SECTION ONE
PAGE EIGHT

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COLUMN SIXTY-THREE, SEPTEMBER 1, 2001
(Copyright 2001 Al Aronowitz)

AMERICA'S ANSWER TO BARDOT
THE YOUNG JANE FONDA

VIII.

Eight months after the death of Jane's mother, her father married Susan Blanchard, the stepdaughter of Oscar Hammerstein II.

"But she was just great," Jane told me, "it was like having a family again. When I arrived on her hands I was a girl with two dresses and I was quite heavy and I was very uncomfortable and she gradually began to groom my hair for me, and she'd bring me with her shop, and maybe we'd get the same dress and very carefully she did the whole thing with me.

"And I don't know how she did it. Because she was so young. How hard  it must have been for her, twenty-two years old, to be burdened with this thing, plus all the difficulty that went before it. And nothing was easy for her. For instance, she was on her honeymoon with my father, and my brother shot himself in the stomach by accident, so their honeymoon had to be cut short.

"My brother was playing with a Civil War rifle or something like that---we were Ossining, New York at the time---and a bullet went in his stomach and out his back.  It went through his stomach, kidney, liver, intestine.  It went through everything!

"It nicked his spine and went out his back, and he was pronounced dead.  The only reason he lived was because he weighed about sixty pounds. He was so undernourished he had no fat on him, absolutely none, and so they could keep his from hemorrhaging. But I remember sitting in that hospital, he was dying, and I walked into his room and I'd just had an examination in school.

"And there he was this tiny ten-year-old boy, because he was so small and so skinny, with tubes coming out of his nose and he said to me---I could hardly hear him---he said, 'How did your test go? How is Michael?? And I died! And I prayed. I don't know that I believed in anything but at a time like that you just pray by instinct.

"I said, 'Dear God, I will never be mean to him again if you let him live.' Meantime, the moment he got out of the hospital, I was awful to him. But I remember they pronounced him dead and then they discovered he was still alive. He was on the operating table and everything stopped, and when my grandmother arrived at the hospital they said he was dead.  But then they gave him whatever they give you to make your heart go again.

"And my father and Susan were in the Virgin Islands on their honeymoon, and there was no telephone.  And it wasn't until about five days later that they got some kid who was playing with a walkie-talkie set and they got a message through. So, even on her honeymoon, it was with trauma."

Susan Blanchard is Mrs. Michael Wager now.  She lives in New York with another daughter, Amy, who was adopted when Susan Blanchard was still Mrs. Henry Fonda.  Amy is nine years old, sixteen years younger than Jane.  Jane is only ten years younger than Susan Blanchard. Often, they are mistaken for sisters.

"Growing close to Jane and Peter was a very happy time in my life," Mrs. Wager told me.  "Jane was a very sweet child and a very understanding child, quite wise beyond her years and easy to talk to, easy to reach.  We used to have long, long talks.  Peter was more difficult and very sensitive.  He was very different from Jane, very moody. His moods were very obvious and very open.  Jane's moods were much more subtle.  She was very unemotional on the surface and accepted all the events that had taken place with a great maturity.  I was very impressed and very moved by her attitude.  I thought it was extraordinary and almost a little frightening, too, this calmness.  I thought it was unnatural for a child that young to be so emotionally controlled.

"I think because she lost her mother and everything I wanted terribly to make a special kind of close, old-fashioned home life.  I have the feeling I wanted to make up for everything that ever happened.  Jane talked very little about her mother.  Although she


When Jane was 14,
she broke
her back


was obviously involved with her mother, she was not as close to her as Peter was.  Peter was very close to his mother.  Peter, you know, is very touchy on the whole subject, and he gets wildly upset about what Jane says and yet he cares terribly about Jane.  And I get upset if Jane's upset, I really do.  I'm terribly, terribly emotionally involved with her still, you know.

"When she was about thirteen or fourteen, I remember, she broke her back and she had a cast.  She broke three vertebrae and although she had a tiny little waist, by the time they put the cast on she was shaped like this," and Mrs. Wager held out her hands the way a fisherman might describe the length of his catch.

"And it was at that point that she started getting invitations for parties and she started getting interested in boys.  And she was asked to a dance and she was so upset. She said, "I'm not going to go. I look terrible.  I can't go with this cast.'

'there was a great to-do, so I went to Lord and Taylor's and I went to the maternity department. I got the prettiest dress I could find. It was tiny and dainty and very feminine and I put flowers in her hair. She went to the dance and of course it was a huge success because it was a great conversation piece.

"I remember, after a while, Peter asked me if he could call me mother, and Jane said she was going to call me mother, too, and the other side of the family got very angry.  I said to Jane, 'I don't care what you call me, as long as the relationship is good.  You can call me Boris Karloff, the name doesn't matter." And she got very stubborn. She said, 'I AM going to call you mother, I don't care what they say." She defied her mother's side of the family.

"And now, you know, in this great sort of joy of liberation, she will let her tongue wobble around her mouth and let anything come out. And it can be twisted around in conversation and in the press so that it comes out in such a cruel way that it devastates Hank. It breaks his heart. You know, Jane and her father are just mad about each other, they really are. And everything that's printed and sometimes gets misconstrued just stabs him. When she makes remarks about him as a father, he dies, he dies.

In May of 1956, Susan Blanchard and Henry Fonda were divorced.

Jane was very, sad," Mrs. Wager said.  "I had to tell Jane and Peter, Hank wouldn't tell them.  And Jane put her arms around and said,

'I know you're doing whatever is best.' And Peter cried, they both did. I miss them terribly. I just die every Christmas.  I just die when they're not here, and now Jane calls me Sue, of course.  She doesn't call me mother any more.  I sort of miss it, but I suppose it's just as well.  Peter slips once in a while and calls me mother."  ##

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