The Life and Times of Jane Fonda

The Oscar-winning actress reflects on everything from her love life to her political activism

Few rival the legend that is Jane Fonda. From her Kennedy-level Hollywood lineage to her multiple Madonna-like transformations, the star has dazzled the cinematic, fitness, and activist scenes, staying long enough to ruffle a few feathers or win an Oscar before moving onto a different chapter. After a 15-year film hiatus, a third divorce (from media mogul Ted Turner, who—as Fonda reveals in her book—supplied “terrific fountains-of-Versailles and fireworks sex!”), and a great many hours in therapy, Fonda has returned, resurrected from beyond the public limelight, to publish her autobiography “My Life So Far.”

“I decided to write the book when I ended up single at 62,” Fonda says in a personal interview with The Crimson before addressing a large audience on April 21, at First Parish Church in Cambridge.

Fonda says she was motivated by a need for emotional catharsis and serious self-analysis to write “My Life So Far,” a fearlessly open account of her captivating past. While researching, she noticed the “clear, broad, even universal themes” that ran through her life, and realized that in telling her jam-packed story honestly, she could help women—and men—handle the challenges surrounding “relationships, self-image, and forgiveness.”

Recently, pseudo-celebrities like Paris Hilton and Jenna Jameson have published their own tell-alls. However, their tales lack the wisdom gained in 60-plus years of experiences and a backbone. Fonda, on the other hand, writes confidently and intimately; in the end, her journey conveys what a remarkable, brave, and resilient woman she is.

A POLITICAL ANIMAL

Between her time as Barbarella and Hanoi Jane, among the Oscar wins and spousal losses, Fonda kept journals. Using those diaries along with media interviews and biographies of her famous family members (such as father Henry, brother Peter, and niece Bridget), she wrote her memoirs. Of course, the 22,000 pages of FBI files (kept on her because of her involvement in Vietnam) didn’t hurt either.

Some steamy details never made the final cut. “They all read it before I ever published it. My husbands, my children, my stepchildren,” Fonda promises. In particular, “Ted’s children asked me to take out the sex.” During editing, Fonda cut 500 pages, “But I left in what I felt I needed to leave in order to render my journey vibrant and palpable,” she says.

Fonda’s chameleonic existence fills the remaining pages with enough color and calamity to catch any reader’s attention—and her candidness and “good enough is good enough” message keeps that reader impressed. Fonda deserves respect, regardless of personal politics.

She’s not thinking of running, but with her moxie, she might make an effective politician.

“I’m not going to work for candidates. I’m more interested in helping to build a movement that can pressure whoever the candidate is to be braver than they would be otherwise,” she says. “It’s always the citizenry that have to be empowered and active voices to force the politicians to do what we need them to do. Otherwise, it’s not gonna happen no matter who they are.”

In her book, Fonda certainly inspires women—through her own resilience—to adopt a stronger voice and be more aware of their intrinsic power. But America might not be prepared to accept full-fledged feminists yet. “I think that we’re perfectly ready to embrace a female head of state,” she says. “Whether we’re ready to embrace a strong woman who is not a ventriloquist for the patriarchy is another thing.”

At any rate, one strong woman can count on Fonda: “If Hillary was the nominee, I would definitely vote for her.”

Candidates have refrained from asking her to campaign. “I’m too much of a liability perhaps,” she says. Controversy arose when Fonda posed for photographs during the Vietnam War on an antiaircraft gun boat, smiling with the locals.

She has since acknowledged her mistake—“There are some things you wish you could take back”—but she hardly allows her past to limit her future. “I have regrets about things I did, vise-a-vie the Vietnam War, but you know, basically, I’ve resolved most of the regrets, and I’m trying live my third act in such a way that I won’t have regrets,” she says.

‘NOT A DILETTANTE’

The daughter of one of America’s most cherished directors and actors, and the sister of “Easy Rider,” Fonda differs from her family. “Acting and filmmaking was never the center of my life the way it was for my brother and my father,” she says; instead, she was “always prepared to let that part of my life drop in order to pursue a relationship or a political cause or something like that.”

Nonetheless, she takes her profession extremely seriously and she determined not to ride on her family’s name. “What was important is to prove to myself that I wasn’t being hired because I was Henry Fonda’s daughter, which is why I studied a technique so hard,” she says, sipping black coffee. “I wanted to be able to feel like I’m not a dilettante.”

Fonda’s acting career—which includes two Best Actress Academy Awards for 1971’s “Klute” and 1978’s “Coming Home”—is far from over. During her retirement stage, she “didn’t get offers,” adding, “I made it very clear that I never wanted to go back and I wasn’t interested and I didn’t miss it.”

Since deciding to return, however, she has entertained a number of propositions. In the spring, Fonda will co-star with Lindsay Lohan in the new Gary Marshall (“Pretty Woman”) film “Georgia Rule.” The message in the film attracted Fonda: “It’s a good story. It addresses issues that I’m dealing with [in] my organization—incest.”

Will this dramatic fare be the one to win Fonda another Oscar? “No,” she says, laughing. “You can’t think about that.”

THEN AND NOW

Although Fonda attended Vassar College, she never actually graduated. “I have nightmares at least once a week about not finishing. I do. It’s clearly something that I don’t feel good about,” she says.

However, she learned a lot from the experience. “I did study physiology, I just didn’t get a degree in it,” she jokes, referencing her “feel the burn” workout phase in the ’80s, when she commanded a workout-tape empire that taught millions of women how to tighten their gluts and wear colorful unitards.

Since then, her academic interests have changed; nowadays, Fonda’s back in school, attending theology classes in areas such as Womanist Interpretation and Biblical History in Atlanta, where she lives with her daughter from her first husband, “Barbarella” director Roger Vadim.

Fonda’s future consists of family and working to “help girls maintain their voice and help boys reclaim their hearts,” a goal she repeats throughout her book. As for a sequel, Fonda says she misses the writing process, but readers will have to wait. “It emptied me out, frankly. It was five years, and I sort of poured my all into it. I have to fill back up again to know what, if anything, it’s gonna be.”

Wherever Fonda’s life may lead, this reader, for one, awaits the next chapter.

—Staff writer Lindsay A. Maizel can be reached at lmaizel@fas.harvard.edu.

My Life So Far
By Jane Fonda
Random House Trade Paperbacks
Out Now