November 09, 1981 12:00 PM

It was Feb. 18, 1948, and the curtain had just come down on the opening night of Mister Roberts. Nearly 43, Henry Fonda was experiencing the Broadway success of his life. Mister Roberts didn’t get ordinary notices; it got ecstatic raves. Handshakes and hugs were exchanged at the cast party. Finally, Fonda touched his wife’s elbow and they rode up in the Lombardy Hotel elevator.

“Did you see that audience?” he exclaimed to Frances Seymour Brokaw, his wife of 12 years. “Did you hear that applause? Did you read those notices?”

He opened the door, danced his way into the suite and twirled his wife around the sitting room.

“You know what?” Fonda said as he opened the bottle of Piper-Heidsieck ’36. “I’ve rehearsed 43 years for this night, and it sure as hell was worth it!”

They decided the future lay in the East, not in Hollywood. Soon Frances rented an estate in Greenwich, Conn. It was a huge place with an elevator and enormous grounds with lakes and swamps and apple orchards near a haunted house—and the Fondas, their children, Jane, 10, and Peter, 8, and two Japanese servants moved in.

It was a rotten summer,” says Jane Fonda. “I broke my arm while I was wrestling with a boy called Jimmy. I got blood poisoning, I had an ear infection from diving in the country club pool, and to top it all off, I had realized that my parents’ marriage was falling apart. Oh, God, it was awful!”

Henry Fonda drove to the theater in New York early each evening and returned at night. His wife, Frances, was growing more and more withdrawn. Once again, she was showing the same taut reclusiveness that had plagued her in their years in California. “She was going under,” says Jane. “She was getting sicker and sicker. Even as a kid, I could tell that. I was sure Dad didn’t want to come back and be with us drags.”

He faithfully returned, however, out of a desperate need to keep the family together. “I can be a moody bastard,” Fonda admits, “but at that point what I probably had on my mind was a crumbling marriage. Frances and I didn’t share anything anymore—not even a bed. I agonized over the idea of a second divorce. My first one from Margaret Sullavan had been rough on me. No, I decided, I’ll live this way for the rest of my life.”

One day, just as Fonda was leaving for the theater for a matinee, Frances called down: “Wait, I won’t be home when you get back tonight, Hank.”

Fonda stopped. “Where are you going?” he asked. “A night on the town, a visit to your mother?” He could hear Frances’ blue satin mules click on the polished wooden floor as she advanced to the head of the stairs.

“No,” she answered quietly. “I’m afraid I’ve neglected to mention it to you, Hank. There’s a popular sanitarium not too far from here. A lot of local people say it’s wonderful.”

Fonda could think of nothing to say. His mind raced back to the time in California when the hypochondriacal Frances had entered the Scripps Clinic. She had come out a much healthier woman. Perhaps this new place might be the answer to their marital problems.

His wife interrupted his thoughts. “Don’t fret, Hank. Stay in town more. That drive between here and New York must be a bore for you.” Then, being the wife of an actor, she advised, “You’d better get going. You’ll be late for the matinee.” Henry Fonda drove down the parkway toward New York.

The strain of that summer brought out some of Fonda’s less heroic qualities—his temper, his aloofness and the frequent and sometimes powerful silences he inflicted on those near to him.

“I remember sitting in a box at the circus a few months after Mister Roberts opened,” the Hollywood columnist Radie Harris recalls. “Hank was to my right. With him were Jane and Peter, and not once during the entire performance did he say a word to either child. He didn’t buy them hot dogs or cotton candy or treat them to souvenirs. When the circus was over, they simply stood up and walked out. I felt sorry for all three of them.”

Jane echoes the incident. “I can remember long car rides where not a word was spoken,” she says. “I would be so nervous that my palms would be sweaty from riding in absolute silence with my father.

“He was not a demonstrative person, and never said, I love you,’ ” she continues. “In these years his major reaction was rage.” Rage when Peter flushed the goldfish down the toilet, when on a sailing outing Peter locked every door on the boat and flipped the key overboard, and righteous rage when Peter took the Bronze Star his father had been awarded as an intelligence officer in the Navy in the Pacific during World War II, carried it out to a field and tossed it into the air. It was never found. “My father’s anger was terrifying,” Jane says. “I think his rages were from tension, frustration and repression. They were as much against himself as anybody else.”

Yet at the Alvin Theater, where Mister Roberts was playing, “Fonda was like a stoic,” remembers David Wayne, who played the juvenile to Fonda’s leading man. “His performance never varied. If anything, all our work kept improving, and Hank set the example. But as far as he was personally concerned, at that time I always thought he was some poor son of a bitch who had nothing in the world except those eight performances a week.”

After two months, Frances returned from the Austen Riggs Center in Stock-bridge, Mass., seemingly good-humored and high-spirited. Henry felt he had reason to be optimistic about her health and their life together. But in January 1949, Frances hesitantly informed her husband that she felt it best to reenter Riggs sanitarium. “The holidays take so much out of me,” she told him. “I won’t be gone long.”

“We’d been drifting apart for months,” Fonda says. “There was a helluva lot we couldn’t say to each other. I could only wish her well.”

After Frances left, Fonda bought a large, elaborate set of pastels and started to draw in earnest. Although he applied himself to this new art form with all the energy and dedication he employs in everything that he undertakes, it did not fill the void. A woman 23 years his junior soon did.

“One night backstage the phone rang,” recalls Billy Hammerstein, Oscar’s son, who was the stage manager for Mister Roberts. “It was my [step] sister, Susan. All giggly, she was very young—she must have been 20.”

“We’re having a party,” Susan told him. “Would you like to come after the show? And would you like to bring Mr. Fonda with you?”

“Jesus! Bring Mr. Fonda?” Billy replied. Well, he thought to himself, Hank is sort of lost. Why not? “I don’t know if he’d come, Susan, but I’ll ask him.”

Henry, lonely and adrift, accepted. The evening was obviously a success. Several weeks later, Billy Hammerstein was riding down Seventh Avenue in a cab with Leland Hayward, the producer of Mister Roberts. “What do you think of your sister and Hank?” Hayward asked.

“What do you mean?” Hammerstein replied.

“You don’t know? Well, for Christ’s sake,” Hayward answered, “they’ve been going together.”

Susan Blanchard was the daughter of Dorothy Hammerstein by a previous marriage. Susan found Henry Fonda “a shy man,” and their courtship proved “tentative.” Their age difference wasn’t the only problem. He was a very married man who took his obligations seriously. His middle-class, Midwestern background made no allowances for secondary romances. Yet how could he resist anyone as lovely, as charming, as fun-loving, as confidence-building as Susan? The answer, in spite of his inhibitions, was he couldn’t. And he didn’t.

“Henry is a controlled man,” Susan says now. “He’s an internal man who’s rather intolerant of imperfection. In himself, particularly. And my personality is such,” she goes on to add, “that I don’t mind making a fool of myself.”

It didn’t take long for the news that her father was seeing a 20-year-old “tomato” to reach Jane at Greenwich Academy. At Jane’s age it was difficult to formulate a defense against such gossip. Susan found the going equally hard. Time and again she and Henry would break off. “We felt so guilty,” Fonda says.

Frances was released from Riggs in the spring of 1949. She showed much of her old verve and energy. But by now, Henry knew he was deeply in love with Susan. Not being a man who cheated easily on his wife, he braced himself and entered Frances’ bedroom one sunny afternoon in early autumn. Her face was as composed as the neatly folded quilt that lay at the foot of her bed. She was calm, perhaps too calm. “Hank was very sweet,” she later told a friend. “He came in and said he had something to talk to me about. I nodded, and he put his arm around me.”

“Frances,” Fonda murmured to his wife, “you’re probably going to be shocked about what I tell you, but I want you to know that I’ll always love you. There’s a bond between us, and I’ll always love you and our children. Frances,” he went on quietly, “I want a divorce. I’ve met someone.”

Frances looked down at the birdbath in the backyard. It was empty. “Well, all right, Hank,” she answered. Then she buttoned her blue cashmere cardigan. “Good luck, Hank.”

Henry Fonda closed the door to his wife’s room. He stood there not knowing what he might hear: a gasp, a sob. He heard nothing.

He moved into a one-room apartment he had rented on the top floor front of a brownstone on East 67th Street, off Fifth Avenue. “After having spilled my guts to Frances I felt free now to know Susan more intimately. She was ready too. Of course she still lived at home with her parents,” Fonda said, “but my place was only four blocks away from the Hammerstein town house.”

The morning after her husband asked for a divorce, Frances made an unexpected appearance on the first floor. Jane recalls the moment well: “I had finished breakfast, I was on my way to school, and as I went out the door, Mum said, ‘Come here.’ And without even taking me into the living room and sitting me down, but just standing there, she said, ‘If anybody mentions that your father and I are getting a divorce, tell them that you already know it.’ Then she sent me to school.”

That short speech must have been difficult beyond belief for Frances. To speak to Peter, then 9, about the previous afternoon’s events evidently was impossible. Peter was not told about the end of his parents’ marriage.

“On Sundays,” Fonda says, “I’d go up to be with the children. I’d take them hiking and fishing.” The expeditions on Long Island Sound included Jane. “Those fishing trips were awful,” Jane admits, “because no one enjoyed them. Tension reigned on those little boats. Now while Dad was a good fisherman, I’m sure all he felt was guilt about being a visiting father. Peter and I couldn’t have cared less about fishing. We just wanted to be with him.”

For Frances, too, there was a price to pay for the failure of the marriage. Jane recalls her mother’s being “convinced the servants stood behind doors and spied on her. This was what dinner was like. We sat down, my grandmother, my mother, Peter and me. We were all eating in silence, and I could see that she was crying. I was so filled with tension and anxiety that I couldn’t even ask her or my grandmother what was the matter. Everyone pretended that nothing was wrong. She sat there and cried into her dinner and no one said a word. That’s an example. Polite suffering.”

In the late fall, Frances Fonda had a complete nervous breakdown and returned to Riggs; in February 1950, she became a permanent resident at Craig House Hospital in Beacon, N.Y., a more secure institution. Locked in with the world locked out, Frances often sat rocking, her head bowed, her hands folded in her lap. One day she leaped up and dashed to a partly open window. Before a nurse could prevent her, Frances tore off her wedding ring and threw it between the bars. The ring landed in a snowbank and disappeared.

For a moment Frances wore a victorious expression, and then she seemed confused. She wanted her ring and was distraught until the staff found it. Then Frances slipped it back on and sat down and rocked and rocked. At times her depression lifted, and Frances played bridge and played it well. She gave the impression of a patient about to receive a one-way ticket home.

But the morning of April 14, 1950, Frances wrote notes to each of her children, to her mother and to her nurse. “Mrs. Gray,” the message to her nurse read, “do not enter the bathroom, but call Dr. Bennett.”

The final note was addressed to her psychiatrist, Dr. Courtenay Bennett. “Dr. Bennett,” Frances wrote, “you’ve done everything possible for me. I’m sorry, but this is the best way out.” Then she walked into her bathroom with a tiny razor she had kept hidden for over a month. She had saved it for this moment. Frances Seymour Fonda, on her 42nd birthday, cut her throat.

When Henry Fonda heard the tragic news from his mother-in-law, he had trouble breathing. He thought he might faint. Later that day, he prepared to tell his children. Little did he know that his son, then 10, had already fantasized about his mother’s death. “She was gone most of the time,” Peter says. “I’d started imagining that she would die and Dad would marry my fourth-grade teacher, Miss Thompson. She was kind and nice, and I needed that.”

His own mother had often been naggingly overprotective. There was no question Frances liked to be a patient and to have her children as patients. Jane reacted by becoming self-reliant, an independent tomboy who from the age of 9 festooned her bedroom with the blue ribbons she collected at horse shows. But Peter became “a sad youngster,” according to his father. “He was sensitive, thin and sick more than most children. Today they’d call him a problem child. Sons need fathers. When I got back home after three years in the war, I couldn’t seem to make up to him for the time that I’d been away.”

“My mother probably was responsible for my behavior and my fears,” Peter says now. “I’d be running across the grass and I’d hear her voice calling: ‘Don’t run, Peter. You’ll get overheated.’ I’d be ready to dive into the water and she’d call down: ‘Peter, stay out of the sun. You’ll be burned and then you’ll have a chill.’ I’d stand there looking at her helplessly.” Frances Fonda had almost convinced her son that he was one of the sickliest boys ever born.

But Peter loved her. He listened in disbelief that spring afternoon as his father said: “Peter, Mummy is dead.” “The tears came fast,” says Peter. “I can still see myself crying.”

To his oldest child, Jane, Fonda decided to be more explicit, without telling her the complete truth. Jane will always remember his words: ” ‘Your mother died of a heart attack,’ Dad told me. I stood up. ‘I want to go to my room,’ I said. Upstairs, I sat on the edge of my bed wondering why I couldn’t cry. And I thought, ‘How weird. I’m never going to see her again, and I can’t cry.’ I never cried. I went back downstairs.”

Later that evening, leaving his children with their grandmother, Henry drove to the theater as usual. The producers argued that perhaps he shouldn’t perform. “I’m going on,” the actor said firmly. “It’s the only way I can get through the evening.” The mask was on.

During the days that followed, tabloid columns attacked Fonda on two fronts: his wife’s despair and subsequent end, and his relationship with Susan Blanchard. At the theater when Fonda drew near, the cast controlled its loud laughter and bawdy speech. Susan, on the other hand, offered consolation and tenderness.

Meanwhile, at Greenwich Academy, Jane learned the details of her mother’s death the hard way. Jane’s longtime friend, Brooke Hayward, was with her at the time. Brooke’s mother, Margaret Sullavan, had been Fonda’s first wife and later was to take her own life.

“Jane’s reaction was amazing. She never said a word. Nothing,” remembers Brooke. “We were in art class, and we were reading a movie magazine, which we weren’t supposed to do. There was an analysis of major movie stars, a synopsis of their lives. And, of course, there was Henry Fonda. It said his wife committed suicide. I read faster than Jane. I remember flipping the page, and she flipped it right back. I had to watch her read that. And then she turned the page over. Jane asked me, ‘Is it true?’ ” Brooke couldn’t answer.

“I was stunned! It was dramatic,” Jane says. “I mean it was a combination of horror and fascination. How much more interesting than a heart attack! When I got home, I asked my grandmother’s nurse, and she said yes, it was true.”

Jane seemed to absorb the news calmly. But that summer, Brooke remembers, she was inwardly tormented. “We went to camp in New Hampshire,” says Brooke. “Jane would wake up in the middle of the night screaming about her mother. I mean screaming so that the staff had to appear to calm her down.” Henry Fonda was never told about his daughter’s nightmares. He thought he had protected his children from the anguish of knowing the facts.

For Jane, the persistent question was “Why?” Reflecting on her mother’s suicide, Jane says: “Now I realize she had tremendous potential. She was smart. She had a lot going for her. She was ambitious. But in those days, her world had to do with being beautiful and rich and being thin and Henry Fonda’s wife. She had nothing else, no creative and protective outlet beyond my father. She became obsessed with the fact that she was poor and fat. She was neither. Organizing the houses, having all the keys hanging in place and the linens folded right, that was her life. Growing up, I didn’t like her near me. I didn’t like her to touch me because I knew she really didn’t love me. Maybe she wasn’t capable of love. But now, yes, you can say I understand more.”

At the time of his mother’s death, Peter was the more vulnerable of the two Fonda children. He had a habit, dating to the days when his father was away in the Navy. He would slip into his father’s shoes and walk around in them. They were too long, and Peter tripped over his feet, but it gave him a sense of being nearer to his daddy. He would also open drawers in his father’s bureau and smell the handkerchiefs and socks, anything to bring memories of his dad surging back. One day, months after his mother’s funeral, he opened his father’s cuff link box and found a key chain. “There was a little heart on the end, and inside the heart was an engraved heart with an arrow through it, and the engraving said, ‘S’ and ‘H.’ So I thought the ‘S’ had to be Susan and the ‘H’ was Henry, and I thought, ‘Wow! He’s getting married.’ And I was very upset by it. I went right to my grandmother and she said it was true. And I said, ‘No! No!’ I was mad.”

“You need to have a mother,” she told him.

“But I didn’t want one,” Peter says. “No way did I want one!”

On Dec. 28, 1950, Susan and Henry were married at the Hammerstein home. The bride quickly assumed the task of being mother to Fonda’s children. “I needed to call somebody Mom, just like my grandmother had said,” says Peter. “After a little while I asked Susan if I could, and she said yes. I was happy as the devil must be when Sunday school lets out.” For Jane, Susan became a role model. “She was everything I wanted to be,” Jane remembers. “When I wanted to dress like her, she helped me dress like her. When I wanted to look like her, she helped me with that. She bought my clothes to go away to boarding s”]. She took responsibility really seriously. I love her deeply for it.”

For the next five years, the Fondas were a family again. Because Susan was unable to conceive, she and Henry had adopted a baby, Amy. “I’d never had a chance to be a proper father to Jane or Peter when they were infants,” recalls Fonda. “I hadn’t been allowed to touch them. We had a nurse and she was strict.” Strict and stiff as her white uniform. She commanded the children’s wing with a general’s power. “I had to put on gauze over my mouth when I went to see them, not because I had a cold. It was just the way the nurse and Frances wanted it. The kids grew up without ever being hugged or fondled. I choke up when I remember what I missed and what they missed. But with Amy I changed her diapers. I just had a ball!”

In June 1955, Fonda agreed to star in Clifford Odets’ The Country Girl at the Omaha Community Playhouse, the hometown theater where he had got his start in 1925. Henry’s sister, Harriet, suggested Jane play the ingenue.

“Have you lost your mind, Harriet?” Henry asked. “She hasn’t been on a stage in her life.” But Jane, just graduated from Emma Willard, wanted to try it.

“She did remarkably well,” says Henry. “She surprised the hell out of me by bursting into tears on cue.”

“It wasn’t anything, really,” says Jane. “I had no technique or experience. In the third act, when I’m supposed to make my entrance crying, I asked one of the stagehands to whack me around, to slap me hard, and that plus the petrifying fear and trembling I had of acting on the same stage with my father turned the trick.”

Following Country Girl, the Fonda family flew to Rome for Dino De Laurentiis’ film version of Tolstoy’s War and Peace. “We had a fantastic swimming pool at our villa filled with naturally carbonated water,” says Henry. “The water had a sparkle to it. That is more than I can say about the summer.” Indeed, Susan and Henry realized their marriage was falling apart. “I’d want to discuss problems with him,” says Susan, “and he’d turn a deaf ear. Slowly, it dawned on me that I had always been slightly afraid of this man.” Susan had come to realize her husband’s true love was his work. When he was involved in it, he turned off Susan. Something stopped, like an old-fashioned gold pocket watch that one forgets to wind. One night Susan told Henry that she was leaving. “There was no big scene,” Susan remembers. “Hank hated confrontations. There’s a scream inside of Hank that’s never been screamed and a laugh that’s never been laughed.”

“Peter was awfully upset at the news,” Jane recalls. “He told me, ‘We’re so unlucky. First Mummy died, and now Susan is leaving us.’ And I explained, ‘Peter, you have to face certain realities. Dad is a wonderful man, but he’s hard to live with. And Mummy didn’t just die. She killed herself.’ ”

“Don’t say that!” Peter, then 15, shouted. “It’s not true.” In fact, he was 20 years old before he actually accepted the facts of his mother’s death, when he saw a yellowing newspaper article which revealed that his mother had taken her own life.

On March 9, 1957, Jane and Peter got yet another stepmother. Henry Fonda’s fourth wife was Afdera Franchetti, the daughter of a Venetian nobleman. They had met in Rome, well after Susan’s departure, and he married her on the rebound. “I didn’t appreciate Afdera at all,” says Peter. “At a difficult time in my life, when I could have used my father’s friendship, when I needed contact with him, I felt she effectively alienated us.” Jane, however, was more receptive. “It was sort of fun for a while to have this frothy, fascinating, slanty-eyed Italian contessa for a stepmother,” she says. “Afdera opened up a whole new world.” That fall, after two years at Vassar, Jane transferred to the Beaux Arts in Paris to study art. And Peter, at 17, returned to Omaha, where he had been living with his Aunt Harriet after being booted out of a series of prep schools. She had the boy tested and found Peter’s IQ was well over 160, in the genius class, and got him admitted into the second year at the University of Omaha, though he had never finished high school.

Jane remained in Paris and in the fall of 1958, she enrolled at Lee Strasberg’s Actors Studio in Manhattan. “I watched Jane out of the corner of my eye one afternoon,” Henry recalls. “I was at home reading a script, and every now and then, I’d take a quick look. She had a glass of orange juice in front of her, and each time she took a sip, she’d wear a different expression. Later, I found out it was an exercise for class. Some days, she’d come home really disheartened. But, by God, one day it took! It all made sense to Jane. The next year she would do two plays and a movie. She was off and acting.”

Fonda, meanwhile, was in another hit Broadway show, Two for the Seesaw, opposite Anne Bancroft. About this time, Peter, too, began to show his talents as an actor. At the University of Omaha, he starred in a production of Harvey. “I flew in one day. Peter didn’t expect me,” Fonda says. “I just slipped into a seat in the back row and watched. It was the damnedest series of performances by a group of actors I’d seen in years. Here were these college kids, 18 to 22, playing people in their 50s. They were playing the parts as though they were 99. My boy Peter was smart. He played it straight and landed every single laugh. By God, his name isn’t Fonda for nothing!”

On Oct. 5, 1961, when Peter made his debut on Broadway in Blood, Sweat and Stanley Poole, the young Fonda got excellent reviews. “Now I can stand on my own two feet,” Peter declared, “and dispense with anybody who comes up to me and says, ‘You are here because of who you are and not because of your talent.’ ”

Meanwhile, Henry was failing once more at marriage. “I was ashamed to go through another divorce,” he says. “But there was no way to avoid the break.” Afdera and Henry were divorced in 1962 and Fonda was certain he would never marry again.

Between 1961 and 1971 Henry Fonda made 21 pictures and appeared in five plays. On the screen he appeared as the President of the United States, a candidate for the presidency, Secretary of State-designate, an admiral, a general, a lieutenant colonel, a spy, a widower, a sex symbol, a police officer, a prosecuting attorney and eight variations of a Westerner. But for all the success, this was sometimes a painful period because of Jane’s political activism. “She’s been front-page material for years,” says Henry of his daughter. “Her name is more recognized than mine. Lots of times I had to turn pages pretty fast. I wasn’t Harry Truman. I couldn’t write letters to the editors. I just bit my lip and lived through it all. They called her ‘Hanoi Jane,’ a traitor, and urged me to send her back to Moscow. I stewed a lot about her.

“I know she got into this whole business because she had lived in France when she was married to [director] Roger Vadim, and some of his friends sold her on the idea that America’s position in the Vietnam War was wrong. To tell you the truth, in many areas she’s been vindicated. That war was obscene.

“Jane was always that kind of girl,” continues Fonda. “The poor American Indians, the poor Indian Indians, the poor Black Panthers, the poor people in the ghettos. When Jane had Angela Davis over to the house, I began to wonder about her. I can remember one emotional scene. I said, ‘Jane, if I ever discover for a fact that you’re Communist or a true Communist sympathizer, I, your father, will be the first to turn you in. I fought for this country and I love it.’

“Tears trickled down Jane’s cheeks. She shook her head, ‘No.’

” ‘Jane, there are less human rights in Russia than in this country. Maybe we do have some inequities, but it’s worse over there.’ She nodded in agreement, but her tears wouldn’t stop.”

Jane admits, “I’ve blacked out that night. I can’t even recall it, but my father was a worried, concerned parent. He wouldn’t have had the power over me if he had been ice-cold. You see, the thing about my dad is, if you like someone, and I like him, and he doesn’t give a whole lot, when he does, however oblique it may be, oh, I mean, it’s like the sun. You can go for months on it!”

About this time, Peter was also making social statements of a sort. In 1968, at age 28, he made Easy Rider, fixing a seal of approval on a whole way of life. “The first week of filming we went to New Orleans during the Mardi Gras,” Peter remembers. “We shot in 16 millimeter, and Dennis Hopper, who directed the picture, had me out in this graveyard. Everyone is buried above ground because you dig a foot and you have water. There’s this big Italian Statue of Liberty. A seated woman with a shield and a spear, and I’m to sit in her lap. I didn’t want to climb up there, but Dennis grabbed me by the shoulders.

” ‘You’ve got to do it,’ he yelled. ‘I’m the director. I want you to pretend that she’s your mother. Now this is supposed to be an acid trip, and you can stretch a lot when you’re dealing with acid.’

“I said, ‘Dennis, you can’t ask me to do that just because you happen to have inside information about my background. That’s called dirty pool.’

” ‘Just do it!’

“So I climbed up and asked this cold statue questions I have never asked in my life. ‘Mother, why did you leave me?’ ‘Mother, I hate you.’ ‘Mother, I love you!’ I really got into it. I was shouting. It came flooding out of me. Afterward, I thought, ‘God, when my sister and my father see this, they’re going to come unglued.’

“I look at Easy Rider as my Grapes of Wrath. I don’t say my acting was anywhere near where my dad’s was; it was a different style, a different stanza, a different piece of music, but it was still music. It affected an entire culture, and it continues to. I have accomplished in my sweet, short life what most people connected to films dream about doing.”

The first thing Easy Rider did was win the Cannes Film Festival Award. According to latest estimates, Easy Rider grossed $60 million. As the producer, the leading man and one of the three co-authors, Peter Fonda walked away with 22 percent of the picture.

For all his good intentions, Henry Fonda found a fifth wife but they did not wed until 1965, three years after meeting. Shirlee Adams was a full-time airline stewardess when they were introduced by a press agent. Like Fonda, she came from the Midwest—Aurora, Ill. She’d been a faithful churchgoer and didn’t believe in smoking, liquor, coffee, dancing or movies. From the age of 4, Shirlee had been raised in an orphanage. At 18 she entered American Airlines stewardess school. “I loved flying,” she says. “It was particularly good for me because I was insecure and I had to be loved, wanted and accepted. That was my plane in the sky. The captain had the cockpit and I had the cabin. I had my passengers. A trip across the country before I flew jets took nine hours, so I had time to get to know everybody. It got to the point where I couldn’t stand at the front door deplaning passengers because I would cry. I liked them so much.”

“People fall in love with her on sight,” says Fonda. “I marvel at how easily she can talk to a stranger, animatedly. After I met Shirlee I wanted to send her valentines every day. Shirlee turned me around. With Shirlee I’m more willing to compromise.”

Jane Fonda agrees. “Shirlee is quite a remarkable woman,” she says. “My father likes to play the hermit, but Shirlee doesn’t allow him to get away with it. My father needed to be plugged in. By himself he could just go floating away. His wives have had several things in common. They’ve been extremely outgoing, very effervescent, very energetic. And he could tune out safely. Shirlee won’t let him.”

Peter, too, became a booster. “My first judgment was totally wrong,” he says. “You know, I’m nosy, and one day I was using the telephone in her bedroom and I looked in her closet, and there must have been 400 pairs of shoes, most of them unworn. I thought, ‘This woman is a banana!’ Well, I told a couple of people about it, and the comment got back to Shirlee. She took me aside and said, ‘I want to explain it to you, Peter.’ She handed me a snapshot. It was of her as a little girl, and she had on a pair of shoes and the soles were flapping, like an old pair of clown’s shoes. The shoes in the picture weren’t really mine,’ she said. They were just put on my feet for the photograph. I vowed to myself that was never going to happen again.’ ”

As the years have passed, the Fonda family has grown closer together. “When I was 37, an important event happened in my life,” reports Peter. “I’d phone Dad from my home in Montana a couple times a week. One night we were talking, and I had an urge to make the connection. I thought, he’s my father, he’s been sick, and it’s about time we’re able to be with each other and hug one another and look down the barrel and say, I love you.’

“I knew if I tried the direct approach it would floor him, and he wouldn’t know how to deal with it. He has to be led to water even if he’s thirsty. Well, there I was on the phone having this nothing conversation, and I blurted out, ‘Listen, Dad, I just want you to hear something before we say good-bye.’ He asked, ‘What’s that?’ ‘I love you.’ The words came tumbling out of me. He practically choked. He murmured a sentence and hung up.

“The following phone call, I didn’t preamble it at all. I just said, ‘I love you, Dad.’ A pause, and then I heard, ‘You too, son,’ and he crashed down the phone. Not out of anger, out of sheer terror. Because of that tender phrase, ‘I love you, Dad.’

“Now he tells it to me and Jane in an easy, pleased manner. He’s delighted that he can speak the words that were stuck inside him, unverbalized all those years. I’ll tell you one thing: I know my father loves me, and it’s a great feeling.”

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