The Hidden Henry Fonda

Devin McKinney delves into the death-haunted screen star’s world

Today is Henry Fonda’s 108th birthday. In The Man Who Saw A Ghost: The Life and Work of Henry Fonda, published last October, author Devin McKinney chronicles the death-haunted world of an iconic actor whose most famous screen roles as protectors, presidents, and patriarchs mask a far more complex figure. The book is at once a biography of Fonda (both on and off screen) and a cultural history of Twentieth-Century America with Fonda at its center.

A writer for The Village Voice, The Oxford American, and Film Quarterly and a regular contributor to HiLobrow and Critics At Large, McKinney delves deep into his subjects. He tells his stories with a zeal for history, a reverence for language, and acute insights that continually beguile the reader. His first book Magic Circles: The Beatles in Dream and History is one of the best and most audacious explorations of the Fab Four and their time. Like that book, The Man Who Saw A Ghost presents a landscape of people and places we felt certain we had already mapped only to deliver us into entirely new territory. From his home in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, McKinney talked about his interest in Henry Fonda and the allure of the hidden.

What made Henry Fonda so compelling as a movie star?
His surface was very easy to access. You could look at it and say, “Oh, that’s a hero I can respect.” You could also look at it and say, “Well, that’s a guy who does heroic things but there’s all this dark stuff going on behind that.” We never thought we knew him well enough. We wanted to see what was inside this hero. I think it was the hidden in Henry Fonda that made him so compelling. It was an art of implication rather than display.

Tell me about the role death played in Fonda’s life.
Biographically, death is a constant in the story. It ties back to the lynching he saw as a child, which made a very deep impression upon him in terms of the scripts and stories he liked to act out. I was intrigued but I wasn’t at all surprised when, looking through some newspaper archives, I found what looked very much to me like a studio whitewash of what under any other circumstances you would say was a suicide attempt on his part. Metaphorically, death is a constant in the movies that he makes. He looks at the death and darkness that is an inextricable part of American history that the rest of us in popular entertainment often like to elide. Yet it’s something we have to reconcile if we’re going to perceive him as a movie star. We’re going to have to somehow make sense of his lingering on death.

You write, “No symbol lies deeper in Fonda’s art than the hanging rope.”
That one is there pretty consistently. As soon as he can work it into his work, it’s there, and it never quite leaves.

I hadn’t realized that Bridget Fonda was named after Bridget Hayward, the daughter of Henry’s first wife from a later marriage. She died of an overdose at 21; it seems suicides extend into the world of his children.
Bridget’s mother, Margaret Sullavan, Henry Fonda’s first wife, also committed suicide ten months before by pill overdose. Bridget’s suicide by pill was unambiguous but the coroner said Margaret’s was an accident. That indeed was where Peter Fonda got the name for his daughter and I thought probably a lot of people know Bridget Fonda a lot better than they know Henry Fonda. 

Describe the phrase “seeing the elephant” and how it travels through your book.
This was a metaphor I came upon researching some aspects of the Westward Migration of the mid-Nineteenth Century. “Seeing the elephant” referred to a mythic beast, an animal rising out of the human imagination that people would refer to in their letters or diaries. People would say it to indicate: “I’ve seen all that life has to show me, the biggest, strangest, most confounding aspect of life that there is.” Henry Fonda is a guy who “sees the ghost” in the sense that he lingers on the haunting of something absent, usually to do with death. He kind of felt like he was being watched by an invisible jury of ghosts. These pioneers were coining the same phrase in different words. I thought this is something I can hang on to as I make my way through Fonda’s life.

When did you know you were going to write a book about Henry Fonda? Did a particular film set you on the path?
No. In fact, when I first started thinking about it I don’t think I had seen a film of his for quite a while. The last would have been Once Upon a Time in the West. When I was 15 or so it was the best movie I’d ever seen and still is. It was the only film of his I actually owned and I watch it every few years. After the Beatles book came out, it appealed to me as something closer to home, being an American subject, particularly a Midwestern American subject, which is where I’m from. The thing I realized early on was that he reminded me of myself and of my father and of this whole lineage of the Midwestern male.

One reason I wanted to write about Henry Fonda was that I found him such a tonic, such a corrective to all the ways I thought our country was going wrong during the Bush years and I took a lot of strength from him in those years.

Henry Fonda’s story becomes his children’s story when we get to the counterculture and you return to the era you wrote about in Magic Circles.
I imagined a long time ago that someone might ask me, So you write about the Beatles and then you write about Henry Fonda. What could they possibly have in common? And the first thing that always occurred to me was John Lennon and Henry Fonda–both of them got high with Peter Fonda.

In Peter and Jane’s case, it may well have been a desire to make their father happy by following in his footsteps and also to go farther than him in certain directions — Peter with Easy Rider and Jane with her political involvements and being such a remarkable woman on the screen at the time.

You mention how Fonda might have starred in Rear Window or played Major Major in Catch-22. You put together this list of possible roles. Any favorites?
I didn’t want to go into this in the book because it’s a Beatles vs. Stones thing but I’m not a fan of Jimmy Stewart. There are several roles that Jimmy Stewart played that Henry Fonda could have killed. I always see Stewart reaching painfully in those Anthony Mann Westerns to be a hard guy. I think he’s painful to watch in Vertigo because he doesn’t have the depth as an actor. I wrote a piece in The Believer about how Henry Fonda should have played that role. I can’t help running that movie in my mind. A movie where his name was bandied about was Anatomy of a Murder. Jimmy Stewart did fine in that picture. It’s a picture I love, but I would so much love to have Henry Fonda in it instead.

You speculate that if Fonda’s friend Ross Alexander hadn’t killed himself in 1937 that Ronald Reagan might not have gotten his break in Hollywood or in politics.
It’s not that fanciful when you think about it. Just that one little twist of fate. It was through the movies that he got the leverage he did to become President of the Screen Actors Guild and later Governor of California and the President of the United States. I found myself asking that question and, wow, what a question.

In The New Biographical Dictionary of Film, David Thomson says of Fonda, “the glimpses of a much harsher man in private detract from the feeling of typicality and dreamy vision.” You have a different idea.
For me, his harshness doesn’t detract from his typicality. It makes me ask, How is it we take him as typical despite all this harshness? I wonder how the things can coexist, as it were, invisibly. It’s that contradiction that, more than anything, made me want to write about him and his life and his work.