The truth about Jane Fonda’s famous parents
Whether you know her from her Oscar-worthy performances in movies like They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? and On Golden Pond, her turn in Netflix’s Grace and Frankie as the straight-laced titular Grace Hanson, her famous ’80s workout tapes, or her more recent headline-making climate change activism, chances are that you’re as much of a fan of Jane Fonda as we are.
Jane’s decades-long career has been buoyed by her immeasurable talent and outspoken political advocacy for social justice causes, but the award-winning actress was a Hollywood veteran before even gracing the screen for the first time. The reason? Jane — along with her late brother, fellow actor Peter Fonda — were the children of de facto Hollywood royalty. In other words, they were the progeny of an actor and a socialite.
While Jane — born in New York City on Dec. 21, 1937 — had an upbringing that on the surface seemed like a sort of fairytale (born into a wealthy, privileged family that many still consider a type of American royalty, attending elite boarding schools and later the esteemed Vassar College), the sophistication surrounding her was merely a beautiful veneer for the corrosion underneath. So, who were Jane’s famous mother and father? And what was truly brewing under all the fame and fortune during the earliest years of her life? Read on to find out.
Jane Fonda was born into a Hollywood dynasty, but trouble lurked beneath the surface
Even though Jane Fonda’s iconic career was ultimately one made on her own merit, it didn’t hurt that her father Henry Fonda was already a Hollywood A-lister by the time she was born. Though the older Fonda made his Hollywood debut in 1935 — only two years before his daughter arrived — his accelerated rise to fame had him hobnobbing with legends like Carole Lombard and Greta Garbo enough to make headlines on the regular.
As summarized in the 2011 biography Jane Fonda: The Private Life of a Public Woman by Patricia Bosworth, Henry’s status as part of the Hollywood noblesse was further instated by his marriage to Frances Ford Seymour Brokaw (though she later dropped “Brokaw,” the surname of her previous husband, who had died leaving her his fortune). She was a wealthy Canadian-born American socialite who gave birth to their first child, originally named Lady Jane Seymour Fonda, in 1937.
Henry was nominated for his first Oscar in 1940, when Jane was only 3 years old. Despite an inherent glamour attached to the coupling of a society debutante and a famous actor, the relationship between the two was fraught from the beginning — and those self-same dynamics eventually contributed to a series of events that would change the trajectory of Jane’s life forever.
Jane Fonda's famous father was distant and prone to violence
As Jane Fonda later recalled both in her 2006 memoir My Life So Far and a number of interviews after Henry Fonda’s death in 1982, her father was often away from their family homestead. They first lived in Santa Monica, Calif. before the family was uprooted to Greenwich, Conn. when Jane was 10. Henry was purportedly distant with both his wife and children the few times per year he visited. In addition to his seemingly preferred absenteeism, Jane also described his penchant for cruel streaks that could emerge seemingly out of nowhere.
In her memoir, Jane recalled one childhood incident in which, while playing with a neighborhood boy, she broke her arm, but was too frightened to tell anyone for fear of repercussion. After failing to wash her hands before sitting down for a family meal only hours after the injury, her father purportedly “exploded in anger, pulled [her] out of [her] seat and into the bathroom… took the broken arm (which [she’d] been holding limply by [her] side), and thrust it under the water” until Jane lost consciousness and was rushed to the hospital.
The instance, while more extreme, was one of many in a house rife with emotional and physical domestic abuse. Jane’s relationship with her father — who she loved and even collaborated with when she grew older (most notably co-starring in On Golden Pond) — remained complicated until his death.
Henry Fonda barely acknowledged his children in public — and it showed
Though Jane Fonda — along with her younger brother (and future actor) Peter Fonda — might have been two of very few who witnessed the more violent side of Henry Fonda firsthand, his distant attitudes toward his family were starkly apparent to outsiders. So much so that at least one account of their father’s iciness was more or less fodder for gossip-mongers, albeit well-intentioned ones.
In her memoir My Life So Far, Jane included an anecdote purportedly observed (and later told) by New York celebrity and entertainment columnist Radie Harris. Harris, who was acquainted with the family, recalled seeing Henry take Jane and Peter (pictured above), then young children, for a trip to the circus. Harris, who was seated next to the older Fonda at the three-ring show, was struck by how he barely acknowledged Jane or Peter’s presence, and “not once during the entire performance did he say a word to either child.” As the show progressed, Harris realized “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,” Harris further observed. “When the circus was over, they simply stood up and walked out. I felt sorry for all three of them.” What Harris didn’t note was the absence of mother and wife Frances Ford Seymour — or the reason why.
Jane Fonda's mother lived in the shadow of debilitating mental illness
Though Jane Fonda’s famous father provided his own insidious family dynamic, the one her mother brought to the table hardly tempered it. As Jane recalled in My Life So Far, Frances Ford Seymour was often thoroughly entrenched in her own shadows in the form of debilitating mental illnesses during an era when treatment for mental health was heavily stigmatized — and these shadows and stigma would ultimately engulf her forever.
By the time Jane was 10 years old, her mother’s stays within the family manse in Greenwich were as infrequent as that of her father, Henry Fonda. However, the impetus for Frances’ long stays was, unlike Henry, far less recreational. Though the reason for her absences was largely kept secret from Jane through iterations of half-truths — that Frances was frequently ill and required medical care in various hospitals — the fact of the matter was far more complex. But for the young Jane, Frances’ frequent stays elsewhere created emotional distance between mother and daughter.
“She’d been ‘ill’ and in hospitals so much that it had lost any real meaning,” Jane recounted in her memoir of those years. “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.”
Jane Fonda's deteriorating relationship with her mother haunted her
This finally came to a head in 1950 after Jane Fonda’s father, Henry Fonda, decided to divorce her mother, Frances Ford Seymour, when the younger Fonda was only 12 years old. Frances — who had already been out of a number institutions to treat her severe depression, as per a 2015 HuffPost article — was purportedly devastated by the news. She was subsequently placed in yet another hospital to treat her symptoms.
By this time, a combination of Frances’ long, consecutive absences combined with the secrecy surrounding them — all due to the fact that attitudes toward mental illness viewed those who suffered from them as morally deficient or defective — germinated a deep resentment in Jane. Paired with the fact that Jane was also completely unaware of her father’s intent to divorce her ailing mother, the divide in their relationship only grew even greater.
The deterioration of the relationship haunted Jane, who in 1950 was told that her mother died of a heart attack during what subsequently became her final hospital stay. Two weeks before her passing, Frances came home for a mandated visit with her children. When Frances called upstairs to beckon Jane, who was with her brother Peter Fonda upstairs, she ignored her and Frances left. It was the last time the future actress would ever hear her mother’s voice.
Jane Fonda made a devastating discovery
One year after her unexpected death, a devastating revelation would reframe everything Jane Fonda ever knew about Frances Ford Seymour — and reverberate for decades. As HuffPost noted in 2015, Jane only learned during a semester at boarding school that her mother’s cause of death — which, as far as she knew, was due to a heart attack — was not only a lie, but that the rest of the world seemingly knew the real story before she did. As Jane relayed in more recent interviews, her discovery of what really happened was made even worse by the casual cruelty in which it was delivered.
“A year after my mother died, I was in study hall and a girlfriend passed me a movie magazine, in which it said that my mother had cut her throat,” Jane recounted. It was true: Frances completed suicide in the hospital on her 42nd birthday, two weeks after her last visit home. The shocking news quickly manifested into guilt for the teenage Jane, who blamed herself for her mother’s death. “I thought, if I had gone downstairs and seen her that day that she came to the house, then she wouldn’t have killed herself,” she said.
Though Frances’ death and the guilt it summoned within her haunted Jane throughout adolescence and adulthood, the actress was able to come to terms with what had happened by finally learning more about her mother.
Jane Fonda has since made peace with her mother's death
Decades after learning the true circumstances surrounding her mother Frances Ford Seymour’s death, Jane Fonda finally found a sense of peace and compassion for the mother she hardly knew. That change came after Jane was able to obtain a copy of Frances’ medical records. As she read through them, Jane discovered the true nature of her mother’s ongoing struggles with mental illness, and that they might have stemmed from Frances’ childhood traumas, which included sexual abuse.
“Everything fell into place,” Jane later said of the discovery (via HuffPost), and her preconceptions about her mother started to fall away. “I wanted to take her in my arms and tell her how sorry I was, that I understood why it had been the way it was.” She also empathized with her mother’s struggles through her own, which included emotionally abusive relationships and mental health issues, including depression and an eating disorder, all of which she recounted in her own memoir, My Life So Far.
“I was able to forgive myself,” Jane recalled. “It had nothing to do with me.”
If you or someone you know is having suicidal thoughts, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or text HOME to the Crisis Text Line at 741741.
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