Jane Fonda was born into a Hollywood dynasty and has been on our screens for over six decades. So it’s no surprise that she’s known a famous face or two. But one star appears to have made a remarkable impression on the actress in her earlier days. That was none other than Marilyn Monroe – and Fonda has revealed just what the icon was really like when the cameras were turned off.
By the time Fonda met Monroe, the buxom blonde was already one of the most famous women on the planet. Because she’d carved out a career based on her bubbly personality and sex appeal. But the legendary star wanted to drop this playful demeanor and turn herself into a more serious actress.
So when the two connected, Fonda got an unusual insight into a fragile period of Monroe’s life. And her memories of the star revealed Monroe’s inner conflicts, too. Because while Fonda had glimpses of the screen siren the world had come to adore, the pair were connected by their shared vulnerability.
Fonda is of course no stranger to Hollywood icons. She was born the daughter of the esteemed actor Henry Fonda and socialite Frances Seymour Brokaw on December 21, 1937. And she decided to follow her father into the spotlight, later becoming a celebrated actress in her own right.
Fonda rose to prominence during the 1960s. Her debut movie Tall Story was released at the beginning of that decade. But her defining role as a stereotypical sex kitten came in 1968 when she starred in Barbarella under the direction of her then husband, Roger Vadim.
Before the 1960s were out, Fonda had earned her first Academy Award nomination. That came as a result of her performance in They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? She ultimately lost out on the gong, but went on to secure her first Oscar two years later for her work on Klute.
It was around this time that Fonda became involved in activism, too. In 1968 she was expecting a child and living in France, but she decided to return to the United States because of the movements that were taking hold there. Yup, it was the era of civil rights and the Vietnam War, and the actress would become an outspoken and sometimes controversial figure.
But while Fonda was increasingly political off-screen, she remained a prominent part of Hollywood’s inner circle. After her first ever screen test with none other than Warren Beatty in 1959, she went on to appear alongside some of the most iconic names to ever grace the silver screen. These include Katharine Hepburn, Robert Redford and Marlon Brando.
And Fonda has opened up about some of her famous co-stars in interviews over the years. For instance, in 2011 she told The Hollywood Reporter, “I think the only actor who ever taught me much about life, more than acting, was Katharine Hepburn in On Golden Pond.”
The workout video queen continued, “I was 45 when I made that movie, and it was she who taught me to be self-conscious. I used to think that was a bad thing, but that means being conscious of the self you project to the public; having a persona, a style, a presence. I had none of that. I didn’t know how to dress!”
Elsewhere in her interview with The Hollywood Reporter, Fonda revealed what it was like to star alongside Robert Redford in Barefoot in the Park. The actress confessed, “All I remember is falling in love with Bob Redford. I had a mad crush. I couldn’t wait for those cuddling scenes in bed!” Steamy!
But Fonda had previously worked with Redford on the 1966 movie The Chase, also starring Marlon Brando. Yet the actress was not so positive when speaking about the famous method actor. In 2020 she told The New York Times that Brando had been, “Disappointing. But a great actor.”
And while Fonda thrived in the so-called golden age of Hollywood, she isn’t overly sentimental about it. She told The New York Times, “I don’t share that feeling about that time. I don’t watch old movies, almost never. I was always outside. I didn’t care about movies. I don’t romanticize that time at all, and I find that the actors today are just brilliant.”
Nevertheless, Fonda had found herself drawn to the movies. After leaving Vassar College, and a brief period as an art student in Paris, she returned to New York to pursue acting. In 1954 she appeared alongside her father in The Country Girl. And to hone her craft, she later started attending classes at the famous Actors Studio.
New York’s Actors Studio was run by the theater director Lee Strasberg, one of the most renowned acting teachers of his era. And over the years he worked with the likes of Marlon Brando, Al Pacino, Paul Newman and Sidney Poitier. So when Fonda arrived at one of his lessons, he instantly recognized her talent.
According to Society: Readings in the Sociology of the Art, Fonda would later recall, “I went to the Actors Studio and Lee Strasberg told me I had talent. Real talent. It was the first time that anyone, except my father – who had to say so – told me I was good. At anything. I went to bed thinking about acting. I woke up thinking about acting.”
As well as setting Fonda on the path to acting greatness, Strasberg’s lessons introduced her to yet another Hollywood great. That’s because a fellow student of the Actors Studio was Marilyn Monroe. And Fonda was lucky enough to share a class with the legendary actress.
Fonda had already come across Monroe once before whilst growing up in Hollywood. During a 2011 appearance on the Late Show with David Letterman the actress revealed she’d visited the set of Monroe’s 1959 film Some Like it Hot. And it was then that she became aware of the star’s insecurities as well as her allure.
As Fonda told Letterman, “That was the first time I’d met her and she couldn’t get her lines. But I just remember, she walked off the set, where all the lights are, and she walked off and as she walked towards me it was like she was carrying the light inside her. There was something so incredible about her.”
Thus the young, aspiring actress had been instantly drawn to Monroe. She explained, “She was luminous and as she came up to me and began to talk it was like a tiny little girl. I loved her.” So she must have been thrilled to find herself once again in the icon’s company when she started attending the Actors Studio.
And in an interview with Barbara Walters in 2006, the fitness queen recalled what it was like studying alongside Monroe. She revealed, “She would sit with a scarf around her and a trench coat and it was hard to believe I was actually sitting behind her. She never talked. She never did anything.”
When asked by Walters what Monroe was really like, without hesitating, Fonda replied, “Like a child. Like a fragile, vulnerable child, who on the one hand thought she was a celestial being, and on the other hand [she] felt [like] ‘today’s the day I’ll be proven a fraud.’ It was interesting to know her.”
Monroe was at the height of her career by this time. But she struggled to reconcile her sexualized screen image with the person she was in real life. Plus she was desperate to be considered a serious actress and had wanted to ditch the “dumb blonde” persona she had acquired through her roles in the 1950s.
Fonda, an upcoming actress, was clearly at a completely different place when attending the Actor’s Studio. Yet she could still relate to the Hollywood icon. Fonda told Letterman, “Marilyn was as scared as I was. She never did get up and do a scene. She was too scared.”
It was during this time that the workout queen realized that celebrity could be a double-edged sword. She shared a press agent with Monroe, and it was this mutual contact that revealed to her what it was like working with the star. Fonda told Letterman, “She’d be two hours late to a press conference because she’d be literally getting sick [due to being worried].”
In an interview with Piers Morgan on his CNN show in 2011, the Klute actress opened up further about her interactions with Monroe. She confessed, “I was very, very drawn to her. To me, she was like a golden child. She radiated light and vulnerability.” And it was because of these qualities, Fonda said, that the two of them hit it off.
“She used to gravitate a little bit to me at parties because she knew that I was not very secure either and she was fragile. And I was very touched by her,” Fonda told Morgan. Remembering Monroe, Fonda was reminded of another famous friend of hers, the now late pop singer Michael Jackson.
Explaining her comparison between Monroe and Jackson, Fonda said, “Both of them had these beyond famous, iconic images and yet in their innermost selves they were very, very vulnerable, damaged people. And it was the tension between those two things, perhaps, that made them so brilliant, each in their own way.”
And Fonda revealed it was her own vulnerabilities that had endeared her to Monroe all along. The Barbarella actress told The New York Times, “She [Monroe] liked me. I think she liked me because she sensed my insecurities and she was drawn to vulnerable things.”
Given Monroe’s sex symbol status, her apparent insecurities might have come as a surprise to fans. But Fonda felt that these two strands to the star’s character were what made her so loved. She told Letterman, “I think one of the great things about her is that she was loved by men and women. Because we sensed her vulnerability and the men – they sensed something else.”
Plus according to Fonda, Monroe’s sex appeal was tangible. She recalled, “I remember at a party at Lee Strasberg’s she walked in and the men would start to shake, with desire. Of course. But she came up to me, it was like she felt safe because we were little girls together, kinda.”
Fonda told a similar story in her interview with The New York Times, “I’ll never forget a party that Lee Strasberg gave and she came late, and she walked in and men there started to shake. I mean, they were physically excited and agitated by the fact that she was there. And she walked straight to me and wanted to talk.”
From Fonda’s anecdote, it was clear that she understood the attraction many admirers felt for Monroe. The actress explained, “She glowed! There was a glow coming out of her that was unbelievable! It came from her skin and her hair and her being. I’ve never seen anything like it.”
Monroe’s time at the Actors Studio was ultimately one of mixed success. She managed to win the respect of her fellow students when she finally plucked up the courage to perform in a lesson. Plus Strasberg later cited her as one of the greatest talents he’d worked with, alongside Brando.
It’s also true that Monroe found a degree of self-confidence during her time studying in New York. According to an article published on the HowStuffWorks website, the actress once said about her time at the Actors Studio, “For the first time, I felt accepted not as a freak, but as myself.”
Yet it still appears that Monroe never did make peace with her celebrity status and insecurities. During her last few weeks, it seemed that she was beginning to get her life together. She’d purchased her first home, had been recast in the movie Something’s Got to Give and, in August 1962, graced the cover of Life magazine.
But she was also in an immensely dark place. In 1961 she divorced her husband Arthur Miller after enduring a number of miscarriages – and was subsequently linked to President John F. Kennedy. Also her career was in the midst of a downturn, and she’d sought psychiatric help a year later.
In the latter part of her life, Monroe battled insomnia for which she relied on medication. It was her use of sleeping pills that ultimately led to her death on August 5, 1962, as she was found to have overdosed on sedative drugs. Los Angeles police later concluded that the actress’ “mode of death [was] probable suicide.”
Monroe’s untimely death at the age of 36 was a sad end to a life that had touched so many. Fans continue to be fascinated with the actress’ public and personal experiences, and her iconic image has inspired countless imitations. But could things have worked out differently for the fallen star?
During her 2011 interview with Letterman, Fonda was asked if Monroe might have gotten more support if she’d been a star nowadays. And thinking of her late friend, Fonda conceded, “Therapy now is very different to what it was then, and she probably could’ve gotten help.” Very true that.