Jane Fonda, chapter and verse

Every life has a narrative and someone who has reached the age of 80 surely has many stories worth telling, wisdom worth sharing.

When you are Jane Fonda — actress, activist, author and philanthropist — audiences will gather to hear your recollections, learn from your experiences and revel in the breadth and scope of a life that has been lived on a public stage.  

A crowd of nearly 800 attended the “Open Visions Forum” at Fairfield University’s Quick Center for the Arts in late September for the program “Jane Fonda, Speaking Out: Artist as Social Activist.” 

Fonda was gracefully introduced by Geena Clonan, founding president of the Connecticut Women’s Hall of Fame, who announced that, earlier in the day, Fonda had been presented with the organization’s first-ever Constance Award, recognizing a non-Connecticut native for exemplary thoughts and actions addressing the struggle for gender equality. 

During Clonan’s opening remarks, she reminded Fonda of the time she had previously spoken on the Fairfield University campus — in November 1970, amid a period of controversial, rueful anti-Vietnam War activism that has earned her the enmity of many veterans to this day. “I was a different person then,” Fonda retorted. “I was so f—ed up.”

She’s no stranger to Connecticut. From age 10 through 12, Fonda lived in a large, rambling Greenwich house overlooking the former toll booths on the Merritt Parkway with her parents, actor Henry Fonda and his wife, the former Frances Ford Seymour Brokaw, brother Peter and half-sister Frances, known as Pan. She attended Greenwich Academy during those years, developing her love of horses and riding at backcountry stables.   

The audience, spanning decades — from university students to 90 year olds — sat in rapt attention as Fonda eloquently delivered her prepared remarks in perfect pitch, reflecting upon what she called “my three acts.” Though her organized presentation may have been scripted, her delivery was anything but. Spoken at times with frank language, this was not a recitation, this was raw, authentic Jane — standing at a lectern, delivering her life lessons — honestly admitting the flaws of her early years when she was conducting her own personal revolution.    

“I was scared,” she told us, “of getting to the end of my life with a lot of regrets and not being able to do anything about it.” At age 59, Fonda realized that with her milestone 60th birthday approaching, she would be entering the third act of her life. Thus, began the start of years-long research, leading to many revelatory moments and prompting her 2005 memoir, “Jane Fonda, My Life So Far.”   

With both parents already gone, much of her fact-gathering came, she explained, from photographs and third-party accounts. 

“Photographs,” she said, “give you an understanding of relationships and the dynamics of individuals’ lives that influenced their behavior — the vulnerability that prevented them from forging healthy relationships with the people in their lives.” She described this as a period of self-definition — a search for who she was, rather than what she did.    

I had previously read Fonda’s memoir, learning more about the many painful periods of her life, especially the account of her childhood years — having a distant, self-absorbed father and a fragile and emotionally detached mother, who committed suicide at an upstate New York sanatorium when Fonda was 12. Still in Greenwich during that tragedy — Fonda did not find out the cause of her mother’s death until much later from a magazine — her father appeared onstage that same evening during his run in the Broadway show “Mister Roberts.” 

In that same memoir, Jane spoke of her brother, Peter. (In addition to Pan, they have a half-sister, Amy, adopted during their father’s third marriage to Susan Blanchard.) By her account, he did not suppress his feelings as she had, causing her some consternation as a child. Jane favored the mode of pretending everything was OK, while Peter wore his feelings on his sleeve, often displaying what their father considered weakness. When their father would take them fishing on the Long Island Sound, Jane would bait Peter’s hooks on the sly in her efforts to conceal his squeamishness.     

Fonda doesn’t speak of her siblings during the course of the evening, but she does refer to her own children — relationships that needed to be mended in order for her to move forward — and grandchildren. Indeed, she told us that she would be traveling the following day to celebrate the 50th birthday of daughter Vanessa Vadim, from her first marriage to Roger Vadim, the French director and producer. From Fonda’s second marriage to Tom Hayden she also has a son, Troy Garrity, who is an actor, and an adopted daughter, Mary “Lulu” Williams, a social activist.     

From an examination of the early chapters of her life, Fonda told us, she came to understand more fully the dynamics of her parent’s troubled marriage and the need, particularly upheld by her father, to present the perfect picture. In the process of performing a life review it changed how she thought about her own life. “You realize,” she said, “that much of what happened had nothing to do with you, which frees you to forgive.” With this newfound willingness to shift perception, she came to terms with the demons that prompted many of her past choices — with her career, social activism and the three powerful men who would become her husbands.

At the time of her self-exploration, Fonda was in her third marriage with Ted Turner, the billionaire media mogul. She described stashing a laptop under her jacket when they would go fishing on one of his Montana properties. She paused to ask an aside, “Did you know he had like 23 kingdoms?” Each would go off to fish separately, Fonda told us, but she would instead hide under a tree, conducting her research and writing. She told the audience that it took her two years to get up the courage to broach the subject of creating a new agenda for her third act with Turner and then frankly stated, “You all know how that turned out.”    

Fonda told us her theory that the first decade of our lives is one of authenticity, one in which we truly personify who we are. Of her young self, she said, “I was limber and athletic, with a strong body and a strong voice, but we were conditioned to believe that young girls aren’t supposed to be strong and feisty.”  Prescribed gender norms and the social paradigm of patriarchy pervade adolescence, she told us. “Girls’ voices go underground at puberty, while for boys, it is their hearts that go underground at the age of 4 or 5, usually when they go off to school. And, it’s much more challenging for girls, attributed as representing the emotional, tender side, while for boys it’s all about toughness and masculinity.”

Fonda cited a book by Terrance Real, “I Don’t Want to Talk About It: Overcoming the Secret Legacy of Male Depression,” praising the author for his psychological interpretations of “men’s ingrained fear of being vulnerable and how they suppress depression.” The powerful message clearly resonates with the crowd, which Fonda happily observes, contains many men, often not the case we are left to assume. She encouraged parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles alike to recognize the differences of gender and to raise boys who are capable of feeling and being emotionally literate. 

We’ve seen a lot of Fonda lately — appearances on the talk show circuits and at events coinciding with the recent release of the HBO-produced documentary, “Jane Fonda in Five Acts.”  On the cusp of turning 81 Dec. 21, she is out, not on a tour, but rather to reflect, share, inspire and engage us. Her radical approach to activism may have been tempered over the years, but her passions for equality, promoting the rights of the disadvantaged and heralding equitable pay scales have not diminished.    

A lot of her political attention and energy is focused on the Midwestern states, she said. Last summer, she traveled to Michigan with her longtime friend and “Grace and Frankie” co-star, Lily Tomlin, to champion a “one fair wage” campaign, directed at closing the gap and increasing support of equitable pay for women and minorities.   

“Starting in 2016, after (President Donald J.) Trump was elected,” she told us, “I studied hard and I knew I had to go out there to do this work.” She spoke of what she called, “hitching my wagon to organizations on the ground,” taking to door-to-door canvassing, urging people to get out and vote. “Democracy is not a spectator sport,” Fonda said. Speaking with voters around the country, she offers this, “You have to ask yourself, is the person you are voting for capable of empathy?”    

Teaching others how to live their best lives has been at the core of much that has driven Fonda, from the workout videos of the 1980s that strengthened us, to her self-help and second New York Times bestseller, “Prime Time,” which offers sage advice for living and aging well. Now well into her own third act, Fonda spoke of her own self-awareness and the inevitability of “ascending the staircase,” a reference to the late author, Neil L. Selinger, who Fonda said embodied this concept to the fullest.

“Had I not done the preparation I would not have been able to face it,” Fonda said.  Successful aging, she suggested, requires more than staying healthy from disease, it requires disabling the psychic wounds of the past and harnessing our wisdom so that our own personal process is a prescient one. As she grew older, Fonda learned that carrying resentment and hatred only caused undue stress and accelerated the aging process, exacerbating what she called, the “decrepitude” that awaits us all. “But only one third of how our life enfolds is genetic,” she said, “so the good news is having some control over the other two thirds.”   

This brings us back full circle to her advocacy for performing one’s life review and “finishing up the task of finishing ourselves.”  Throughout this affecting evening, we had the privilege of hearing advice from someone of remarkable achievement who made peace with her past and whose focus, now more than ever, is on doing the most with her remaining time.  “We can’t control the length of our lives,” Fonda said, “but we can control the depth and width.”  

Much of what Fonda covered was so profound and insightful that when it came time for the Q&A — first with the onstage panel and then by attendees — I found myself in the cue with a lighthearted question that has long been on my mind. Possessing such a melodic voice, did you ever sing? I asked her.  “Why no,” she said, “and I don’t think anyone has ever asked me that question.” 

I’ve long admired Fonda not only for her acting prowess but her ability to use her voice to raise our consciousness, to inspire and entertain us.  To my mind, Fonda “sang” to her audience in Fairfield that night, and she sang to me — a song that will resonate for quite a long time.

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