Patricia Bosworth has written acclaimed biographies of Montgomery Clift, Marlon Brando and Diane Arbus, complicated figures all. But perhaps none have been as complex a subject as Jane Fonda, sex kitten, anti-war activist, feminist, exercise guru, celebrated actress—and the author’s longtime friend.

Bosworth tells us how it all came together for her latest, Jane Fonda: The Private Life of a Public Woman.

Read more Best of 2011 Nonfiction.

You’ve been a friend of Jane Fonda since the ’60s. How difficult was it for you to maintain objectivity as you wrote about a friend?

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It’s a very delicate dance…the dance of the biographer with a live subject, friendship not withstanding. I wanted to be fair. I wanted to paint as accurate and definitive a portrait as possible. Jane is a very complicated woman. She is generous, vulnerable, insecure, but she is also ruthless and powerful. She would not have accomplished so much if she hadn’t been all these things.

So I tried to find stories that would illustrate her many sides. I never thought of these stories or details as "unflattering" or "negative," rather they were used to emphasize a point.

Fonda published her autobiography in 2005. How accurate and thorough did you find it?  

It’s a fascinating book. Jane deals with her childhood, her obsession with her father, her mother’s suicide. By the same token I kept remembering what her brother Peter Fonda told me, “Jane has her version of her life. You must find all the other versions because they are equally interesting." Which is true.

For example she gave her early lover/mentor Andreas Voutsinas two lines in her book. I devoted almost all of Part Two to Andreas. He was a hugely important figure to her when she was very young. They met at the Actors Studio and lived together and were close for 10 years. They had become estranged. He still adored her. He wouldn’t talk to me until he learned that Jane had said it was OK. But months later, when I said, “Do you want to hear about Andreas? I spoke to him in Paris,” she exclaimed, “No!” Being with him had been a painful time for her. She had been lost and miserable. She didn’t want to relive it.

You and Fonda studied together at the Actors Studio in the ’60s—what did you think of her acting abilities? 

We both had many experiences studying with master teacher Lee Strasberg at the Actors Studio. Jane cried real tears very easily, which for most of us was hard to do. Lee used to assign Jane simple scenes where she had to be “herself”—natural, spontaneous. She was used to putting on an act. She had many facades, but what I’ll never forget is when I saw her on Broadway for the first time in There Was a Little Girl she opened the play sitting on the stage by herself talking to the audience. Corny as it sounds, she had—still has—what is called “star quality.” You couldn’t take your eyes off her. She commanded attention by her mere presence…and she still does.

Did Fonda influence the very movements she was part of?

Gloria Steinem once told me, “Jane is a transitional figure.” Her immersion in radical politics during the l970s transcended the role traditionally assigned not just to celebrities but to women in general. Jane paved the way for the celebrity activists of today like Oprah, Eve Ensler, Susan Sarandon and Rosie O’Donnell.

Also, in her work as an actress in the 1970s, the movies she chose to star in and produce such as Coming Home [about Vietnam vets] and The China Syndrome [about the dangers of nuclear power] defined her political evolution.

The chapters on Fonda’s anti-Vietnam War activism in the ’70s detail many forces at work during that time. Did your own experiences then help you to put the period in context?

My own experience with the chaotic activism of the era coincided totally with Jane’s. I was a small part of it. Jane reflected it in everything she did. After I did my first piece on Jane in McCall’s, I ended up in Washington at a huge rally Jane emceed on the National Mall, where she spoke out against the bombing of Cambodia.

From then on, my husband and I took part in many antiwar protests. 1970 was the height of the women’s movement, too. I was in a consciousness-raising group. So was Jane, who was becoming something of a feminist heroine because of her landmark performance as the call girl Bree in Klute. She believed the movie had political connotations because it dramatized how men can exploit women in this society and she related to it, remembering her years as a sex object. We often shared what we’d been learning as activists as I continued to do pieces about her.

Many actors’ careers were ruined after they joined controversial causes. After protesting the war in Vietnam, for which many reviled her, Fonda became one of the most admired women in America. How did this happen?

Not long after she came back from Hanoi, Jane married politico Tom Hayden. He soon decided to run for the California State Senate, and Jane wanted to help promote him. At that point, however, her image was too controversial. She was determined to change herself from gung-ho radical to Mrs. Tom Hayden, middle-of-the-road Democrat.

She accomplished this mainly through media in dozens of magazines, newspapers and radio. She softened her rhetoric, talking about middle-class issues, daycare and the price of gas. The public bought it, and she was ultimately listed as one of the most admired women in a Redbook poll.

Henry Fonda’s cold, distant treatment of his daughter shadowed her life. Yet at times in the book she turns brusque and dismissive. Has she become like her father?

Jane learned how to behave with people from both her parents, neither of whom were especially affectionate. Like Henry Fonda, she can be brusque and dismissive. She is also very much the perfectionist as he was. Her concentration, like his, is amazing. Nothing can break it when she’s focused on a task. But she’s also like her mother Frances—insecure, vulnerable, yearning for love.

Icons such as Bette Davis, Marilyn Monroe and Katharine Hepburn have their unique meanings. What does Jane Fonda represent as an icon?

Jane was the complete American heroine of the 1980s, not just as an actress and a producer, but as the starring “body” of her workout books and tapes. Jane as exercise guru was perhaps her most remarkable act of self re-creation. The care and nurturing of her body has always been central to her iconography and to the very core of her being. Fit, buff women become feminist exemplars. Jane believes in fitness there is freedom.