Jane Fonda heads to Santa Cruz, memoir in tow
Editor’s Note: Good Times spoke with Jane Fonda over the phone while she was recently staying in Washington DC. The actress/activist will be in town on April 24 at the Rio Theatre, reading from her memoir, “My Life So Far,” and answering pre-submitted questions.
Love her or loathe her, Jane Fonda is a downright American icon: A two-time Academy Award winner, the daughter of entertainment royalty, a workout queen, “Hanoi Jane,” a feminist, a mom, Ted Turner’s former honey. In 67 years Fonda has packed in a lifetime of achievements, tragedies and some admitted mistakes.
And her life is, if she lives to be in her 90s, two-thirds over. It’s at this marker as she enters the last third of her existence, that she’s chosen to write a whopping 599-page tome—a real encyclopedia—to her life, aptly titled, “My Life So Far.” Not a page goes unnoticed. The lengthy autobiography is appropriate for telling her story. Fonda takes her reader on a fascinating journey that includes growing up with legendary actor-father Henry Fonda, her mother’s suicide, an insecure adolescence, bulimia, marriages, children, a trip to Hanoi, her activism, a spiritual journey and her return to the movies. Whew. No wonder the book is so thick.
Santa Cruz fans, and even foes, will be able to hear Fonda speak about her life and read from her memoir at 7 p.m. Sunday, April 24 at the Rio Theatre. The event is hosted by the Capitola Book Café and Bookshop Santa Cruz.
Fonda has lived an extraordinary life, as we already know, but it’s revealed even more so in “My Life So Far.” She’s been married to a billionaire, hobnobbed with the world’s elite, taken acting classes with Marilyn Monroe and fought bloody hard for political and women’s rights issues that she steadfastly believes in. This last passion got her in some dirty water during the Vietnam War, for that infamous photo that has plagued her with the name “Hanoi Jane.”
In an excerpt from her book, Fonda writes, “My only regret about the trip was that I was photographed sitting in a North Vietnamese antiaircraft gun site. What that image suggested had no relationship whatsoever to what I was doing or thinking or feeling at the time, as I hope this chapter will show. … Someone (I don’t remember who) leads me toward the gun, and I sit down, still laughing, still applauding. It all has nothing to do with where I am sitting. I hardly even think about where I am sitting. The cameras flash. … It was my mistake and I have paid and continue to pay a heavy price for it.”
Fonda explains in depth the controversial trip and the seating mistake that has haunted her. It’s just one of the numerous glimpses into her life, revealing a multi-faceted Fonda, a woman who has chosen to let the world in on her heart, her loves, her losses, her pains and her seesaw life of up highs and down lows.
The writing is clean, with choice sentences constructed throughout. The book is a quick, easy read, a bona fide page-turner. It’s divided into three sections, coinciding with the thirds of Fonda’s life. The actress toiled over this autobiography for five years, resulting in a profound look at one of our revered and ridiculed women. GT asked if writing the book was cathartic.
“It was transformational,” Fonda says from her hotel in Washington DC. “But yes, any time you sort of step back from your life and look at it, the big picture of your life, and try to learn the lessons from it, it’s a transformational expierience.”
Most people know a handful of facts about the legendary Fonda: her famous dad, that picture in Vietnam, work-out videos, some extraordinary acting kudos and a marriage to a guy named Ted. What people may not be familiar with is the insecure Fonda, the shy Fonda, the bulimic Fonda, the maybe sexually abused Fonda, the little girl whose mom suffered from severe depression and sliced her throat with a razor. These are the Jane Fonda’s we see in “My Life So Far.” And it’s because of her raw vulnerability that makes her accessible—she’s no longer an untouchable celebrity with a famous last name. We discover that she’s so much more: a woman whose life has been marked by tragedies, privilege, fame, talent and nowadays a good haircut, an upcoming movie role and a new found faith.
Perhaps some of the most uncomfortable moments in the book are in the beginning, when Fonda relays her mother’s suicide and how it affected the 12-year-old—for the rest of her life.
Fonda writes, “I can now understand that my mother was all the things that people have described—the icon, the flame, the follow-spot—and also all that I had felt as a child—a victim, a beautiful but damaged butterfly, unable to give me what I needed—to be loved, seen—because she could not give it to herself.”
And then she writes about her father, a movie star to everyone else, but “Dad” to Jane and her brother Peter. Fonda honestly reveals the harsher side of her famous father, his sometimes difficulties with parenting, but at the same time we see her joys when there are breakthroughs in their relationship.
Then she moves on to boarding school and studying acting with the famous teacher Lee Strassberg. It was there that something tickled Fonda, woke her up, giving her direction, focus and ultimately an Academy Award-winning career.
Fonda continues, “Then there was Marilyn Monroe, Lee’s most famous student, who sat quietly and earnestly in the back of the room in a trench coat, a scarf on her head, and no makeup. … Marilyn, I was told, had never been able to do a scene there. Each time she’d try, fear would make her sick to her stomach.”
Two of Hollywood’s favorites, both insecure, sitting in an acting class together—that’s the kind of stuff you read about in an unauthorized autobiography, but Fonda dishes out the real stuff.
In the second third of her book Fonda explores her start in activism, especially including her trip to Vietnam. In act three “Beginning” she talks about life after 60, including what some might find to be a surprising spiritual twist. This leftie, feminist, pro-choice Fonda has become a Christian. The religious right probably has no idea how to respond to Fonda’s conversion, and she doesn’t seem especially concerned with attaining their approval or convincing them of her politics.
“I don’t know anybody from the religious right,” Fonda says. “[Becoming a Christian], it’s completed me. … I have had a hunger since I was an adolescent I guess. I struggled with addictions like food addictions and alcohol and in the last seven years, I’ve realized that I was hungering for Spirit, and you know people can identify the Spirit with any number of things. You know—meditation, Buddhism, Islam, Judaism, whatever. I have identified with it with Christianity. That’s my culture and that’s what I’m interested in and that’s the journey that I’m on.”
Although Fonda doesn’t give much time to writing about her spiritual switcheroo—at one point she mentions that she had thought of herself formerly as an atheist)—she does reveal this in the book: “Women were anything but an afterthought for the Jesus I believe in. His acceptance of and friendship with women was truly revolutionary. … There was a reason why women were among Jesus’ most ardent followers; They responded to his revolutionary message of compassion, love, and equality.”
Some would say those are the same characteristics that we see reflected in the memoir: Jane Fonda—a woman full of compassion, love and equality.
Jane Fonda appears at 7 p.m. Sunday, April 24 at the Rio Theatre. Her book, “My Life So Far,” sells for $26.95.