Tragic Details About Jane Fonda

Jane Fonda has had an incredible onscreen career spanning six decades, bringing her plenty of accolades (think seven Oscar nominations, including two wins) and a net worth of an estimated $200 million. But the legendary actor hasn't been so lucky offscreen. In fact, from a young age, Fonda's life has been tainted by tragedy. 

As the star told People in 2017, she had some pretty dire predictions for herself early on. "I never pictured 30," an 80-year-old Fonda confessed, explaining, "I assumed I wouldn't live very long and that I would die lonely and an addict of some sort. I didn't think if I did live this long, that I would be vibrant and healthy and still working." Which is, of course, exactly what happened. But it wasn't a smooth journey by any means. 

From her family life to her love life and her health, Jane Fonda has had to endure more challenges than most — and she's risen to meet every single one of them. These are the tragic details of her life.

As a child, Jane Fonda watched her mother struggle

As a child, Jane Fonda experienced her mother, socialite Frances Ford Seymour, struggling with bipolar disorder — which, as the actress told People, affected her greatly. Sharing that she "never really knew" her mom, Fonda explained how having "a parent who is not capable of showing up, not capable of reflecting you back through eyes of love, it has a big impact on your sense of self."

In addition to a private battle with mental illness (Jane didn't learn the truth about her mother's diagnosis until much later), Seymour also suffered in marriage. As Country Living notes, she met Henry Fonda in 1936 on the set of Wings of the Morning. The second of Henry's five wives, she had to deal with her husband focusing on work, then spending three years serving in the Navy during World War II, then reportedly seeking companionship elsewhere. The Daily Mail once dubbed Henry "cold and a bully," as well as "a shameless womaniser." As Jane told People, her "family was falling apart" before she hit her teens. "My mother at that time was in and out of mental institutions and my father was seeing another woman just [seven years] older than me," she recalled.

According to Country Living, Henry asked for a divorce in 1949, which led to Seymour entering a psychiatric hospital and dying by suicide four months later on her 42nd birthday. Jane was 12.

If you or someone you know is having suicidal thoughts, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or text HOME to the Crisis Text Line at 741741.

Jane Fonda blamed herself for her mother's death

Following Frances Ford Seymour's death by suicide, Henry Fonda told their children, Jane and Peter Fonda, that she had a heart attack. It wasn't until the following year that Jane learned the truth, when "a girlfriend passed me a movie magazine, in which it said that my mother had cut her throat," she recalled during Oprah's Master Class. She immediately put the blame on herself, according to The Guardian.

One particular incident made it especially hard for Fonda to forgive herself. As the Daily Mail reported, when Seymour visited home from the hospital, a 12-year-old Jane "hid" from her. It was during that visit that Seymour reportedly grabbed the razor she would use to take her life the following week. "Of course I thought, if I had gone downstairs and seen her that day that she came to the house, then she wouldn't have killed herself. It was my fault," Jane told Winfrey. "... I went through life with a lot of guilt."

While she admitted to The Guardian in 2016 that "dealing with what happened to [her] mother isn't over," Jane did tell Winfrey that seeing her mother's medical records helped. "One of the most important things that I learned is that she had been sexually abused," she shared. "Everything fell into place. I wanted to take her in my arms and tell her how sorry I was ... but also, I was able to forgive myself. It had nothing to do with me."

Jane Fonda had a troubled relationship with her father

Jane Fonda's relationship with her father, Henry Fonda, was equally difficult. Although she told The Guardian that she "adored" her famous father, whom she'd dubbed "a good man with wonderful integrity," Jane revealed that their relationship exactly mimicked their roles in their 1981 movie, On Golden Pond

"The character he played was just like him in life, someone who had a hard time expressing his feelings and his emotions," Jane shared. Henry was often away from home, and following their mother's passing, Jane and brother Peter Fonda were sent off to boarding school. When Henry and Jane did spend time together, they didn't speak about her mother, he never offered any acting advice — "I wish he had!" she said to The Hollywood Reporter — and they disagreed on her activism. "I tried to make him understand," Jane told The Guardian of her Vietnam War protests. "He just couldn't."

As Jane told Oprah Winfrey, her father remained set in his ways until the very end. "Sitting by my father's bedside as he was dying, he wouldn't say anything," she revealed. "Of course, I wished he would. I wanted him to tell me that he loved me, and I wanted to ask him questions." Sharing how she "told him that I loved him and I knew he'd done it the best that he could," Jane said her father did become emotional, but refused to open up. Even so, she concluded, "I do know that he is with me ... I feel his energy."

Jane Fonda battled bulimia for decades due to her father's words

Jane Fonda's strained relationship with her father had a profound effect on her health. Noting how Henry Fonda "had an obsession with women being thin" in her 2005 memoir, My Life So Far (via The Guardian), Jane wrote, "Once I hit adolescence, the only time my father ever referred to how I looked was when he thought I was too fat." Speaking with Harper's Bazaar, she elaborated, "I was taught by my father that how I looked was all that mattered, frankly." Underscoring that "he was a good man," Jane claimed, "He sent messages to me that fathers should not send: 'Unless you look perfect, you're not going to be loved.'"

Jane became bulimic in her teens and struggled for decades. "I wasn't very happy from, I would say, puberty to 50," she told Harper's Bazaar. After 25 years of battling bulimia, she just "stopped" at age 46. She explained to The Conversation, "It was like the equivalent of a dry drunk." Noting that she "began to heal" through working out, Jane said, "Then I started taking Prozac and that helped with the anxiety, and then I had a nervous breakdown ... I said out loud, 'If God wants me to be in this much pain, there must be a reason.'" 

It was at that moment that the self-professed Atheist found healing in religion: "I realized I'd been broken open. Something happened to me. Something began to change."

If you or someone you know is struggling with an eating disorder, please contact the National Eating Disorder Association's Helpline at 1-800-931-2237 or chat with one of their helpline volunteers on NEDA's website.

Jane Fonda has 'had a lot of cancer'

Jane Fonda's health struggles reach far beyond her battle with bulimia. In 2010, she had a breast cancer scare and, according to People, needed to have "a small tumor" removed. Luckily, her rep told the mag that she was "100 percent cancer-free. She's completely fine and it's business as usual for her." But it wasn't the first time that Fonda had to undergo life-saving surgery. 

As she told British Vogue in 2019, "I've had a lot of cancer." Explaining that she was once "a sun-worshipper," Fonda continued, "When I have a day off, I frequently go to my skin doctor and have things cut off me by a surgeon." Revealing that her health is "an ongoing process," the actor shared an example of her secret struggles, revealing that "the strange white dress with all the ruffles" she wore to the 2016 Golden Globes was chosen specifically because, "I'd just had a mastectomy and I had to cover my bandages."

The Grace and Frankie star also revealed that she's been battling osteoporosis due to her genetics: "My father had it, my brother [Peter] had it." This has resulted in two hip replacement surgeries, as well as one knee replacement and a second on the way.

Jane Fonda's first husband secretly spent her inheritance

In the early 1960s, Jane Fonda moved to France in an effort to, as Vanity Fair put it, break out from "her father's shadow." While there, she met film director Roger Vadim (10 years her senior, he had previously discovered and married Brigitte Bardot), and a love affair ensued. "I thought my heart would burst," Fonda said of their union. The couple moved in together and, although their lifestyles were often at odds, they married in 1965.

From then until their divorce in 1973, Fonda would find herself doing a lot against her will. Like agreeing to an open marriage — "I didn't want to be alone," she explained in her memoir, My Life So Far, writing (via Vanity Fair), "I still felt that it was my relationship with him, however painful, that validated me" — and giving her husband access to the $150,000 inheritance she received from her mother. The outlet described Vadim as "always in debt" and, as Fonda wrote in her memoir, he "could not comprehend why I hesitated to give him large portions of it so he could hire a friend to come with us to some vacation spot and work with him on a script. At first I was horrified and said so. But over time I began to feel I was being petty and stingy. So I gave in."

"Only years later did I realize that Vadim was a compulsive gambler," Fonda continued, adding, "Much of my mother's inheritance was simply gambled away."

Jane Fonda's second husband belittled and controlled her

Just three days after her divorce from Roger Vadim was finalized, Jane Fonda tied the knot again. It was 1973 and she said "I do" to American activist and politician Tom Hayden after connecting over their shared passion for activism. However, Fonda's second husband would reportedly soon prove to be a control freak and a womanizer. As the actor told The New Yorker, Hayden didn't want his family living in luxury. "I had no dishwasher. I had no washing machine," she revealed. What's more, according to the Daily Mail, she reportedly had to sell her Los Angeles home and move into a "shabby two-bedroom shack," and was forbidden from wearing her designer labels.

Hayden also pushed his wife to raise money to support his political campaigns and didn't make much of her efforts, even when she brought in millions. Creating Jane Fonda's Workout, the Barbarella star raised $17 million for Hayden, but as she confessed in her memoir (via The Guardian), her husband would often make "disparaging remarks," which she brushed off. "I would just think, 'OK, I'm vain. [But] where else would you have got $17 million?'"

Then "he fell in love with somebody, and it really devastated me," Fonda told the New Yorker. Following their 1990 divorce, Fonda confessed (via the Daily Mail) she put up with the belittlement, because she "simply didn't think my ideas or feelings were as important or credible as his."

Jane Fonda was 'eaten alive' during her third marriage

Just as Jane Fonda split from Tom Hayden, billionaire media mogul Ted Turner (the founder of CNN) entered her life. "He swept me up, which he can do so well," she recalled to The New Yorker. They married in 1991 and split in 2001, and although Fonda later said they had "a great 10 years," their union was a rocky one. 

As she shared in her 2005 memoir, My Life So Far, Turner apparently had one thing in common with her exes: infidelity. Upon learning he had been unfaithful just one month after their wedding, Fonda became so angry, she hit her new husband in the head with a telephone. Her daughter, Mary Williams, even went as far as to claim in her own 2013 memoir that her mother was "eaten alive" during the marriage.

Despite the heartbreak, it seems Turner may have been Fonda's last great love, as both have wondered what would have happened if they hadn't divorced. "It was really hard to leave," she confessed to The New Yorker. "I was 62 years old and I had no career anymore. I didn't have to work, I was being looked after. And yet I knew that, if I stayed, I was never going to become who I'm meant to be as a whole person, as a really authentic person." The film star shared a similar sentiment with British Vogue, noting she's learned that her "failing" is "that when I'm with a man, I give up myself."

Jane Fonda's biggest passion has often been mocked

In addition to her love of acting, Jane Fonda has been a proud activist for decades (she's even been repeatedly arrested), but not everyone has taken her seriously — starting with her father. Speaking with The Guardian, Fonda (who started her activism career by supporting the Black Panthers in the 1960s) revealed that her father "was the reason I became an activist," but even so, "for a while he thought I was a foolish, frivolous person." And when she joined the protests against America's involvement in the Vietnam War in the '70s, they simply weren't on the same page.

Despite Henry Fonda's apparent disapproval, public scrutiny would soon prove to be much worse. In 1972, Jane visited North Vietnam and, as TIME notes, the trip would become the "most famous — or infamous — part of her activist career." While there, Jane posed for a photo sitting atop an anti-aircraft gun, which was interpreted as her being willing to "shoot down American planes." While she apologized multiple times and wrote in her memoir that the implication of the image didn't hit her until after it was taken and that she was assured it wouldn't be published, it still garnered heavy criticism and earned her the nickname "Hanoi Jane." 

"It hurts me and it will to my grave that I made a huge, huge mistake that made a lot of people think I was against the soldiers," she told The Frederick News-Post in 2015.

Jane Fonda had a nervous breakdown on the Grace and Frankie set

Jane Fonda isn't done with acting quite yet! In 2015, she signed on to star alongside pal Lily Tomlin in a new Netflix series titled Grace and Frankie, but the script hit a little too close to home. Speaking with The Hollywood Reporter, Fonda admitted she "had a nervous breakdown during the first season," saying, "I discovered it's because the very first episode our husbands tell us that they are going to leave us after 40 years and marry each other and that triggered abandonment." Visibly getting emotional, she continued, "It was a big trigger, and I didn't realize that a character in a comedy could actually trigger something very profound."

It wasn't the first time the film legend admitted to having a "nervous breakdown." As she once told Oprah Winfrey, the same thing happened when her second marriage ended. "I needed a wheelbarrow to carry my heart: I thought it weighed 10 pounds. I thought blood was coming through my skin," Fonda explained. "I would step outside and be shocked that the sky was still blue. How could the sky still be blue when life was such pain? I couldn't believe I could hurt so bad. I couldn't speak above a whisper."

Recalling how she "just sat at home" and "wasn't living authentically," Fonda revealed that the ordeal taught her an invaluable lesson: "Don't give up. There are lessons to be learned even in the most horrendous pain. And you don't know that when you're young."