The radical and politician Tom Hayden died at his Santa Monica home last Sunday. As tributes poured in, the obituaries inevitably referred to his almost twenty year marriage to actor Jane Fonda. They may have divorced a quarter of a century ago, but the left wing icon and the Hollywood legend are forever intertwined in both the collective imagination and public narratives of their lives.
During the 1960s and 70s, Hayden was part of the civil rights and anti-war movements. He rose to prominence as a founder of the influential Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) and one of the Chicago 7 defendants, put on trial after riots at the 1968 Democratic Party National Convention.
Hayden's counter-cultural credentials were undoubtedly part of the attraction for Fonda. As she wrote in her 2005 autobiography My Life So Far, 'I wanted a man in my life I could love, but it had to be someone who could inspire me, teach me, lead me, not be afraid of me. Who better than Tom Hayden?' The pair married in 1973 after she divorced her first husband, the film director Roger Vadim.
While Fonda regarded Hayden as an inspirational teacher as well as a life partner, her own activism predates their relationship; they actually met on the anti-war circuit. That said, his influence profoundly shaped her. By Fonda's own admission, her life has often been directed by the major men in it: first her father, then literally in the case of Vadim, who was the director of Barbarella, a film in which she starred.
With Hayden, Fonda's political interests began to even more clearly echo his, including support for the Black Panther Party and, more famously, public opposition to the US military involvement in Vietnam. Most controversial of all was Fonda's 1972 visit to Hanoi, where she was photographed sitting on a North Vietnamese anti-aircraft battery - an image which prompted the nickname 'Hanoi Jane' and continues to affect attitudes towards her even in the twenty-first century.
Right wing critics of Hayden and Fonda have repeatedly used their anti-war crusading and visits to Vietnam to discredit them even though the two of them have spoken with regret about some aspects of their activity. In his memoir, Reunion, Hayden admits to 'romanticizing the Vietnamese'; Fonda has repeatedly apologized for the infamous photographs and any offense caused, particularly among US Vietnam veterans who regard her a traitor.
Hayden and Fonda have also been criticized by those on the left of American politics. Responses to Fonda's activism had long been mixed; in 1972, Betty Friedan claimed the actor was 'hurting the real movement for women's rights' with her forays into feminism (Pramaggiore, 2010). With regards to Hayden, his move into conventional party politics generated complaints that he'd sold out.
A poster couple for US radicalism in the 1970s, by the early 1980s, Hayden and Fonda had both shifted into the mainstream. In 1982, Hayden successfully ran to become a Democratic member of the California assembly, a position held until 1992. From 1993 to 2000, he served in the state's Senate.
At the same time, Fonda's workout book and video had become number one bestsellers, taking this once (still?) controversial figure into the home of millions of Americans. If that weren't a big enough success, she starred in the second highest grossing film of 1980, Nine To Five, made by her own production company. Fonda regarded it as a labour movie even though it became a comedy rather than a drama as originally planned. The film gently showcased important contemporary feminist causes such as discrimination in the workplace, as well as feminist workplace practices such as flexible working, for a broad Middle America audience.
Yet despite this move into the mainstream three decades ago, their years together as radical activists cast a long shadow of public memories of the couple, individually and together. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the headlines that have accompanied news of Hayden's death this week. A few examples such as those in the Los Angeles Times and New York Times reference his time as a lawmaker within the political system. On the whole, however, the remembrances put his earlier activism centre stage. Fonda has never fully escaped the label Hanoi Jane; although Hayden had no such memorable moniker, he too is remembered in large part for this specific aspect of his life's experiences.
Reference: Maria Pramaggiore, "Jane Fonda: from Graylist to A-list," in James Morrison (ed.), Hollywood Reborn: Stardom in the 1970s (Rutgers University Press, 2010), 16-38.