To many, maybe even most, Americans, Jane Fonda is the Wal-Mart of activist celebrities—a category killer when it comes to personifying the loathsome limousine liberal, that subspecies of Hollywood Democrat which, in some tellings, is more responsible for the great Republican political ascendancy than the end of the Cold War, Bill Clinton's zipper problems, or George W. Bush's tax cut strategery.
As her new autobiography, My Life So Far, makes clear, Fonda helped create the very template of the Movie Star As Social Conscience. In the late 1960s and early '70s, bra-less and still sporting her trendsetting shag cut from Klute, Fonda was ubiquitous, decrying mistreatment of Indians here, standing shoulder to shoulder with migrant workers there, and marching for women's lib elsewhere. Most controversially, she spoke out against the Vietnam War and visited the North Vietnamese capital in 1972; there she made radio broadcasts critical of U.S. policy, posed sitting "laughing and clapping" (her words) on an antiaircraft gun, and took home the sobriquet Hanoi Jane.
Despite her low profile for the last 15 years (part of which she spent as Mrs. Ted Turner), hatred of Fonda was strong enough that the actress even became an issue during the 2004 presidential campaign, when a faked photo of her standing next to John Kerry was widely circulated. Merely to be seen next to her was as toxic as the nuclear meltdown at the center of one of her many memorable movies, The China Syndrome. How else to explain that "Hanoi Jane Urinal Stickers" still sell briskly on the Web? Fonda herself has said she would never campaign for a politician because she carries too much baggage.
Fonda haters will find much to enjoy in My Life, including embarrassing revelations from the iconic feminist. For instance, she not only brought in most of the money to the household she shared with her first husband, the shiftless French director Roger Vadim, but dutifully cooked the meals, mixed the drinks, and procured the women for the ménages à trois he insisted upon. (In true Gallic fashion, Vadim repaid his debt by billing her the "American Brigitte Bardot," casting her in the title role in the 1968 intergalactic soft-porn stinker Barbarella, and calling her stupid and unfaithful in his sybaritic tell-all, Bardot, Deneuve, and Fonda.)
My Life is also chock full of unintentionally hilarious sentences that Fonda's anti-fans will love. "My personal vagina was nothing but a pain in the ass," she recalls during a discussion of her adolescence. Watching Last Tango in Paris with the '60s radical Tom Hayden, who would become her second husband, she reminisces, "[We] had to walk out in the middle. With the bombing [of Hanoi] on our minds, anal copulation with butter didn't sit well."
But even Fonda's harshest critics would do well to read My Life carefully—and not simply because she apologizes for the photo with the antiaircraft gun. "It sent a message that was the opposite of what I was feeling and doing," she writes, even as she defends her anti-war activism. When she wasn't agitating, Fonda was starring in a long run of zeitgeisty films besides Barbarella, Klute, and The China Syndrome. A partial list includes Cat Ballou; They Shoot Horses, Don't They?; Julia; Coming Home; 9 to 5; and On Golden Pond. The combination of politics and show biz lore helps make her book compulsively readable. The 68-year-old Fonda comes off something like Forrest Gump—a naif who somehow managed to be at the heart of the last 40 years.
That's not to suggest she's stupid, only that her life mirrors many cultural contradictions that are still being worked out in contemporary America. She's a feminist who nonetheless largely defined herself in relation to men (her screen legend father, Henry Fonda, first, and then her three ex-husbands); a diehard lefty who became an amazingly successful entrepreneur through her Jane Fonda Workout videos; an exercise guru who was consumed by bulimia and who got breast implants during a midlife crisis; a longtime secularist who converted to Christianity late in life; and so on.
Fonda's willingness to confront and explain these contradictions makes My Life So Far a deeply confessional and often moving memoir. And, as readers of Benjamin Franklin's autobiography might tell you, a very American one. Franklin speaks of sharing the "errata" of his life so that others don't make the same mistakes he did. Though much, much more than two centuries separate Franklin and Fonda, she channels old Ben on almost every page.