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So, Jane Fonda is a mirror of the nation’s past? At least according to the lead article in the July/August issue of American Heritage, a hitherto most worthy publication of Forbes, Inc.

There she is, decorating the cover. One half shows her as “Barbarella,” in 1968, the other looking all perky as she is today, still looking pretty good. But her looks aren’t at issue. Rather, it’s the editors’ judgment in giving her the cover and the dubious distinction of being a mirror of our nation’s past 40 years.

Now, the article by Peter Braunstein fairly accurately – if perhaps a shade too indulgently – traces the cover lady’s life. Reader reaction is pouring in it seems and, as one reader put it quite cogently: “Oh, my God! Have you people lost your minds? What snotty-nosed liberal thirty-something historical revisionist convinced the powers that be at American Heritage to put Jane Fonda on the cover? This woman should have been tried for treason or at the very least stripped of her American citizenship.”

Well, all right, maybe that’s not quite the way I’d put it, but I have to agree with the general principle. Now, curiously enough, I knew the lady back a quick 30 years. Helen Gurley Brown flew me in from Paris to do an in-depth profile of Fonda while she was making “Klute” in New York. I was around so much all hours of day and night people were taking me for her babysitter. Her two-year-old daughter, Vanessa, was with her.

I was reading over my piece today for the first time in years and find I began it at 3 in the morning with Jane thinking very earnestly. “Once you’ve had a vision …” she says, and falls back on the sofa, letting a deep, soulful breath out of her lung. “People want to love, people want to be loved. Why not allow people to reap truly the benefits of their labors, to enjoy the benefits of their labors, to enjoy themselves, to expand as human beings, to relate to each other? But in the system we have in this country today, it’s impossible to be anything but greedy and avaricious and competitive!”

From there she went on to musing how wonderful life in China was, and the re-education of prostitutes after the Cultural Revolution. “They lived in the countryside, where they lived like peasants and worked with their hands. As peasants do. And lived a very simple life.” A little later still she is talking of her commitment to pacifism. “I’m a pacifist and I would fight to the death to defend it, but I WOULD PICK UP A GUN TOMORROW … I hate violence BUT I WOULD PICK UP A GUN TOMORROW.”

I see that I noted Jane is given to ardent enthusiasms. Radical-left politics was not her first such enthusiasm. Method acting changed her, she says, completely in 24 hours. She has also been known to drop these passions from one day to the next. She was a zealous cook for a time while she and her first husband Roger Vadim had a country place outside Paris. But now, at least, at the time I was writing the article, “she eats out of the icebox.”
Which reminded me of another of her enthusiasms that the late director Louis Malle told me about when I was back in Paris, and telling him about Jane in Manhattan. Malle knew her in her sex phase. She and Vadim would have people in for a weekend in the country, and gradually people would move upstairs for some group activity. Malle said, “Group sex just isn’t my thing, so I stayed downstairs and was reading. Jane came pounding downstairs and really ordered me, ‘Louis, come on you’ve got to come upstairs with us.’” Malle persisted in his begging off, but Jane was, he reported, much irritated with him and kept badgering him for quite a while.

As for her most notorious act, going to Hanoi, being photographed at an antiaircraft gun, she says now, “That was the worst thing I ever did in my life. It’s the most stupid, na?ve thing I could have done. I will go to my grave regretting that – not going to North Vietnam, but that photograph.” Oh, going to North Vietnam was all right, but getting proof of the visit on record was not so good. Stupid, in fact.

Jane Fonda’s laments and regrets over the Vietnam incident, no matter how much she expresses sorrow and speaks of her newfound faith in God is still a far cry from the regrets that another famous actor expressed over his misguided political enthusiasm. Yves Montand and his wife Simone Signoret, who we knew fairly well in Paris, had been poster people for the old Soviet Union, supporting every Communist cause over the years, proud to be received by Soviet leaders in Moscow.

But after the Berlin Wall came down in 1989, Montand (Signoret had died by then) went on French national television at peak viewing hour to announce, “Nous etions des cons.” A fairly vernacular way of saying, “we were fools,” except “cons” is a much stronger word. He went on to detail how blind, how much of a fool he and his wife had been to have been taken in, to have let themselves be used all those years. His admission led all the French press the next day, and his popularity soared.

I’m afraid Jane Fonda has said nothing the equivalent. Had she, maybe I wouldn’t find her being held up as a mirror to our country so offensive today.

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