Jane Fonda Did Not Know How to Be a Good Parent to the Girl Who Called Her Mom Yet Never Legally Adopted

Junie Sihlangu
Feb 18, 2022
09:40 P.M.
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Jane Fonda took in Mary Williams when she was a teenager but never legally adopted her. The star felt she wasn't always a good parent to the child, although she saved her from a dysfunctional background.


Jane Fonda's adopted daughter, Mary Williams, was born in Oakland, California, where she lived with her four sisters, one brother, mother, and father. Her mother sold "The Black Panther" newspaper and worked as a cook.

Williams' father served as a captain in the Black Panther Party. Wiliams was only a toddler when her father was sent to the San Quentin prison after a high-speed chase with the police.

Jane Fonda and Mary Williams were interviewed by Oprah Winfrey on April 10, 2013. | Source: YouTube/OWN


Initially, Williams' mother would take her and her siblings on bus rides to visit their father in prison. However, after a few months, the trips stopped, and their father was cut out of their lives.

When Williams was six, her mother quit the Panthers and was kicked out of their community school. Williams' mother had to take the role of the head of the household and struggled to look after her children.

Tom Hayden and Jane Fonda at the Americana Hotel where they received plaques honoring them for their activities from the Emergency Civil Liberties Committee in New York on December 7, 1974. | Source: Bettmann/Contributor/Getty Images


Williams' mother studied to become a welder at trade school to maintain the family, but she injured her knee at work. She lost her job and became a "zombie" around the children and beat them for minor transgressions.

When the parent became indifferent to her children's needs and wellbeing, Williams didn't hesitate, when at age 11, she got a chance to go to a summer camp. Fonda and her then-husband, Tom Hayden, ran the Laurel Springs Children's Camp in Santa Barbara.


Jane Fonda at the Film Society of Lincoln Center Gala Tribute to her career as an actress on May 7, 2001, in New York City. | Source: George De Sota/Newsmakers/Getty Images


Williams got into the camp because her uncle had met Fonda and Hayden through the Panthers, whom they supported. She attended the camp several times and got to know Fonda better, as the star took a personal interest in her.

The actress's adopted daughter didn't know she was poor until she saw all the fancy items other attendees brought to the camp. However, Fonda gave her attention and would listen attentively to the child's stories.

Jane Fonda at the opening ceremony and the "Grace of Monaco" premiere during the 67th Annual Cannes Film Festival on May 14, 2014, in France. | Source: Pascal Le Segretain/WireImage/Getty Images


The relationship between Williams and Fonda grew to the point where the star would hug her when they met, hold her hand as they walked, and scratch her back as they sat together.

The child loved the attention and affection but was skeptical as it wasn't something she was used to. She started opening up to the actress about her family life and considered her future.

Vanessa Vadim, Jane Fonda, Simone Bent, and Troy Garity at the AFI Life Achievement Award: A Tribute to Jane Fonda on June 5, 2014, in Hollywood, California. | Source: Michael Kovac/Getty Images


While her sisters and other older girls got pregnant in their teens and dropped out of school, Williams stayed focused on a better future. One of her older sisters became addicted to drugs and lost herself in the streets.

In a past OWN interview, Fonda was asked what drew her to Williams; the star confessed that there was something about the little girl, and everyone loved her. After attending the camp for two years, Williams didn't return until the year after.

Jane Fonda and French film director Roger Vadim on October 1, 1966. | Source: Keystone Features/Getty Images


When she returned, Williams was different, and that's when Fonda found out she had been sexually assaulted. The teenager felt her life aspirations were over and resigned herself to her fate.

Knowing that Williams had something special and was brilliant, Fonda offered her residence at her Santa Monica home. The only condition was that the teenager had to bring her grades up and her mother had to agree to the arrangement, with Williams describing that moment as such in her book, "The Lost Daughter:"

“She threw me a lifeline, and I grabbed it.”

A young Jane Fonda posing in a waist-length shot wearing a mustard yellow sweater. | Source: Bettmann/Contributor/Getty Images


Williams was around 14 or 16 when she moved in with the actress in 1982. Fonda wasn't her legal guardian, but her stardom allowed them to stay together with no issues, and no adoption papers were signed while Williams' mother gave her blessing, with the actress telling her new child:

“I see you as my daughter now. If you want, you can call me Mom.”

Living with Fonda was a huge adjustment for the teenager who'd never come across such luxury. She got to experience different food items that she didn't like, e.g., asparagus, and learned people could disagree and still be civil!



Vanessa Vadim and Jane Fonda at the AFI Life Achievement Award: A Tribute to Jane Fonda on June 5, 2014, in Hollywood, California. | Source: Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images

Williams revealed in her book that the first time she met Fonda's family, mainly the star's son Troy Garity. She met Garity and Fonda at LAX while the star's daughter, Vanessa Vadim, was away spending time with her father, Roger Vadim, while Hayden was gone for business.


The drive to her new home left Williams in awe as she experienced clean streets and safe neighborhoods. The star's mansion was also something the teenager had to take in.

Jane Fonda at the Sydney Opera House on August 27, 2018, in Sydney, Australia. | Source: Caroline McCredie/Getty Images


Garity was quite friendly and gave her a home tour and showed her his room while Fonda prepared dinner. After supper, the actress tucked both children in and told Williams she was happy she had moved in with them before kissing her on the cheek.

He [Troy Garity] revealed that no formal discussion was had about the teenager’s [Mary Williams] adoption but he was happy and fine with it.

Instead of sleeping, the teenager couldn't help but be afraid of her new surroundings. So she got up and propped a chair under the door handle to stop anyone coming in, a habit she began the past year while in Oakland.


Despite being exposed to a life of luxury, Williams became a down-to-earth woman. Around 2007, she left a good job, her fiancé, and sold her three-bedroom Atlanta home to live in solitude and travel.

At age 43, she spent half a year helping others with her work at nonprofit organizations and federal parks. Other times she lived by herself in a tiny Arizona condo and stayed connected to the world through the internet.



Fonda once confessed that adding Williams to her family was the missing piece in her life, and she "helped me to become whole." In a previous interview, the star also admitted that she struggled with being a good parent.

She had some regrets about the things she did in the past. The actress said she wanted her family to love and be with her when she died but knew she had to earn it, noting about her parenting struggles:

“I didn’t know how to do it. But you can learn, so I studied how to be a parent. It’s never too late.”



Troy Garity and Jane Fonda at the premiere of "Jane Fonda In Five Acts" on September 13, 2018, in Los Angeles, California. | Source: Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

Garity followed in his mother's footsteps by becoming an actor, while Vanessa joined the industry as a director and cinematographer. Williams became a social activist, and when she moved in with the family, Garity was 12.

He revealed that no formal discussion was had about the teenager's adoption, but he was happy and okay with it. Fonda's son was pleased he had someone to connect with and Williams being older was excellent for him because he had someone who'd listen to him.

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