Calamity Jane

The incoherent life (so far) of Jane Fonda

Sorry, but I can't help it: I keep thinking we might all be better off if Jane Fonda had married Dan Rather. Imagine the meeting that could have spared us these two experts in banana-peel celebrity. Texas, 1965: On the sweltering, gamy set of Arthur Penn's unforgettable epic The Chase, a coltish actress moodily watches a pickup truck solidify the baked horizon's shimmer. This is her first Lillian Hellman script—yet she feels mysteriously empty inside. As luck would have it, she looks mysteriously empty outside, too, at least to the hardy but troubled young newsman behind the truck's wheel. While his upcoming network assignment to the green jungle hell of Indochina could be the making of him, a strange hunch that he'll never be as beloved as Walter Cronkite has him as poleaxed as a crawfish in Jell-O.

Their eyes lock. "My name is Dan," he says. "My name is Jane," she answers, noticing how his hairline mimics the virile contour of his jaw. The rest is scrapbooks. She gives up acting; he bails on CBS. Today they're an elderly husband-and-wife team of veterinarians in Lubbock, renowned halfway to El Paso for their unique sensitivity to the posteriors of horses. Otherwise, no one on God's earth has any idea who they are.

What makes this daydream tempting isn't only that right-wingers would have been denied decades of fun with Dan and Jane, who certainly have done more for Rush Limbaugh than they ever did for liberalism. The real reason they belong together is the magnificence of their delusional self-images. Convinced that he's America's cracker-barrel uncle, Rather will never grasp how often his idea of folksiness on the CBS Evening News resembled a mad Klingon taking over for Hal Holbrook in Mark Twain Tonight! No less doggedly, Fonda believes that her life is, above all, instructive—sort of like Saint Augustine's, with a bit of Dorothy Day tossed in. Since their lack of humor about themselves is sterling—virginal, you want to say—neither of them could tolerate realizing that they're two of the most hilarious figures of the twentieth century.

That's why no matter what your preconceptions are, Fonda's My Life So Far is never boring. It's clear we're in for no minor feast of fatuity as soon as she explains that her purpose in looking back is to give her life, a hurricane in a pawnshop if ever there was one, unity: "Call me a control freak, but I don't want to be like Christopher Columbus, who didn't know where he was headed when he left, didn't know where he was when he got there, and didn't know where he'd been when he got back." As sunset nears, it's time to name those purple mountain majesties, and you have to admit that hubris this innocent has its charm.

However, we'd better understand that the endeavor has its useful, socially productive side. According to Fonda, she couldn't have written My Life So Far unless a key insight had (c'mon, guess) "liberated" her to do so: "Coming to see my various individual struggles within a broader societal context enabled me to understand that much of my journey was a universal one for women—played out in different ways and with different outcomes, perhaps, but with common core experiences." It's also played out with different incomes—and how much sweeter it is to be universal when you're traveling first class. Yet if nothing else, her predictably ludicrous but unexpectedly endearing determination to play schoolmarm during her celebrity striptease is enough to settle any remaining doubts about the validity of this woman's U.S. passport. That Fonda can still be an unconscious narcissist after all these years is triumphant proof that she's as American as smart bombs and Bozo.

Honestly, how can you hate someone whose idea of a mea culpa is "Change always holds an element of self-interest, and mine was quite simply that I wanted to be a better person"? She's not entirely lacking in shrewdness, though, since she knows that to some extent her best shot at revising our perceptions of her is to accede to them. "A persistent assumption about me is that I am a puppet, ready for a new man to pull my strings," she writes. "There was some truth to this." Her first and best string-puller, of course, was her celebrated father, who notoriously saved his warmth for his movies; offscreen, Henry Fonda was a fjord, not a Lincoln. Just how effective his stony emotional withdrawal was in making him the parent to please is in no doubt. Even the trauma of her mother's suicide, soon after Henry asked for a divorce, drove the twelve-year-old Jane to shut down—Dad's ideal—instead of acting out, her more vulnerable brother Peter's reaction.

As Fonda grows, we get a litany of adolescent troubles, including the bulimia she didn't overcome until her forties—this book's major (trite) revelation—along with delayed menstruation and much sexual anxiety about her apparently malfunctioning "down there." (While I have every intention of sparing you the sentence that begins "I write about my vagina and vagina-related fears because … ," its motives are so virtuous as to make you nostalgic for Cora Pearl.) Tragically, she goes to Vassar; starts modeling for Vogue; studies acting with Lee Strasberg, even as her Barbie-doll debut in Joshua Logan's Tall Story makes her doubt her calling (working for Logan might have made Olivier doubt his calling). Dad stays remote. To fans of the immortal movie version of Herman Wouk's Youngblood Hawke, it's touching to learn that she lost her virginity to actor James Franciscus, known to Jane as "Goey" and to us, of course, as "Bloody." Dad, by now on his fourth wife, whose name Fonda can barely bring herself to print—she's "the Italian" for some time—still stays remote.

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Tom Carson is a contributing editor of The Atlantic and the author of Gilligan's Wake, a novel.

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