The actress Jane Fonda comes from Hollywood royalty but growing up, her family life was anything but glamorous. Born to actor Henry Fonda and his second wife Frances Ford Seymour, Jane and her brother Peter had a dark childhood. In 1950, their mother committed suicide.
Jane Seymour Frances was born in Ontario, Canada in 1908. And while little is publicly known about Seymour’s early life, Jane Fonda has revealed her mother was sexually abused as a child. Speaking at the Rape Treatment Center in 2014, Fonda said she learned of the abuse while writing her memoir and investigating Seymour’s medical records. The abuse apparently took place when Seymour was eight years old.
“The minute that I read that, everything fell into place,” Fonda said. “I knew why the promiscuity, the endless plastic surgery, the guilt, the inability to love or be intimate, and I was able to forgive her and forgive myself.”
The issues that Fonda referred to in that speech are what characterized her mother throughout Fonda’s own childhood. Seymour was depressed and, neglected by her husband Henry Fonda, withdrew from her children and fixated on her appearance. She underwent several cosmetic surgeries, including a botched boob job which left her nipple mangled.
Jane Seymour Frances
Of course, nothing was enough to keep Henry at home. The busy actor had several affairs and spent most of his time out of the house.
It was the second marriage for both Henry and Seymour. Previously, Henry was married to Margaret Sullivan and Seymour was a recent widow. She’d wed the older millionaire George Tuttle Brokaw in 1931 and had one child with him, Frances de Villers “Pan” Brokaw, before Brokaw died from a heart attack in 1935. (Other accounts say Brokaw drowned, drunkenly, in a swimming pool.)
Soon after, Seymour met Henry on the set of the movie Wings of the Morning. They married quickly, in 1936, and had their daughter Jane the following year. Peter Fonda was born in 1940.
The family was living together in a rented Connecticut home when Henry first approached Seymour for a divorce. He’d taken up with a 22-year-old mistress, Susan Blanchard, and wanted to leave his wife for good. And that’s when Seymour’s depression worsened — drastically.
Henry Fonda took his time filing for divorce from Jane Seymour Frances and, throughout the process, Seymour’s mental health deteriorated. In January of 1950, she was sent to a psych hospital where she threw her wedding ring out the window — and followed it, attempted suicide. After the incident, she was sent to a high-security sanitarium.
According to the podcast, You Must Remember This, Seymour visited home in April of that year, accompanied by nurses. On that trip, Jane Fonda was angry and refused to interact with her mother. A fight ensued with Seymour ditching the nurses, going to the bathroom, and retrieving a small china box. She brought this box back to the hospital with her and a couple of weeks later, took a small razor from it.
Seymour left a note in her room, warning others not to enter the bathroom. It was there that she used the razor to slit her throat, cutting her jugular. On April 14, 1950, Seymour was found dead.
Her body was cremated and the children were told that their mother died of a heart attack. But Jane, who was 12 at the time, discovered the truth just a month later. She’d stumbled upon a magazine article titled “Henry Fonda’s Tragedy” and eventually her governess admitted the full sad story.
Later that year, Henry married Susan Blanchard and Seymour was never discussed in the home.
Jane Fonda Opens Up
Jane Fonda has spent much of her adult life reconsidering not only her mother’s suicide but her mother’s short life. She dedicated her 2006 memoir, My Life So Far, to the late Jane Seymour Frances.
“I dedicated it to my mother because I knew that if I did…I would be forced to really try to figure her out. I never knew her because she suffered from bipolarity,” Fonda told People in 2018.
During that frank interview, Fonda also discussed the paints of having a struggling parent:
“If you have a parent who is not capable of showing up, not capable of reflecting you back through eyes of love, it has a big impact on your sense of self… As a child, you always think it was your fault…because the child can’t blame the adult, because they depend on the adult for survival. It takes a long time to get over the guilt.”Jane Fonda in People
Following Seymour’s death, Fonda maintained a complicated relationship with her father, who passed in 1982. But she says she is finally at a point in her life where she feels nothing but empathy for both of her parents.