The Man Who Saw a Ghost: The Life and Work of Henry Fonda

The Man Who Saw a Ghost: The Life and Work of Henry Fonda

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by Devin McKinney

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The first major biography of the iconic actor Henry Fonda, a story of stardom, manhood, and the American character

Henry Fonda's performances--in The Grapes of Wrath, Young Mr. Lincoln, The Lady Eve, 12 Angry Men, On Golden Pond--helped define "American" in the twentieth century. He worked with movie masters from Ford

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The first major biography of the iconic actor Henry Fonda, a story of stardom, manhood, and the American character

Henry Fonda's performances--in The Grapes of Wrath, Young Mr. Lincoln, The Lady Eve, 12 Angry Men, On Golden Pond--helped define "American" in the twentieth century. He worked with movie masters from Ford and Sturges to Hitchcock and Leone. He was a Broadway legend. He fought in World War II and was loved the world over.

Yet much of his life was rage and struggle. Why did Fonda marry five times--tempestuously to actress Margaret Sullavan, tragically to heiress Frances Brokaw, mother of Jane and Peter? Was he a man of integrity, worthy of the heroes he played, or the harsh father his children describe, the iceman who went onstage hours after his wife killed herself? Why did suicide shadow his life and art? What memories troubled him so?

McKinney's Fonda is dark, complex, fascinating, and a product of glamour and acclaim, early losses and Midwestern demons--a man haunted by what he'd seen, and by who he was.

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Editorial Reviews

Library Journal
A journalist whose work has appeared in the Village Voice, Film Quarterly, and elsewhere, McKinney aims for a nuanced portrait of all-American actor Henry Fonda. What ghosts haunted the man considered upright by some and icy by others?
The Washington Post
…a detailed and often provocative account of Fonda's life and career…At his best…McKinney gives us fresh insights to draw on as we watch a Fonda performance.
—Charles Matthews
Publishers Weekly
McKinney (Magic Circle: The Beatles in Dream and History) follows Henry Fonda’s path from his Omaha origins to Hollywood heights. Throughout McKinney examines the contradictions in Fonda’s persona from all angles: “His ego has usually manifested itself as aloofness; now it is an animal thing—prowling the dark wood, savage, protective of its territory.” Film critiques probe the influence of various events on Fonda’s performances (such as the suicide of his wife Frances); McKinney views what he calls his “psychological biography” as an effort to capture “a broad, deep, comprehensible sense of Fonda, the essence of his life and the weight of his work.” Writing in the present tense, McKinney’s self-conscious style often distracts readers from his subject. His need to tinker with ordinary language produces some oddities; rather than write “TV set,” he substitutes “entertainment appliance.” Despite much evident research into Fonda’s tragedies and triumphs, in the end, McKinney undermines his own narrative with gimmicks. 14 b&w photos throughout; two 16-page b&w photos unseen by PW. (Oct.)
Kirkus Reviews
The story of a great American actor whose art was burnished by an anguished life. For McKinney (Magic Circles: The Beatles in Dream and History, 2003), Henry Fonda (1905–1982) is very much a mystery: an affable common man on screen whose piercing blue eyes suggested dark depths. It was a face of wisdom and pain, which is why no one else has ever played Abraham Lincoln with so much quiet conviction. Fonda knew suffering, and he was the cause of suffering in others. He saw death up close--as a youth in Nebraska (where he witnessed a mob take over a local jail and lynch a black man) and as a soldier in World War II and in the suicide of his wife, Frances, a wealthy heiress who finally wearied of the demands of being Mrs. Henry Fonda. (A third wife, Susan Blanchard, would also divorce him for "extreme mental cruelty.") Though well liked as an actor, he was chilly and distant as a husband and an apparent controlling terror to children Peter and Jane. He may not have liked himself that much either, as there were possible suicide attempts of his own. Through it all, Fonda greeted every struggle with either stoic Christian Science hardiness or dogged denial, plunging into work to keep from dealing with the domestic turmoil. The face said it all. No one ever had a problem believing him as an actor. "Fonda's fate all along, his curse and his cure, has been to become the thing that haunts him," writes the author in this excellent work of biography. In rich, lyrical prose, McKinney deftly honors both the man and the mystery.

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The Man Who Saw a Ghost

The Life and Work of Henry Fonda

By Devin McKinney

St. Martin's Press

Copyright © 2012 Devin McKinney
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-250-01776-5


Springfield, 1839

It is a basic American scene. Torches, a rope, a jailhouse, a crowd; darkness lit by fire, smashed windows, vulnerable door. A basic, terrifying scene. No American can fail to recognize it.

Someone was murdered earlier tonight. Two men are in custody, and the crowd wants them. In front are elderly drunks who at another time might be lovable. "We've gone to a heap of trouble not to have at least one hangin'," one drawls.

Only Abe Lincoln, lawyer for the accused, is there to oppose them. He pushes through the crowd and defends the door of the law. Dressed in black, face glowing white, he screams at the crowd to listen.

He allows that, had they lives to spare, the prisoners inside could stand some hanging. "But the sort of hanging you boys'd give 'em would be so &madsh; so permanent. Trouble is, when men start takin' the law into their own hands, they're just as apt, in all the confusion and fun, to start hangin' somebody who's not a murderer as somebody who is."

Lincoln knows that only the surrender of identity and responsibility makes the mob event possible. So as he speaks, he looks the lynchers in the face, becoming the mirror that reflects and judges them. He says their names, and shrewdly throws in a bit of Bible so they may walk away reassured of their morality.

"This scene," writes the German novelist Peter Handke, "embodied every possibility of human behavior. In the end not only the drunks, but also the actors playing the drunks, were listening intently to Lincoln, and when he had finished they dispersed, changed forever." That's lovely to imagine. But it doesn't last two seconds. We know these same men will be back in a month, a decade, a century to hang someone else. We know they'll succeed, because Abe won't be there to stop them. Lincoln has risked his life to forestall what he knows to be inevitable &madsh; that in this world, mobs kill.

It's Springfield, Illinois, circa 1839. So much of the worst is still to come.

* * *

"A jack-legged young lawyer from Springfield": That was John Ford's Lincoln. He'd drawn this Lincoln from daguerreotype, the narratives of schoolbooks, the mythology of martyrdom. He'd fashioned a noble, humorous, cagey man with a reverence for law and an instinctive sense of right. This was the Lincoln photographed by Mathew Brady and chronicled by William B. Herndon, yet he was barely a historical figure. He was something both simpler and stranger: a product of the national imagination. Facts could be arranged as needed.

Now this was a hero. Courageous, articulate, visionary, yet a common man, respected from mansion to shack. He'd been through pain of his own, and knew what other people suffered. Ford's Lincoln had wit, love, and a sense of loss. Ford's Lincoln was heartbreaking. It broke the heart to know that no leader so ideal had ever walked our country's roads, in any century; and it broke the heart to imagine &madsh; as Ford imagined, and would have his audience imagine &madsh; that that ideal just might, this one time, have been the truth.

To play his Lincoln, Ford wants that jack-legged young actor from Omaha. Henry Fonda has spent the last few years in Hollywood quietly making himself remarkable. Career-advancing intervals of romantic comedy and rural hokum have been cut with a handful of harsh performances: a mountaineer in The Trail of the Lonesome Pine (1936); an ex-con in You Only Live Once (1937), first of the Bonnie and Clyde movies; an aristocrat in the plantation weeper Jezebel (1938), sweating feverishly as he carried Bette Davis to an Oscar; and brother Frank in Jesse James (1939), in which all Fonda had to do to steal the picture from Tyrone Power was spit a stream of tobacco juice and glare over his mustache.

Fonda has leaped past his competition, and past himself. He's one of Hollywood's biggest near-stars and most protean support players; he's shown tensile strength on the screen, and a gift for charismatic silence. He's handsome and healthy, but when the climax comes, he dies eloquently, memorably.

So he seems fated to play the sixteenth president. The two have had a long association: At the age of twenty, Fonda toured the Midwest with a Lincoln impersonator, portraying Lincoln's secretary in a sketch he wrote himself. He estimates he has already read most of the Lincoln books that exist. And there was that scene in his very first film, The Farmer Takes a Wife &madsh; a brief encounter between the Fonda character and a prepubescent John Wilkes Booth. In terms of the story, the meeting between Booth and Fonda's river rat in an 1850s canal town had no function. But in the context created by Young Mr. Lincoln four years later, it was a clear case of foreshadowing.

Fonda cannot claim surprise at being asked to play Lincoln: As early as 1935, he was named in Hollywood columns as the next Abe of the screen. But when John Ford calls, rational Fonda resists. Playing Lincoln's secretary is one thing, but the man himself? "It's like playing Jesus," he says.

Ford, a stout, fleshy, hard-drinking Irish-American, is already famed for his dark glasses and floppy hat, his briar pipe and profanity. He is keenly aware of his personal power and developing legend, and he wields them as weapons of fear. He cows Fonda with a four-letter aria: "What the fuck is all this shit about you not wanting to play this picture? You think Lincoln's a great fucking Emancipator, huh? He's a young jack-legged lawyer from Springfield, for Christ sake."

Heroes come of humble beginnings, and artists are humbled to become great.

Henry sits for the laborious application of prosthetics and pancake. Photos and screen tests are taken, and all are stunned with the result. The great man's gravity is there: The nose is soft putty, but the brow ridge is as hard and dark as a log.

The film, shot mostly around Sacramento, is completed in time for its world premiere, in Springfield, on March 30, 1939 &madsh; exactly a century from the point the events it portrays took place. Soon it goes into broad release and is recognized as a profound piece of American popular art, warm and earthy as bread from a cabin stove.

From the Soviet director Sergei Eisenstein it will draw, in 1945, one of the most poignant appreciations ever written of a movie. "I first saw this film on the eve of the world war," Eisenstein will recall, a crucial detail that directs him to Young Mr. Lincoln's "womb of popular and national spirit." He will extol "its unity, its artistry, its genuine beauty," and, with a poet's yearning tugging at his technician's mask, describe how "the rhythm of the montage corresponds to the timbre of the photography, and where the cries of the waxwings echo over the turbid flow of muddy water and through the steady gait of the little mule that lanky Abe rides along the Sangamon River."

Eisenstein cares only so much about the rhythm of the montage. For this moment, he wants nothing but to ride along that river, see that beautiful country.

* * *

The archetypal Hollywood director, D. W. Griffith, released his first masterpiece, The Birth of a Nation, in 1915. It was based on The Clansman, Thomas Dixon, Jr.'s best-selling novel of ten years before &madsh; an exhortatory romance meant to illustrate how, in "one of the most dramatic chapters in the history of the Aryan race," an "'Invisible Empire' had risen from the field of Death and challenged the Visible to mortal combat ... and saved the life of a people."

That "Invisible Empire" was, of course, the Ku Klux Klan. Dixon painted the post-bellum night riders as heroes, protecting the South from carpetbaggers, and magnolia belles from black rapists. Griffith disclaimed any personal racism, yet he inflated Dixon's theses with thunder, pageantry, and innovative technique. Made to sweep history in its wake, and granted a famous endorsement by President Woodrow Wilson &madsh; "Like writing history with lightning" &madsh; The Birth of a Nation grossed over sixty million dollars and was viewed by more Americans than any film yet made.

The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People succeeded in getting it banned in many cities but could not prevent its seep into the American mind. On leaving a theater in Lafayette, Indiana, that was screening the Griffith film, a man named Henry Brocj shot and killed Edward Manson, a black high school student. Bosley Crowther, later film critic of the New York Times, was a boy in North Carolina in 1915. "If the people coming out [of the theater] did no more than abuse the Negroes they saw in the street," he recalled, "it was fortunate. Actually, a lot of people would throw rocks at them and do things of that sort." In his novel Appointment in Samarra, John O'Hara flashes back to the Pennsylvania boyhood of his protagonist, describing how his street gang "would play Ku Klux Klan, after having seen The Birth of a Nation."

Historians concur that Griffith's film played a significant role in the surge of race violence that marked the late teens and early twenties. Certainly it was instrumental in the revival of the Klan: It became a recruiting tool for the terror group, and well into the 1960s, Klan chapters throughout the South were known to screen private prints in chamber of commerce basements and Masonic lodges whenever blood courage and race inspiration were called for.

Appearing as one of Griffith's Klan riders &madsh; a nearsighted White Knight holding up his hood to see through black-rimmed spectacles &madsh; was a young Hollywood hang-about named John Martin Feeney. Feeney had yet to assume the professional name of John Ford, and he was years away from beginning to become one of the great American directors, and the camera poet behind Young Mr. Lincoln.

Sometimes histories meet to make chaos. Sometimes they weave a shapely braid: the new strand unfurls from the last.

* * *

As mythic narrative and secret history, The Birth of a Nation is actually about the birth of a nation within a nation &madsh; that is, the Invisible Empire itself: a violent conspiracy to enforce a supremacist doctrine through rape, murder, and fear. Its countermyth, Young Mr. Lincoln, is about the birth of a different America, whose progress is driven instead by compassion, objectivity, and respect for truth: a shadow utopia, a conspiracy of kindness. Both are fantasies woven from chosen bits of American history; which one is closer to the truth may depend on who is looking.

Yet the young man who rode in D. W. Griffith's Invisible Empire is also the older man who brings the countermyth to life. It's as if the director is discovering his subject, his medium, and his country in every scene. Serenely assured, Ford dissolves his scenes to black as they are performed, by stopping down his lens to close out the light; he prints only one take of each scene, ordering all others destroyed. Thus, myth springs complete and articulate from his eye, no rough draft flapping in its wake. He strolls through an Independence Day fair, not so much following Abe as encountering him at every turn &madsh; as rail-splitter, judge of pies, anchorman in a tug-of-war. Ford turns to watch a parade of war veterans roll past in buggies, the only witnesses left to the War of 1812 and the Revolution; and he can only stare, amazed that he is so close to the origins of his country.

Never again will Ford's patriotism be so affirmative. It's not the patriotism of an old man clutching a flag and cursing dissenters, but that of a much younger man entranced by the possibility of goodness in America. Ages later, we hear a muffled dialogue behind it, questions the film can't ask itself but which we can scarcely avoid: Could these patriotic clichés and Americanist homilies ever be true? Despite the massacres, slave ships, burnings, lynchings?

Young Mr. Lincoln is an act of empathy and of imagining. It is also a myth, or even a fairy tale. Let us imagine, it asks, that these homilies are true, that this man is just that good, and that America once offered such a man the opportunity to steer it. Let us imagine that Lincoln's goodness will enable him to save the innocents and expose the truth. Let us imagine that, by placing a complex character at the center of simple events, we can imply the complexity of this country and its history. Let us imagine that we can raise a few bloodied specters of the American past, and, in the realm of myth, if nowhere else, purify them.

Let us imagine: That's the process that enables myth, and it's the mythic hero that enables the process. In Young Mr. Lincoln's act of imagining, all the unspoken truths of our bloody history will flow through Lincoln, as mud through a river. He will take in the poison of violence, absorb hatred and pain, die for our sins, and live in our myths forever as a ghost of righteousness and rebuke.

And as Ford and Fonda portray him, he'll walk, talk, sit, think, speak, and spit with the resolve of one who has seen it all coming &madsh; one who knows, as other men and women simply do not.

* * *

Fonda carries these details in every gesture and expression, his bearing as elemental as the film's lowering skies. There is something about how he lures the Lincoln out of himself that enables him to speak and move like an unseen watcher, an omnipotent witness. That something is the deep silence of one who will never surrender that last part of himself &madsh; the part that digests information and emotion, and produces empathetic vision from a private place.

Everything in Young Mr. Lincoln depends on this tension between the public figure and the private man, the servant who offers everything and the individual who relinquishes nothing. It all depends on this tension being felt but not discussed, and being felt immediately, at Lincoln's first appearance on a clapboard porch on a dusty afternoon. A pompous attorney addresses a cluster of earnest countrymen. Someone named Abe, familiar to the locals, is introduced as a candidate for the legislature. The attorney steps aside with a flourish. Cut to a figure reclining in the shade &madsh; a man with a private smile and a gift for dramatic timing, who eases himself to fullness and steps into the sun.

"Gentlemen &madsh; and fellow citizens ... I presume y'all know who I am."

It's dizzying. How often does myth take flesh before our eyes? Seldom have movies achieved, through makeup or miracle, so arresting a combination of attributes as this, so bizarre and fixating a meld of physical actor and imaginative essence. The face is Lincoln's; the voice is Fonda's. The body moves with the proper languid resolve, looking just as Lincoln's would have, had it ever been caught on moving film.

We witness a fusing of faces, and of fates. Lincoln starts to speak; Fonda starts to exist. The one steps into destiny, the other into movie myth. And to both we can only say, Yes, this is how it was supposed to be.

* * *

Part of the magic of Fonda's portrayal is that at the same time he speaks for Lincoln, he asks Lincoln to speak for him. Each uses the other to express his own sadness and conflict; two spirits war within the imperturbable costume that to us appears filled out by one integrated body.

What is the sadness? What is the conflict? Primal scenes are both inadequate and irresistible; myth couldn't do without them. So the Lamar Trotti screenplay founds itself on not just one primal scene, but two &madsh; the near lynching on the prison stairs, and a young woman's death.

That woman was Ann Rutledge, Abe's first love, whom he met upon moving to New Salem, Illinois, in 1831. Her father, a tavern owner, was young Lincoln's employer; one of her forefathers had signed the Declaration of Independence. Ann had ambitions beyond New Salem, and planned to attend a women's college. She saw Lincoln's potential and encouraged him toward the law. Abe was besotted with her, and they were engaged. Then, in August of 1835, she took sick and died from what was called "brain fever" but was probably typhoid.

The story was first embellished by Herndon, Lincoln's law partner and first important biographer, and has been a wrangling point of historians. "He mourned her loss with such intensity of grief that his friends feared for his reason," Carl Schurz wrote in 1905. "A highly dubious business," Gore Vidal called the story some eighty years later. Melodramatics aside, there is sufficient evidence that Ann's death left a deep void in Lincoln. He was already given to long despondencies, not surprising given the poverty of his childhood and the deaths he'd witnessed, starting with both parents and an older sister.

In Young Mr. Lincoln, Abe and Ann have just one scene together. Fonda presents Lincoln as a serious young man, though callow in his coonskin cap, and Ann is Ford's model of supportive American womanhood. The two stroll beside the flowing Sangamon, nearly bursting with anticipation of the future and each other, but the exchange is infused with sadness. Already we have the sense of things too fine and fleeting to last.


Excerpted from The Man Who Saw a Ghost by Devin McKinney. Copyright © 2012 Devin McKinney. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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