As a titan of the silver screen, Henry Fonda seemed to have it all. Nicknamed “One-Take Fonda” for his natural talents and charm in front of the camera, his life behind the lens was equally glamorous, with a new woman on his arm nearly every week. Sadly, however, the truth about this Hollywood golden boy is much darker than his “perfect” life seemed.
Henry Fonda Facts
1. He Had A Strange Childhood
Henry Fonda’s childhood was downright bizarre. Born in 1905 in Nebraska, Fonda’s parents were strict Christian Scientists. This meant the entire family didn’t believe in doctors, and instead they learned to rely only on themselves for health matters and most other problems. This wasn’t the best environment for young Henry, and the signs started to show early.
2. He Was A Bashful Boy
As a pre-pubescent boy, Fonda’s “awkward stage” was worse than most. Not only was he short for his age, he was horribly shy—after all, his sheltered upbringing hadn’t given him a lot of practice in talking to strangers. He could barely look at a girl unless it was one of his sisters, and he learned to lock his emotions inside. As we’ll see, this would have devastating consequences for Fonda later on.
3. He Got A Big Break
The early years of Fonda’s life were taken up with all-American pursuits like sports, helping his father at his print plant, and majoring in journalism at the University of Minnesota. Then everything changed. By the time he was in his early 20s, Fonda had shot up to a strapping six feet tall, and the burgeoning hunk joined the Omaha Community Playhouse.
He didn’t know it at the time, but this marked the beginning of the rest of his life.
4. He Had An Early Obsession
The Omaha Community Playhouse was where Fonda made his name, and for good reason. Dodie Brando, the mother of legendary actor Marlon Brando, was the one who got Fonda to audition, and he took to the stage like a duck to water. Soon, Fonda became obsessive about everything in the theater, from set construction to stage production. But there was one big problem…
5. He Was Full Of Self-Loathing
It was clear from the get-go that Fonda had talent to spare, yet there was a dark side to his talent. He was completely embarrassed by his own acting chops, and the only way he could get through a performance was by throwing himself into the character to hide “behind a mask”. If that sounds like an unhealthy habit, well, it certainly was.
6. He Knew He Was Destined For Greatness
Embarrassment or not, Fonda knew he could be a star, and he wasn’t going to let his talent go to waste. In 1928 he struck out further into the world of the stage, taking up with the well-respected University Players on the East Coast and racking up some bona fide professional roles. And as his star ascended, his personal life started heating up too…
7. He Fell Head Over Heels
While working for University Players, Fonda met the spitfire actress Margaret Sullavan, who would later become famous herself in Hollywood. It was a date with destiny. No longer the awkward teenage boy, Fonda fell in love with and wooed Sullavan, proposing to her shortly after. Still, the course of passion never did run smooth.
8. He Had A Christmas Miracle
Fonda and Sullavan were young and in love, and they showed their affection with romantic grand gestures. The pair even decided to officially tie the knot on Christmas Day in 1931, with Sullavan barely in her 20s and Fonda only 26 years old. Unfortunately, the chic couple were also young and dumb, and the seams came apart quickly.
9. He Could Be Cruel
Where Fonda had spent his life learning how to keep his emotions hidden, Sullavan was a notorious hot-head. Surprise, surprise: They clashed horrifically. On one occasion, Sullavan refused to chip in for some 4th of July fireworks. Fonda, ticked off, complained passive-aggressively to another actor in front of her—and Sullavan’s response was nothing short of explosive.
10. His Wife Put Him In His Place
Without a moment’s hesitation, Sullavan got up from the dinner table she had been eating at, grabbed a pitcher of ice water, and dumped the ewer all over Henry Fonda’s beautiful head. True to his repressed upbringing, Fonda didn’t even make a sound. He just walked out, while Sullavan, now satisfied, plopped back down at the table and continued eating. Is it any wonder these two were doomed?
11. He Had A Quickie Marriage
Fonda and Sullavan tried their best to make it work, even moving to New York City to be together and look for work. Still, they met an embarrassing end. For all their efforts, they were only together for a paltry two months, separating before the honeymoon period was even over in early 1932. Oh, and it doesn’t look like Fonda learned his lesson from failed marriage number one over.
If anything, the end of his time with Sullavan kick-started the most scandalous period of his life.
12. He Became A Ladies’ Man
Without the feisty Sullavan around, Fonda was single and ready to mingle—and he had just the wingman for the job. Soon after the split, Fonda became roommates with yet another future star, fellow small-town boy Jimmy Stewart. The actors became fast, close friends…and also developed a reputation around town as lady-killers.
Soon enough, they took their act all the way to the top.
13. He Was The Hottest Star In Hollywood
From then on, wherever Henry went, Jimmy followed, and they both moved to Hollywood in 1935. It changed Fonda’s life forever: Where in New York he had been scraping together pennies, in Tinseltown he landed a leading role in The Farmer Takes a Wife. Soon he and Stewart were wining and dining starlet Carole Lombard and living beside Greta Garbo.
14. He Had A Type
In 1936, Fonda jumped right back into marriage, now with the glamorous but fragile socialite Frances Ford Seymour Brokaw. This was…not the best idea. Brokaw was a recent widow and was still reeling from the loss of her husband. Once more, the emotionally unavailable Ford had hitched himself to a woman boiling over with anger and pain…and this time he wouldn’t get off so easy.
15. His Children Were Famous
Despite this fundamental mismatch, Fonda was determined to become an honest family man, at least at first. He and Brokaw had two children together, the future actors Jane Fonda and Peter Fonda, and Henry even interrupted his shooting schedule on his acclaimed film Jezebel to be at Jane’s birth in 1937. He tried his best in other ways, too, but as we’ll see, things didn’t go according to plan.
16. He Landed A Star-Making Role
Over the next few, heady years, Fonda turned from promising upstart to Hollywood heavyweight. By the time he landed the 1940 classic The Grapes of Wrath—a role he had to elbow his way into over the more established star Tyrone Power—he had officially Made It, earning an Oscar nomination in the process. Then it all came crashing down.
17. He Abandoned His Family
In the early 1940s, WWII was ravaging Europe, and even the brightest stars in Hollywood couldn’t ignore it, least of all the honor-bound Fonda. Without much of a second thought, he left both California and his young family for the Forces. As Fonda snapped about his decision, “I don’t want to be in a fake war in a studio”. Sadly, though, he had so much to lose.
18. He Had A Terrifying Temper
When Fonda came back from the horrors of WWII, he hadn’t so much changed as crystallized into a hardened, distant man. His family got it worst of all. Fonda had extreme difficulty expressing his emotions, and whenever he felt his wife or children were demanding feelings from him, he would have terrifying “outbursts of anger” that reverberated through the house. And that wasn’t all.
19. He Wouldn’t Say “I Love You”
Fonda did a number on both his children in incredibly awful ways. While Peter Fonda claimed his father never said “I love you” or heard it back until Henry was elderly, Jane admitted that her father instilled in her the idea that, “Unless you look perfect, you’re not going to be loved”. So, yeah, he wasn’t the best father…but he was an even worse husband.
20. He Betrayed His Wife
Fonda was deeply unhappy in his marriage with Frances Brokaw, who, it became clear, was suffering from bi-polar disorder. It pushed him into the ultimate betrayal. Fonda was unfaithful, carrying on a long-term affair with society girl Susan Blanchard, a hot young thing who was two decades younger than him. And still, that wasn’t good enough for him…
21. He Committed A Cruel Act
In 1949, after 13 miserable years and two children together, Fonda approached Brokaw and told her he wanted a divorce. Never one for empathy, he then dug the knife in more. He admitted to her that he wanted to split because he wanted to be free to marry his mistress Susan. Ouch, Henry. His poor wife’s reaction was beyond tragic.
22. He Drove His Wife To An Asylum
Less than six months later, Brokaw was so distraught about the end of her marriage and her husband’s infidelity, she checked herself into the Austen Riggs Psychiatric Hospital for treatment for her depression. For months, Fonda’s wife tried to process the pain her cruel ex-husband had dealt her. Sadly, her suffering had only begun.
23. The Mother Of His Children Met A Tragic End
On April 14, 1950, just 10 days after she turned 42, Frances Ford Seymour took her life while still receiving treatment for her mental illness. Fonda must have been devastated at the horrific news, as well as what it meant for his young family—but all the same, his response to the tragedy has lived in infamy ever since.
24. He Lied To His Family
When Frances passed, Fonda’s children Jane and Peter were only 12 and 10 years old. Thinking he was protecting them, Fonda told them a horrific lie. Instead of admitting the true circumstances of their mother’s passing, Fonda claimed she had died from heart failure. Maybe that’s forgivable, but his next actions sure weren’t.
25. He Gave His Wife A Cruel Goodbye
Fonda was a man who did nothing by halves, and he took his dishonesty about Frances to the next level. Likely afraid of any “unnecessary” outpourings of emotion, Fonda didn’t even let his own children go to their mother’s funeral, instead putting on a hasty affair with just himself and his mother-in-law in attendance. Oh, but that wasn’t all.
26. He Controlled His Children
Fonda’s final turn of the screw was a doozy. In order to completely hide the truth from his children, he cancelled all newspaper and magazine subscriptions to their house, lest they stumble across a story about it. Despite Fonda’s efforts, he couldn’t hide the truth. Young Jane found out about her own mother’s tragic end while thumbing through a magazine in a study hall.
As we’ll see, however, there was still one bitter coda to Brokaw’s story—contained in her final letters.
27. He Married His Mistress
All this turmoil might have made Fonda think twice about his choices, but…it didn’t. Less than a year after his second wife’s passing, Fonda did what he was planning to do the entire time, and married his 21-year-old mistress Susan Blanchard. As a sign of his devotion, the couple even adopted a daughter named Amy Fishman three years later. Unfortunately for young Amy, that’s when the fractures began to show.
28. He Had Impossibly High Standards
Later on, Fonda’s third wife made some disturbing accusations about her cruel husband. Although she was young and often felt hemmed in by the seriousness of marriage and motherhood, there were much deeper problems in the union, too. She claimed Fonda expected her to be a “geisha,” always perfect and always making sure nothing unpleasant would interrupt his life.
Soon after it began, the clock was already ticking on Fonda’s third disastrous romance. But his life was about to fall apart professionally, too.
29. He Had A Famous Collaborator
In 1955, Fonda found himself in the middle of a violent and heartbreaking feud. For decades, he had worked with famed Western director John Ford on scores of classic films, including 1946’s My Darling Clementine, and had developed a close friendship with him. That year, he was starring in Ford’s upcoming WWII film Mister Roberts, and it was all set to be a grand old time—until it wasn’t…
30. A Director Sucker-Punched Him
Almost from the first days of filming, it was clear that Ford was out for blood. The aging director clashed with Fonda’s co-star James Cagney, who later called him “truly a nasty old man,” and it wasn’t long before Ford turned his ire on his long-term pal Fonda. In a now infamous altercation, Ford got so incensed he actually punched Fonda in the mouth.
There was no going back after that: Fonda dropped Ford as a friend and collaborator from then on, even after Ford apologized. Once you lose Henry Fonda, you never get him back.
31. He Romanced A Baroness
In 1956, just three years after they adopted a child, Ford and his third wife Susan Blanchard were officially over, and Fonda was fully into mid-life crisis mode. Months later, he married again, this time to a beautiful Italian noble, the Baroness Afdera Franchetti, which is just about the most classic “fourth wife” name you could ever come up with.
32. His Best Friend Became His Enemy
As the 1960s approached, Fonda almost lost the best friend he ever had. He and Jimmy Stewart had remained bosom buddies through thick and thin, but disaster was on the horizon. While Stewart was a staunch Republican, Fonda was a committed Democrat, and the decade was rife with political tension just waiting to set them off. Well, set them off it did.
33. He Almost Had A Brutal Falling Out
One day, Fonda and Stewart got into a massive, emotional argument about politics that matched any of his rows with Margaret Sullavan. It was so horrific, it nearly ended their friendship, which had already seen so much. The two actors only barely managed to patch things up, and even then they swore never to discuss politics again with each other.
But even this blow-up wasn’t the most messed up part of Fonda and Stewart’s friendship…
34. His Friend Betrayed Him
After Fonda’s ex-wife Margaret Sullavan passed in 1960, her daughter Brooke wrote a tell-all memoir that revealed what really happened during Sullavan’s marriage to Fonda. Everyone suspected that Fonda’s good friend Jimmy Stewart had a thing for Margaret Sullavan, but Brooke revealed that Sullavan reciprocated his feelings. She claimed that her mother had a year-long affair with Stewart…while she was still married to Fonda.
35. There Was One Thing He Swore Never To Do Again
Fonda’s most famous role today is probably his turn as “Juror 8” in 12 Angry Men, the man who passionately convinces everyone to vote “not guilty”. The movie is an absolute legend today, but few know its embarrassing history. It was a flop when it came out and Fonda, who was also the film’s producer, swore he’d never be an executive again.
36. He Collapsed On Stage
By the 1970s, Fonda was in his late 60s, and still at his work harder than ever. Actually, he was working too hard, and it came back to bite him. In 1974, he was performing in a play when he suddenly collapsed from exhaustion. But did this stop him? Nah. The old battleaxe got a pacemaker installed and returned to the play the next year.
37. His Daughter Gave Him A Heartbreaking Gift
As Fonda became elderly, his daughter Jane bought the film rights to Ernest Thompson’s play On Golden Pond. The reason behind this move was heartbreaking. Jane thought the play, which outlines the relationship between an emotionally distant father to his daughter, was the perfect way for her and her father to work out some of their own issues. One heartbreaking moment on set proved her right.
38. His Emotions Finally Broke Through
During a scene where Jane’s character tells Henry’s character that she wants to be friends, one tiny detail nearly made the notoriously stoic Henry Fonda break down. In the take that appears in the film, Jane Fonda decided to grab her father’s hand. Her gesture was so emotional that Fonda turned away in an attempt to hide his tears. See? Underneath his cold exterior, Henry Fonda did have a heart.
39. He Had One Final Blockbuster
On Golden Pond became a blockbuster, earning millions of dollars as well as snagging a handful of Oscar nomination, including a nod was for Henry Fonda himself. Finally, in 1982, he actually won the golden statuette—his first ever Oscar win. It was an incredibly special moment for an actor who had spent a lifetime making a name for himself in Hollywood. Yet even so, this triumphant evening was tainted with bittersweet tragedy.
40. He Missed His Big Day
By the time the Academy Awards rolled around that year, the aging and ailing Fonda was too sick to attend the ceremony. Instead, his daughter gave him a gut-wrenching tribute. Jane made her way up on the stage on behalf on her father, saying, “I’ll bet when he heard it just now, he said ‘Hey ain’t I lucky?'” As if luck had anything to do with it.
41. He Had No Method
When Fonda’s daughter Jane decided she wanted to get into acting, she asked her father for advice on his own methods. The legend’s answer was surprising. He got prickly about the entire idea of breaking down his thought processes and emotions, snapping, “I don’t know, I stand there, I think about my wife, I don’t know”.
42. His Marriage Fell Apart…Again
The ladies may have adored Henry Fonda, but he was still supremely unlucky in love. In 1961, his marriage to the Italian baroness Afdera Franchetti also went kaput. Still, he gave it one more try in 1965, entering into his fifth marriage with Shirlee Mae Adams, another girl decades younger than him. This time, it stuck, and they were together until the end of his days.
43. He Almost Missed Out On A Huge Role
As Fonda turned into something of a veteran in Hollywood, his career only started to heat up. To this day, one of his most famous roles is as the villain “Frank” in the Sergio Leone classic Once Upon a Time in the West. But Fonda almost missed his chance. He initially turned down the part, until Leone flew all the way from Italy to the States to convince him.
44. He Had Bad Instincts
Although Fonda’s work as “Frank” in Once Upon a Time in the West is now a template for big baddies everywhere, it could have been much different. In order to play the villain, Fonda had brought brown contact lenses to set to hide his world-famous blue eyes and make him look less innocent. It was Leone who rightly convinced the actor that the contrast between this horrible man and those baby blues would be electrifying.
45. He Turned Down A Famous Part
Everyone loves a good tale of Hollywood sliding doors, but Henry Fonda has an enormous one. In the 1960s, spaghetti Western director Sergio Leone wanted Fonda to play The Man with No Name in his upcoming Dollars Trilogy, which includes the classic film The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. The actor refused, and the part went to Clint Eastwood instead.
46. He Got A Disturbing Gift
Fonda’s marriages and affairs were super messy, but they had nothing on some of the dalliances he turned down. While filming 1947’s Daisy Kenyon with Joan Crawford, Fonda’s co-star fell into uncontrollable lust with him, and she wasn’t shy about showing it. Get this: Crawford got the costume department to create a custom, red-sequinned jock strap, which she then presented to the star in a gift box.
Oh, but things got more awkward than that before they were through.
47. His Co-Star Tried To Seduce Him
Being the “strong, silent” type, Fonda initially didn’t even acknowledge Crawford’s racy gift, so Crawford had to get creative. While they were doing a scene together where Fonda carried her up some stairs, she leaned in and asked him to model the underwear for her in private. As Fonda said, “When she whispered the invitation, I nearly dropped her”.
48. His Wife Gave Him One Final Insult
When the dust settled on Brokaw’s passing, the disturbed woman still managed to haunt Fonda. Before her passing, she had written no fewer than six goodbye letters to the loved ones in her life. But there was one bitter omission. She hadn’t written a single thing to Fonda himself. And Brokaw’s therapist at the asylum thought she knew why…
49. He Was “A Complete Narcissist”
Therapists are supposed to be objective, but apparently not when it comes to Henry Fonda. Brokaw’s doctor got an incredibly chilling portrait of the actor through his late wife’s final sessions. Years later, the psychiatrist confessed that in her medical opinion, Fonda was “a cold, self-absorbed person, [and] a complete narcissist”. Ouch.
50. He Had One Last Wish
As it turned out, Fonda had precious little time left after his landmark Oscar win. On August 12, 1982, the silver screen great passed at his home, surrounded by his children Jane and Peter as well as his current wife Shirlee. True to his no-frills form, Fonda’s last wish was that there be absolutely no funeral service.