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Sassy Mama Book Club: Jane Fonda – The Private Life of a Public Woman by Patricia Bosworth

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Google “Jane Fonda +hate site” and you get 10 million results.

In contrast, “Sarah Palin +hate site” gets 109 million. Obama: 101 million, George Bush: 106 million, Donald Trump: 37 million.

But it’s not just raw numbers that matter here. It’s context. Palin, Obama, Bush and Trump are contemporary figures. Jane Fonda is a 73-year-old actress who had her last box office hit thirty years ago. So why is she still hated?

Mostly, it’s for something that happened forty years ago – at the height of the Vietnam War, Fonda visited North Vietnam. There she not only sat on an anti-aircraft gun and made a ‘public service’ announcement to American bomber pilots, she visited a POW camp where she met some captured soldiers. They slipped her messages to bring to their families – and she promptly turned them over to the North Vietnamese, who tortured (and, in one case, killed) those prisoners.

Wait. That never happened. But that untruth is a measure of the controversy that has swirled around Jane Fonda for most of her adult life. Actress, sex symbol, feminist, activist… in every sphere, she presses buttons.

Some of these buttons reflect the sickness of our society. A sex symbol who likes sex and who plays a sci-fi goddess and a prostitute – that gets our blood pumping. A public figure who skips the USO tour to organise coffee houses for dissidents in the military – imagine what they’ve said about her at the Veterans of Foreign War meetings. A bra-burner who shows women how to feel strong – that didn’t fly with the crowd that likes their women barefoot-and-pregnant.

But there are also internal buttons – the buttons pushed in her by her parents, her producers, her lovers. These are the fascinating buttons, because only by learning about them can we hope to understand why the best single word to define Jane Fonda is ‘driven’. And these, blessedly, are the buttons that fascinate Patricia Bosworth in her massive 600-page biography, Jane Fonda: The Private Life of a Public Woman.

Patricia Bosworth is a biographer’s biographer. She wrote the best book on Diane Arbus. Her Montgomery Clift biography is beyond compelling. It’s not just her sensitivity and insight that make her so good, It’s her life history (she was a Broadway actress for a decade) and her work ethic (the Fonda book took a decade). It doesn’t hurt that she knows Fonda well and that, as a result, Fonda did not discourage friends and family from seeing her.

In this book, Bosworth delivers the ultimate goods – the family story. It’s well known that Henry Fonda was emotionally remote and that her mother committed suicide. Bosworth turns those observations into a narrative. She shows us, time and again, how Fonda mistreated his wife; as a little girl, Jane once watched her mother crawl naked across the room pleading with him to talk to her. (He didn’t.)

Fonda has said, ‘All my life I’ve been my father’s daughter’, but her mother was also key. As a girl, Jane would come into her mother’s dressing room while Frances Fonda was checking for the slightest weight gain.  She told Jane: ‘Lady, if I gain any extra weight I’m gonna cut it off with a knife.’ Any wonder that Jane Fonda was obsessed with her body and became bulimic?

Pleasing a man. Showing no flaws. Expressing herself with her body. This is the triangle that will rule her life.

Bosworth can analyse brilliantly, but her real genius is as a reporter – she takes you, again and again, into the room. Here is her account of the meeting between Fonda and French director Roger Vadim:

“Her chest was heaving…. She looked very beautiful … her eyes shining, and suddenly embarrassed to find herself standing in front of me,” Vadim wrote in his 1986 book, Bardot Deneuve Fonda: My Life with the Three Most Beautiful Women in the World. “That instant I knew I was in love.”

Within two hours they were back at her hotel, embracing passionately. “I had half undressed her, and we were about to make love on the sofa when she suddenly broke away and ran to the bathroom. She came out a minute later, completely naked, and got into bed. I undressed and joined her. But something happened and I couldn’t make love to her.

For three weeks he was impotent. “I still don’t understand Jane’s patience with me during it all…. She never refused to let me sleep with her. And I still marvel at my own incredible stubbornness…. [Finally] in the middle of the night, the curse was broken. I was freed and I became a normal man again…. [We stayed] in bed two nights and a day.”

Vadim was her best lover. It was downhill from there. Bosworth’s account of Fonda’s relationship with activist Tom Hayden is simply shocking – he lived off her, cheated on her, dominated her. Why did she stay with him so long? By then, you understand – just as you understand why she stayed with Ted Turner, who cheated on her within a month of their marriage.

‘An actress is more than a woman, an actor is less than a man,’ Oscar Wilde said. Maybe. But in Fonda’s case, definitely. This is a woman who needed to be the biggest star in the world, and made it. And when that faded, she re-invented herself. Now she’s doing it again, speaking out about the vitality that’s still possible in the AARP years. Clearly, she’ll never be satisfied.

You can look at a life like that and see desperation. Or you can see how a badly damaged child forges a successful identity – or, at least, a workable persona. Patricia Bosworth sees it both ways. You will close this book with admiration for the writer, compassion for the actress … and great relief that your life is so much less twisted.

To buy Jane Fonda: The Private Life of the Public Woman from Amazon, click here. For the Kindle edition, click here.

To read more wonderful reviews from Head Butler, click here




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