In spite of privilege and glamour in his early life, there was more than a fair share of pain and tragedy. Peter and his older sister Jane lived in the shadow of their famous father who was cold, austere, and rarely home. Their mother died when Peter was 10. It was a few years before he accidentally learned his mother’s death was a suicide and not from a heart attack as he’d been told. Peter attended various boarding schools, and was obliged to adapt to new step-mothers as his father went on to marry three more times.
“My father abandoned us. He abandoned the whole family. Nobody ever talked in our family. For years I was very angry. My grandmother burned my mother’s letters; it blew my mind.”
Today his family is very important to Peter Fonda. Discovering and believing in himself was a long, arduous journey. “You first must have something of yourself to believe in before you can accept family.” He admits that it took him years to come to this point, to find forgiveness for his parents, to forgive himself. Two bright spots in his early years were the companionship of his sister Jane, and his Aunt Harriet, his father’s sister in Nebraska, where he spent months at a time. “Aunt Harriet was fabulous, the best.” She was conservative in politics and her young nephew had the makings of a rebel who would easily explode, but they sat together at the table with Uncle John Peacock and talked and talked. “Nobody in the family ever talked to me before.”
“I always sought attention and love. I never respected authority, except on a boat. There the Captain’s word is law.” From the age of six, after a devastating experience in the hospital, Fonda had a recurring nightmare. Only on his boat did the nightmare cease.
“I wake up every morning thinking I know nothing. Freedom is very important. I learn from each day. I recreate my life anew. Looking forward is how I see things. What is the meaning of life? The question is not why we are here, but what we do when we are here.”
Peter Fonda, whose name is embedded in the sidewalk on Main Street, Bozeman, deserves to be proud of his accomplishments. We, too, are looking forward to what he has in store for us.
~ Valerie Hemingway has lived in Bozeman for 25 years. She is the author of Running with the Bulls: My Years with the Hemingways. Portrait by Lynn Donaldson.