaigns (not including the money she raised for him from friends and colleagues), she was also hanging his shirts out to dry. In a commune. Without air-conditioning.
Bosworth gives the impression that Hayden was outright contemptuous of his movie star wife, even while she footed the bills. One of the most startling passages of Bosworth’s book involves, perhaps unsurprisingly, Fonda’s visit to Hanoi during the Vietnam war. It was a trip planned by the vastly more politically savvy Hayden, using his contacts, but it was also a trip that he, significantly, chose not to take. Fonda, a relative novice in foreign affairs, made that ill-fated voyage utterly alone. She was photographed, smiling, on a North Vietnamese anti-aircraft battery; Fonda was denounced as anti-American and later labeled “Hanoi Jane.” Hayden, Bosworth implies, set Fonda up for the fall: “Years later,” she writes, “when Jane tremulously asked why he hadn’t gone with her, he replied coolly, ‘They invited you. Besides … at the time, we weren’t together publicly as a couple.’”
Such stories are heartrending and confounding. “How,” Bosworth asks, “could such a seemingly strong woman keep on repeating the same mistake—losing herself with another man?” After all, Fonda, to my mind at least, is a hero. Aside from being one of the great actresses of her generation, she absolutely put her life (and career) on the line for the left-wing causes she believed in. Anybody who entertains ideas of Fonda’s dilettantism should read Bosworth’s account of her countless arrests and her harassment by the police, of her 22,000-page FBI file, and of the government’s illegal surveillance and attempts to discredit her. They should also read about Fonda’s genuine political successes. In the early ’70s, she and Hayden successfully organized renters in their hometown of Santa Monica, California into a “formidable political force … vot[ing] a landlord-dominated city council out of office … [and helping] to institute one of the strongest rent control laws in the United States.” In the early ’80s, she was instrumental in passing California’s Proposition 65, one of the most progressive environmental laws in the country. Over the years, Fonda has given a mint to the women’s movement. And despite being persistently painted as Hanoi Jane, she spent years entertaining and visiting the troops, including those at forts Hood and Sam Houston. Coming Home, the Oscar-winning film she conceived and starred in, remains one of the most sensitive cinematic portrayals of disabled veterans.
Any of this would make Fonda role-model material, not to mention a dream subject for Bosworth, the gold standard of celebrity-bio writers whose books on Montgomery Clift and Marlon Brando remain classics. Strangely, it’s Fonda’s insecurity-fueled chameleon-like quality that makes her so touching and recognizable. Bosworth’s working title was Becoming Jane Fonda, and in many ways it’s a more resonant handle. In spite of a life spent in the spot-lit catbird seat, Fonda has remained uncertain and vulnerable and oh-so-desirous of becoming more and better. Who among us can fail to identify with that?