Jane Fonda and her mother
Peter Fonda and his mother.
The biographical details of the lives of celebrities or actors are usually known to everyone before they release their book, who they slept with, what drugs they did, who’s husband or wife they fornicated with. After a while, they all begin to sound the same. With the small incestuous Hollywood social circle, it’s very possible that they’ve all bedded each other at one point or another.
I couldn’t tell you what movies Jane Fonda was in except ‘Barbarella’, an American incarnation of Brigitte Bardot, the ex-wife of Jane Fonda’s then husband, the director of the film, Roger Vadim. I know she won two Oscars but I couldn’t tell you for which movies and why and if she was really any good in them. I can’t say I am a huge fan of Jane Fonda ‘work’ besides her work for victims of sexual abuse. The last movie I saw her in was ‘Monster-In-Law’ where she played, well, what the title of the movie suggests.
I read Jane Fonda’s book for one section only. It’s the section where she talks about her mother, Frances Ford Seymour Fonda. I came upon an excerpt of this chapter where Jane Fonda for the first time talks about her mother in depth for the first time. For a woman who lost her mother at 12 years old, but didn’t begin to grieve her until she was in her mid-forties, her words about her long departed mother are powerful. The image she had of her mother was so different from the actual person because by the time she knew her mother, Frances Ford Seymour Fonda had already suffered decades of mental illness and trauma. Jane Fonda never knew her mother in her prime even though Frances died at only age 42. The effect of reading a sixty year old woman’s tribute to a mother whom she lost at 12 years old, and speaking in a voice of a child while she was already a grandmother, touched me deeply. Jane Fonda was born with a silver spoon in her mouth and was financially well off her whole life and she’s blessed in this regard, but nothing can prepare a young girl from her mother being taken from her. For all of her money and privilege, she needed a mother who was able to guide her.
The relationship between a little girl and her father are often expounded on. It’s the first relationship a girl has with a man, and depending how that relationship (or lack of) goes, it usually determines the kind of man that little girl eventually marries or dates. The mother-daughter relationship is equally complex but in different ways. As daughters, we expect more from our mothers than our fathers. We instinctively expect her to set a good example for us (the same goes for a boy and his father), especially how she encounters hardship and adversities in her life. Does she roll over and let people walk all over her. Does she degrade herself for the affections of a man, does she stand up to men and society at large when her personhood is trampled on. Daughters are far more forgiving of their father’s mistakes than that of their mothers (and as sons are of their mothers). The single most influence a person has on a child is their same sex parent. Despite the loving and more relaxed mother-son and father-daughter relationships, we model our lives and behaviors after our same sex parent. For most of Jane Fonda’s childhood, her mother was absent due to her mental illnesses and the effects of her mental illnesses. She was physically there but her mind was gone, buried under the haze of heavy medications and mental suffering.
Fonda tells the story of her mother Frances in flash black. She first talks about the woman she knew in her childhood until she died on her forty-second birthday by slashing her throat with a razor in a sanitarium. Jane Fonda was born on December 21, 1937, the United States entered World War II in 1941, her father, the actor Henry Fonda chose to enlist in the war even though he was over thirty-five years old and had dependents when World War II broke out. He was not required to do so but chose to anyways. Jane knew at this point that something was very wrong in her parents marriage and her father enlisting was his way of getting away from her mother and the shackles of family life, which by this time included her younger brother, the actor Peter Fonda. Her mother Frances was under no illusion her marriage was rosy either. When her husband was away, Frances Fonda had an affair with a musician, it was a volatile affair and it eventually ended before her husband returned home from the warfront. One of the few advices Jane remembers her mother giving her is “never marry a musician”. She remembered this piece of advice not because it was some unique sage advice but because her mother rarely gave her any advice about anything. When her father returned home, their family life continued and she also noticed her dad ceased to find her mother attractive anymore (Frances Fonda was an exceptionally attractive woman).
After Henry Fonda returned home from the war, the whole family moved to Connecticut because he got the main part on a long running Broadway play Mister Roberts. The family settled into a routine where Henry escaped to New York City during the week and came home on weekends to Connecticut to spend time with his family, an event which Jane describes as forced and unnatural – to say that Henry Fonda was not a natural father would be an understatement:
I suppose it was just that Mother, Peter and I weren’t all that interesting. When he’d visit us I could sense he didn’t really want to be there. But Dad had been an Eagle Scout, and the commitment to doing one’s duty was embedded in his DNA. I wish the Scouts had taught how him to make it seem less like a duty.
During this time, as the Fondas’ marriage disintegrated to the point of no return and so did Frances Fonda’s mental health. If she was not staying in a sanitarium, she was on heavy medication which rendered her catatonic and unable to engage with her children. Something was very wrong in the Fonda household yet no one would talk about “it”, not even her maternal grandmother who lived with them at the time.
One of my most vivid memories of that time was sitting in silence at the dinner table in that spooky house on the hill—Peter, Grandma, Mother, and me. Through the window I could see the gray March landscape. Mother, at the head of the table, was crying silently into her food. It was spinach and Spam. We ate a lot of canned food in those days, as though the war and food rationing were still going on. I used to wonder about this, but now I know that Mother was terrified of running out of money and not receiving anything from Dad in the divorce.
No one said anything about the fact that Mother was crying. Maybe we feared that if one of us put words to what we saw and heard, life would implode into an unfathomable sadness so heavy the air wouldn’t bear it. Not even after we left the table was anything said. Grandma never took us aside to explain what was happening. Perhaps if “it” was not named, “it” would not exist”
This woman is weeping into her dinner and her own mother couldn’t comfort her daughter. Perhaps they were called ‘The Silent Generation’ for a reason.
When Henry Fonda asked for a divorce (he already had his new wife waiting in the wings), he let it be known that he wasn’t in the generous mood to pay for large a alimony and child support. Upon hearing this, Frances Fonda became even more distressed and anxious and wondered how she was going to provide for her children for the rest of her life. Despite all their problems, she also loved her husband and didn’t want a divorce (“If she [Frances Fonda] could love the right way–selflessly, with understanding and no anger–perhaps Dad would come back to her”). She had a full mental breakdown and had to be put into a straightjacket and was hauled off to the sanitarium again. Before she left, one morning, while Jane was on her way out to school, her mother pulled her to one side and told her if anyone asks about the divorce, “tell them you already know”. That was the extent of the conversation about the “divorce”. Her younger brother Peter was not told at all.
It was during this last stay at the sanitarium that Frances Fonda decided that this was it. She pretended to get better so that she would be allow day visits home to see her family. In March of 1950, she went home to see her children one last time, accompanied by a nurse from the sanitarium. She called for the children to come down to see her, only Peter went to see his mother as he missed her desperately, Jane (probably sensing something was amiss) refused to go see her. Her mother left without saying goodbye to her. Frances also was able to go to her bedroom and sneak a razor into her purse to bring back to the sanitarium. On the day of her forty-second birthday, she slashed her throat with the razor she snuck from home and died at the sanitarium. She left behind six notes in total: one for the nurse (to go get the doctor and not go in the bathroom – how very considerate of Frances), one for her doctor (“Dr. Bennett, you’ve done everything possible for me. I’m sorry, but this is the best way out.”), one for her mother, one for Jane and one for Peter. She had nothing to say to her husband. When Jane heard her mother died (of a heart attack) she was heartbroken but didn’t dare show it for fear of upsetting her father. She also thought it was her fault because she refused to come see her mother when she came home for the last time. It wasn’t until months later, a classmate at her school passed around the tabloid of the day which said Henry Fonda’s wife died of suicide by slashing her own throat in a mental institution did she then find out the truth. As ever the protective big sister, she was more worried about Peter once he found out (he didn’t find out how his mother died until years later). She was devastated but she felt she couldn’t show it. She stuffed that grief down until she was in her forties.
With the exception of her maternal grandmother who stayed behind after France’s death, they were not allowed to talk about their mother with their father. No one is to discuss with Henry Fonda the passing of his wife or even talk about her. The subject was off limits. While Peter cried every night in his room, Jane felt she needed to be the brave one and suck it up. When Christmas of 1950 came, Peter Fonda, a boy of eleven, made presents to give to his mother and cried all Christmas Day.
“Peter had filled an entire wingback chair with presents for Mother and a letter he’d written her. Looking back it is so sad and terribly poignant, an eleven-year-old boy needing to let his mother know he loved and missed her and wanted people to acknowledge her. But, oh God, nothing he could have done could have made that Christmas Day any worse. I was furious with Peter and sided with Dad, who seemed to see Peter’s behavior as a play for sympathy. What a thought!”
No one dared to go give this small boy a hug for fear of angering the almighty and good Henry Fonda. No one even dared mention Frances Fonda. She was here, then she was gone and that was it. Every time I read this passage in her book it makes me cry. How a vulnerable small boy, who needed his mother, who missed his mother and no one could even give him a cuddle. The Fonda children grew up and life went on as though nothing had happened. Henry Fonda married and jilted a few more wives and Jane and Peter Fonda each forged successful careers of their own. For the rest of her life, she never talked about her mother with Henry Fonda again.
For Jane Fonda, her mother’s ghost never left her. Her mother never left her. She tried to forget her and she couldn’t. Growing up, Jane Fonda thought of her mother as a helpless victim, a weakling, unlike the strong Henry Fonda. Her mother couldn’t overcome her troubles. As a child, she distinctly remembers deliberately turning away (physically and emotionally) from her mother as her mother got deeper and deeper into her mental illness. Like animal instinct, as she felt her mother abandon her physically and emotionally, she, in turn, abandoned her mother emotionally as well. When Jane turned forty she decided to reach out to her mother’s surviving friends. She wanted to purge old ghosts and she wanted to know once and for all exactly who Frances Ford Seymour Fonda was. What she learned was astonishing. “She was an icon, always at the center of things, and boy, did she love life!”, said her best friend Laura Clark, an Arden gown model whom Frances befriended by offering her a cup of tea after a long shift of modelling (models in those days stood for hours on their feet modeling dresses for customers). That conversation became a lifelong friendship. Her mother was the life of the party. She was the best friend anyone could have. She was also incredibly ‘resourceful’. If you needed birth control you called Frances, if you needed a good and discreet doctor who performed good abortions you called Frances, nothing shocked her. If you had friend drama and needed advice on how to sort it out where everyone leaves happy, you asked Frances. Frances’s friends also described her as having a “modern outlook on life”, which means she dabbled in affairs prior to and after her marriage to Henry Fonda and didn’t have hang ups about sex and such things. Frances was fun, a good bundle of energy to be around. Frances loved giving parties and loved having company over at her house (Jane Fonda also realized this is where she got this trait from). Frances Fonda was generous, when she became a wealthy widow (when her first husband died), she subsidized her siblings and often helped her friends who needed money and it’s not trifle amounts for groceries or what not, she set them up in apartments, paid deposits etc. Frances Fonda was not the sad pathetic nervous wreck of a woman Jane knew as a child (and she says she got this impression from her father, because that’s what he thought of her), Frances was a woman who owned herself and her pleasures, the life of the party, a fully functioning human being. Her suicide was a devastating blow to her friends and they tried to reach out to Jane Fonda for over 20 years so they could talk to her about her mother, but Jane was having none of it. To identify with her mother, according to the Fonda Creed, was to espouse weakness.
To find out all the pieces of the puzzle, Jane Fonda requested to see her mother’s medical records from the last sanitarium she stay and subsequently died at. When she got the brown envelope in the mail she was shaking. She opened it and there it was, in her mother’s type hand, 8 single spaced pages, with her written corrections and additions on the margins, the details of Frances Fonda’s life poured out. She learned her mother was sexually abused when she was eight years old until she was a teen by a piano tuner who came to tune the family’s piano. France’s father was an alcoholic and probably suffered from paranoid schizophrenia and as a result lost his job in Manhattan and they had to move to rural Canada bordering with New York state. France’s father was also physically abusive to the children and her mother being many years younger than her father and had a large number of children with to look after with no help. Frances also had a younger sister who was born with severe epilepsy and in order to keep her safe, France’s mother trained the little girl to hang on to her mother’s dress at all times. In short, her parents did not have the resources financial or otherwise to look after their large brood of children. Frances was very resentful that her father had all these children but couldn’t adequately support or educate them. When her father died from alcoholism, a relative rescued them from penury and brought them back to Manhattan, Frances was able to go to secretary school and learn a trade. She told a friend that she is going to become a secretary to a Wall Street millionaire and then marry him. That’s exactly what she did, she married for the first time at 20 years old to a much older man, she had a daughter by him also called Frances (nicknamed ‘Pan’) and three years after the birth of Pan, he died; leaving her a wealthy widow. She met Henry Fonda a few years after the death of her first husband and they married and had Jane and Peter Fonda. Since her early twenties she began to suffer from bouts of severe depression and anxiety. She was later diagnosed as being bi-polar after the birth of her third child Peter. Psychiatric treatment was crude and medieval in the 1930s and 40s and she was often subjected electroshock treatment, ice baths and confined to a foam padded room. The medications she was given were basically tranquilizers which rendered her catatonic and not able to function. The self-hatred which stemmed from the sexual abuse she suffered as a child caused her to obsessively get plastic surgery to ‘fix’ herself, even though she was an exceptionally beautiful woman with golden blond hair, slanting blue eyes and peachy skin – she needed no surgery. She was the center of attraction everywhere she went, both in looks and personality. But her self-hatred was such that she used multiple plastic surgery procedures and was promiscuous which resulted in many abortions (prior to her re-marriage to Henry Fonda) to mutilate her body. Behind the beautiful woman was a broken girl suffering from trauma, from untreated, unacknowledged sexual abuse. Jane Fonda does not reveal if her grandmother knew if her mother was sexually abused as a child. The assumption is no one knew but her doctors.
After Jane Fonda was done reading her mother’s medical files, she began sobbing, deep guttural sobs that came from the depth of her soul. She sobbed for days, she couldn’t get out of bed. She imagined her mother as a frightened little girl to a frightened woman and no one was there to protect her. She finally understood her mother and the troubles of her mother. Even though she was a privileged wealthy white woman, she could not be protected from the worst evil of society. Frances fought her battles in her own way, by being a good friend, tried to be a good mother and tried to create a financially secure household for her children as she believed she was sexually abused because the Seymours were dependent on the largess of relatives and friends and it opened them up to predators. It’s worthy to note, despite her fears of being broke, when she died in 1950, she had over $600,000 to her name which was split evenly between her three children. Like many people who cannot provide the emotional stability and unconditional love in life, she made sure their futures were secure.
Her book ‘My Life So Far’ was dedicated to her Mother, the beautiful and vivacious woman she never knew in her full prime in life. To honor her mother’s life and suffering, Jane Fonda is heavily involved in rape prevention and treatment of rape and sexual assault. On Jane Fonda’s website she pays tribute to her mother:
My mother was sexually abused as a young girl, long before people knew the life-long damage it causes or that there are ways to heal the wounds–the worst of which are not what happens physically but what is done to the identity, the emotions, the brain of the victim, particularly if the person is not believed, not understood, not heard.
I want to tell anyone reading this blog who is a victim of trauma, including veterans of combat, that to seek treatment is the brave thing to do. As Dr Judith Herman says, accepting help is an act of profound courage. It shows strength not weakness, initiative, not passivity. “Remembering and telling the truth about terrible events are prerequisites both for the restoration of the social order and for the healing of individual victims.”
I wish my mother could have told and been believed.
As for the husbands she married, no, she never married any musicians. She married Roger Vadim first, a womanizer and inveterate gambler who gambled away her whole inheritance, the one left to her by her mother. She then married a leftist political activist Tom Hayden, who was against capitalism and everything America was about in the 1960s, but he had no problem putting Jane to work making cheesy workout videos and taking all her hard earned money to fund himself (at times girlfriends on the side) and his political causes. She lastly married Ted Turner, the former CEO of CNN, a considerable upgrade in the money department from the previous two husbands, but he was a philanderer and a misogynist and she left him as well. Surprisingly, she was able to maintain excellent relationships with all three of her ex-husbands, they all say wonderful things about her (and she about them). She showed up to Roger Vadim’s funeral linking arms with all of his ex-wives and paramours and that is a chip off of Frances’s old block, the ability to navigate complicated personalities and situations and everyone coming out a winner.