Jane Fonda will turn 81 years old soon and has definitely lived one of the more interesting lives on the planet. From young actress to anti-war activist, to being married to a billionaire, she has been loved, admired, hated, and in her waning years, generally forgotten about by the general public. With this short introduction, here are 20 things you didn’t know about Jane Fonda.
1. Her real name and its spelling are somewhat unconventional.
Perhaps as an early sign of what the rest of her life would be, Jane Fonda was born Jayne Seymour Fonda on December 21, 1937. She was born in New York City, perhaps another indicator of what lay ahead of her in life. She obvious dropped the”y” in her first name and ignored her middle name for a goodly part of her life. What she didn’t do was to change her last name, keeping it as her professional name, for reasons that are explained in item #2 on the list.
2. Her father was the Hollywood actor Henry Fonda.
One of the most beloved actors of Hollywood during his career, Henry Fonda starred in a number of Western movie genres such as Fort Apache. His name helped Jane to work her way into show business, and open doors for opportunities to get movie roles as a professional actress. The Fonda name is alleged to be of Italian ancestry.
3. If you are curious about the Seymour middle name, Jane was named after the third wife of King Henry VIII of England, Jane Seymour.
There is an actual ancestry connection, though distant, to the Jane Seymour of old from her mother’s genealogy. For those who are history lovers, a brief tour through the wives of the King Henry lineage will be interesting, to say the least.
4. Before moving into acting, she had taken up a career in modeling.
One career direction often seen by comedians and models is to use their on-stage experience to move into acting roles. Jane opted for this career path, making the cover of the famous Vogue magazine twice before landing her first serious acting role.
5. Her Broadway career had a gap of several decades between performances.
She made her Broadway debut in 1960, performing in the play “There Was a Little Girl.” From there she would appear in a number of Broadway productions up until 1964, when she would completely be absent from the stage for more than 40 years. Then, in 2009 at the age of 72 (!), she would once again find her way back on to the stage as an actress in the production of “33 Variations.” Many fans consider this 45 year absence more of a detour than an actual absence from the theatre.
6. She spent a lot of time in school without accomplishing anything worthy of note.
She could actually be the stereotype of the spoiled rich kid, whose dad had money, power, and influence (which he did) and who could just waste time in school without making anything of themselves. Jane fit this stereotype pretty accurately, as she went to Greenwich Academy in Greenwich, Connecticut, the Emma Willard School in Troy, New York, and finally landed in the renown Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, New York. At all these academic institutions she apparently just wandered aimlessly from one year to the next.
7. Her next stop on her life journey would be in Paris, France.
Whether or not you consider attending art school as an actual school will change your perspective on whether Fonda’s formal education moved forward in Paris. She never graduated from Vassar, dropping out and deciding to travel and spend a couple of years in Europe. Some say this is just another example of her being a rich, spoiled child.
8. Though her interest in acting was seen when she was 17, it was on returning from her art school junket that her acting talent was noticed.
At 21, Fonda came back to the United States and paid a visit to the Actor’s Studio where she would meet Lee Strasberg. Though her father told her she has acting talent, she dismissed it as her father being the supportive father and not really taking much stock in it. Strasberg told her she had real acting talent, and from that point forward she would begin to take an acting career seriously.
9. She has amassed a total estimated net worth of more than $200 million.
This item is inserted here before going into some of the lesser known parts of Jane Fonda’s life because despite the rich kid start to her life, much of her fortune is the result of hard work and professional talent. She will definitely have her ups and downs after beginning her acting career, in large part because she took on many different challenges as her life moved into the turbulent period of the 1960’s and early 1970’s.
10. After making her Hollywood screen debut in the movie Tall Story her professional and personal life would bring her a notoriety she may not have wanted.
After Tall Story she would make a number of films during the 60’s that would bring her acting status movie star. Among those movies were Period of Adjustment, Sunday in New York, Cat Ballou, and Barefoot in the Park. Barbarella, another 1960’s movie that would increase her stardom paired her up with director Roger Vadim, who she then married as husband #1.
11. She became more politically active as the 60’s progressed.
Part of this political activism involved her connection with the radical and violent Black Panthers group. Among her Hollywood friends was actor Donald Sutherland, father of the famous TV show star Kiefer Sutherland of 24 fame. The two created an organization that ran counter to the well-known Bob Hope USO shows Hope would do for the troops in Vietnam. She also paired with feminist Gloria Steinham in support of the feminist movement.
12. Her political activism would earn her the hatred of American veterans and servicemen, including the title of “Hanoi Jane.”
Fonda’s protest of the Vietnam War was shared by many young people, so it was not solely the reason for being the focus of many American war veterans. Fonda took a trip to North Vietnam in 1972, a trip that would connect her with the support of the North Vietnamese and being a traitor to the United States. The photo of her sitting atop a North Vietnamese anti-aircraft gun combined with the rumors she met with and betrayed American POWs held in North Vietnam while there, were events that could not be easily explained away. Once her participation in other activist groups was made known, she was largely perceived as anti-American by many Americans.
13. She would divorce first husband Director Peter Vadim in favor of Tom Hayden.
Hayden, like Fonda, was another social activist, so the pairing made sense at this time in her life. The focus of her life would shift from making movies to making protests, and with a secure financial footing she could afford to put her acting career on hold. It is not certain this was a designed plan by Fonda, but as was the theme of her life, things always managed to work out.
14. Hayden and Fonda would take their public activism to the next step by adopting an African American teenager.
But this was no ordinary African America teenager but a daughter of one of the members of the Black Panthers, Mary Luana Williams. The adoption was “unofficial” but definitely made Fonda the focus of even more media attention in 1982. She made herself not only part of the current counterculture, but continued to alienate more and more Americans – and her movie fan base.
15. She would win one of her two Best Actress Oscars for a movie about the Vietnam War.
Ironically, Fonda returned back to her acting career by starring in the movie Coming Home which was about the challenges faced by American soldiers returning home from the war and having to readjust to civilian life. It was a protest of a different type. Instead of making the mistake of taking the war head on, she decided to look at the aftermath of war from the eyes of the men who survived and had to live with those experiences. Not unexpectedly, the movie was protested by a number of Americans.
16. Fonda starred in her own exercise video - at age 45.
Back in the day there was no YouTube to compete with, but exercise videos were a thing in the 1980’s. They were of the VHS tape variety, and Fonda would create the first of her 22 exercise videos in 1982 with the title “Jane Fonda’s Workout.” At the time it was the highest selling video that apparently men and women alike wanted to get their hands on. Those 22 videos would sell more than 17 million copies over the next 13 years.
17. The idea for the workout video series came from Fonda’s own workout books.
It may seem very strange in 2018 to think about making a video from a book, but 35 years ago most people got their information from the paper and ink medium. There was no Internet, so the only way a video got into a home was through a VHS tape. You can think of Jane Fonda as a visionary of sorts because she not only took the idea to the next level, but she did it 22 times. Videos back in the day were going from between $10 and $20 each, so her 17 million videos added up to a lot of money for her.
18. Husband #3 was the owner of a major cable TV station.
This marriage would not last 10 years, but Fonda’s marriage to TBS owner Ted Turner in 1991 would mark the end of her 30 year acting career. It is not clear whether this was at the behest of Turner, but moving on from Hayden to a richer but less media focused lifestyle made sense given the past 30 years of activism and turmoil. The divorce, coming at age 64, was a signal that Fonda was not yet through with her youthful lifestyle.
19. The China Syndrome was her best activist movie.
She had been nominated for another Oscar for this performance, but it wasn’t a movie about a protest about the war or social issues. Nuclear power at the time was seen as a huge problem for environmentalists, as the problems of the disposal of nuclear waste and the safety of nuclear power plants was very much up in the air. There were no actual protests by her in the movie, but instead it was more of a journalistic investigative effort. Unfortunately, this was missed due to Fonda’s lingering connection with being an anti-American, radical activist.
20. Just a few years after her divorce from Ted Turner she would return to being a social activist.
In 2005 she reconnected with Gloria Steinham and form the feminist organization, The Woman’s Media Center. Like she did in her days in the 1960’s Fonda would return to protest another war – the Iraq War – and would also return to Broadway and the silver screen. At 68 her life basically came full circle, and the argument can be made that Jane Fonda is one of those people who never change.
These 20 items leaves those not familiar with Fonda and her long career asking whether she was someone who was ahead of her time or simply a spoiled child who was always looking for attention. For most people, becoming a Hollywood starlet was enough to deal with. Yet she took a trip to a country we were at war with and made a very public appearance that many say was used to demoralize American troops in Vietnam. One irony was that she was a supporter of the Black Panthers, a group that was known to use violence to achieve its ends. If war was so repugnant, how could she support an organization that waged an internal war against her country?
History will sort all of this out, especially since she has written her own biography and addressed the North Vietnam issue as best as she could. Still, there are certain to be hidden facts and stories that will come to light in the future. Her life could be one of the more interesting stories to come out of Hollywood.
Written by Garrett Parker
Read more posts by Garrett Parker