My Life So Far
by Jane Fonda
Random House, 624 pp., $26.95
WHAT CAN YOU SAY ABOUT nearly 600 pages of passionate self-justification covering some 67 years of life, lived pretty much in the public eye for most of that time?
In the interests of full disclosure, I should say that some 34 years ago Helen Gurley Brown flew my late husband Richard to New York to do an in-depth interview with Jane Fonda while she was shooting Klute, a film for which she won her first Academy Award for Best Actress. Somewhere, I suppose, I still have those 14 hours on tape of their talk together. And despite the intervening years, two more husbands, considerable success as an exercise guru, the acceptance of a modified Jesus in her life, and that shaming trip to Hanoi which remains very much alive in people's memories, Jane today sounds unmistakably like the same passionate, slightly ditzy woman she was back then. ("I'm a pacifist and I would fight to the death to defend it, but I would pick up a gun tomorrow.")
She gives readers bountiful detail on her quite miserable childhood. The unloving mother who slit her own throat when Jane was 12. The famous actor father, cold as ice. Her recollections of having been molested as a child (perhaps by a nanny's boyfriend). And her bulimia, which lasted until well into her forties. No question that she had an insecure, unhappy childhood and adolescence that left her with problems to be worked out as she continued to mature.
Lee Strasberg, the mighty mentor of the Actors' Studio, accepted her at 22 into his classes, and the day he told her, "I see a lot of people go through here, Jane, but you have real talent," she felt transformed. "I had never been so happy," she writes. She played a few leads in light Hollywood films, and then in 1963 got an offer from the French director René Clément to costar with Alain Delon, the top European box office draw of the day. Paris was like love at first sight, she burbles. (Actually it was her second visit.) This sojourn gives her the opportunity to discuss with superb naiveté how the French felt about communism, and what kind of understanding that gave her of politics. Although, as she says, "I was not politically active then and especially not interested in theory or ideology (still not, to this day), and no one suggested I should be."
Then she was spending time with her new chums, Simone Signoret and Yves Montand, the superstars of the French Communist party--although she only recalls them agreeing "with many of the party's opinions." After the Berlin Wall came down in 1989, Montand went on French television to state unequivocally, Nous etions des cons. This is a colloquial way of saying "We were fools," except that cons is a much stronger word.
Of course, Jane Fonda has never said anything remotely comparable regarding her glory days as "Hanoi Jane," sitting there giddily at the North Vietnamese antiaircraft gun, gleefully clapping her hands. Oh, she has said things like "That was the most stupid, naive thing I could have done. I will go to my grave regretting that--not going to North Vietnam, but that photograph." This doesn't keep her from devoting over 60 pages to arguing why it was so wrong for the United States to fight in Vietnam, complete with footnotes and boldface for emphasis.
She also takes the opportunity to opine on the role of women and leadership. "I continue to be amazed," she writes, "at the number of women I consider strong leaders, who worry about 'taking up too much space in meetings,' worry about being 'too assertive' in expressing their ideas and needs, become little girls again in the presence of male 'authority' figures. Once we women are able to own our leadership, to embody our power (and more and more women are--including myself), the world will be a better place indeed."
Before she reached this stage in her life she had her Barbarella years, living with and then married to the French director Roger Vadim, onetime husband of Brigitte Bardot and Annette Stroyberg, and father of Catherine Deneuve's son. Vadim's lifestyle was given to fairly freewheeling ways in matters sexual. Jane ties herself in knots explaining how it was all-important to her, in those days, to please her man. And if her man wanted to bring a high-class call girl into her bed, then it was imperative she go along with it and "eventually had myself convinced I enjoyed it." (In her 1971 interview, she confessed, "Look, I've slept with married men who were extremely happy with, and in love with, their wives.")
With second husband Tom Hayden, she was "head over heels" in love when he told her how the U.S. government and the South Vietnamese were trying to overthrow the culture of centuries, and replace it with a consumer-driven Playboy culture to make Vietnamese women ashamed of their slight Asian bodies and seek breast implants. Jane began crying, and felt "he was someone with depth and soul, different from any man I'd ever met." The next paragraph opens with them "making love on the living room floor." (Jane herself had implants for a time, having them removed only in her sixties.)
Then came Hanoi, where Hayden thought she should go by herself. She bravely maintains, at the beginning of her Hanoi chapter, that the image suggested by the antiaircraft gun picture "had no relationship whatsoever to what I was doing or thinking at the time." When she returns to the arms of Tom Hayden in a room at the Chelsea Hotel, she tells him she wants them to have a child together as "a pledge of hope for the future. We held each other and wept."
The night she turned 51, Hayden told her he loved another woman. "Never," she writes, "could I imagine such emotional pain." Then there were therapists, even psychics, and the day her divorce was announced in the press, she got a call from Ted Turner asking, first, for confirmation of the divorce and, second, whether she would like to go out with him. Before she and Turner become a couple there is a tall, dark, handsome Italian, seventeen years younger, with whom she falls "in lust" but who vanishes from her pages with no more mention than that.
Ten years of marriage with Ted Turner involve a great deal of travel in high style from one ranch to another, from the American West to Tierra del Fuego. Turner is described vividly, and with enough detail to make any woman wonder why on earth she would have an affair with, let alone marry, such a character unless it were for purely economic reasons. He appears to have been faithful, except for one "nooner," and for Jane's 60th birthday he gave her a $10 million family foundation. Interestingly, as she's beginning to feel things are not working out for her and Turner, she abruptly announces, "Out of love and respect for Ted and his children, I will not go into specifics about what was not working in our relationship. Quite honestly it is not necessary."
By then, Jane had found Jesus--well, sort of--but was terrified of telling Turner. He was the man, after all, who had declared, "Christianity is for losers." She writes: "I find it impossible to have that [spiritual] experience when I cannot reconcile myself to the Judeo-Christian assumption that man was God's principal creation, with woman as a mere derivative afterthought." But she finds there was a reason women were among Jesus' most ardent followers, responding as they did to "his revolutionary message of compassion, love, and equality."
Her conclusion, after nearly 70 years on this planet, is this: "If our civilization hadn't been built on devaluating, fearing, and denigrating women, men wouldn't split head from heart and distance themselves from their emotions, which are supposed to be the domain of women." So we leave Jane Fonda and Jesus together, waiting to see what turn her life will take.
Cynthia Grenier writes the Mag Trade column for the Washington Times.