The Tragic Real-Life Story Of The Fonda Family

The Fonda dynasty consists of three generations of award-winning film actors, but there’s much more to this family than their time in the Hollywood spotlight. Surely all families have hardships on some level, but the consequence of fame is that hoards of strangers are welcome to judge and pick apart your most intimate secrets. 

The Fondas weren’t just movie stars. They were active in the social and political issues of their time and still aren’t afraid to use their voices for causes they care about. But even more scrutiny comes when you directly and unapologetically oppose authority. 

From the Golden Age of Hollywood’s Henry Fonda to today’s octogenarian superwoman Jane Fonda, who has been both hated and revered, the first family of film has experienced more than their fair share of very public tragedy, controversy, and estrangement from one another. Still, there is much to be fascinated with and admire about the Fondas. 

Henry Fonda's unique childhood

Patriarch Henry Fonda is known for his roles in Westerns like My Darling Clementine and The Ox-Bow Incident as well as acclaimed classics such as 12 Angry Men and The Grapes of Wrath, and he won an Oscar for On Golden Pond later in his acting career. Henry was known for taking very social justice-oriented roles, and his childhood may be a clue as to why. When Henry was 14 years old, he was taken by his father to witness the lynching and burning of a Black man named Will Brown, according to The Village Voice.

Fonda’s father was a salesman, and he grew up in a liberal Democrat household in the middle of the American heartland in Omaha, Nebraska. The intense incident Henry’s father exposed him to at such a young age influenced his disdain for violence and instilled a sense of duty in him to assist in fighting social injustice. 

Henry’s films reflect his values. In The Ox-Bow Incident, a film that came out in the midst of World War II, his character even witnesses a lynching. Fonda was also known for taking roles for admirable reasons, regardless of the likelihood of box office success. Sometimes, he would have to front some of his own funds to get films made, including for 12 Angry Men. Fonda was known for being a rather serious person and not always easy to get along with. His career reflects his personality rather well. 

Jane and Peter Fonda's mother, Frances Ford Seymour

Frances Ford Seymour was a Canadian socialite from an aristocratic family. She was a distant relative of King Henry VIII’s third wife, Jane Seymour, whom daughter Jane Fonda was named after. 

After being married to Henry Fonda for 13 years, Frances found herself part of a fraught existence. She suffered from debilitating mental illness, and their marriage was on the rocks. Henry requested a divorce so he could marry a woman 23 years his junior. On Frances’ 42nd birthday, she tragically took her own life with a razor while living in an institution. Jane was only 12, and her brother Peter was only 10. They were told that their mother died of a heart attack. It was only a year later that Jane found out the truth, thanks to a gossip rag. “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 revealed on Oprah’s Master Class in 2015 (via HuffPost).

Jane also disclosed that shortly before her death, her mother visited their house accompanied by a nurse. At the time, Jane and Peter were not even told that their mother was staying in an institution and was simply “away.” When Frances requested to visit with Jane, she refused to come downstairs. Jane would never see her mother again and still struggles with feelings of guilt about that day.

If you or anyone you know is having suicidal thoughts, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline​ at​ 1-800-273-TALK (8255)​.

Henry Fonda was a difficult father figure

It wasn’t easy for Peter and Jane Fonda to grow up with father Henry, who became increasingly harder to get along with after their mother took her own life. The children were stuck relying on their stepmothers for warmth.

“Growing up with my father was not easy,” Peter Fonda told The Virginian-Pilot. “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.” 

In a Q&A session with the British Film Institute (via the Daily Express), Peter also added that because Henry grew up in a Christian Scientist household, they were raised to “believe that if you’re hurt or in pain you cure it by praying. Crying was not acceptable.” According to his children, Henry was very shy, and he was afraid to convey strong emotion offscreen.

Henry Fonda's stepdaughter Frances de Villers Brokaw

Frances Ford Seymour’s daughter, “Little Frances,” or “Pan,” was often overlooked in the Fonda household. She had endured a heavy dose of trauma before becoming Henry Fonda’s stepdaughter with her biological father drowning in a swimming pool at 51 years old, her half-sister died in a car accident at 19 years old, and, of course, her mother would commit suicide while Little Frances was in her twenties. 

Her birth father, George Tuttle Brokaw, was a lawyer from a rich family in Manhattan’s Upper East Side. She was born an heiress, and at 14 years old, she inherited “one-fourth ownership of the New York Guaranty Trust Company and one-third of all the holdings of the multi-million dollar Brokaw corporations,” via her grandfather’s estate, according to a 1945 UP report (via Decider).

Unlike her half-siblings, Little Frances did not seek the spotlight, and she, Jane, and Peter weren’t very close later in life. Jane, however, attended Little Frances’ funeral in Rome when she passed away in 2008. 

If you or anyone you know is having suicidal thoughts, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline​ at​ 1-800-273-TALK (8255)​.

Henry Fonda's children were left out of his will

Henry Fonda died at the age of 77 in 1982. Jane, Peter, and Little Frances were iced out of their father’s will and would not receive any of his estate after he passed away. Instead, Henry left his assets to his widow, Shirlee Fonda, and his adopted daughter with Susan Blanchard, Amy Fonda Fishman.

According to the will, leaving his birth children and stepdaughter with no assets did not come from a place of animus. “My decision is not in any sense a measure of my deep affection for them,” the document read, according to The New York Times. At the time of Henry’s death, Jane, Peter, and Little Frances (who had never needed Henry’s money) were all financially independent, and he split his assets between his widow and adopted daughter “because they are dependent on me for their support.”

Peter Fonda's struggles growing up

Henry and Peter had a fraught father-son relationship, and Henry could be abusive. Peter was sent to boarding school when he was only six years old, so he didn’t see his father often in his youth. 

One of Peter’s first memories of his father is when Henry had just come back from serving in World War II. In his 1998 book, Don’t Tell Dad: A Memoir, Peter recalls making his way to his father’s dressing room, where he found a box of candies and took one. “[I] climbed onto the couch next to him, and he noticed I was sucking on the candy,” Peter said, (via People). “He asked me where I got it, but the look on his face and the tone in his voice were terrifying. I told him I had just found it. He bellowed that I was a liar. I jumped off the couch and ran for my life with Dad in hot pursuit. I made it into my bathroom, locking the door, but then Dad kicked the door in. He picked me up by my small, terrified neck and carried me into my bedroom, giving me the spanking of my life.”

Like Jane, Peter also recalls being lied to about his mother’s cause of death, and he wouldn’t learn the truth of her suicide until years later. After she passed, Peter wrote in his memoir that “no one ever talked about Mom. It was almost as if she never lived.”

If you or anyone you know is having suicidal thoughts, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline​ at​ 1-800-273-TALK (8255)​.

Jane Fonda's body image struggles and child abuse

Jane and Henry Fonda’s relationship didn’t fare much better and left her with long-lasting psychological damage. Jane revealed in an interview with Harper’s Bazaar that her father embedded unhealthy beauty expectations in his daughter. 

“I was raised in the ’50s,” Jane said (via Today). “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 also admitted later in life that she had been molested as a child, raped in adulthood, and fired from a job because she wouldn’t sleep with her boss. Jane admitted that out of sheer insecurity, and a lack of sense of self, she was too afraid to say no to anybody. She suffered from bulimia well into her thirties, saying that she mostly survived on cigarettes, coffee, and strawberry yogurt. In Jane’s case, pain was beauty. 

Jane Fonda's love life

Following in her father’s rocky marital footsteps, Jane Fonda was married and divorced thrice. Her relationships were dysfunctional, and Jane revealed later that they were at times abusive and unfaithful.

Jane admitted that she was lost and didn’t know who she was when she married her first husband, director Roger Vadim (pictured above with Jane), in 1965. They divorced after eight years of marriage. Roger didn’t believe in monogamy, and Jane later admitted to feeling pressured into a threesome with a call girl and the French director. “Jealousy is bourgeois,” said Vadim to Jane, who was ten years older than Jane when they married, his third marriage. “If I have sex with someone else, it’s not betrayal, because I love you.” Vadim also had a gambling problem, which often left Jane picking up the financial pieces.

In a drastic change of direction, Jane married Vietnam anti-war activist Tom Hayden within the same year as her divorce from Roger. His influence was somewhat responsible for amping up her activism work, which would later get her into legal trouble. They were married for 17 years, but Jane later admitted that Hayden was a womanizer and controlling

Her third and last marriage was to billionaire and CNN founder Ted Turner but didn’t fare much better. According to The Telegraph, Jane got physically abusive with Ted, hitting him in the head with a telephone, after finding out he cheated on her only a month after they were wed. 

Peter Fonda's desperate attempts to escape his father's Hollywood image

Peter Fonda’s image became the polar opposite of his father’s. Henry Fonda’s movie star persona was the wholesome All-American with a conscience. But Peter wanted to be free of his father’s shadow in the midst of the ’60s beatnik movement. His starring role in Easy Rider was the turning point in his career, but reality and fiction had already become blurred for Peter as he leaned into the hippie counterculture. He would even be turned away for multiple roles because of his recreational drug use.  

Peter was arrested for marijuana possession in 1966, the same year he protested for the rights of young people in a riot on the Sunset Strip. After that incident, he became involved in politics and environmental issues, much like his sister, Jane. 

Peter opened up later in life about having post-traumatic stress disorder from a very young age. “I knew I was nuts,” said Fonda in and interview with the Los Angeles Times. “I had no idea how to deal with it and it was getting in my way. In 2004, I found what was wrong. I had never heard the term PTSD. That’s what I suffered since I was 6 years old.”

Hanoi Jane

Jane Fonda is just as famous for her activism as she is for her film roles. Known for her work with the Black Panther Party and Native American rights organizations, she spent a night in jail in 1970 for protesting the Vietnam War and was later nicknamed Hanoi Jane after the formation of the Free Army Tour, an anti-war military tour created to counter Bob Hope’s USO tour.

She was “officially” arrested on drug charges, but it was later revealed that President Nixon had manipulated the situation due to his discontent with her anti-war messaging. As it turns out, the FBI and CIA had been surveilling Jane, and the NSA was tapping her calls, according to The Washington Post.

She received the infamous “Hanoi Jane” title in 1972, when Fonda toured North Vietnam, where she spoke against the U.S. military’s policy in Vietnam and begged pilots to stop bombing non-military targets on numerous radio programs. During the trip, a photograph captured a moment of Jane sitting on an anti-aircraft gun in Hanoi, which became quite a PR problem for the actress back home. Jane has since apologized for the photo. 

Some American lawmakers as well as the Veterans of Foreign Wars saw her actions as treasonous and sought retaliation against her. But many Americans agreed with her activism. Filmmaker Lynn Novick stated that some veterans “think she was courageous for going to Hanoi and taking a stand even though they didn’t agree with everything she had to say.”

Jane Fonda's relationship with her daughter

Jane Fonda’s daughter with first husband Roger Vadim came at a tough time in her adult life, and she struggled with postpartum depression. The two didn’t have a very warm mother-daughter relationship until later in life, when they bonded over climate activism. 

In an interview with actress Brie Larson, Jane opened up about her experience with her children. “I regret that I wasn’t a better parent,” Fonda told Larson (via HuffPost). Jane admits she felt unprepared to be a mother. “I didn’t know how to do it,” she said. “But you can learn, so I studied how to be a parent. It’s never too late.”

Jane got arrested again during the weekly 2020 environmental strikes outside the Capitol. Jane committed to showing up for the Washington, D.C. Fire Drill Friday protests, using her celebrity to call attention to the important issue. Vanessa met up with her mother after she was released from a night in jail. “When I came out of jail I didn’t know she was going to be there and we just looked at each other and burst into tears,” Jane told the press

Henry Fonda's influence

Jane attributes much of her activist work to her father. “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,” Jane said in an interview with The Guardian. “He used acting as a mask behind which to hide his emotions; he abhorred anything that showed his vulnerability.” 

Peter Fonda was constantly asked if he would reprise his father’s roles, such as in a 12 Angry Men reboot, but Peter would always decline. Both actors struggled to break away from his legacy but found their own powerful voices in time. “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 said.

Despite multiple hardships within their family, the Fondas found support and camaraderie among one another as time passed and managed to heal some wounds. 

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