Jane Fonda still walks the red carpet like a pro (shown here in May at the Cannes Film Festival in France). | ANNE-CHRISTINE POUJOULAT~Getty Images
THE PRIVATE LIFE
OF A PUBLIC WOMAN
By Patricia Bosworth
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt,
537 pages, $30
Updated: October 3, 2011 1:16PM
Jane Fonda wrote her autobiography, My life So Far, in 2005; she wrote a self-help/spirituality book, Prime Time, currently on the best seller list, and at least nine other Fonda biographies have been published. In other words, her life, quite literally, has become an open book. Maybe that’s why celebrity biographer Patricia Bosworth’s Jane Fonda: The Private Life of a Public Woman seems slightly like the dinner party guest who mistakenly shows up a week early: “And you’re here . . . why?”
Yes, Bosworth notes, the other biographies were written by men, “all of whom, [Fonda] believed, felt threatened by her.” And Fonda and Bosworth have been friends since the ’60s, and Bosworth spent the better part of a decade gathering stories. But neither genetic makeup, nor lifelong friendship, nor reportorial diligence has produced substantial new insights.
When an anecdote pops up, a flip to the notes in the back of the book often reveals that it’s from Fonda’s autobiography or some published article or book. We’ve previously been told, many times over, about the angst caused by the emotionally unavailable father and the intensity of the anti-war years and the Svengali-like relationships with Roger Vadim (whose gambling debts and back taxes she paid off), Tom Hayden (whose political career she bankrolled with exercise video revenues) and Ted Turner (with whom she attended marriage counseling for eight years).
But while much is rehash, it’s still a well-documented, orderly accounting of the feminist icon’s life. “Jane has fulfilled every female fantasy, achieving love, fame, money and success on a grand scale,” Bosworth reminds, in advance of detailing each triumph.
Jane Fonda is as loathed in some quarters as she is admired in others, and both sides will most likely see the facts as reported by Bosworth as supporting their bias.
Take, for example, the subject of sex. Fonda’s lifelong exploits liberally lace the entire book, particularly those chapters covering the Vadim years.
“The threesomes continued throughout most of their marriage. Occasionally, Jane herself did the soliciting,” Bosworth writes. “She told a friend she felt compelled to supply the women for Vadim so she would have some sort of control.”
While some readers will make Fonda out to be a feminist pioneer taking control of her body in the early days of the sexual revolution, others will merely peg her the willing dupe of a horny husband.
A variation of the theme occurred 20 years later, when Fonda turned into what Bosworth called “a Stepford Wife of the Gulfstream set” and married Turner. “She was now a trophy wife, with all its severe implications,” Bosworth writes. “A month later Jane discovered Turner was sleeping with another woman.”
The most compelling image of Fonda in most people’s minds, of course, is that of “Hanoi Jane” posing with an anti-aircraft gun outside Hanoi in July 1972. Bosworth does a superb job of taking the reader there, as Fonda “joked that this was just like a Hollywood publicity opportunity except her hair didn’t look right. One of the guides, a woman, then fixed her hair so that it was arranged correctly around the edge of her helmet. They asked her to climb up on the gun mount, which she did, sitting in the gunner’s seat. Everybody laughed, including Miss Fonda.”
Bosworth dutifully writes that Fonda years later said: “It was my mistake. . . . That two minute lapse of sanity will haunt me until I die. . . . I simply wasn’t thinking what I was doing, only about what I was feeling.”
To this day, that works for some, not others.
So who and what is Jane Fonda in 2011?
“Today Jane remains a woman who moves easily through the worlds of politics, feminism, the movies and philanthropy,” writes Bosworth. “She is rich and free and can do exactly what she wants. The difference is that now her family is her first priority. She has become a matriarch: she funds foundations that her children run; she brings them with her on most of her trips; she keeps close to Turner’s children, as well as Vadim’s other children and grandchildren.”
Sounds like someone even a Hanoi Jane hater could respect. Or not. Either way, thanks to Bosworth, Jane Fonda will once again have everyone’s attention.
Alan P. Henry is a local free-lance writer.