Jane Fonda, actress, activist, feminist, workout guru and role model, has written an extraordinary memoir, "My Life So Far," which hits bookstores today. Fonda divides her life so far into three acts.
Act one covers her often painful childhood, her early films and her turbulent marriage to filmmaker Roger Vadim. In act two, she begins to discover her activism and discusses her marriages to Tom Hayden and Ted Turner. And in act three, she begins to confront her demons and tries to live her life in a more conscious way.
You can read an excerpt from "My Life So Far" below.
Chapter One: Butterfly
Stay near me -- do not take thy flight!
A little longer stay in sight!
Much converse do I find in thee,
Historian of my infancy! -- William Wordsworth, "To a Butterfly"
I sat cross-legged on the floor of the tiny home I'd created out of cardboard boxes. The walls were so high that all I could see if I looked up was the white-painted tongue-and-groove ceiling of the glassed-in porch so common in Connecticut in the 1940s. The porch ran the entire length of the house and smelled of mildew. Light from the windows bounced off the ceiling down to where I sat, so I didn't need a lamp as I worked on the saddle. I was eleven years old.
It was an English saddle, my half sister Pan's, from the time before she'd gotten married, sold her horse, and moved to New York City -- from the time when we still believed things would work out all right. I held the saddle on my lap, rubbing saddle soap into the beautiful, rich leather, over and over ... Make it better. I know I can make it better. The smell of saddle soap was comforting. So was the smallness of my home. This was a place where I could be sure of things. No one was allowed in here but me -- not my brother, Peter, not anyone. Everything was always arranged just so -- the saddle, the soap, the soft rags folded carefully, and my book of John Masefield poems. Neatness was important ...something to count on.
Mother was home for a while and if I leaned forward ever so slightly, I could look out my "door" down the length of the porch, to where she sat at an oilcloth-covered table on which stood a Mason jar. A butterfly would be beating its wings frantically against the glass walls of the jar, and I could see my mother pick up a cotton ball with tweezers, dip it into a bottle of ether, unscrew the top of the jar, and carefully drop in the ether-soaked ball. After a minute, I could see the butterfly's wings begin to slow their mad fluttering, until gradually they would stop moving altogether. Peace. A whiff of ether drifted down to where I sat, making me think of the dentist. I knew just what the butterfly felt, because whenever I went to have my braces tightened, the nurse would put a mask over my nose and tell me to breathe deeply. In no time the edges of my body would begin to disappear. Sound would come to me from far away and I would feel a wonderful, cosmic abandon as I fell backward down a dark hole, like Alice to Wonderland. Oh, I wished that I could make that sensation last forever. I didn't feel sorry at all for the butterfly.
After a while, mother would unscrew the lid; gently remove the butterfly with the long tweezers; carefully, lovingly, pierce its body with a pin; and mount it on a white board on the wall above the table. There were at least a dozen of them up there, different kinds of swallowtails, a southern dogface, a red admiral, a clouded sulphur, and a monarch. I never could decide which one was my favorite.
Once she took me with her to a meadow full of wildflowers and tall grasses where she went to catch her butterflies. There was still an abundance of wild places -- swamps, unexplored forests, and meadows -- in Greenwich, Connecticut, in the 1940s. I watched as she moved through the grass -- her blond, sun-blushed hair blowing in the wind -- swooping down with her green net, then flipping the net quickly to close off the butterfly's escape route. I would help her get it safely into a jar and quickly screw the top on.
It puzzled me a little why Mother had decided to take up butterfly collecting. I don't remember her ever doing this when we lived in California. I was the one fascinated with butterflies. I was always painting pictures of them. When I was ten, right before we'd moved from California, I gave my father a drawing for his birthday. "Butterflies by Jane Fonda" was written up in the right-hand corner, and then two rows of them with their names written underneath in my tight, straight-upand- down-careful-not-to-reveal-anything handwriting. My letter said:
May 19, 1948.
I did not trace these drawings of butterflies. I hope you had a happy birthday. I heard you on the Bing Crosby program. Every two days I will send you another picture of butterflies. Love, Jane.
By the time Mother took up the butterfly hobby, I had turned eleven, Peter was nine, and we were living in our second rented house in Connecticut. It was a rambling two-story wood house perched atop a steep hill overlooking a tollgate on the Merritt Parkway. I could look out my bedroom window and count the cars. Prior to the move east, we'd grown up in California's Santa Monica Mountains and, instead of a tollgate, we looked out onto the vast, shimmering Pacific Ocean. Maybe that is why my childhood fantasies of conquering all the enemies of the world were so expansive. Had I grown up overlooking the tollgate, I might have seen myself as an accountant.
This new house was on a large piece of property bordered to the west by an immense hardwood forest that, in the winter, became a leafless gray fortress. Then in the spring, dogwood would bloom, hopeful and white through the layered forest gray, and redbud would add slashes of magenta. By May, an array of greens would transform the woods once again. For someone who had spent the first ten years of her life seasonless in California, this ever-changing palette seemed miraculous.
The house had an uncomfortable Charles Addams-y quality about it, always too dark and chilly, and it had far more rooms than there were people living there, which added a sense of impermanence and awkwardness to its hilltop perch. There was Grandma Seymour (Mother's mother), Peter, me, and a Japanese-American maid named Katie. Peter says Katie's familiar presence with us after three years was comforting to him. I, on the other hand, barely remember her. But then Peter got more attached to people than I did. I was the Lone Ranger.
Mother wasn't with us much anymore, though I didn't know why. It was during one of the periods when she was back from wherever it was she went that the butterfly collection was started. Maybe someone had suggested that she get herself a hobby. Peter and I had stopped paying much attention to her being away, or at least I had. It had simply become a fact of our lives: Mother would be there, and then she wouldn't. When she wasn't there, and even when she was, Grandma Seymour would be in charge of us. Grandma was a strong woman, a constant presence in our early lives. But though I loved her, I don't remember ever running joyfully into her arms the way my own grandchildren do with me. I don't remember her ever imparting grandmotherly wisdom or even being fun to be with. She was a more formal, stalwart presence. But she was always there to meet our external needs.
Around the house there'd be an occasional murmured mention of a hospital or of an illness, and right after we'd moved to Greenwich, Mother had been in Johns Hopkins Hospital for a long time, for an operation on a dropped kidney. Grandma took Peter and me to visit her there once, and I remember Mother telling me they'd almost cut her in half. But she'd been "ill" and in hospitals so much that it had lost any real meaning. Hospitals were supposed to make you well so you could come home and stay.
Ever since we had moved to Greenwich I had spent a lot of time in hospitals myself -- me, the healthy one. I'd developed blood poisoning, then chronic ear infections; then I started breaking bones. My arm was broken the first time during a wrestling match with a boy, Teddy Wahl, the son of the man who ran the nearby Round Hill Stables and Riding Club.Teddy threw me against a stall door. It hurt, but Iwalked home and didn't say anything -- between Peter and Mother, we had enough hypochondriacs in the house. I was not going to complain. Instead, I sat in front of the black-and-white TV to watch The Howdy Doody Show, my favorite because it regularly included a short Lone Ranger film.
I sat carefully on my hands, as I always did when Dad was home, because I was scared he would see that I was still biting my fingernails. As we sat down to eat, Dad asked me if I'd washed my hands, and when I told him I hadn't, he exploded in anger, pulled me out of my seat and into the bathroom, turned on the faucet, took the broken arm (which I'd been holding limply by my side), and thrust it under the water. I passed out. He'd no idea that I was hurt and was very apologetic as he rushed me to the hospital, where my arm was X-rayed and put into a cast. The worst part was that all this happened right before school started, my first year at the all-girls Greenwich Academy -- just at the time when everybody would be checking out who was cool (we called it "neat" back then), who was good at field hockey, and whom they wanted to be friends with, I had to show up with my arm in a cast.
At the time, Dad was starring in the Broadway smash hit "Mister Roberts." I now realize that I must have sensed that something was very wrong between my parents. Palpable tension was in the air: Dad's anger and black moods; Mother's increasing absences. Even if I had had the words to express what I "knew," I'd already learned that no one would listen to words that spoke about feelings. So instead, my body was sending out distress signals.
There's a set of photos of us taken around that time. Just after we left California, Harper's Bazaar had come out to interview Dad and take pictures of the family "picnicking" -- one of those setup jobs that make the children of movie stars feel like props. The pictures show us sitting on the lawn: Dad, Mother, Peter, me, and Pan (my half sister, the one with the saddle), who at sixteen was beautiful and remarkably voluptuous. There is one photograph in particular that says it all. I discovered it in a scrapbook many years of therapy later, when I was able to see it with more perception and compassion. Dad is in the foreground leaning back on his elbows, looking as if he's got something really good going on in his head that has nothing to do with all of us. I am kneeling next to him, looking intently at him, as I often did in our family pictures, showing clearly whose side I was on. Behind me Peter is playing with the cat, and Pan is lounging glamorously. And then, in the background, almost like an outsider, there's Mother, leaning forward toward us with an expression of pain and anxiety on her face. I feel so sad when I look at that face, which I've done often with a magnifying glass.
Why couldn't I have known? Why wasn't I nicer? I was ten years old. Dad had come out of the Navy at the end of World War II and (what felt like) the very next day had gone off to New York to start rehearsals for "Mister Roberts" while we stayed in California. When it became clear that the play was in for a long run, Mother decided to put our home up for sale and move east. She settled on Greenwich, thinking that the thirty-five-minute train or car ride from New York City would make weekend commutes easy for Dad. Plus, in that well-heeled Connecticut enclave, there would be homes to rent on large enough pieces of property so that Peter and I could continue our habit of roaming the outdoors. My parents were at least right about that part.
I don't remember Dad being around much after we moved to Greenwich. When he was there, I could almost feel his energy pulling him back toward New York, though I didn't really know why. I supposed it was just that Mother, Peter, and I weren't all that interesting. When he'd visit us I could sense that 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 him how to make it seem less like a duty.
Sometimes Dad would come out on a Sunday and take Peter and me fishing for flounder in nearby Long Island Sound. Dad was usually in a bad mood, which meant these excursions weren't exactly "fun times," but I enjoyed them anyway -- all of us together in the little rented motorboat, the salty smells mixed with engine fumes, the anticipation as we'd pull out of the harbor, round the buoy, and head to sea. Because flounder are bottom feeders, we'd never go out very far before Dad would turn off the motor and tell us to bait our hooks. This was always the moment of reckoning.
Baiting the hook meant reaching into a bucket filled with reddish brown kelp, among which writhed long reddish brown bloodworms with what appeared to be claws in their heads. Peter didn't like them at all. Peter, in fact, would refuse to touch them -- which in itself took guts. Dad wouldn't even try to disguise the disgust he felt about Peter's squeamishness, and his moods would get blacker and blacker. Whereupon I, the Lone Ranger, would ride to the rescue and be man enough for both of us. I'd pick up that worm and stick the hook right through its squirmy head without even a shudder. I didn't do this to make Peter look bad. I loved my brother. I just wanted to prove my toughness to Dad and make the tension go away.
Peter was who he was. When he was scared he showed it; if he was sick, he'd complain about it -- damn the consequences. I often wished he'd pretend like I did, just to make things easier. But, no, Peter was himself. And I, well, I'd gotten into the habit of leaving myself behind someplace in order to win Dad's approval. Make things better. I know I can make things better.
Once, Dad had us come into the city and took us to the circus. A New York columnist, Radie Harris, who knew our family, was also there and was quoted as saying:
I remember sitting in a box at the circus a few months after "Mister Roberts" opened. Hank sat just to my right. With him were Jane and Peter, and not once during the entire performance did he say a word to either child. And either the children knew enough to say nothing, or they might have been too intimidated to speak. He didn't buy them hot dogs, cotton candy, or treat them to souvenirs. When the circus was over, they simply stood up and walked out. I felt sorry for all three of them.
Then one day, when I'd just finished breakfast and was heading out the door to school, I saw that Mother was standing at the entrance to the living room. She motioned me to come to her. "Jane," she said, "if anyone tells you that your father and I are getting divorced, tell them you already know."
That was it. And off to school I went.
I had realized the year before that parents getting divorced didn't mean that you, the child, would fall through a crack in the floor and no one would ever look for you again. Some of my friends had divorced parents and seemed to have survived just fine. I do remember that day at school feeling a little out of body, as if I'd had some of the dentist's ether, but I also felt oddly important and deserving of special attention. Divorces were fairly uncommon in those days.
A few days after "divorce" had been uttered (only to me, not to Peter) I was lying on Mother's bed with her and she asked if I wanted to see her scar from her recent kidney operation. I didn't really want to. But since she'd asked, I felt she needed to show it to me and that I shouldn't say no. She pulled up her satin pajama top and lowered the pants and there ... oh, horror -- that's why they were getting divorced! Who would want to live with someone who'd been cut in half and had a thick, wide pink scar that ran all around her waist? It was terrifying.
"I've lost all my stomach muscle," she said sadly. "Doesn't that look awful?" What did she want me to say, that it wasn't bad? Or did she want me to agree with her?
"And look at this," she said, showing me one of her breasts. The nipple was all distorted. I felt so bad for her -- it must have hurt so much -- but I also didn't want to be her daughter. I wanted to wake up and discover I was adopted. I wanted a mother who looked healthy and beautiful, at whom a father would want to look when she had no clothes on. Maybe then he'd want to stay at home. This was all her fault. I think it was around that time, maybe right there on that bed, that I vowed I would do whatever it took to be perfect so that a man would love me. Fifty-three years later, Pan told me that Mother had had a botched breast implant. I guess Mother had tried to be perfect, too. I will return to the sad topic of breast implants in act two.
Howard Teichmann, who wrote my father's authorized biography, "My Life," wrote that when Dad told my mother he wanted a divorce, she said, "Well, all right, Hank. Good luck, Hank."
In retrospect, Fonda says, "I've got to tell you she was absolutely wonderful...She accepted it. She was sympathetic. She couldn't have been more understanding."
Yeah, sure. Mother was acting by the rules. If she could love the right way -- selflessly, with understanding and no anger -- perhaps Dad would come back to her. In private, though, she was disintegrating. She hacked off her hair with nail scissors and, while staying in a friend's New York apartment, walked the neighborhood in her nightgown. In those days, I too walked in my nightgown, but in my sleep, always propelled by the same nightmare: I was in the wrong room and desperately needed to get out, get back to where I was supposed to be. It was dark and cold and I never could find the door. In my sleep I would actually move large pieces of furniture around my bedroom trying to find the way out, and then, because it was futile, I would give up and get back in bed. The next morning the furniture would have to be moved back into place. It was a nightmare that stayed with me -- albeit with variations on where I was trying to get to -- until I married Ted Turner, when I was fifty-four.
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. Peter and I went to our rooms as always, to do our homework. The dinner scene got buried in a graveyard somewhere next door to my heart, and the habit of not dealing with feelings became embedded in another generation.
But life goes on, as life does -- until it doesn't, especially when you're in the discovery mode of an eleven-year-old. That year I managed to take a horse over a four-foot jump for the first time and became obsessed with the card game canasta. And Brooke Hayward and I began a successful writing partnership that won us "Best Short Story" awards at Greenwich Academy.
Within walking distance of the house was a riding stable -- not the big one where Teddy Wahl broke my arm, but a small one with only an outdoor riding ring, where I often took jumping lessons on a borrowed white horse named Silver. My best friend, Diana Dunn, took lessons there, too. We both adored the teacher, a cozy Irishman named Mike Carroll. Next to being inside my cardboard "home" with my sister's saddle, this was where I most liked to be. Horses were my passion, my escape.
Grandma told me many years later that it was around this time that Mother had been moved, on the advice of her doctors, from the Austen Riggs Center, a more open residence for the affluent "mentally afflicted" in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, to the Craig House sanitarium in Beacon, New York. The doctors said that her emotional deterioration and suicidal tendencies required she be under constant guard. Grandma was with her for the move and told me that Mother was in a straitjacket and didn't recognize her. I can't manage to wrap my mind around that image of Mother in a straitjacket, or what Grandma's anguish must have been. One day Mother came home accompanied by a uniformed nurse. I refused to see her. I was playing jacks with Peter on the hardwood floor upstairs when she arrived in a limousine. Grandma called for us to come down.
"Peter." I grabbed his arm. "Don't go down. I'm not going to. Let's just stay up here and play jacks. I'll let you win. Okay?"
"No, I'm going," Peter said, and he went downstairs.
Why didn't I go down? Was I so angry with her for not being there for us? Was it I'll-show-you-I-don't-need-you-either?
I never saw her again.
She must have known it would be her last time home. She'd come, I guess, to say good-bye -- but also to get the small razor that she kept in a black enamel box given to her years before by her friend Eulalia Chapin. Apparently, she had rushed upstairs and just managed to slip the razor into her purse when the nurse, who'd been sent to make sure such a thing didn't happen, caught up to her.
A month later, in April, on her forty-second birthday, Mother wrote six notes -- one each to Peter, Pan, and me; one to her mother; one to her nurse, telling her not to go into the bathroom but to call the doctor; and one to the doctor, her psychiatrist: "Dr. Bennett, you've done everything possible for me. I'm sorry, but this is the best way out."
Then she went into her bathroom in the Craig House sanitarium, carefully withdrew the razor she'd managed to keep hidden, and cut her throat. She was still alive when Dr. Bennett arrived, but she died a few minutes later.
The fluttering slowed; the wings grew still. Then peace.
I came home from school that afternoon, and as I walked through the front door, Grandma called down to me from her bedroom at the top of the stairs.
"Jane, something's happened to your mother. She's had a heart attack. Your father is on his way here right now. Please stay in the house and wait for him. Don't go out."
I turned right around, ran out the door, and ran all the way to the stables, where I was to have a riding lesson. I don't remember feeling anything at all, though I must have known something serious was happening, because Dad didn't just travel out from the city unexpectedly on a weekday.
In the middle of my lesson the phone in the stable rang. It was Dad telling whoever answered to make me come home immediately. But I took my time. There were so many dead bugs and interesting rocks in the dirt driveway that I needed to stop and examine. Eventually, when I could find no more ways to stall, I trudged up the hill. A strange car was parked at the bottom of the steps. Must be Dad's rental, I thought with a shudder. In some deep part of me that wasn't my mind, some part that could keep secrets from the rest of me, I knew what was coming. My conscious mind knew this was all a dream, that I was about to wake up. I opened the heavy front door and walked into the living room. Nobody had turned on any lights, and the room seemed grayer than usual. Dad and Grandmother were sitting up very straight, each on a different couch, facing each other. Dad took me on his lap and told me that my mother had had a heart attack and was dead.
Dead. Now, there's a word. Short, heavy. I felt myself holding it in my hands, like a brick. Dead, like the butterflies mounted on that board on the other side of the living room wall. Her jars and tweezers were lying spread around on the table out there. I'd seen them only yesterday when I'd gone to polish the saddle. She couldn't be dead. She hadn't put her things away. Maybe I was dreaming. Then I was outside my body looking back at myself, waiting for myself to react. Everything was familiar, yet nothing was the same. From another room came the loud ticking of a clock -- jarring, wrong. Didn't it know that time no longer mattered? I noticed wrinkles in the chintz slipcovers and tried to smooth them out. Make it better. I know I can make it better.
Peter came home a few minutes later. Dad got up and switched seats with Grandma, taking Peter on his lap and repeating the story to him. I had to get away from all of them, to be by myself, try to get myself back into my body, figure out how I felt.
"Excuse me, please. I'm going to my room."
I could hear Peter crying as I followed myself upstairs. Sitting on the edge of my bed, I wondered why I couldn't cry, like Peter. "Mother's dead. I will never see her again." I said it over and over to myself, trying to bring up some tears. But I felt nothing.
I remembered that I had stayed upstairs the day she'd come home for the last time. Why hadn't I gone down to see her? I felt something begin to stir in my chest. Ah, here it comes. I'm normal. But the feeling skittered away and I went outside myself again, and again I went numb. When I was in my forties and the tears for Mother did finally come -- unexpectedly and for no apparent reason -- they were unstoppable. They came from so deep within me that I feared I wouldn't survive them, that my heart would crack open, and like Humpty-Dumpty, I'd never be able to be put back together again.
Grandmother and Dad arranged to have Mother cremated, and then Dad drove back into the city in time for his performance of "Mister Roberts." Didn't miss a beat. I don't think this implied he didn't feel anything; it's just that Dad didn't know how to deal with feelings or to process pain. He knew only how to cover it up. Or maybe he'd grown numb, like me. Maybe I learned it from him.
As soon as Dad left the house, I went into Mother's room and found a favorite purse of hers, with its special lipstick smell. On the bedside table lay her dog-eared copy of Dale Carnegie's "How to Win Friends and Influence People." Everywhere -- on the floor of her closet, in her coat pocket -- there were pieces of her unfinished -- never to be finished -- life. In the medicine cabinet all the little bottles were lined up: FRANCES FONDA, with dates of expiration -- but she'd expired first -- lined up like orphans. Like me. Would they be thrown out now? Would I?
My girlhood friend Diana Dunn told me recently that her father said to her, "Jane's mother has just died and we have to go to her house and bring her here." Dad or Grandmother must have called and told him. Diana says I stayed with them for several days, but not one word was ever spoken about Mother's death. "You never cried," she said. "I felt fear then. Your mother had just died and I didn't understand why no one said anything to you. You were my best friend. I loved you and I didn't know what to do for you."
Never in all the subsequent years, all the way to his own death, did Dad and I ever mention Mother. I was afraid it would upset him. I was sure he felt guilty because he'd asked for the divorce. Make it better. I don't even know if he knew that I knew the heart attack story wasn't true. Don't ask, don't tell. Peter, on the other hand, wore it all on both sleeves. The following Christmas, eight months after her death, Dad came up from New York City to open presents with us in Greenwich, where we were being looked after by Grandma and Katie, the maid. Peter had filled an entire wingback chair with presents for Mother and a letter he'd written to her. Looking back, it is so terribly sad and poignant, an eleven-year-old boy needing to let his mother know he loved her 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!
In the week that followed Mother's death, my seventh-grade teachers seemed to go out of their way to be kind and understanding. I became aware that the rap on me was just what I had hoped: that I was remarkably brave and took everything in stride. What was really happening, though, was that I was getting psychic perks for shutting down! What had been a tendency for most of my young life was now being praised, and I began to hone this into a fine art: You don't really feel what you feel; you didn't really hear what you heard. It's not that I consciously did these things -- buried them. It's just that I'd been doing it for so long that I had begun to live that way. I simply didn't know anymore what I knew or wanted or thought or felt -- or even who I was in an embodied way. I would become whatever I felt the people whose love and attention I needed wanted me to be. I would try to be perfect. It was safer there. It was a survival mechanism that served me well -- back then.
Excerpted with permission from "My Life So Far," by Jane Fonda. Published by Random House. Copyright © 2005 Jane Fonda.