Feature writing

Cover story

Mary Williams: ‘My life as Jane Fonda’s daughter’

The Times

May 7, 2013


When Mary Williams first went clothes shopping with her mother’s credit card at the Santa Monica branch of Fred Segal, a retail haunt of Hollywood celebrities, she thought the assistants would tell her “to get out or we’ll call the cops”. “Why would they believe that I, a black girl, was Jane Fonda’s daughter?” she says.

But, from the age of 16, that’s what Williams was, never formally adopted but as cherished and as loved as Fonda’s biological children Vanessa (by first husband Roger Vadim) and Troy (by second husband Tom Hayden). Williams sees billionaire former CNN boss Ted Turner, Fonda’s third husband, as her “real father”.

On the surface Williams’s story aligns to stereotypical trope: the poor black child from a broken home is rescued by a wealthy white family. The movie The Blind Side, based on a real story, evoked a similar theme, but Williams’s story is more complex: the memory of her drunk, abusive birth mother Mary haunted her and now, after 30 years of separation, they are tentatively trying to rebuild their relationship. Williams met Fonda when she was 11, at a summer camp run by Fonda and Hayden. Williams returned for the next three summers, and Fonda “focused on me, taking in everything I said as if it were the most fascinating thing she’d ever heard”. Angelina Jolie was her bunkmate: “She was self-possessed even then,” laughs the engaging, direct Williams. “And those lips are real.”

These days, wealthy white Hollywood women with adopted black children — Sandra Bullock, Jolie herself, Madonna — are not the rarity Fonda was when she took on caring for Williams. However, Williams, now 45, strongly denies a “Blind Side” element to their story. “That’s negating my role. I wasn’t an item waiting to be picked up, or a stray dog. I fought for myself. I wasn’t the passive princess in a tower waiting to be saved. It took a lot of courage for me to leave Oakland. Why does it matter that I’m black, or that Sandra Bullock or Angelina Jolie have black children? Isn’t it better to save a child from poverty or possible death and give it love, a chance?

“When people criticise the motives of people adopting these children they’re projecting a lot of their own prejudices. Jane wasn’t flaunting me. I’m happy to see any child out of a bad situation into a loving home.”

Until moving in with Fonda in 1983, Williams’s home life in Oakland had been miserable. Her birth parents were members of the revolutionary group the Black Panthers. When she was 3 her father Randolph was jailed for seven years after a confrontation with police. Her birth mother bought Mary up in near poverty, with five other siblings. While proud of her family’s Panther association, Williams began to note the “cancerous culture of extreme misogyny” within the group. Her mother worked hard “to keep a roof over our heads”, though was drunk and abusive: “Something as simple as giving my mother a dirty look could get you lashed with an extension cord, a wire hanger, a shoe, a pot.”

At 14 Williams was raped by a theatre director in his late thirties: he intimated she should keep coming back or he’d hurt her, so she did, numbly, until he told her to stop. “My mother didn’t notice that I came home with a black eye and busted lip.”

After the rape, Williams “gave up on myself”. Fonda encouraged her to see a therapist, adding if her grades improved — and if her mother agreed — she could live with her, which she did when she turned 16 in 1983. “Jane didn’t want to be seen as a thief in the night,” says Williams. Fonda didn’t pursue a formal adoption because “if we presented my birth mother with legal papers, she was so wrapped up with alcohol things might not have gone so smoothly”. She laughs. “I was actually hurt when she didn’t ask for me. I thought, ‘If my birth mother didn’t want me, how could this woman, who is not genetically related to me, want me?’” She discovered it was “a myth that your birth mother cares for you more than anybody else”.

Williams wasn’t overwhelmed when she moved in with Fonda. “Jane was very understated. She had a station wagon. The most glamorous car she ever had was a Prius. We weren’t allowed to hang out with other Hollywood kids who drank or did drugs. She spends most of her money on charity and causes.”

Fonda gave each of her children $200,000 for a home, “but said the real investment had been made in our educations”. Williams took aerobics classes with Fonda and visited her on film sets, meeting stars like Robert De Niro. Yet she was nervous. “Because I was brought into Jane’s family I felt a sense of gratitude and made sure I did everything right. I could have been a whole human being with problems — Jane wouldn’t have minded me being that — but felt I couldn’t be that and still be loved.”

Just as in an Oakland Panthers’ home, security was paramount. Hayden and Fonda, Vietnam War activists, faced the wrath of veterans and had created a “safe room” in case of a home invasion; a remote-control key unlocked the car in case of explosive devices.

As a mother, Fonda was “wonderful”, “fiercely protective” and also a “pushover”, Williams says with a smile.

“She wasn’t a diva.” At home she wore tracksuit bottoms and no make-up, “hair all over the place”. Mother and daughter biked along Santa Monica Pier and bought pet rabbits. Because Fonda was an Oscar voter, Williams watched “movie marathons” of the films she voted on. Fonda’s attitude to clothes was more, “‘let’s buy a few expensive good things rather than lots of things’,” says Williams. What most surprised her was “Jane being so interested in me, what I felt”. Fonda hugged her, “which took getting used to, and Tom hugged Troy. I’d never seen men do that before.” Hollywood descended chez Fonda for fundraisers: “I remember Robert Downey Jr and Desmond Tutu.” At one party Williams told Oprah Winfrey that she was “a god” (the two remain friends today).

The only significant friction came when Vanessa became “furious with Jane and said, ‘How dare you bring in another daughter when you can’t take care of the one you’ve got’,” recalls Williams. “Jane had Vanessa when she was young and super busy with activism. Later Jane was in a better position to be a mother to all of us and Vanessa saw the difference. She never once took out her anger on me. We’re sisters and very close.”

Hayden and Fonda divorced in 1989, and Williams forged a close relationship with Turner, who Fonda married in 1991. Turner introduced Williams to fishing, on a boat recalling whimsically how he had contemplated suicide as a young man: “He said he had thought about jumping from the top of a very tall New York hotel, but decided not to because he didn’t want to land on someone.” Like Fonda, Turner wasn’t outwardly ritzy, but he had a private plane. Williams laughs. “He insisted everyone was on time for flights, even though we said, ‘Ted, this is your plane, it leaves when you want’.”

Turner’s all-black staff (“truly his family”) at his Tallahassee mansion didn’t make Williams uncomfortable, “because I was secure in myself”. The black security guards at Turner’s CNN penthouse, however, were envious she thinks. “They gave me a hard time, not letting me through.” Did Williams face any class or racial prejudice in Hollywood? Williams smiles. “I was in this bubble where my race didn’t matter because the people I associated with were very high class. The people who might have dismissed me as ‘this black girl’ were like,” she smiles widely, “‘how are you?’. I didn’t care what was going through their minds. I knew my family loved me.”

Fonda and Turner divorced in 2001 when Mary was 34: there were rumours of an affair (him) and Fonda becoming a Christian which jarred against Turner’s atheism. “Jane is a searcher,” who has also dabbled in Buddhism, says Williams. She “holds grudges and didn’t want to hold one against Ted”. “Towards the end she was devastated. They were very much in love. She didn’t get married to get divorced and it was hard for her when she realised she had to walk away. I was very sad. I love Ted and his kids. They’re still friends. He’s still my dad.” Fonda, 75, is now with music producer Richard Perry. “They’re cute. I don’t think she’ll marry again, but they roll in at all hours.” Williams laughs that Fonda is “the queen of TMI (too much information) — she wants me to know everything about her. I don’t want to hear it.”

Williams too is one of life’s searchers, finding it hard to settle down and to resolve her conflicting emotions towards her birth mother and grief over her dead sister Deborah. She took on jobs and activities in far-flung places — Tanzania, walking the Appalachian Trail — “as a way of breaking myself down to build myself back up” and “lost herself” in bad relationships. She’s single now, and doesn’t want children. Five years ago, Williams “totally unfairly” directed “all my rage” at Fonda, telling her she wasn’t her mother. Fonda patiently told her that she was and “you’re my daughter and always will be”.

Fonda didn’t invite Williams to her 70th birthday party “because of my bad attitude”, then came to see Williams “looking so ragged I felt awful for how badly I had treated her”.

Williams is happier now, a reconnection with her birth mother established: she wants to move out of self-imposed isolation in Arizona to a city like Seattle. The two mothers met last June. Mary Sr wasn’t “intimidated at all. She wasn’t competing with Jane Fonda, movie star,” says Williams. “But there’s no way of competing against 30 years.” Williams would like to see her father — who was jailed for domestic violence against another of his wives — “but he was never there so I don’t have a strong emotional tie to him”. Williams will spend Christmas with Fonda and Mother’s Day with Mary. “I consider Jane to be my mother because she has cared for and loved me the longest and most consistently, but,” Williams smiles of her birth mother, “I’m definitely well on the way to telling her ‘I love you’.”