Henry Fonda, Daddy Dearest?

Steven Lewis posted 03/12/1998 08:35 PM Central Time (US)    E-mail contact the author directly
DON'T TELL DAD by Peter Fonda (1998 HYPERION)

As he makes clear in his new autobiography, Don't Tell Dad, which will be published by Hyperion next month, the real struggles in the Fonda family always took place offstage, where his father's strictness and emotional reserve drove a painful wedge between father and son.

The second of two children born to Henry and Frances Seymour Fonda, Peter soon learned that having glamorous parents and luxurious homes in Los Angeles and suburban Connecticut didn't mean having a storybook childhood. While moviegoers the world over knew his father as the archetypal decent man, Peter Fonda knew him as a forbidding figure who sent him to boarding school when he was 6 years old and responded to his mother's 1950 suicide by ignoring it. For years, Fonda feared he might never crack his father's starchy exterior.

During the war, the elder Fonda returned to visit his family. The night he came back, we gathered in the living room and listened to many stories. After a while, I wandered off to his dressing room to look at the little things that were his "personals." After looking at his watch and dog tags, I reached into a large bowl that was full of pennies and little candies, took a candy and went back to the living room. I climbed onto the couch next to him, and he noticed I was sucking on the candy. He asked me where I got it, but the look on his face and the tone in his voice were terrifying. I told him I had just found it. He bellowed that I was a liar. I jumped off the couch and ran for my life with Dad in hot pursuit. I made it into my bathroom, locking the door, but then Dad kicked the door in. He picked me up by my small, terrified neck and carried me into my bedroom, giving me the spanking of my life.

Peter didn't understand the significance of his mother's frequent visits to the hospital, and when he found the house crowded with friends and relatives one afternoon, had no reason to suspect anything was amiss.

When I walked toward them they told me to go through the closed doors and into the living room. I opened the doors and saw Jane, Grandma and Dad sitting on the couches. Jane was on Dad's lap. I went to Grandma, and she told me Mother had died of a heart attack, in a hospital. After that, no one ever talked about Mom. No one seemed to miss her. It was almost as if she had never lived. Jane and I never went to a funeral or service for her; I didn't know where she was buried.

I think my family had a peculiar bent to privacy, and the strictness with which Aunt Harriet and Dad and Aunt Jayne had been brought up prevented them from getting close to their own children, or to their own inner selves. Dad was never one to open up. Dad was too shy, too intensely private, to truly expose the part of his history that mattered to him.

His father had been keeping a secret; Peter, then 20, learned it when he apprenticed in a summer stock theater in Fishkill, N.Y., in the summer of 1960. The owner of the local diner, a man with whom I'd chatted all summer, sat down next to me at the bar. He pulled out his wallet and removed a yellowed newspaper clipping. My eyes were perfect in those days, and I saw the same photograph of my mother that had been in The New York Times for my birth announcement, but the copy was very different: Frances Seymour Fonda, wife of the actor Henry Fonda, committed suicide yesterday at the Craig House, a posh asylum in Beacon, New York.

I was stunned. I sat there for two or three minutes, speechless. I sped off to the theater, my tires making a wailing and moaning sound that was close to the noise banging around in my head. Everyone else knew. Knew everything! But not me.

Eventually, I learned that our mother had killed herself by cutting her throat from ear to ear with a razor, one she'd apparently secreted behind a photo of her children during her last visit home.

Peter Fonda posted 06/09/03 03:56 PM Central Time (US)    E-mail contact the author directly
Actually my father was a fan of Bing Crosby, as well as Al Jolson and the LP's of Marlene Dietrich. My father always said that he had been invited to appear on Bing's Philco radio show, but then was otherwise engaged in WWII. I remember an incident from circa 1947 when dad's friend, Jimmy Stewart, came over to the house and helped fashion a wooden shed. Both were handy with tools and enjoyed making things. The LP spinning around had Bing singing one of his Irish songs, I believe, "Too Ra Loo Ra Loo Ral."
Ben Weaver posted 06/10/03 12:41 AM Central Time (US)    E-mail contact the author directly
Nice to hear from you Peter. I think Bing was a big fan of your father's as well. Your father appeared with Bing on the Kraft Music Hall program three times [July 7th.1938 ,October 27th.1938 and February 23rd.1939] and once on the Philco Radio Time program [May 12th.1948].
Lars posted 06/10/03 04:38 AM Central Time (US)    E-mail contact the author directly
I've always liked Henry Fonda. He's certainly the kind of actor you would never catch overacting. I guess the KMH appearances Fonda made are among the lost ones? I've never heard any of them. The Philco show must be around though. (I do have a Martin and Lewis show where Fonda was the guest but I can't remember if he actually sang anything on this show.) It would be fun if he sang with Bing. Like Stewart did on "Mississippi Mud" when he was Bing's guest. Even though I would hardly count Henry Fonda or Jimmy Stewart among the great singers they made it work on the song "Rolling stone" in the movie "Cheyenne Social Club" (released by BEAR FAMILY on CD recently). At least they certainly had better singing voices than John Wayne. I think even I have a better singing voice than Wayne had! It reminds me of the Dean Martin TV show where Wayne as a joke sings with Sinatra's voice.

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