FONDA: My Life by Howard Teichmann
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FONDA: My Life

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KIRKUS REVIEW

My Life""--""as told to Howard Teichmann."" Usually that means a first-person narrative, but here Teichmann (George S. Kaufman, Smart Aleck) merely uses Henry Fonda's taped reminiscences as the major source of quotation, along with testimony from wives, kids, and friends. The result, then, is perhaps better balanced than an autobiography would be. It's also, however, very undramatic--often more like an interview show than a memoir or biography, with swarming quotation marks and a constant sense of the tape-machine running (""He stretches in his chair and reaches back into his memory""). Still, this has everything fans will want to know about Hank's private life and theater work (films are somewhat slighted); his problematic personality does emerge (genial and upright yet workaholic and closed-off emotionally). And his early show-biz struggles make the book's first third highly engaging: raised middle-class in Omaha (""my whole damn family was nice""), shy college flunk-out Hank was badgered into local amateur-theater, caught the bug, and spent the next seven hungry years in $5-a-week summer stock, in walk-ons, as a ""ringer"" in college shows, or making the N.Y. rounds. Sharing his trek: a remarkable slew of new friends--like roommates Josh Logan and Jimmy Stewart . . . and Margaret Sullavan (""Cream and sugar on a dish of hot ashes""), in a stormy four-month marriage. Success finally came, however, with New Faces of 1934--which led to super-agent Leland Hayward and Hollywood. But, except for a few biggies like Grapes of Wrath, the emphasis once Hank becomes a star is largely on his non-movie life: wartime service; Mr. Roberts on B'way; marriage to rich society widow Frances, a money-obsessed hypochondriac whose mental illness ended in suicide after Hank asked for a divorce (to marry Oscar Hammerstein's stepdaughter Susan); the brief marriages to Susan (""It was as though Yente the Matchmaker . . . lived with Ibsen's uncompromising minister Brand,"" she says) and to a vivacious Italian jet-setter; tensions with Jane and Peter (both extensively quoted); happy marriage to stewardess Shirlee; and recent serious illnesses. Fonda has always preferred theater to film, so don't expect lots of filmmaking lore. And don't expect much style from Teichmann--or complete authenticity in the re-created dialogue. (In a 1952 conversation, for instance, there's chatter about the hit-show My Fair Lady . . . which didn't open till 1956.) But there's enough of Hank's own voice here--from touchingly timid to chilly and flinty--to make this a solid, endearing semi-memoir . . . especially for those who share Fonda's view of himself as a stage actor first and foremost.

Pub Date: Nov. 10th, 1981
Publisher: New American Library