The daughter of silver-screen legend Henry Fonda, Jane Fonda became a bona fide star in her own right with stellar performances in movies such as Klute and The China Syndrome. While her father certainly inspired her professionally, however, their personal relationship was much more complicated. And nothing highlighted their topsy-turvy connection more than this disturbing secret that Henry kept hidden from Jane – one that still has a profound impact on the veteran actress to this very day…
Lady Jayne Seymour Fonda, better known now as “Jane,” was born in New York City on December 21, 1937. As the daughter of acclaimed actor Henry Fonda, Jane didn’t waste time following in her father’s footsteps. Indeed, her first acting credit was alongside him in a 1954 stage production of The Country Girl.
Since then, Jane has gone on to become one of the most respected actresses in the business. Her most famous films include Barbarella, Klute, and The China Syndrome. She’s also received attention for her activism, as well as her aerobic-exercise videos.
Her father also needs little introduction. With a career in film that spanned many decades, Henry Fonda made his mark in classics such as The Grapes of Wrath and On Golden Pond. The latter earned him his first Academy Award for Best Actor in 1981.
Henry appeared in close to 90 movies throughout his career, along with numerous stage shows on Broadway. Despite his great acting talent, however, his film career was overshadowed at times by his personal life.
One thing that has often been written about Henry is that he was a womanizer. And this was an issue that plagued his family life. By the time he met Jane’s mother Frances Seymour Brokaw in 1936, Henry was already once divorced.
It didn’t stop Frances from pursuing the dapper young actor, however, and the couple soon got hitched. And it seemed Henry had finally put a stop to his lustful ways, settling down with his new wife and fathering two children with her – Peter and Jane.
Now Mrs. Fonda, Frances spent a lot of time apart from her husband due to his service during World War Two in the U.S. Navy. This three-year stint in the armed forces, along with his busy acting schedule, meant that the couple found it hard to spend time together.
However, cracks really began to show in the marriage when Frances caught wind of Henry having been unfaithful to her. Frances already had severe mental health issues due to sexual assaults and domestic abuse that she’d suffered prior to meeting Henry. And she found the prospect of her husband cheating very hard to take.
Diagnosed as bi-polar following the birth of her son Peter, Frances continued on a downwards trajectory, overwhelmed by feelings of insecurity, loneliness and depression. She would seemingly try anything to put an end to her husband’s infidelities, even having facial reconstructive work done at a time when it was still very uncommon.
But the tipping point came when Henry asked for a divorce, after becoming romantically involved with 20-year-old Susan Blanchard. The news proved too much for Frances to bear. She had a nervous breakdown as a result and ended up in a psychiatric hospital.
Tragically, she was never to recover. No longer able to cope with the sadness that filled her heart, Frances took her own life in 1950 at the age of 42. She slit her throat from ear to ear with a razor in the bathroom of the hospital that she was staying in.
And it seemed that there had been plenty of indications of her suicidal tendencies prior to Frances’ death. For instance, during a stay at a friend’s home shortly before her suicide, Frances was found staring into a mirror, entranced and muttering, “I wonder where the jugular vein is?” Sadly, her implied threat turned out not to be an idle one.
Despite new of Frances’ death circulating in the media soon after, Henry decided to hide the real cause of death from their children. He instead chose not to discuss the tragic circumstances surrounding her passing at all. In fact, Jane and Peter didn’t find out the true story until much later, when Jane was shown a magazine article about the suicide.
Speaking to the Daily Express in 2014, Peter recalled, “Jane read it in a magazine. I was told she had died of a heart attack but I didn’t know what that meant. At the time all magazines and newspapers were kept away from the house, and my mother’s name was never mentioned again.”
Jane took the news very badly, even feeling responsible for her mother’s passing. Not long before Frances’ suicide, Jane had been playing with Peter in their home. When she was called to see Frances – who was with a nurse at the time – she didn’t go. And that turned out to be the last chance that she ever had to see her mom.
Jane spoke about the incident in 2012 on Oprah’s Master Class, saying, “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.”
Dealing with such a difficult loss was hard enough, but to live with the feeling that she could have done something to prevent it made things even worse. Once Jane learned about how severe her mother’s mental issues had been, though, she began to forgive herself.
After reading through Frances’ records from the institute where she was being kept, Jane uncovered the true extent of her mother’s lengthy battle with depression. “One of the most important things that I learned is that [my mother] had been sexually abused,” she recalled. “Everything fell into place.”
“I wanted to take her in my arms and tell her how sorry I was, that I understood why it had been the way it was,” Jane said, fighting back the tears by that point in the interview. “I was able to forgive myself. It had nothing to do with me.”
Despite his reluctance to divulge the true story behind Frances’ demise, Jane maintained a relationship with her father right up until his passing in 1982. Shortly before his death, in fact, she accepted an Academy Award on his behalf, as he was too sick to collect it himself. “He used acting as a mask behind which to hide his emotions. He abhorred anything that showed his vulnerability,” Jane told The Guardian in 2016. “I adored him.”