John Sandilands


Interview with Jane Fonda

Date published: November 1968
Publisher: Published in Nova Magazine

This is probably one of John’s best ever interview pieces, and has been much anthologised. The young Jane Fonda was then living with Roger Vadim, and John travelled to St Tropez to meet her

Jane Fonda’s Curious Menage At St Tropez

Extracted from Ray Connolly’s book “In the sixties”. Here’s RC’s footnote: “John Sandilands was probably the best profile writer on Nova. He has also made television programmes and, with Lavinia Warner, wrote Women Beyond the Wire, an account of women held in Japanese prisoner-of-war camps in the Second World War. He is currently writing a book on the French Foreign Legion.

Nova November 1968

In movies the late Sixties was generally a period of soft-focused extreme silliness. Few films were more absurd than Barbarella, which starred Jane Fonda and was directed by her husband Roger Vadim.

The new films of Roger Vadim are always accompanied by a certain excitement. His first picture, And God Created Woman, made at St Tropez in 1956, starred in great anatomical detail his wife Brigitte Bardot. Its release was accompanied by the rumours of impending divorce through Bardot’s relationship with her leading man in the picture. The divorce was confirmed in December 1957, and the following day a young Danish actress called Annette Stroyberg gave birth to Vadim’s baby. They married and Annette became the star of Vadim’s next picture, Les Liaisons Dangereuses.

At the time of the film’s opening it was reported that she was having an affair with a French guitarist called Sacha Distel who had come suddenly to fame as a boyfriend of Brigitte Bardot. A divorce followed.
The release of that picture outside France was delayed for two years by censorship difficulties but when Vadim came to New York for the delayed opening he was accompanied by a new protegee, an eighteen-year-old French actress called Catherine Deneuve. Their friendship received considerable publicity, as did the birth of Vadim’s son to Catherine although neither was considering marriage.

The presentation of Vadim’s first film with the American actress, Jane Fonda, daughter of Henry Fonda, was enlivened by news of their romance. The film was called La Ronde (The Roundabout), but Vadim went on to marry Jane in 1965.

Their latest picture together, on general release this month, is a highly erotic science-fiction fantasy called Barbarella in which Jane appears nude and in a variety of futuristic sexual dilemmas. A few weeks ago, just before the London opening, she gave birth to her first baby, a daughter.

She is eight-and-a-half months pregnant and she is looking absolutely lovely. She is tall so that her imposing front makes her stately and she can still glide a little when she walks. It is blazingly hot at St Tropez and she is wearing an embroidered Tunisian djellabah, ankle-length, as a maternity gown. Nothing else. The sleeves are wide and cut to the waist and when she raises her arms to push back her mane of blonde hair it is possible to see her bare breasts which are remarkably shapely, even at this late date.
She seems wonderfully happy. Everybody seems happy. There are guests at the villa, an Italian prince and princess and their baby boy. On the low wall along the terrace above the sparkling Mediterranean the princess is reading a book, lying on her stomach with just the bottom half of her bikini between her olive skin and the brilliant sun. The boy baby is naked, plump with contentment and rude as a cherub.
Two dogs, an Alsatian and a golden spaniel, are panting companionably together in the shade and in the kitchen the good-looking Italian boy in his tiny shorts is preparing lunch, moving methodically but lazily, the exact pace for working when it is very warm and nobody really cares about the time. It is a late August weekend in the Vadim villa at St Tropez and nobody seems to care much about anything except just being, pleasurably, in the Mediterranean sun.

Jane Fonda, the third and current Madame Vadim, is discoursing amiably about the state of maternity which has now overtaken her, at thirty, for the first time. ‘I think,’ she says, ‘that it would be nice if you could have babies by all the men that you love and respect. There are a few of Vadim’s friends that I would love to have babies with but the trouble is that it all takes too long. Christian Marquand, now, who is Vadim’s best friend, said to me once, ‘I’d like to have a baby by you,’ and it would be wonderful to have a son of Christian’s but, I mean, nine months ... If a pregnancy lasted two months, say, it would be different but I don’t think I could consecrate nine months to anything that wasn’t Vadim’s.’
She gazes with her huge, innocent, blue-grey eyes out across the Gulfe de St Tropez and it is possible to wonder if this is the latest small-talk of Riviera villas but she is thinking about it seriously in a fond, rather wistful way. ‘If I weren’t married to Vadim I’d be very sad not to have his baby,’ she ponders. ‘He has such extraordinary children, you know;’

Vadim is out there somewhere in the gulf in his speedboat, one of the stream of craft that pour out of the famous harbour to sport like dolphins, aimlessly, on the spangled water until the lure of St Trop draws them home again. He is absent but overpoweringly present because it is his unique lifestyle that has created this wondrously insouciant scene.

For more than a decade Roger Vadim has stood as a symbol of male emancipation - a man with the ability to ignore convention and, much more importantly, to make beautiful women ignore it with him. There should stand on the celebrated quai at St Tropez a large bronze statue of Vadim, frozen in some noble pose, a resting place and occasional convenience for passing sea-birds and a permanent memorial to the marvellous skein of movies and marriages, parting and paternities, schemes and scandals that he has woven over the years with St Trop as their sunny setting.

In the beginning was Brigitte Bardot, whom he married and casually handed over to the world in a celluloid package, smile, bosom, legs and incomparable behind.

Next there was Annette Stroyberg, a Nordic replica of Bardot, a baby, then marriage, then more sizzling film stock devoted to her naked charms. Next there was Catherine Deneuve, a baby; no marriage but the inevitable Paris-Match pictures in which this pale, Parisian beauty had suddenly come to look amazingly like her predecessor and Bardot.

Somehow St Tropez has always remained the maypole round which this complex combination of flesh and flouted morals, casual wedlock and off-hand fatherhood has circulated and now there is another Vadim consort there, pregnant and seemingly quite comfortably attuned to this curious modus vivendi.

Even bow-fronted, without a trace of make-up, she looks with her high cheekbones and flood of careless blonde hair again a good deal like Bardot but it may be an illusion brought on by St Tropez. Jane Fonda is different from her precursors, she has come from another mould. She is not a Vadim invention but a film star in her own right, the daughter of a famous film star, a beautiful woman with her own stock of intelligence and poise. She is aware of all this and she tries, politely; as if it is a duty; to explain.

‘I guess,’ she says, ‘I’m a kind of slave type. I seem to function very well when someone puts me in a framework and Vadim always knows exactly where he’s going. His marriages, you know, don’t end because he’s impossible to live with. He’s a very understanding, easy going, intelligent sort of person, the complete opposite of everything you hear about him before you know him. He has the ability to make a woman blossom. He brings out qualities in her that may have been there already but were never going to come out without Vadim to help them along.

‘He seems to be attracted to complicated, impossible people, myself included, but he is never the one who makes the difficulties. When I first got pregnant, for example, I was the world’s worst bitch. I was really terrible. It got to the stage of saying very calmly: “Look, we won’t get divorced yet, while I’m having a baby.” For a little while there it was all over and I was terribly unhappy.

‘Some time later when I was very relaxed and contented again I mentioned all this business to Vadim and he’d completely forgotten the whole thing. He’d forgotten and to me it was this awful drama!’ She opens her eyes even wider and smiles showing all her pearly, quaintly protuberant teeth, astonished at the saintly detachment of Vadim from the idiocies forced upon him by beautiful women. Fondly she recalls how easy it was to misjudge him without the privilege of closer acquaintance with him.

‘You know, I first met Vadim in Maxim’s when I was seventeen years old and I was studying painting in Paris. He was with Annette Stroyberg who was very pregnant with’ - she pauses only momentarily to assimilate the implications - ‘well, my stepdaughter, and I’d only heard the bad things about him. How he was this cynical, vicious, immoral, Svengali-type character. I was very aggressive because I’d only heard the legend. Later on he sent for me to come to see him at the Beverley Hills Hotel in Hollywood, to talk about a film, but we had nothing to say to each other. I thought that all the charm and the softness were just an act to cover up for all the other stuff. One of the reasons for the flip-over’ - she demonstrated the flip-over with her long, brown hands - ‘was the discovery that he is so utterly different from his public image.’

She is quite plainly; to use an old-fashioned expression, in love with Vadim but discovering his many remarkable qualities is no longer exactly an original exercise for a lovely girl who has the world at her own feet. ‘Look,’ she says, ‘I know there is a pattern that repeats itself with Vadim and women but it’s not something he works at, it’s just the way he is. He has his friends and his way of life here and we are constantly running into people who knew him then, but if you’re married to someone like Vadim and you were jealous of his past you couldn’t go on living, could you?

‘I’m not jealous because I find that men who have lived a full life and known a lot of beautiful women are no longer trying to prove themselves. The mystery and glamour of every new woman that comes along has gone for Vadim because he knows it all. The French have an expression for the way he is which is something like “he is at ease within his skin”.’ She lowers her eyelashes and drops her voice at least an octave. ‘Besides, the kind of life he has had has made him a good deal more interesting. ’

There would seem to be a danger, alongside a personality so accurately adjusted and well-defined, of a certain loss of identity even for an actress who has become one of the biggest box-office attractions in the whole of the film industry Jane Fonda shook her head so violently that she had to go through the fascinating process of pushing back her mane. ‘I have my identity more than ever before because when you are happy you become so much more what you are. Most women, with Vadim, become more definite although it’s not something he tries to create. When he’s not there I feel less of a person, not more. He was away in America a while ago and he stayed away just a few days too long and I began to feel very lost and unhappy. When you are very contented with somebody it seems to give you a kind of aura. I think I have become much more attractive to men since I married Vadim.’

Vadim has been missing again for some time now and there is building up a certain air of expectancy about his arrival that is strengthened by the fact that promising signs of lunch have appeared. The plump housekeeper who, in the convoluted manner of a Vadim ménage ,turns out to be the mother of the Italian cook, has set a table on the terrace loaded with wines, salads, long loaves and interesting sauces, and the spectacle has magnetized a sudden crowd of people, all of whom introduce themselves by saying: ‘Where is Vadim?’

There is the prince who belongs to the princess and a sultry girl in a bikini who turns out to be the baby’s nursemaid instead of a contessa and Serge Marquand, who is Christian’s brother and thus, evidently, Vadim’s second-best friend. With him there is an enigmatic American girl who confesses later, and mysteriously, that she used to date both Serge and Vadim when she was fifteen and in Mexico of all places. She too wears a bikini and the uniform olive tan.

They all sit down at the table and look hopefully towards Jane who, in turn, looks hopefully out towards the sea which at present, somewhere and presumably contains Vadim. The villa is in the Pare de St Tropez, an expensive enclave with a guard at the gate, out on the headland past the village where the tourists endlessly turn over the clothes at Choses on the quai and scramble for the status of a table in the front row, far right at the Cafe Senequier. The seagoing traffic is now all streaking back to St Trop, because it is the hallowed French luncheon hour, and Jane watches the white wakes for a time. ‘You know,’ she says, ‘I hate St Tropez.’ There could be so many reasons why. It was Vadim and Brigitte Bardot who invented all that wonderful nonsense about the importance of slacks from Choses and certain seats at Senequier, the whole satire on chic and le snobbisme that is the best of St Tropez. The actual, immortal villa of Bardot at Cap Pierre is only concealed by a large rock, just out of view.
It emerges that what Jane dislikes are merely the huge crowds which flock into what was once no more than a tiny fishing village. ‘We have this big car and sometimes when I take it into St Tropez to do the shopping the traffic is so awful that I just burst into tears. I leave the car right there in the middle of the road and walk away.’ She makes a weary housewife face as though St Trop were Surbiton instead of the scene of her husband’s most picturesque forays. 

There may be a subtle association of ideas, however, for she says suddenly, ‘You want to know something very funny? Sometimes when I go into St Tropez with Vadim people call me Brigitte. They’re standing right up close to me and they call me Brigitte!’ It sounds a thoroughly disagreeable experience for someone with a name as famous as Jane Fonda’s but she doesn’t seem to think so. ‘I mean, I just find that puzzling. I don’t know how people can make that mistake.’ There is no suggestion that she is the least bit troubled by being part of a small procession. ‘Bardot,’ she says, shaking her head in honest awe, ‘she’s a real phenomenon. She can be in a room filled with powerful personalities but you are still constantly aware that she is there. I’ve met her but I can’t talk to her - she scares me to death.’ She thinks about that for a moment then produces a tiny spark of rebellion: ‘Of course she has made a series of very bad pictures.’

The acting career of Jane herself has not taken its major strides through the movies she has made for Vadim, for in Vadim pictures the volume and quality of sheer flesh that he favours tends to outweigh such a shy nuance as acting talent. Her professional reputation rests, at this moment, with Barbarella, Vadim’s latest creation based on a pseudo-science-fiction comic-strip. In it she is required to say little more than ‘Good heavens!’ as she is continually confronted with an astounding spectrum of sexual occurrences, both pseudo-science-fictional and distinctly earthy in every respect.

On the topic of her career there is just a hint of something less than euphoria, a defensiveness that she displays nowhere else. ‘If I have anything as an actress,’ she says, ‘I have variety. Why not go out on a limb and do something like Barbarella? It’s fun, it’s something new and different. Maybe making the picture wasn’t as rewarding to me in the acting sense, day by day, but I like taking a chance like that.’

The honesty that exists permanently in her blue-grey eyes exerts itself. ‘I guess that if I had just received a letter from Dino (Dino de Laurentiis who produced Barbarella) I would have thrown it away. I would never have done Barbarella with anyone else but Vadim. He convinced me that it was right for me and I’m very glad that he did.

‘Of course I know that in America everybody is going to go “Eeeeek” and say that it’s just another Vadim nudie picture. I’m sure that, back home, my grandmother is going to say, “Jane, how could you do it?” but I don’t think of it as an erotic film. It’s just funny and free and nice. You know Vadim only has me completely nude behind the opening titles? He said, “Everybody will be waiting for that so why don’t we get it over with right away and get on with the picture?” That’s how he thinks about all that.’

More time has passed and a measure of desperation is beginning to emanate from the guests at the table. They are now nibbling with increasing vigour at the salad and the bread and the bravest among them have actually started on their hors d’oeuvres. Conventional instincts long bred in Jane from her birth in respectable, mid-western Nebraska and encouraged during her further education at Vassar finally prove too strong and she rises and sweeps towards the table in the classic hostess manner.

‘Meals in this house are such a problem,’ she announces brightly but unnecessarily. ‘Vadim is always hours late for everything.’ This news is received so mournfully that Jane loses her nerve and whispers to the cook’s mother who almost sprints out of the kitchen with the main course, a gigantic fish lying on its side like a bombed battleship. ‘Vadim caught this fish at five o’clock this morning!’ Jane prattles on sociably. ‘We didn’t get home until dawn. Vadim’s way with a dull party is to stay right to the very end in the hope that something will happen. He just doesn’t use the same clock as other people.’

Her audience is not attentive and the fish’s huge bones are showing as if it had been attacked by piranha when a loud whoop is heard, theatrically, to seaward. That’s Vadim!’ says Jane, igniting as to a mating call. She hurries into the house and is back with her eye make-up on by the time the Titan appears, walking slowly up the steps which lead from the rocks to the terrace. He is tall and strongly built, broadening quite a bit at the waist of his bathing suit and wearing thick-rimmed library glasses. He looks older and more impressive than the lean, slightly wolfish figure of his early St Tropez period.

The guests, in much better heart now, greet him like a hero. He has a loud voice, deep and heavily accented and his manner is lazily boisterous. He envelops Jane in an embrace then peers down her revealing sleeve while patting her bottom with his free hand.

After examining her noble stomach he tells everybody: ‘I am sure that it is really full of water and there are seven little red fishes swimming around in there. 1 am so certain that 1 am preparing an aquarium for them instead of a nursery.’ He heaves a big mock sigh. ‘One night of pleasure and nine months waiting for seven little fishes!’ Undeterred he sits down to the remains of his morning catch. ‘He has been through all this pregnancy thing before,’ Jane explains fondly, ‘but he forgets. It’s just as though it’s the first time. You know he has even had cravings?’

After lunch Vadim sits next to Jane on the wall, thrusts his hand up her sleeve and fondles her breast while promoting a discussion on whether childbirth leaves a faint white line on a woman’s abdomen, extending from the navel due south. The American girl has had a baby recently and Vadim pursues his researches down into her bikini without relinquishing Jane’s flesh.

The controversy continues for some time but it is very hot on the terrace and it is decided that an expedition will be made to Pampelone beach, so much more favoured than the Tahiti plage nowadays. Vadim manoeuvres the riva, that most status-laden of Riviera power boats, up to the small jetty below the house and Jane makes the tricky progress aboard just like everyone else, without benefit of solicitous hands or noticeable concern from anybody over her unwieldy condition.

Vadim revs up mightily and buckets across the waves around the headland while she reclines, a thought precariously in the circumstances, on the rear decking. Presently Vadim hands over the wheel and takes to water skis, performing expertly while the boat is hurled through a series of back-breaking arabesques which make Jane’s position seem even more temporary.

She is quite unworried and turns round to watch her husband and, by shifting slightly in the well of the boat, it is possible to conjure up a highly symbolic optical illusion. It can be made to appear that Jane is holding Vadim on a leash of brilliant orange nylon rope, but a very long leash which in no way restricts his freedom of movement. It seems a reasonable moment to wonder why Jane and Vadim took a step so oddly conventional as actually getting married.

‘Mostly,’ says Jane, ‘because of the child.’ This, too, appears rather formal reasoning for such a liberated couple. ‘Not this child,’ says Jane, patting her stomach. ‘We took my stepdaughter to America with us and you know how they are there. Kids used to say to her: ‘Oh, your mommy and daddy aren’t married are they’ and there was all that nonsense with hotels and things like that. It was just easier to be married, that’s all.’

The subject is making her slightly more uncomfortable than her seat on the back of a bucking boat. She is vehement for the first time. ‘Vadim and I have been together for five years but I honestly can’t remember if we’ve been married for two years and lived together for three or if it’s the other way around.

‘Our wedding was on the twenty-first floor of a hotel in Las Vegas. The judge was seventy years old and we went out afterwards and gambled all night. I can’t even remember the name of the hotel. Maybe it was the Sands.’ It was the Dunes and the casual nature of the ceremony has been established, but Jane continues, ‘I’d formed a very definite view about marriage - that it’s silly. It just doesn’t make sense to me. That people form a couple seems perfectly natural. Marriage is something else again, something superfluous like the human appendix. I’m sure that in the future, like that organ, it will be eliminated because it certainly doesn’t protect anything as far as the couple are concerned. We’re all fickle, why have the added burden of marriage? Maybe women do need the security, I don’t know, but two days before the wedding I went into a complete panic and I wanted to call the whole thing off. Now I feel better about it. I believe that, in the end, if you’re careful, marriage needn’t really spoil anything.’

On cue, Vadim performs a final sequence of spectacular gyrations and disappears abruptly beneath the waves while Jane winds in the empty towing line. She makes her own descent, heavily, into the surf at Pampelone beach and everybody gathers at a small bar which blossoms magically out of the golden sands. Within moments, and from nowhere, whole segments of Vadim’s life manifest themselves. Vadim’s mother appears, a tiny, bespectacled grey-haired lady, Vadim’s sister, big-boned like Vadim, and Vadim’s brother-in-law, one of the several he has acquired in his time. There is Vadim’s daughter by Annette Stroyberg, Nathalie, a tall, lissom ten-year-old who exactly resembles her mother, plus Vadim’s slanting Tartar eyes. Jane sits amongst them all, very contented, talking as volubly as everyone else in her fast American accented French.

By the time it comes to leave, the news of a Vadim visitation has spread right along the beach and a crowd of people has assembled outside the bar. Jane makes a majestic progress back to the boat with the throng falling back in front of her like awed savages, their faces covered with cameras as if in respect. Thus each of her predecessors, pregnant or otherwise, have made their departures from the beaches of St Tropez, but her smile is generous. She seems quite happy with her position in the line of descent.

Back at the villa the Vadim entourage disappears to change into the vivid kaftans and pyjama suits and tight Choses trousers which constitute evening wear at St Tropez and Vadim alone remains in his bathing shorts on the darkening terrace. He has made himself a large Scotch and he is in a mellow mood, looking out across the velvety gulf. He is prepared to divulge a little of the philosophy that has enabled him to dispose of so many of the stresses which bedevil almost every other husband and father on earth, a few of the secrets of the care and maintenance of such a carefree menage.

‘I am asking a lot from life when I am living with a woman,’ he says. ‘What is important for me is to trust and to trust is not to protect a woman too much and never to put her in situations where she has no temptations to face. To protect your wife too much is to be like a stingy man with money. It is a sick thing. In life beauty must be seen and it is a terrible conception that if that beauty exists in your wife it must be hidden.

‘I would not be jealous if my wife was naked in our garden and she was seen by someone for whom I have respect - someone who would appreciate her beauty on a normal, intelligent level. I would not mind a bit. If a man has an intelligent wife he will not hide her, will he? I do not have the slightest sense of sin so far as sex and the body are concerned. Why should I pretend that I do for the sake of narrow, stupid, bourgeois thinking?’

He smiles charmingly, showing his big, horse teeth. He is immensely attractive, infinitely persuasive because his face is guileless and pleasant except for a hint of secretive humour around his wide-set eyes. With an effort now, however, he manages a stern expression. ‘It is respect that is important between a man and a woman. Here, at the house, we may be playful with each other and our friends but at a party, at a club perhaps, if my wife starts to flirt and dance lasciviously I don’t like that because it is vulgar and does not show proper respect for the relationship. You will never see me kiss and caress a woman in public,’ he concludes with a conviction that brooks no possibility of argument.

It remains mildly puzzling that, in his films, his womenfolk are so ardently addressed and undressed by other men before a public of varied intellect and numbered in millions. Vadim considers the question, an old friend whom he met after his very first picture and the suggestion of humour around his eyes becomes a statement. ‘It is strange, isn’t it?’ he says.

He is forty years old, a father, at last, in wedlock; was there any chance now that his way of life might change, his taste as a movie-maker progress to properties more recognizably serious, and certainly more adequately clothed, than Barbarella? ‘You change a little at adolescence,’ says Vadim with endless tolerance. ‘Sometimes that adolescence lasts a very long time but you never learn anything really new after you are twenty, except perhaps in a relationship with a woman. I think that Jane is sensitive and intelligent and evolved enough to understand that which is why, at the moment, we are very happy.’

He is interrupted by the ringing of the telephone inside the villa and Jane emerges in the beautiful white maternity smock that she wears for evening. ‘C’est Brigitte Bardot qui t’appelle,’ she says casually. Vadim thanks her politely and goes to answer the call.



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List of John Sandilands articles

John Sandilands

John Sandilands Articles

  1. Obituary, March 2004 >>
  2. Introduction to Articles >>
  3. Article2 >>
  4. When the cure is sun, sea and mud >>
  5. Interview with Ava Gardner >>
  6. Interview with Dustin Hoffman, Los Angeles Times, 1968 >>
  7. Fiji >>
  8. Patrick Moore >>
  9. Mr Pastry >>
  10. Interview with Jane Fonda >>
  11. letters to and from John to editors >>
  12. Ballooning >>
  13. The Toad Cross Code >>
  14. Peter Sellers; that is the problem >>
  15. In bed with John Sandilands plus Jilly Cooper, Zandra Rhodes and Peter Cook >>
  16. Know the Type >>
  17. Animal poems >>
  18. The Toad Cross Code >>
  19. Albert and the Jaguars >>
  20. Herogram >>