Originally appeared in Triquarterly (2012)

In 1972 Jean-Luc Godard and Jean-Pierre Gorin made Letter to Jane, a film built largely around a single still image. If you’ve not had the pleasure, if pleasure’s the word, let me quote Pauline Kael's review in its curt entirety:

A 45-minute-long lecture demonstration that is a movie only in a marginal sense. A single news photograph appears on the screen; it is of tall Jane Fonda towering above some Vietnamese, and on the [voiceover] track Jean-Luc Godard and Jean-Pierre Gorin discuss the implications of the photograph. Their talk is didactic, condescending, and offensively inhuman.

I watched Letter to Jane more times than my family might have liked. The more I watched, the more I began to wonder: How exactly does one find oneself in Hanoi during a terrible war? Since that day in 1972, Jane Fonda has spent her life apologizing for it. But she has not been forgiven. To this day, you can purchase bumper stickers that say things like “Hanoi Jane is pro-abortion. Who’s the baby-killer now?” and the post-9/11 variant “Jihad Jane: Still a Traitor.” Recently the shopping channel QVC scotched her book-promotion segment because they were deluged with calls protesting her appearance.

Fonda made the trip to Hanoi in 1972. This was about one month after Chuck Colson, Special Counsel to the President, meets with Richard Nixon in the Oval Office, where they discuss the resumption of bombing missions over North Vietnam. Colson’s voice and the voice of the President are captured on one of hundreds of voice-activated open-reel tape recorders deployed within the White House.

Chuck Colson

COLSON: People are beginning to sense that we’re doing pretty damn well, that American casualties are down. Which they are. Nineteen Americans killed last week. They’re used to hearing about twenty-five killed in automobiles in a weekend. The war is depersonalized. As long as the reporting continues as it is, you have total freedom on this issue.

NIXON: We want to decimate that goddamn place. North Vietnam is going to get reordered. It’s about time. It’s what we should have done years ago.

One month later, July 7, 1972, a Pan Am ticket agent at JFK scans a traveler’s passport and re-reads the inscribed name: Jane Fonda Plemiannikov. The Russian-sounding name is odd, but the real names of movie stars so often were. The real surprise? Gone are the bombshell locks of Barbarella and Barefoot in the Park. This lady’s got a blunt cut, hard-edged and dark. And she’s traveling alone, without a retinue, without makeup. If not for the Swan Lake posture, you’d think she was mortal.

She’s flying to Paris, first, then to Moscow where she will board a jet to Laos and then Gia Lam, a little airport in Hanoi. Vietnam. “A thin little slip of a country,” recalls Jane Fonda in her 2005 memoir, “much like the small, thin-boned people who inhabit her.” Fonda thinks of the country as a woman, “her back nestled against Cambodia and Laos, her pregnant belly protruding into the South China Sea.”

But the flight to Paris arrived late, and now she’s running through Orly, desperate to make her connection to Moscow. She’s hefting a suitcase, her purse, a packet of mail from the families of American POWs, two cameras—one 35mm SLR and one 8mm film—and a feeling she has always had, which is that nothing ever feels the way it’s supposed to feel.

In her memoir, she wrote: “As I round the corner, I slip on the polished floor and down I go. I know immediately that I have refractured the foot I broke the previous year. Bulimics have thin bones; I’ve had a lot of breaks.”

She ices and elevates the blackening foot on the empty seat next to her. During the layover in Moscow she’s fitted with a cast and crutches, then boards an Aeroflot passenger jet to Laos, where, according to the FBI cable sent from the American embassy in Vientiane, the activist does not disembark. The plane continues on to Hanoi.

She wants to be taken seriously. Though she is aware of having undermined that cause from time to time.

Barbarella Title Sequence

Over the opening titles of Barbarella she performed the world’s first zero-G striptease. Her physical beauty in that scene, given the decades of binging and purging and ballet, is difficult for a male author of a certain wiring to be sane about. Even her hands, her fingers, are difficult to talk about without telling lies. The credit sequence was designed by Maurice Binder, who created the “gun barrel”opening of the Bond films, as well as their signature motif—weapons and typography projected onto the bodies of women.

Goldfinger Title Sequence

En route to Hanoi, Fonda experiences a wave of shame as she anticipates the need for medical attention upon arrival. One million Vietnamese dead and here comes the Oscar-winner with a gimpy foot.

She’ll need that foot. She’s going to photograph the dikes. She’s going to document the damage reported by the French but not yet confirmed by American sources. America was, or was not, bombing the earthen dams that delivered fresh water to the fertile plains of the Red River Delta. America was, or was not, trying to starve North Vietnam into surrender. Nixon had certainly explored that option that spring with the Secretary of State.

NIXON: See, the attack in the north that we have in mind—power plants, whatever’s left, petroleum, the docks. And I still think we ought to take the dikes out now. Will that drown people?

KISSINGER: About two hundred thousand people.

NIXON: No, no, no. I’d rather use the nuclear bomb. Have you got that, Henry?

KISSINGER: That, I think, would just be too much.

Nixon and Kissinger

Suddenly Fonda’s plane banks away from Hanoi. The pilot says landing will be delayed. A squadron of American planes—they count eight—is bombing the city. Fonda sees them. Phantoms. Made by McDonnel Douglas. She counts their silhouettes. Counts the black craters on the green earth. She imagines Vietnam as a woman because in her experience women are destroyed.

When Jane was eleven, her father, Henry, asked her mother for a divorce, and later took pains to note, in his authorized biography by Howard Teichmann, how agreeably she responded to the request. The following year, when Jane was twelve, her mother checked in to a sanitarium. On her 42nd birthday, Jane’s mother fatally cut her throat with a straight razor. Henry Fonda remarried within the year.‬‬‬‬‬‬

Jane would never be a victim like her mother. At least not until she got pregnant. Then she began to wonder.

Fonda writes: “A month or more into the pregnancy, I began to bleed and was told that I couldn’t leave my bed for at least a month if I wanted to prevent miscarriage. I was given Diethylstilbestrol, a drug subsequently linked to uterine cancer in daughters of mothers who’ve taken it. Then I came down with the mumps.”

She lay in bed for three months, surrounded by the cool walls of a stone farmhouse near a village outside Paris. She’d restored the property with her husband, French filmmaker Roger Vadim. Vadim—full name Roger Vladimir Plemiannikov—directed Fonda in Barbarella and subsisted on an icon-only diet, first marrying eighteen-year-old Brigitte Bardot and then siring a child with nineteen-year-old Catherine Deneuve.

Pregnant Jane passed the days watching TV, horrified, as American bombers released their payloads on villages and villagers. Maybe it was a different kind of horror on French TV, colored as it was by the fatalist shrug of those who’d already lost. She watched Americans bomb villages before dozing them flat. She was given a copy of The Village of Ben Suc, about the toll of the war on civilians and thought, “Why had I not paid more attention?”

She wrote: “I wanted to act on what I was learning and feeling but didn’t know what to do.”

She grew stronger in the second trimester. As her belly swelled she began to feel, for the first time since she was a kid, that she was normal. Her body, instead of something observed by others from a distance and herself distantly, was right there with her. As her body grew it seemed to extend itself to other women, living and dead. She heard Simone de Beauvoir speak at a rally in Paris. She felt embarrassed for her country. Had she been French maybe that would be the end of it. But she was American, no less so than Tom Joad himself.

Paris smelled like burnt rubber. It was 1968. Students had torn the cobblestones from Boulevard St. Michel and now the road was mud. Around the time rioters lit the stock market on fire, Jane was hoarding canned goods. She retreated south, rented a home by the sea. She read The Autobiography of Malcolm X while floating on an inflatable raft, her now huge belly lit by the deep Mediterranean sun, the light of Matisse.

She wrote: “Malcolm had allowed me for the first time to have a glimpse into what racism feels like to a black man. What I was not ready to acknowledge was how the black women in his life were viewed as mostly irrelevant, voiceless, subservient.”

She’d arranged for a natural birth. However, on the big day there was no buildup, no water break, just a killing pain. Vadim—the great seducer—drove her to the clinic but ran out of gas a half mile away. On the operating table someone strapped a gas mask to Jane’s head. She was unconscious when her daughter was born. She awoke, saw the baby in a bassinet, and felt herself falling back to wherever it is she was before.

And now, your years later, after finally touching down in Hanoi, Jane tries to exit the aircraft. The crutches make the steep stairway feel rigged. Her North Vietnamese hosts offer flowers but she has no free hand to accept them. That night she awakes to air raid sirens. In the morning she is taken to the hospital for x-rays. Doctors remove the Soviet-made cast, replace it with a poultice made of chrysanthemum root.

She tours the Viet Duc hospital where they study birth defects from chemical defoliants. The stuff is raining down on soldiers and civilians in the millions of gallons. It smells like ripe guava. Babies born without arms, without legs, without eyes.

Her three year-old, Vanessa, was perfect. Jane was not. She baked a birthday cake for her daughter, then dropped it on the floor. What a thing to see: exasperation on the face of a toddler. She drove Vanessa to preschool, ushered her through meals and bath-time, brushed her teeth, readied her for bed, sweated the details, managed to feel for all the world like she was never really there. She was tired. She was bulimic. Vadim would swoop in at bedtime and tell Vanessa beautiful, soaring stories.

She wrote: “I felt I just couldn’t get anything right when it came to mothering.”

She encounters so many bombs on this trip. Daisy cutters, guava bombs, pineapple bombs, spider bombs, pellet bombs, a three thousand pound “mother” bomb.

And she has this idea she’s been kicking around.

She tells her hosts, I want to speak on your radio. I want to try to tell U.S. pilots what I’m seeing here on the ground. And she does. She actually gets on the radio. Working without notes, Jane Fonda broadcasts live via Radio Hanoi. Mostly, she addresses the soldiers directly.

FONDA: All of you in the cockpits of your planes, on the aircraft carriers, those who are loading the bombs, those who are repairing the planes, those who are working on the 7th fleet, please think what you are doing. Are these people your enemy?

FONDA: I’m sure if you knew what was inside the shells that you’re dropping, you would ask yourself as, as I have been doing for the last few days since I have seen the victims: what do the men who work for Honeywell and the other companies in the United States that invent and, and, and make these weapons—what do they think in the morning, at breakfast? What do they dream about when they sleep at night?

FONDA: One of the worst things that has taken place in the United States, I believe, is that we are cut off from other peoples around the world. We are—we are made to—to lack respect for other peoples. Particularly people who are not white.

A former agent for the CIA would later testify before a House Committee on Internal Security that Jane Fonda’s broadcast is so concise and professional a job that he doubted she wrote it herself. She had to have been working on it with the enemy. Her movements and utterances disclose skilled indoctrination—a brainwashed mind…. It was later decided that Fonda, happily, would not be tried for treason.

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