Secrets the Fonda Family Held Close to Their Hearts Nearly Ruined Their Hollywood Legacy

Sun Apr 17 2022

Hollywood is a kingdom, filled with kings, queens, and any other royalty you can think of. That means that sometimes a family makes waves throughout the industry that can never be unseen. The Fonda family legacy extends beyond Hollywood’s Golden Age and well into the future.

Very few families are able to uphold a legacy like that of the Fonda crew. Starting with the family’s patriarch, Henry, and working its way through his son, Peter, and his daughter, Jane, they’ve made the best of everything that has crossed their paths… even when it felt like fate was working against them.

They Weren’t Always a Trio

Peter and Jane shared the same mother, a well-connected woman named Frances Ford Seymour Fonda. She was the second wife of their father, Henry, and her early departure from their lives was covered up for years. Was this to protect the children from knowing the truth, or was it to protect the Fonda name in public light?

Frances was a pivotal part of her children’s lives. She met her second husband, Henry, and married him just a year after her first husband, George Tuttle Brokaw, passed away. Jane and Peter were not her first children, as she gave birth to Frances de Villers “Pan” Brokaw in 1931.

Henry Fonda’s Rise to Fame

Henry Fonda rose to fame almost at the speed of light. He became a household name after spending decades performing on Broadway and playing his breakout roles in films like The Grapes of Wrath and Young Mr. Lincoln, to name a few.

He briefly served his country in World War II and returned to bookend his service with appearances in his first two films in the Western genre. He went on to star in several of director John Ford’s films throughout his career and ultimately made a name as one of Hollywood’s most distinct families.

Jane Built Her Legacy

Actress Jane Fonda rose to fame in part by her exposure to the entertainment world from her parents, but she ultimately broke onto the scene herself. She was far more than the ultra-talented daughter of Western legend Henry Fonda; she had talents of her own.

Even throughout her later years, Jane Fonda became a force to be reckoned with. She was strong both on and off-screen, following in her father’s footsteps as an activist. She’d had something very important instilled in her: sometimes, you need to stand up for your beliefs.

Peter Made a Name For Himself

This Easy Rider star rose to fame just like his big sister, Jane. However, it appears that his interest in acting didn’t come from her, but rather from their father. Peter was so inspired by his father’s path to success that he chose to follow in his footsteps, as precisely as he could.

Peter Fonda followed his father’s career path all the way back to his father’s hometown, Omaha, Nebraska. The Fonda son chose to study theatre arts and acting at the University of Nebraska in Omaha. After, he was encouraged by Marlon Brando’s mother to start acting at the Omaha Community Theatre.

Building the Fonda Family Brand

After Henry Fonda’s father took him as a child to watch a public lynching in his hometown of Omaha, Nebraska, he knew that his future family would be built on doing the right thing and standing up against injustices. Say what you will about this family, but they’ve been involved with social causes for generations.

There was no part of Henry Fonda that did not take what he’d seen as a child into account. He was moved by watching something so horrific that he made sure the Fonda family brand followed on a path of righteousness. He wanted to raise his children as young activists, and he did just that.

Henry Was a Difficult Father to Have

Though he was relatively close with his children, Henry Fonda was quite tough on his children, Peter and Jane. After his wife, Frances, took her own life (not long after he asked her for a divorce), Henry became increasingly tough on his children and relatively irritable.

Peter reflected on how it felt to spend time with his father as a child. “Growing up with my father was not easy. Jane and I didn’t look forward to having dinner with him. It’s just that he was quiet and didn’t talk much, and we felt he was judging us, and we didn’t do much that was right. The dinner table was a scary place,” he stated.

Jane’s Relationship With Her Father Turned Toxic

 In an interview with Harper’s Bazaar, Jane divulged details of some of her father’s unhealthy and unrealistic beauty expectations. Her father had a controlling side that was relatively common for men in those days; though that certainly doesn’t excuse anything.

Though his expectations were relatively harsh on his daughter, she believed it was just the result of the age he was raised in.  “I was taught by my father that how I looked was all that mattered, frankly. He was a good man, and I was mad for him, but he sent messages to me that fathers should not send: Unless you look perfect, you’re not going to be loved,” she shared.

The Rise of a Fitness Empire

As the young Fonda daughter started to make a name for herself, she pushed until she was recognized in more than just one industry. In the 1980s, she built a fitness empire that people still refer to until this day. Her workout videos are even referred to throughout different shows in pop culture.

Throughout the years, she created 23 home exercise videos, 13 audio recordings, and seven bestselling books —selling 17 million copies altogether. Her fitness empire has inspired people throughout the ages to tone the parts of themselves that are still a bit jiggly.

The Hidden Tragedies the Fonda Family Has Faced

Just months after Henry Fonda asked his wife Frances for a divorce, she took her own life with a razor blade in the mental institution she had been living in since served with divorce papers. However, that’s not the story that Jane and her brother Peter were told.

Peter and Jane were told that their mother died of a heart attack from all of the medication she was on for her lifetime of stress. Unfortunately, Jane was confronted with the horrifying truth of how her mother passed away after a classmate of hers passed her a magazine with a vagrant headline. Her mother had taken the razor blade to her neck and, well, we’ll just leave it at that.

She Had a Lifetime of Painful Relationships

Though she’s absolutely gorgeous, that doesn’t shield Jane Fonda from a lifetime of men using and abusing her. Even the strongest struggle from these pains of life – if you are struggling with an abusive relationship, there are resources available to help you find safety, you of course deserve better. If anyone knows that well, it’s Jane Fonda.

She’d experienced sexual abuse both as a child and as an adult and had even been fired from jobs for her refusal to sleep with her bosses. This led to a lifetime of not being able to say no to men around her, including one of her notorious husbands, Roger Vadim.

She Was Pushed Into a Lifetime of Eating Disorders

As a result of being conditioned to believe that she wasn’t enough, Jane Fonda was pushed into suffering from eating disorders for years to come. She suffered from bulimia well into her thirties, and it is unclear whether or not she built her fitness empire because of her health struggles.

She spent a period of time ultimately surviving on a diet of strawberry yogurt, coffee, and cigarettes. She was constantly pushed to “look her best” and put on a facade of being the most attractive person around. Even if it might have pushed her to accomplish so much, she deserves far more than this trauma.

Her Father’s Many Marriages Taught Her About Relationship Toxicity

Jane grew up witnessing her father’s many marriages and divorces. This was ingrained in her mind from a young age as normal, so when the time came for her to seek out her own relationships, which came with their own concerns and major red flags.

As she grew further into adulthood, she found herself entangled in marriages that just weren’t the right moves for her. She’d grown enough through the years to identify this and was mature enough to recognize that she was still finding herself during some of her three marriages.

Her Relationship With Roger Vadim Had Ups and Downs

Her first husband was world-renowned director, Roger Vadim. The two were wed in 1965 and were joined in holy matrimony for eight years before their divorce proceedings officially started. Long before this, though, Jane had known there were reasons why the relationship would quickly sour.

Vadim, with whom she had two of her three children. He made it very clear that he was firmly against monogamy and just didn’t believe in it. This added constant pressure on her, including instances where he had tried to pressure her into threesomes with call girls, amongst others.

She Had to Pick Up the Pieces of Her Broken Marriages

Jane Fonda found herself in tough relationships. She didn’t shy away from standing up for herself but rather she found herself confronting her discomforts in her marriage. When talking to Vadim about her discomfort, his response was typically machismo; “Jealousy is bourgeois – if I have sex with someone else, it’s not betrayal because I love you.”

Not only did her husband just have issues with monogamy, but he also had major gambling problems that required her to dip into her personal fortune. No surprises here, her next marriage was an overcorrection, connecting with a man that appeared to be the total opposite of Vadim. She then married Vietnam anti-war activist Tom Hayden.

She Loved Nothing More Than Being a Mother

Though Jane wasn’t very close with her daughter until later in life, she still loved nothing more than being a mother. Like many mothers, she struggled severely with postpartum depression after giving birth to her daughter. She also believed she didn’t know how to be a good parent – but she also knew it was never too late to try.

When appearing in an interview alongside Brie Larson, she opened up about the pain she felt as a mother.  “I regret that I wasn’t a better parent,” she shared. “I didn’t know how to do it, but you can learn, so I studied how to be a parent. It’s never too late,” she proudly proclaimed.

She Became Known as “Hanoi Jane”

Jane followed in her father’s activism footsteps for the rest of her days. In fact, she’s even made a splash in the last couple of years for her role in protests against climate change. Back in her heyday, she was also a notable anti-war activist, fighting back against the ongoing war in Vietnam.

Back in 1970, she spent a night in jail after protesting the Vietnam War. She was given the nickname “Hanoi Jane” after creating a counter-campaign against Bob Hope’s USO tour. That fateful night in jail technically held her on “drug charges,” though it later came out that President Richard Nixon had called for it because he really didn’t appreciate someone of her status being so outspoken against war efforts like that.

Who Saved Who?

Jane Fonda adopted her daughter Mary Williams when she was 16 years old. Williams had a tough upbringing, with everyone in her life either being sent away to a maximum-security prison, or turning to drugs, alcohol, and prostitution. Luckily, she found herself taking advantage of an opportunity to attend Jane’s summer camp. She had no clue what was going to happen next – no one did. William attended Fonda’s summer camp for several summers and grew quite close with the activist-actress combo.

She was eventually invited to come to live with her in Santa Monica, changing her life with love, support, and guidance that was never offered to her through her blood relatives. This support blossomed into a lifelong relationship, and Fonda even supported her through her work with the Lost Boys of Sudan, her solo trek on the Appalachian trail, and even months spent living at a research base in Antarctica.

Jane Felt Her Father Wore a Mask

In an interview with The Guardian, she divulged how she really felt about her father, his acting career, and beyond. “As I was growing up, he was making films like 12 Angry Men and The Grapes of Wrath, playing characters who spoke up for justice, who fought for the underdog. I knew he loved these characters, and I wanted him to love me,” she shared.

She continued, stating that she believed “he used acting as a mask behind which to hide his emotions; he abhorred anything that showed his vulnerability.” She saw his own mask against vulnerability as something she wanted to avoid, so she used his distance to motivate herself to never act in the same manner.

Jane and Peter Wanted Careers That Stood Apart From Their Fathers

Especially in the years following their father’s death, both Jane and Peter were quickly seen as many casting directors’ methods of still catching the glory of Henry Fonda’s legacy. Still, though they were flattered, they wanted to build their own legacies beyond their father’s career.

Both of the Fonda siblings had a hard time shying away from their father’s image. Peter was frequently asked if he could reprise his father’s roles in reboots like 12 Angry Men, but that was the last thing he wanted to do. “Dad always thought of himself as a character actor, not a leading man, being uncomfortable with the ‘handle’ of a leading man or romantic lead,” Peter Fonda reflected. We guess some part of his career trajectory stuck on Peter, at least.

The Fonda’s Are As Big Today as Ever

Through turbulence and triumph, the Fonda legacy prevails. Jane and Peter have done everything they possibly could to ensure that their children remained close with each other and that they had close familial ties. Unfortunately, not everything worked out as they’d hoped, but it’s better than nothing.

Still, what we saw on the outside is rarely what is really happening on the inside. Jane’s niece and Peter’s daughter, Bridget, stepped out of the spotlight for a few years before reemerging in a way we really never expected from her. Still, the Fonda clan kept her struggles shielded within the confines of their family.

Bridget Fonda Stepped Out

Bridget Fonda followed her father into the family business for years. She appeared in The Godfather Part III, Single White Female, and It Could Happen to You. However, she quickly retired back in 2002 after a tragic car accident changed everything.

She married within a year, though she had fractured her back. She stepped out of the spotlight for 12 years and was practically hidden while she dealt with her health dilemmas. When she finally appeared in public, she looked like a different person entirely. We only wish her good health.

Peter’s Struggles Lasted for Years

Peter remembered watching his father return from his service in World War II, and was almost instantly sent off to boarding school in Connecticut. This meant that as a young boy, he was able to notice a significant change in his father’s mental state, which instantly resulted in him being shipped off to a new life himself.

Peter Fonda was a substance user, mostly using marijuana. He was arrested on possession charges in 1966 and was turned away from many roles because assorted directors knew he engaged in such activity. He’s still standing by his choices, though, even all these years later.

Henry’s Kids Were Cut Out of His Will

That’s right, when Henry Fonda passed away, he deliberately cut his children out of his will. Instead, he left the entirety of his estate to his widow, Shirlee, and his adopted daughter with Susan Blanchard, Amy Fonda Fishman. Just why did he do this, though?

In his will, he cited that Frances, Jane, and Peter were all financially independent, whereas his other stepdaughter and wife weren’t. “My decision is not in any sense a measure of my deep affection for them,” he shared in the official document. We guess it wasn’t out of animosity after all.

Peter and Jane Remain Close Today

Peter and Jane Fonda have managed to stay close throughout the years. Through thick and thin, through failed marriages and struggles with their children, these two had managed to show up for their siblings however they could. Plus, they frequently saw each other at red carpet events.

Unfortunately, Peter’s time on earth came to a close in 2019. He passed away in 2019 at age 79 and his sister, Jane, released a statement honoring him. “He was my sweet-hearted baby brother. The talker of the family,” she said. “I have had beautiful alone time with him these last days. He went out laughing.” We’re always going to remember you, Peter.