Ms. America

PrintPrintEmailEmailOn the cusp of turning 60 in 1997, Jane Fonda decided to compile a video of highlights in her notably eventful life to present to guests at her forthcoming birthday party. In search of a guiding concept, she turned to her daughter Vanessa and asked for her input. She wasn’t prepared, however, for her daughter’s reply. “She said to me, ‘Why don’t you just get a chameleon and let it crawl across the screen?’,” Fonda recounts. “Ouch. And so I thought to myself, Is that true. Am I simply a chameleon that changes color according to the times and the men in my life?” Of course, compared with some of the things Jane Fonda has been called, cultural chameleon is positively mild—even flattering. After all, most celebrities enjoy a relatively brief vogue before disappearing from the cultural landscape. By contrast, Jane Fonda’s unusual staying power as an active public figure stems from her uncanny ability to adopt the foliage of successive eras of American culture. She was libertine in the mid-sixties, radical by decade’s end, progressive in the seventies, entrepreneurial in the eighties, and corporate grande dame in the nineties.

It is in fact possible to trace the vicissitudes of American history over the past four decades simply by watching Fonda’s public persona multiply and subdivide like so many stock splits. Her nineties incarnation as “Mrs. Ted Turner” might seem an apotheosis, but it was just another identity pit stop for a public figure who is part Zeitgeist receptacle, part historical timeline, and part cultural encyclopedia.

Fonda’s tendency to intersect with the larger forces of history may be hereditary. The ancestors of her actor father Henry Fonda were among the first Dutch settlers of what is now upstate New York, where the town of Fonda still stands today. The family of Frances Fonda, Jane’s mother, claimed direct descent from Edward Seymour, Duke of Somerset, whose sister, Lady Jane Seymour, was the third of King Henry VIII’s unfortunate wives. So infatuated was Frances with her regal ancestry that when the Fondas’ baby girl was born, in December 1937, Frances christened her Jane Seymour Fonda. It wasn’t long before the tomboyish girl rejected her “Lady Jane” epithet because, as she recalls, “It made me feel different.”

When Henry Fonda announced in late 1949 that he was leaving his wife for a much younger woman, Frances had a nervous breakdown and was institutionalized in a sanitarium, where she committed suicide. Because Jane was 12 at the time, and her brother, Peter, 10, Henry thought it best to tell them that their mother had died of a heart attack. Jane learned the truth a year later, when a classmate leafing through a movie magazine stumbled on the real story. “I was very powerful for the first 10 years of my life,” she recalls today. “I was feisty, I was brave, I had ambition. Then, at the beginning of puberty, it disappeared, and you could have put what was left of me in a thimble.”

While Peter learned to act out his childhood trauma, Jane followed her father’s lead and dissembled. During her adolescence, she nursed tightly packed emotions that might be let out at a moment’s notice—a psychological foundation fit for the soon-to-be actress. She entered Vassar College in the fall of 1955 and quickly earned a reputation as what one observer called a “sophisticated delinquent.” Her college antics, such as sneaking off to spend time with boys at Yale, seem mild enough today, but that hasn’t kept a rumor from circulating among subsequent generations of Vassar students. It holds that Fonda was once barred from the daily afternoon tea service at Rose Hall because she wasn’t wearing the requisite white gloves and pearls, so she promptly left the scene and returned wearing gloves, pearls—and nothing else. “Totally untrue,” Fonda insists. Still, it wouldn’t be the last time that Fonda’s subsequent notoriety would be retroactively projected onto the rest of her life.

IT IS POSSIBLE TO TRACE RECENT AMERICAN HISTORY JUST BY WATCHING FONDA’S PERSONA MULTIPLY.

Fonda’s ongoing habitation of the American moment began in 1958. Having dropped out of college after her second year, she toyed with the idea of becoming an actress and soon found a teacher in Lee Strasberg, the famous dean of the Actors Studio. Strasberg’s “Method” acting regime was at the zenith of its cultural visibility, having influenced such film stars as Montgomery Clift, Paul Newman, and Anne Bancroft. Aspiring actors clamored for entry into the Studio, which accepted only five new members a year for every thousand applicants. Many settled for Strasberg’s more accessible private classes, which were seen as a way to get one’s foot in the Studio door. Fonda met Strasberg while he was working with Marilyn Monroe, his favorite protégé, on Some Like It Hot. After a short interview, she was accepted into the Strasberg fold. “The only reason I took her,” Strasberg said, “was her eyes. There was such panic in her eyes.”