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I had to double-check that Jane Fonda’s first Vogue cover was 60 years ago, because it seemed impossible that someone who looks—and lives—as youthfully as she does could have possibly been a cover girl, shot by Irving Penn, in 1959. But that is in fact the case. At the time, Fonda was a relatively unknown actress and model with famous parents (her father was the actor Henry Fonda, and her mother was Canadian socialite Frances Ford Brokaw). It was a year before her first film role, Tall Story, would be just the start of one of Hollywood’s most successful and prolific careers, including Barefoot in the Park, Barbarella, 9 to 5, and Netflix’s still-running Grace and Frankie. Fonda was on the cover again this year, this time of British Vogue, at age 81—no big deal.
A conversation to mark the 60th anniversary of that first cover issue, which ran in July, seemed simple enough—but, as with most things Jane Fonda, it quickly became more interesting. What Fonda remembers about her youth, rather than the glamorous life of a Vogue girl, is the depression and darkness of a teenager without a mother (she committed suicide when Fonda was 12) and who, in her words, “saw no future.” It was before she made a name for herself in acting, but it was also more than a decade before her first foray into activism, when she became part of the anti-war movement with her now infamous trip to North Vietnam and earned the nickname “Hanoi Jane,” still a Fox News talking point.
This is the Fonda I’m most interested in—the one who visited Angela Davis in the Marin County Jail, helped fund husband Tom Hayden’s state assembly campaign in California with Jane Fonda’s Workout video sales, and whose mullet mug shot was once my Tinder profile photo (she appreciated this). Especially now that every celebrity from Lil Nas X to YouTubers are expected to have a political opinion, I wanted to know what it was like to have one—and unpopular ones—when it wasn’t chic. For Fonda, progressive causes saved her life, and she has little, if any, regrets. “Once you get that in your solar plexus, no matter what the controversy that comes your way, you’re not gonna step back. The more controversy was hurled my way, the more I dug in my heels. I don’t want to go back to meaninglessness,” she told me.
Do you remember being on set with Irving Penn and being shot by him?
For about a year when I was 19, I worked for Irving Penn as an assistant. I wasn’t an actress or anything, but he took pictures of me. But I don’t remember the Vogue shoot, no.
You’re wearing what the copy describes as “a 1st of July look that promises not to skip a beat of its charm on the way to October.”
It’s the one where I have my chin on my hand, right? And I think I’m wearing gloves.
Yes. You’re wearing lipstick-color gloves, “available at Saks Fifth Avenue.” You have a rinse in your hair called “spice brown.”
1959 was a year before your first film, Tall Story. Were you taking acting classes?
I was studying with Lee Strasberg and modeling for the Eileen Ford Agency to make money to pay for classes. I did not like to be photographed. If you had told me at that time that at age 81 I would again be on the cover of Vogue, I would’ve told you you were out of your mind, that that was completely and utterly impossible.
Because you hated it so much or because you never thought you would have such a long career?
I never thought I would have lived this long, number one. Number two, I didn’t think I was pretty at the time. So I certainly didn’t think I’d be pretty enough to be on the cover at 81 years old. Basically those two things—and I never thought I’d be famous. So between non-fame, non-beauty, and not being alive, it certainly ruled against my being on the cover.
That surprises me given your family history. You didn’t have your own dreams about being in the industry?
I had no dream. I saw no future for myself. I had no idea who I was or what I would become. And I had no ambitions. I avoided thinking about the future.
Because you didn’t have to?
No—my mother killed herself. My image of women was that they were victims and not very powerful, and my dad didn’t encourage me, or make me feel I was attractive. I mean, everything was a surprise to me. I was surprised that I got cast in a movie. I was surprised that I was ever accepted as a model at Eileen Ford’s agency and surprised that I ever ended up on the cover of Vogue. So my life has just been one big surprise for me.
Was it acting that really propelled you towards a sense of self?
No, it wasn’t. It was activism. It was more activism that that started to help me develop a sense of self. And then I brought activism into my film acting work, and so they kind of came together.
What’s the first thing that radicalized you?
American GIs who were living in Paris who had been in Vietnam, and, because of what they saw and experienced there, had become resistors, gave me a book to read by Jonathan Schell called The Village of Ben Suc. And that really opened my mind and my eyes to the reality of the Vietnam War. And that’s when I vowed to try to help end it. So it was American soldiers who were responsible for turning my my mind around.
We’re in the age of the celebrity activist now, but at the time you were taking a lot of risks.
Well, you know, a decade before, in the ’50s, with the rise of McCarthyism, there were many celebrities that stood up and risked their careers, and some lost their careers for standing up against the witch hunts of McCarthy. So it’s not like I’m the first celebrity. It was many celebrities who were very, very brave.
You faced a lot of criticism. Were you afraid?
Let me put it this way: Prior to my activism, I felt that I didn’t really know who I was or why I was on this earth. I felt that my life had no meaning, which is a terrible feeling. When the reality of the Vietnam War was brought home to me by American soldiers, it really just—it blew the top of my head off. And you know, when you really begin to understand one issue, which in that case was American imperialism, you start to see the connections with everything else. With racism, with slavery, the attempted extermination of indigenous Americans, with patriarchy. Everything starts to become connected. So while it seems that I was involved in a lot of diverse things, they’re all connected, ultimately. Once you get that in your solar plexus, no matter what the controversy that comes your way, you’re not gonna step back. The more controversy was hurled my way, the more I dug in my heels. I don’t want to go back to meaninglessness.
It sounds like I’m being glib, but you’re essentially describing what it means to be “woke.”
It is—you do feel like you’ve woken up, and it’s a great feeling because you start to understand so many things. You know, this may sound weird, but including reasons why my mother killed herself, including reasons why my father was, you know . . . it permeates every aspect of your life. And so you can be called a do-gooder for other people, but you’re also fighting for yourself. When you’re fighting against racism and genocide, you’re also fighting for yourself.
When you look back on these fights, what events stand out in your memory?
The trip to North Vietnam really changed my life in many profound and very beautiful ways. For an American to be in a country of peasants, a rural, agrarian country of fishermen, and peasants, and they were winning—I mean, that really sort of turns everything that you feel and know upside down. You suddenly start to say, Well, what is strength after all? It’s very different than what I was brought up to think it was. What is sacrifice? What does it mean that our country chose to not understand who the Vietnamese people were? I learned a huge amount during the two weeks that I was there. I also made some major mistakes that have had a profound effect on my life, but overall it was a very positive experience.
I think one of the most important things that happened to me starting at that time was to realize the value of not being alone. I became part of a movement. I was surrounded by people with shared values, people who could have been corporate executives, or anything, but they chosen to devote their lives to organizing and to trying to stop bad policies. It blew my mind to meet these people and to get to know a whole different kind of people than I had ever known before. I was just deeply, deeply grateful. These were people who, as people and the way they lived, they were giving me a preview of the kind of world we were fighting for. So no matter how much controversy there was, I always felt supported and I was part of a group, and that’s a beautiful feeling.
I used to use your mug shot as one of my Tinder photos. I thought it both turned away and attracted the right element.
Bless your heart.
After the Hanoi Jane incident, did you lose work—were you blacklisted?
I was not blacklisted. I was maybe gray-listed. There were certain states where they tried to pass resolutions saying if I came into the state, I would be arrested. Or that my films would be refused to be shown. None of them ever passed. But there was that kind of pressure that made studios think twice. But I was still hired. Of course, I turned a lot of things down because I was too busy. My life had shifted to being out there and not always visible. I would go to union meetings in Detroit with UAW organizers. I would meet with longtime movement activists. I spent a lot of time on the ground in communities that normally movie stars never go into.
What was it like, with that legacy, to be part of the Time’s Up movement last year?
I’m very grateful for the women who first stepped forward and said what had happened to them. Of course, it made front pages when they were white famous women, but it was African American women who first spoke out, most notably Anita Hill, but others as well. I think it’s great. It doesn’t matter that it’s hashtag and all that, it doesn’t matter because more and more people are aware that they can speak out and be believed and be heard. My time in the Time’s Up movement is more spent lobbying on behalf of agricultural workers and domestic workers and office workers, the women who are the most vulnerable.
Whats your biggest cause at the moment?
I continue to believe that they’re all connected. But there is an enormous cloud over everything, which is a ticking time bomb. And that is climate. Can we win back democracy? Can we end racism? Can win our basic human rights in time before the reality of climate change takes over? When Governor Jay Inslee of Washington says, “You can call me a single-issue candidate,” because he’s running on climate change, he goes on to say, but climate change is going to determine everything. Economic stability, national security, health. If climate change and the destruction of the environment and the extinction of species isn’t stopped, pandemics of disease are going to get worse. Storms and floods, fire, droughts, refugees, and war are going to get worse. So much of the economy is going to have to be funneled to undoing disasters and helping people who are desperate because of this. It’s going to be very difficult to maintain civilized society in the face of the onslaught of climate.
Have you chosen a 2020 Democratic presidential candidate?
No, I’m waiting to see. I’m watching how it unfolds. I spend my time and money and energy supporting organizations which already, right now on the ground, in key states, are working by talking to people, working-class communities, white, black, brown, who if they understand who their real allies are, will vote differently.
How much of your long life do you credit to activism?
I’d say like 85 percent. I’ve been an addict, and I had to make decisions about, Am I gonna fight this and try to get well? And the fact that I was doing important things in my life, and the fact that I had a family—but my activism played a big role in my having the wherewithal to say I’m going to stop.
Aren’t you exhausted?
I don’t feel exhausted. I feel very, very grateful. I know that the person who was on that cover in 1959 was very old. Maybe not my face, but I was very old. I saw no future. I was very negative. Whereas the cover this year, 2019, when I’m 81, I was much younger spiritually.
Originally Appeared on Vogue