It takes a certain kind of person to turn her home into a symbol. One must either be carefree enough to think that nothing matters or intense enough to believe that everything does. Fonda has always been the intense type. What has united the various phases of her lifefrom daughter of a Hollywood legend to Parisian sex kitten, from Oscar-winning actress to Hanoi Jane, from first lady of fitness to Sun Belt Christianis a zealous belief that each transformation has brought her closer to enlightenment, and an urgent need to share. These days, Fonda has moments when she appears almost calm. At 67, she is a grandma who lives alone in Atlanta, walks with a limp (she recently had arthroscopic knee surgery and will have a hip replaced this summer due to osteoarthritis, a largely genetic condition Fonda says is unrelated to her famous workout regimen) and finds her former sex-symbol status faintly ridiculous. "I'm an old jalopy," she says, "losing hubcaps and fenders everywhere. But in so many important ways, I've never felt more complete. Which is why"and here she slips into a fiery stage whisper"I had to write this book."
There are plenty of people who long ago dismissed Fonda as a professional changeling and controversialist. For them, My Life So Far (Random House; 624 pages) offers juicy celebrity gossip and passages about her adventurous sex life (plus a convenient index). But Fonda doesn't acknowledge skeptics, and she didn't write her memoirwhich reveals, among other things, that she suffered from bulimia for 30 years, how she never felt the closeness she yearned for with her father Henry and that she only recently found personal happiness, in part through a conversion to Christianitysimply to tell all. "I'm on a mission," she says. "For much of my adult life I have talked the talk of feminism and then given up my voice to keep relationships intact. And in my third act, presuming I live to be about 90, I've decided to confront it. This is not just my story. It's true for many women. And I want to socially inoculate as many girls, and boys too, as possible to let them know it doesn't have to be this way. Resist!"
Fonda has often been out in front of social change, but in this case she admits she's catching up with what many people already know, and her passion could reasonably be mistaken for penitence. The rap on Fonda has always been that she twists herself into the ideal of whatever man she's withavant-garde boy toy for first husband and Barbarella director Roger Vadim, liberal activist for second husband and Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) co-founder Tom Hayden, traditional corporate wife for the third, Dixie-loving media mogul Ted Turner. But it wasn't until 1998, when she made an unblinking 20-minute autobiographical film as a 60th-birthday present for herself, that she realized it was true. "The disease to please was in me from an early age," she says of her fraught relationship with her father. (Her mother Frances Brokaw committed suicide when Fonda was 12.) For years her desire to become flawless manifested itself in bulimia, but it plagued her marriages too. "With the men in my life, I was so desperate to please that I became completely detached from my authentic self."
At the time of that discovery, Fonda and Turner were in a six-year marriage that worked largely because she had given up acting, moved to Atlanta and adopted as her hobbies hunting, fishing and ranch hopping (Turner is the largest private landowner in the U.S.). "When I met Ted," she says, "I'd had just about everything in life except real intimacy. I knew that he was the one I wanted to have it with, so I committed to doing whatever it took for things to work." She stuck with Turner for two more years before confronting him with what her friends, family and much of the public thought self-evident: that the relationship was unbalanced. "I was 62 years old, and I made a deal with myself that I was not going to live my third act with regrets. So I came to a point that was utterly terrifying. I told the man I loved, the man I wanted to spend the rest of my life with, that changes needed to be made. It doesn't matter what they were. What matters is it took me so long to break the silence. The fear is always that if you speak up, you're going to lose your man. Well, I did, and I did. But I couldn't have been happy otherwise."
Fonda insists that what the public sawin this case, the most widely reported middle-aged divorce since Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton'swas not the confused end of yet another phase but the assertive debut of her complete feminist self, a project that had been quietly flourishing while the marriage deteriorated. When Fonda decided to stay in Atlanta after the breakup, it was widely presumed she did so to stay close to Turner. In fact, she says, she moved into her loft so she could be nearer to the downtown offices of the Georgia Campaign for Adolescent Pregnancy Prevention (G-CAPP), an organization she founded after learning that Georgia had one of the highest teen-pregnancy rates in the U.S. G-CAPP teaches girls and women that they have authority over their bodies and that gender equality is essential to strong relationships. Fonda launched it in 1995, while she was still with Turner. "It took me a while to apply those lessons to myself, but subliminally we teach what we need to learn," she says.
Another reason Fonda has stayed in the South is that it was the first place she met what she calls, "smart, hip Christians." Raised an atheist, she never gave much thought to religion until she had a breakdown following the end of her second marriage, in 1990. "One day I was all by myself, and I said out loud, 'If God wants me to suffer like this, there must be a reason.' I almost did a double take. God?" In the mid-'90s, Fonda started feeling "an opening to the presence of the Almighty." She did not tell Turner (who once famously remarked, "Christianity is a religion for losers") because she feared he would have talked her out of it. "And he could have," she says. "I'm still not ready to defend it or analyze it or anything, but I have become moved by it, fascinated by it and helped by itand I'm not even sure what it is. But I am humming with reverence and going at it in my usual full-bore way."
Fonda has never let a lack of certitude translate into a lack of enthusiasm, and she understands that the exuberance with which she broadcasts her new selfwriting a book, teaching lessons about feminism she admits she has just learned, accepting Christianity after years of spiritual apathywill undoubtedly raise eyebrows. "People are suspicious because I change," Fonda says breezily. "God help me if I didn't!" Perhaps, though, they might also be suspicious because she often transforms her personal experience into a societal call to arms and is doing so again. "Yes," she says. "That's probably fair."
What Fonda resents, though, is any inference that she's insincere or a dilettante. Michele Ozumba, executive director of g-cappwhich now has 19 full-time employees, an annual $4.2 million budget and very little daily interference from Fondaadmits there is some skepticism when one of the most famous white women in the world speaks to minority families about sexual health and gender equality. "People definitely come with perceptions," says Ozumba. "But because this is so obviously personal for her, she's been able to disarm the stereotypes."
Politics is the one area in which Fonda has been a philosophical rock, but although she was briefly drawn into the 2004 election when a doctored photo of her with John Kerry at a supposed Vietnam War protest circulated on the Internet, she knows she's still too politically hot to support any candidate publicly. (She "hopes for a Hillary Clinton presidency," but a decade of red-state living makes her doubt its likelihood.) Instead, Fonda spends most of her free time at the multiplex (she loved The Aviator and Finding Neverland) or with her family. Her once contentious relationship with daughter Vanessa Vadim, 36, has improved. Vadim and her two young children, as well as Fonda's other daughter, Mary Luana Williams (known as Lulu), 36, an African American whom Fonda unofficially adopted when Williams was about 13, live nearby. Troy Garity, 31, her son with Tom Hayden, lives in Los Angeles and is an actor. "The white guy in the Barbershop movies," she says proudly.
For the first time in 15 years, Fonda also has a movie of her own to talk about. No one will mistake Monster-in-Law, out May 13, in which she co-stars with Jennifer Lopez, for her award-winning films Klute and Coming Home, but Fonda says the script seemed funny, and she was interested in seeing whether acting was any less agonizing for her now that she's no longer a "limited, bifurcated person." It was. "I liked being a supporting actress, and I liked Jennifer. She's smart. She's talented. I didn't get to know her real well, but it was fine." Fonda admits some of the attraction of returning to the screen was the cash it provided, much of which went straight to G-CAPP. She might act again, but she does not hunger for one more career-defining role. "I don't hunger for anything," she says.
That includes men. Fonda is not dating, and when asked whether she gets hit on, she responds with a perfectly timed "Ha!" She and Turner remain close, and she credits him as "the catalyst" for her awakening"although he'd probably just laugh at that." Turner sometimes visits her at her 2,200-acre ranch outside Santa Fe, N.M., but for the first time in her life, Fonda is content to be aloneproof, she believes, of her serenity. Still, she did recently consult a psychic. "She told me with a great deal of certainty that a man was going to come into my life who would be my soul mate and be with me till the end," says Fonda. "Of course, the long haul has gotten a lot shorter." Shorter but, as anyone who walks through her front door will discover, no less intense.