Imagine trying to write an obituary for Jane Fonda. Where would you start? Is she best known as the archetypal 1960s sex kitten Barbarella, or the clench-fisted 1970s political activist Hanoi Jane? Or did her defining moment come in the 1980s when she pulled on a leotard and persuaded half the planet to join her in feeling ‘the burn’? And then there’s the husbands to consider (three), and the Oscars (two) and the famous father and brother (one of each)… Well, perhaps we should ask her. What does she think the opening line of her obituary ought to be? A long, long pause. ‘Jane Fonda was loved and reviled.’
I like her for saying that. It suggests a certain self awareness and sang-froid. Anyway, it looks as if it will be many years before the obituary writers get to practice their dark art on her. She may be 68 now, and she may have to walk with a stick — she has just had two operations on her hip and one on her knee — but the years of fitness training have left her looking supple, and her good cheek bones still give her face a sculptural quality, even without the inevitable Hollywood airbrushing. Her remarkably frank autobiography — My Life So Far — is published in paperback this week and, judging by its title, Jane Fonda thinks she has a few years left in her, too.
She’s not kidding about being reviled, by the way. At a book signing recently a Vietnam veteran walked up to her and spat in her face. The cold fury that the words ‘Hanoi Jane’ provoke has not wearied with time. In 1972, it will be recalled, she visited Hanoi on a one-woman peace mission and was photographed wearing a military helmet while sitting at the trigger end of a North Vietnamese anti-aircraft gun, a publicity stunt that looked worse than it was. She also made radio broadcasts to US Servicemen, telling them they were guilty of war crimes. A 20,000-page dossier was compiled on her by the US intelligence agencies and US congressmen called for her to be charged with treason. I ask her if, after all this time, the spitting incident surprised her. ‘No, because we’ve not come to terms with the Vietnam war still. It was such a traumatic experience for the men who fought it and for the people who stayed home. It divided the country. No wonder the myth of Hanoi Jane lives on and is bigger than me. I was a lightning rod, someone for American vets to blame for losing the war. Even today it provides right-wingers with material to keep people from protesting about Bush and the Iraq war. Better not do that or you’ll become like Jane Fonda. Look what happened to her. Well, that would be what now? What? Huh? What happened?’
Well, she was hanged in effigy from a tree — but we shall come to that. For now it is worth considering what happened to her before the Hanoi Jane period. Her formative experiences were coloured by her distant relationship with her mother, Frances. ‘I didn’t like her to touch me,’ Fonda says. ‘Because I knew she didn’t love me.’ When Jane was 12, her mother, a manic depressive, committed suicide by cutting her throat with a razor. I ask the actress if she ever worried that she might have inherited her mother’s mental illness. ‘Very briefly. Not for long.’ Her relationship with her father, the Oscar-winning actor Henry Fonda, was similarly icy. ‘My father was remote,’ she tells me. ‘I wanted him to like me but circumstances early on taught me that he wasn’t going to like me as I was so I had to become what he wanted me to be. That doesn’t disappear when you grow up. It effected my relationships with men, my husbands, I mean.’
The first was the French film director Roger Vadim. He was a domineering man 10 years her senior and, when they met, he had just separated from his first wife Brigitte Bardot. He coerced Fonda into having threesomes with prostitutes. She went along with it, but now admits she hated it. Could she really not have said ‘no’ to him? ‘No, I couldn’t. Well, I could have but I was psychologically unable to. That is not uncommon in women who depend on a man to support them. But that wasn’t the case with me. By that time I was famous. I was a movie star. I was earning my own living, yet even so I wasn’t able to say, “I don’t want to do this”. Unless we do what the man wants, he is going to abandon us. It shows how deep misogyny goes, this sense women have of being worthless.’
The way she describes it, she was almost as much a misogynist as he was. ‘Why’s that?’ Ah. Her tone is suddenly cold. What I mean is, um, she had been bullied into believing that women were inferior to men. ‘I don’t think that made me a misogynist. One thing that set me apart from other women was my drive to get to know the women he would bring into our bed. I needed to humanise the situation by getting to know who they were. It was an antidote to objectification. I still have friendships from that time. Even now when we talk about those years it is painful. It still hurts me to think that a man who I loved and who loved me was not able to sense the pain it caused me.’
She became bulimic, an illness that had its roots in her father always telling her she was fat. ‘As a child I was always made to feel not good enough. That feeling attaches itself to the body around adolescent and a numbness sets in. I numbed the pain through my eating disorder.’
Presumably when she reached her early 20s and people started telling her she was a sex symbol she didn’t believe them? ‘Yes, it was like they were talking about someone else. I was looking over my shoulder to see who they were talking about. It was a strange and not pleasant feeling. I felt out of focus.’
So even after becoming a model, and an actress men fantasised about, she didn’t see a beautiful woman when she looked in the mirror? ‘No. No, I didn’t.’
And when she looked at herself naked did she see the body of fat woman? ‘For many decades I did, yes.’
When she looks back at those pictures now can she believe she ever thought that? ‘Um. Yeah. I can go back and understand exactly how I felt then. I can’t claim to be 100% over it. I grew up thinking that if I wasn’t perfect no one would love me.’
But men did fall in love with her, despite her perceived imperfections. Her next husband was Tom Hayden, the civil rights and anti-war campaigner who later became a senator. Is it fair to say that, with him, her personality changed from being a submissive sex kitten to a feisty political activist? ‘I’ve always been feisty. The only time I wasn’t feisty was in the bedroom.’
Did she feel an intellectual equal to him? She laughs. ‘How to put this? I had become an activist by the time I met Tom, but he was the one with the experience and knowledge. So I became an acolyte. I was in awe of him. Next to him I felt so stupid. I’ve been rereading some of my speeches from that time, the FBI helpfully recorded them for me, filed everything away, and they are not bad. But I could never speak when Tom was there. I was tongue tied.’
Does she regret the fateful trip she made to North Vietnam? ‘No. It changed my life. I think it was important for someone to go there and expose what the Nixon administration was doing. The only thing I regret is that picture on the anti-aircraft gun. It was a lapse of judgement that will haunt me until I die. They had sent me an itinerary that included a visit to a military site and I wrote back and said ‘no’, but once I was there I kind of lost my voice.’
So the North Vietnamese used her? She sighs. ‘You know something? I was 32 years old. I was a grown up. I take responsibility for it. If I was used, then why not? Who can blame them?’
She says she only regretted the picture but what about the radio broadcasts, surely they were much more regrettable? ‘Not at all. Not at all, no. I’m proud of those radio broadcasts. There was nothing treasonous about them. As someone with military intelligence actually testified at the House un-American Activities Committee: all I did was ask the servicemen to think.’
And what she was asking them to think about was whether they should disobey orders for fear of being prosecuted for war crimes. When she returned to America she famously asked: ‘What is a traitor?’ I put it to her that a traitor is someone who gives comfort and aid to the enemy — and that was exactly what she did on that trip, especially in the way she tried to sow seeds of doubt in the minds of US bomber crews. ‘Um.’ She pauses. ‘The fact is, the North Vietnamese did not need any comfort from us. They knew what they wanted to do and they were succeeding. If I said anything treasonous I would have been tried. I wasn’t. Instead they tried to convict me in the court of public opinion. It opened me up for attack. But you have to remember we were being lied to. It was a desperate time. You did desperate things.’
On her trip she met some American PoWs who told her they were anti the war. When they returned to America they claimed they had only said that to her because they had been tortured. She said they were lying. But why, I ask her now, would they have lied about that? What possible motive could they have had? A longer pause. ‘The Nixon administration wanted to damage me any way they could. They used one particular PoW, David Hoffman. He didn’t want to get into trouble for telling me he was anti-war so he decided to say he was tortured into saying it. I think he is probably suffering from that because you can’t get in touch with him at all.’
She’s tried? ‘Yes. He’s separated from his wife and you can’t get a hold of him. I knew he hadn’t been tortured because the North Vietnamese stopped torturing PoWs in 1969. It was well documented.’
But those documents have only emerged in recent years, how could she have been sure at the time that Hoffman wasn’t tortured in 1972? ‘I’d talked to PoWs about it. I knew Hoffman hadn’t been tortured. I generalised when I said they were all liars, hypocrites and pawns, but I had him in mind.’ And that was when Vietnam vets hanged her in effigy.
As the right wing pundit Ann Coulter has noted: ‘Axis Sally was sentenced to twelve years in prison. Tokyo Rose got six years. Hanoi Jane makes aerobics videos.’ How did Fonda square such anti-war serious mindedness with the frivolity of wearing a leotard and making the Jane Fonda Workout? Did she not worry that it would undermine her serious message? ‘On the outside it did seem like two different people, but Hanoi Jane was a myth created by the right wing. I was in a leotard from the age of 20 because I always danced and did ballet. Besides, the workout was a way of raising money for Tom’s political movement.’ She donated £8.5 million of the profits from the video to her husband’s quasi-Marxist political organisation.
Another paradox, by then she had become an outspoken feminist. She had also been the star of ground-breaking films such as Klute, Coming Home, and the searing They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? Yet when she married Ted Turner, the multi-billionaire founder of CNN, she abandoned her distinguished acting career to become a trophy wife. Is that how it felt? ‘I worried about being a trophy wife in the beginning but as I got to know him, it wasn’t the case. Ted is not cynical. He lives modestly, apart from the private plane. The trappings of huge wealth were not part of his life. We spend most of our time fishing and riding. He could be quite insecure, like a child. But he changed when he was with me. I think I gave him confidence. He became an easier person to be with.’
Is she a difficult person to live with? ‘No, I’m an easy person to live with. All pleasers are!’
It can’t be the whole truth, you suspect, given that her marriages ended because her husbands had affairs. Now divorced, Fonda lives alone in Atlanta, near to one of her two grown up children. The woman who comes across from her autobiography is sympathetic, cool and measured, if not necessarily loveable. In person she seems somehow softer, even though she claims her years of bulimia have left her with brittle bones. She seems more at ease with the world; more reconciled to being loved and reviled. I ask her if she is still angry. ‘I feel angry with Bush. And scared. I feel angry and scared and disbelieving about what our country is like now. But I’m not as angry as I once was, no.’