Friday, September 23, 2016

Grace Under Fire

One of the ways I clear my mind is by reading biographies and autobiographies. I follow up my readings by watching movies, YouTube videos, and articles about the individual, supplementing further with documentaries, concerts, and PBS specials. Over the years I found out everything I wanted to know about Janis Joplin, Katharine Hepburn, Judy Collins, James Taylor, Carole King, Joni Mitchell, Steve Martin, Bob Dylan, Diane Keaton, Jerry Seinfeld, Carol Burnett, and countless other musicians, comedians, and actors.
Jane Fonda was a notorious protester of the Vietnam War, and her political style angered Vietnam veterans, who were hearing from many activists that their fighting in Vietnam was senseless at a time when they needed desperately to find some meaning in their experiences. During a tour of North Vietnam, Jane was photographed sitting on an NVA (North Vietnamese Army) anti-aircraft gun, which I don’t think was intentional.  Fonda, referred to from then on as “Hanoi Jane,” expressed regret for having that picture taken, and for the pain that her action caused many American veterans, but it was hard for her to shake the negative impact that her political style had on her public image. I suppose that’s one reason people write biographies – to be understood, especially when they believe they have been mis-understood.
I had personally been touched by that war, as my uncle Mike returned home with PTSD in his mid twenties, followed by a stroke around the age of 30. In an appeal process I undertook a few years after Mike was denied Agent Orange benefits, I proved that Mike had indeed been exposed to Agent Orange in Vietnam, which allowed him to receive additional governmental compensation. For the remainder of his life, Mike spoke only one word at a time, and walked with a cane. His politics were very different than mine, but he lived his life as a gentle man and a proud veteran, passing away at the age of 71.
I finished Fonda’s autobiography, My Life So Far, on a Sunday in 2006, and had it fresh in my mind when Noam arrived at work the next Tuesday.  I wanted to know what he felt about her.  Part of me was hoping that he would insist that the media had beefed up this and other stories about Fonda to distract from the real issue - the war.
I followed Noam into his office and waited for him to put down his briefcases. “Noam,” I said, trying to search for the right words, finally just getting my thought out, “I read Jane Fonda’s autobiography, and I was wondering about her unpopularity, which I thought might be based on false assumptions. Wasn’t she well-intended, if not misguided?”
I was tickled, but not surprised when Noam turned toward the doorway where I was standing, and said, “I’ll tell you about my experience with Jane Fonda.”   
There have been literally hundreds of times when I wanted to point a magical pause button at Noam and stop time for long enough to pull out a microphone, grab a bag of very lightly salted (high blood pressure) popcorn, prop my feet up on a chair, press the button, and give him the go ahead wave.
But having neither a pause button nor popcorn, I perked up my ears and prayed to the Gods of Good Memory that I would be worthy of what I was about to receive.  I wanted to take in and remember every word.
He told me that during the Vietnam War Jane invited him to a rally she was organizing in New York City.  Although Noam was heavily involved in Vietnam War protests, he initially refused, since he planned to be out of town until the night before, but Fonda managed to talk him into flying into New York on his way home.  
He said that she was impatient with the paparazzi at the airport.  I imagined she was already burned out by the bad press she had received, and by strong criticism from the public.
Later, I asked him to fill in the blanks from his story – and this time I took notes.
He said it was a fundraiser for the antiwar movement.  She insisted that he fly out first-class. “I flew back on my own, economy -- I was more spry in those days.” It was held in some extremely elegant ballroom, filled with people he was told were very famous.  “I actually recognized one face: an actor in some children's show that we watched with the kids, maybe ‘I Dream of Jeannie,’ or something like that.  Comical to see the face there in the crowd.”  There was a panel, and each of them talked for about ten minutes while the audience waited for the main show.  Then the real affair started, he said. “People standing up and announcing: ‘I'm Phil Ochs’ [or whomever], huge applause.  And so on.  And yes, I couldn't stand it so left in the middle without telling anyone.  I suppose they thought I was going to the men's room.”
Noam never was one for what he perceives as self-promotion. In the end, he never really answered my question about Jane, and I decided to put it all on hold for a while.  Plus, my obsession with Jane was ebbing, and I was moving onto another biography.
But lately the question started nagging at me again, when I finished watching two seasons of a Netflix show called Grace and Frankie, starring Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin, about two women in their mid seventies whose law partner husbands fell in love with one another and summarily dumped them.  Now Frankie and Grace are forced to live together in their joint summer home, bringing into the open some real issues faced by aging women. I’ve loved Jane Fonda since On Golden Pond, and before that, I loved her when her workout video helped whip me into shape.  I can still see my friend Linda and me in her basement workout room, sweating as Jane commanded: “Make it burn!”  I’ve been a fan of Lily Tomlin’s since she introduced Edith Ann on Laugh-In, and I’ve watched my video of her brilliant one-woman show, The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe, which opened in Broadway more than thirty years ago, at least a dozen times.
So I asked him again, because I wanted to know - wasn’t Jane Fonda a well-intended person who had just gotten some bad press in a particularly sensitive political climate? And finally, I got my answer.
“She was hated for being an activist, but we all were,” he said. “She resisted the Vietnam War, and nobody was liked for that. We were all hated at the beginning.”
He talked a little more about Jane and her husband Tom (Hayden) going off on a few political tangents, ending with, “She did a lot of good things.”
His answer seemed somehow obvious in retrospect.They were all hated at the beginning for opposing the war.  Of course they were, because to think that way was deemed unpatriotic, particularly then. I may have figured this out for myself a long time ago, but the big picture escaped me when I was too busy trying to keep track of the small details of my job.  I suppose it is possible that Noam had tried to explain something like this to me years before, but I heard it differently this time because I’ve learned so much more about the world of activism in the past ten years.
Much like Fonda’s character, Grace, who as of the last episode of Grace and Frankie is planning to change some things for aging women in, let’s just say, a more personal way.

If you're interested in Jane Fonda's version of what happened wrt the Vietnam War, read this:

The Truth About My Trip to Hanoi