Henry Fonda (born this day, 1906):
“I’ve been close to Bette Davis for 38 years and I have the cigarette burns to prove it.“
Henry Fonda had a 50-year career mostly playing passionate, principled men. He made his Hollywood debut in 1935, and his career gained momentum after his Academy Award-nominated performance as Tom Joad in The Grapes Of Wrath (1940), an adaptation of John Steinbeck‘s classic novel about an Oklahoma family who moved west during the Dust Bowl.
Fonda cultivated a strong, appealing screen image in such classy classics as The Ox-Bow Incident (1943), Mister Roberts (1955), and 12 Angry Men (1957). As he got older Fonda moved both toward darker roles such as Sergio Leone‘s Once Upon A Time In The West (1968) and lighter roles in comedies such as Yours, Mine And Ours (1968) with Lucille Ball. He won an Oscar for On Golden Pond (1981), his final film.
Fonda was the patriarch of a fabulous family of famous actors: daughter Jane Fonda, son Peter Fonda, granddaughter Bridget Fonda, and hunky grandson Troy Garity. His family and close friends called him “Hank”.
But the man behind the movie star persona was very different, leading to complicated relationships with his children and a tumultuous romantic history. Fonda was married five times, but rarely spoke about his relationships.
Fonda was born in Grand Island, Nebraska. He improbably launched his acting career in Omaha as a teenager at the Omaha Community Playhouse, at the recommendation of Dodie Brando, the mother of Marlon Brando, she probably knew potential acting talent when she saw it. At 21 years old, he started getting work in summer stock, joining the University Players. James Stewart joined the University Players a few months after Fonda left, though they were soon to become lifelong friends. It was there he met his first wife, Margaret Sullavan (born his day,1909). They married in 1931, but soon separated, then divorcing in 1933.
In 1936, Fonda married Frances Ford Seymour Brokaw, the widow of a wealthy industrialist, George Tuttle Brokaw. They met at Denham Studios in England on the set of Wings Of The Morning, the first British picture to be filmed in Technicolor. They had two children, Jane and Peter, you may have heard of them. During the marriage, Fonda served in the U.S. Navy for three years in World War II and was awarded the Bronze Star.
Between Fonda’s acting career and his Navy service, the couple spent much time apart. But other factors played a role in their unhappy union. Jane’s father could be cold and a bully, a shameless adulterer, and too young to understand his wife’s mental illness. According to Jane Fonda: The Private Life Of A Public Woman (2011) by Patricia Bosworth, Jane Fonda blames her manic depressive mother for the break-up of her parents’ marriage.
In 1949, Fonda announced to Frances that he wanted a divorce so he could remarry; their 13 years of marriage had not been happy ones. Devastated by Fonda’s confession, and plagued by emotional problems for many years, Frances went into the Austen Riggs Psychiatric Hospital in January 1950 for treatment. Four months later, at 42 years old, she killed herself by slitting her throat with a stolen razor. Fonda refused to discuss her suicide with his children, who didn’t learn the truth for years. Before her death, she had written six notes to various individuals, but left no final message for her husband.
Fonda quickly arranged a private funeral with only himself and his mother-in-law in attendance. Years later, Dr. Margaret Gibson, the psychiatrist who had treated Frances, described Fonda as “a cold, self-absorbed person”.
Less than a year later, Fonda married Susan Blanchard, with whom he had been having an affair since sometime in 1948. She was 21 years old, the daughter of interior designer Dorothy Hammerstein, and the stepdaughter of Oscar Hammerstein II. Blanchard was in awe of Fonda, and she described her role in the marriage as “a geisha”, doing everything she could to please him, dealing with and solving problems he would not acknowledge. But five years together was enough, and they agreed to divorce in 1956. Peter Fonda:
“We were living in Rome and she came down to breakfast and told us. I was devastated and cried and she said, ‘I’m young, I want to dance and tell jokes. I need to cut loose’. And I knew exactly what she meant.”
In 1957, Fonda married the Italian baroness Afdera Franchetti. Their mutual friend Audrey Hepburn introduced the two while she and Fonda were in Italy filming War And Peace. Franchetti and Fonda divorced four years later.
In 1965, Fonda married Shirlee Mae Adams (born in 1932), a flight attendant, and he remained with her until his final credits rolled in 1982.
Fonda loathed displays of feeling in himself or others, and this was a consistent part of his character. Whenever he felt that his emotional wall was being breached, he had outbursts of anger, exhibiting a furious temper that terrified his family. In Peter Fonda’s memoir Don’t Tell Dad (1998), he writes how he was never sure how his father felt about him. Peter finally heard, “I love you, son…”, right before his father died. Jane had a hard time dealing with her father’s friendships with Republican actors such as John Wayne and Stewart. Their relationship became extremely strained as Jane became a left-wing activist.
Fonda’s relationship with Stewart survived their disagreements over politics; Fonda was a liberal Democrat, and Stewart a very conservative Republican. After a heated argument, they avoided talking politics with each other. Fonda and Stewart starred together in the western The Cheyenne Social Club (1970), where they humorously argued politics.
In 1960, Fonda appeared in a campaign commercial for presidential candidate John F. Kennedy. The ad focused on Kennedy’s naval service during World War II, focusing on the famous PT-109 incident.
“Acting in the movies is just like ditch-digging. I hate making pictures! And, I don’t like Hollywood any better. I detest the limelight and love simplicity, and in Hollywood the only thing that matters is the hullabaloo of fame. If Hollywood will let me alone to find my way without forcing me and rushing me into things, I probably will change my feelings about it. But at present Hollywood seems utterly horrible and interfering and consuming. Which is why I want to leave it as soon as I am able.“
Lovely Sullavan, with her distinctive husky voice, preferred working on the stage to screen. She made only 16 films, four opposite Stewart. She was nominated for an Academy Award for Three Comrades (1938).
Sullavan had four marriages; three of them were especially tumultuous: Fonda, director William Wyler, and agent Leland Hayward.
Unknown to her fans and most people the showbiz, Sullavan suffered from lifelong hearing problems and was slowly going deaf during the height of her career. Sullavan experienced dreadful, serious depression all of her adult life. On January 1, 1960, Sullavan died of an overdose of barbiturates, thought to be a suicide, but ruled accidental by the medical examiner. She was just 50-years-old.
She and Stewart had a special kind of magic as a screen duo. They were simply electric together, bringing out the best qualities in each other’s personas. The Shop Around The Corner (1940) is their best work together and individually. It is my Christmas film.
Sullavan is sort of responsible for Stewart’s career in films. He had been brought to Hollywood and screen-tested at her insistence. She worked with Stewart to coach him out of his natural shyness and awkwardness. Both Wyler and Hayward had assumed that Stewart and Sullavan were madly in love.
Sullavan was quite temperamental, famous for her blow-ups on the set. She more or less killed director Sam Wood. In 1944, Wood founded the Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals, which lobbied the House Un-American Activities Committee to examine Communist elements in Hollywood, which they did in 1947. Wood had a black notebook in which he wrote the names of those he considered subversive. After a heated argument with Sullavan about the anti-Communist Hollywood blacklist, a cowering Wood dropped dead of a heart attack on the set. MGM studio chief Louis B. Mayer was scared of her. She could out bully him.
I learned about Sullavan from a terrific memoir, Haywire (1976) by her daughter, Brooke Hayward. Hayward had a harrowing childhood, made especially difficult by her mother’s mental illness. Two of Sullavan’s three children, William and Bridget Hayward eventually killed themselves. Haywire was made into a good television film in 1980. It stars Jason Robards as Leland Hayward and Lee Remick as Sullavan. Peter Fonda, was in love with Bridget Hayward. He named his own daughter, Bridget Fonda, in her honor.
In a crazy coincidence, Henry Fonda and Sullavan share a birthday. Their marriage only lasted a year, so they probably never shared birthday cake together.