Bookmarks Issue: 

The Private Life of a Public Woman

A-JaneFondaJournalist Patricia Bosworth studied with Jane Fonda at the Actors Studio in the 1950s, and the two have remained lifelong friends. A contributing editor to Vanity Fair, Bosworth has also written biographies of Montgomery Clift, Diane Arbus, and Marlon Brando.

The Topic: Long before Madonna became a material girl, Jane Fonda was regularly reinventing herself in American popular culture. Ironically, argues Bosworth, despite Fonda's fierce independence and feminist beliefs, these incarnations were defined by a desire to please the men in her life--a direct result of her troubled relationship with her standoffish father, actor Henry Fonda. An actress groomed for stardom by her first husband, French film director Roger Vadim, Jane transformed herself into infamous antiwar protester, "Hanoi Jane," during her marriage to political activist Tom Hayden and played the philanthropic trophy wife for CNN founder Ted Turner. "All of my life," observes Jane, "I have been my father's daughter. Trapped in a Greek drama like Athena who sprang from the head of her father Zeus."
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 608 pages. $30. ISBN: 9780547152578

New York Times 4 of 5 Stars
"This is not a nosy celebrity biography full of gossip and poison. It is a book that gets unusually close to its subject. It sees what Ms. Fonda cannot see about herself." Janet Maslin

NY Times Book Review 4 of 5 Stars
"A dedicated researcher with an excellent ear for a quote ... Bosworth has a lovely way with Fonda's troubled family history." Vanessa Grigoriadis

USA Today 4 of 5 Stars
"Bosworth, who not only had her subject's blessing but also had access to her closest family members, acquaintances and associates, has fashioned a vividly told tale (one with a steady undercurrent of sex given Fonda's varied and constant admirers) filled with revealing firsthand quotes and detailed revelations, including those from the actress herself. The author does a bang-up job probing the fragile, frustrating and defining nature of Fonda's relationship with her father, supporting her premise that everything Jane did was somehow motivated or shaped by that." Susan Wloszczyna

Wall Street Journal 4 of 5 Stars
"Ms. Bosworth studied at the Actors Studio with Ms. Fonda before becoming a journalist, and the two women are friends, but she is unsparing when describing the Hanoi incident and other naïve, impulsive acts in Ms. Fonda's life. The author notes how self-centered Ms. Fonda can be, and unfeeling." Clare McHugh

Chicago Sun-Times 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Neither genetic makeup, nor lifelong friendship, nor reportorial diligence has produced substantial new insights. ... But while much is rehash, it's still a well-documented, orderly accounting of the feminist icon's life." Alan P. Henry

Cleveland Plain Dealer 3.5 of 5 Stars
"The real trouble with Jane Fonda is that it chugs along ... stubbornly refusing to stop for crucial moments of reflection. ... Still, the voluminous detail Bosworth unearths is so car-wreck fascinating, you can't help rubber-necking to see the bodies." Andrea Simakis

Milwaukee Jrnl Sentinel 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Bosworth says she had planned to call the book Becoming Jane Fonda, and it's in the early decades of Fonda's life that her subject comes most clearly into focus. ... But Bosworth's focus on Fonda's earlier years comes at the expense of the decades that follow. Building an exercise empire, her bitter divorce from Hayden, the whirlwind courtship and complicated marriage with Turner, her return to acting after a decade away--a 30-plus-year period is dashed off in a couple of chapters." Chris Foran

Critical Summary

Ten earlier Jane Fonda biographies and two memoirs left the critics wondering what might be left to say about the legendary actress. While Bosworth may not have any earth-shattering secrets to unveil, her careful research and keen insights lift Jane Fonda above its predecessors. Bosworth's admiration for Jane is tangible, but it doesn't stop her from reporting on all the rich and racy details of Jane Fonda's life or from taking the actress to task for her bad behavior. A few critics grumbled about Bosworth's reliance on previously published material, run-of-the-mill prose, and emphasis on Jane's early life, but these minor objections didn't spoil their enjoyment. Jane Fonda manages to be both a meticulous portrait of a controversial public figure and a fascinating read.

Supplementary Reading

My Life So Far | Jane Fonda (2005): In rich and elegant language, Fonda reveals the intimate details of her life, her plans for the future, and her hopes that her tumultuous story can help others to understand and improve their own lives.