Peter Fonda on the Pain of Losing His Mom to Suicide — and How He Reconciled with His Dad Henry
As a member of a Hollywood dynasty, Peter Fonda‘s life was filled with triumphs — but the son of screen legend Henry Fonda certainly had his fair share of trauma as well.
For most of his life, Peter, who died on Friday after suffering respiratory failure due to lung cancer, was estranged from his father. Their complex relationship only seemed to worsen in the 1950s when his mother Frances Ford Seymour Fonda tragically died by suicide.
Much of the pain he endured was detailed in his 1998 book, Don’t Tell Dad: A Memoir, and though he once referred to his father as a “forbidding figure,” he eventually reconciled with him before Henry’s death in 1982.
As the second-born child to Henry and Frances, “Peter soon learned that having glamorous parents and luxurious homes in Los Angeles and suburban Connecticut didn’t mean having a storybook childhood,” reads an excerpt from his memoir.
When Peter was 6-year-old, his father sent him to boarding school. For years, Peter viewed the legendary actor, who was remote and often away on set, as a “starchy” man opposed to the “archetypal decent man” the world had come to know in the movies.
One of Peter’s earliest memories of his father was when Henry left for the war in 1943 — “I remember the smell of his skin, his rough, unshaven face rubbing mine as he hugged me goodbye,” he wrote — and a particularly more scarring one when he returned to visit his family.
“The night he came back, we gathered in the living room and listened to many stories,” Peter wrote. “After a while, I wandered off to his dressing room to look at the little things that were his ‘personals.'”
Peter shuffled through his father’s watch and dog tags before coming across a bowl of pennies and candies — one of which he took to eat without permission.
“[I] climbed onto the couch next to him, and he noticed I was sucking on the candy,” Peter recalled in his memoir after returning to the living room. “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,” he continued. “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,” Peter said.
The actor also noted how his father was “embarrassed” by his skinny figure, so much that he would attempt to help Peter gain weight by drinking goat’s milk.
Still, he said, there were bonding moments as Peter recalled how Henry would carve out “a special time for us to have lunch together almost every day while Jane and [half-sister] Pan were at school.”
“We ate sandwiches and drank large beers. I was seven, and having beers with my father was the absolute best, something none of my friends ever got to do with their dads,” he wrote.
Things for their family changed in 1950 when Frances, who was struggling with her mental health, took her own life by slitting her throat while at a nearby mental institution.
A then-10-year-old Peter and 12-year-old Jane were told by Henry that their mother had suffered a heart attack while in the hospital. The Fonda patriarch barely ever mentioned Frances or the tragedy again.
“When I walked toward [my family] they told me to go through the closed doors and into the living room. I opened the doors and saw Jane, Grandma and Dad sitting on the couches,” Peter recalled in his memoir. “Jane was on Dad’s lap. I went to Grandma, and she told me Mother had died of a heart attack, in a hospital.”
“After that, no one ever talked about Mom. No one seemed to miss her. It was almost as if she had never lived,” Peter wrote. “Jane and I never went to a funeral or service for her; I didn’t know where she was buried.”
Speaking to PEOPLE in March 2014, Jane recalled how Peter struggled to cope with Frances’ death and “was much more affected by the fact that no one talked about our mom.”
“It was like she’d just been erased,” Jane said. “[The Christmas after she died], Peter filled a chair with presents and a letter for her. He couldn’t stand that there was no acknowledgment of her. He was such a sensitive, sweet, vulnerable kid.”
Ten years after their mom’s death, a 20-year-old Peter finally learned what happened to her while chatting with a local diner owner in Fishkill, New York, where he had been apprenticing a summer stock theater that summer.
“The owner of the local diner, a man with whom I’d chatted all summer, sat down next to me at the bar. He pulled out his wallet and removed a yellowed newspaper clipping,” Henry recalled. “My eyes were perfect in those days, and I saw the same photograph of my mother that had been in The New York Times for my birth announcement, but the copy was very different: Frances Seymour Fonda, wife of the actor Henry Fonda, committed suicide yesterday at the Craig House, a posh asylum in Beacon, New York.”
Of the revelation, Peter said he “was stunned. I sat there for two or three minutes, speechless … Everyone else knew. Knew everything! But not me.”
RELATED VIDEO: Jane Fonda Opens Up About Her Mother’s Suicide: ‘It Has A Big Impact On Your Sense of Self’
To help cope with the bombshell, Peter threw himself into work and began acting in films, including Tammy and the Doctor, The Victors, Ulee’s Gold, The Hired Hand, The Trip, and 1966’s Wild Angels, opposite Nancy Sinatra and Bruce Dern.
His breakout role, however, came in 1969 when he starred as Wyatt in Easy Rider, which he also produced and co-scripted. For his work on the project, Peter earned an Academy Award nomination for Best Original Screenplay.
Around that time, a then-married Peter “dove headlong into the era’s sea of drugs and sexual freedom,” which eventually led to his 1972 divorce from first wife Susan Brewer, whom he shares daughter Bridget Fonda and son Justin Fonda with.
Three years later, Peter married Portia Crockett. While living in Montana with Crockett and her son Thomas, Peter reached out to his father by offering him a role in the 1979 film Wanda Nevada.
Henry accepted, and the pair began to mend their broken relationship, with Peter even making a point to tell his dad he loved him at the end of their conversations — something that he rarely ever heard from Henry.
Then one day, after Henry and Peter spent the afternoon together, the elder Fonda started to cry on his way out the door.
“Slowly and choking on the high-powered emotion, he said, ‘I love you very much, son. I want you to know that,'” Peter wrote in his memoir.
“I hugged him so hard, I could feel the pacemaker in his chest. Tears streaming down my own cheeks, I told him I loved him very much and kissed him on his lips. Something we had never done before,” he continued. “I quickly drove off, stopping at a nearby park to have the good hard cry I needed. Years of frustration fell off my heart like melting snow sliding off a roof.”
Unfortunately, the father-son duo only had two years to enjoy their newly reconciled relationship before Peter received a gut-wrenching call from his dad’s wife Shirlee Mae Adams telling him that Henry was in the hospital in critical condition.
After arriving at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in 1982, Peter and Henry shared one of their final moments together — and the younger Fonda heard something that he had waited all his life to hear.
“Dad lay in his bed, very weak. At about ten o’clock, he opened his eyes and looked around the room,” he recalled. “He stared at Shirlee, opening and closing alternate eyes as if to find focus … and then he looked at me, pinning me with both of his beautiful blue eyes.”
“‘I love you so very much, son. I want you to know that.’ And he closed his eyes and lay his head back on the pillow,” Peter wrote. “These were the last words he spoke before he died.”
“I went back to the ranch, satisfied that I had parted with my father in a very pure way,” he added.
The Fonda family confirmed to PEOPLE in an exclusive statement that Peter died on Friday at age 79 after suffering respiratory failure due to lung cancer.
“It is with deep sorrow that we share the news that Peter Fonda has passed away,” the family said. “[Peter] passed away peacefully on Friday morning, August 16 at 11:05 a.m. at his home in Los Angeles surrounded by family.”
“In one of the saddest moments of our lives, we are not able to find the appropriate words to express the pain in our hearts. As we grieve, we ask that you respect our privacy,” they wrote.
“And, while we mourn the loss of this sweet and gracious man, we also wish for all to celebrate his indomitable spirit and love of life,” the family finished. “In honor of Peter, please raise a glass to freedom.”
If you or someone you know is considering suicide, please contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255), text “home” to the Crisis Text Line at 741-741 or go to suicidepreventionlifeline.org.