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The Man Who Saw A Ghost

The Life and Work of Henry Fonda

St. Martin’s Press / 2012 / 428 pages / illustrated

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, a product of glamour and acclaim, early losses and Midwestern demons – a man haunted by what he’d seen, and by who he was.


“How many different ways can I mean to call this book essential? The sentences, in honor of their subject, threaten to explode with implication and insight.” — Jonathan Lethem, author of The Fortress of Solitude, Motherless Brooklyn and A Gambler’s Anatomy


“McKinney makes it clear that Henry Fonda didn’t just see ghosts – he wanted to tackle them, both to exorcise his own demons and to possess them, while portraying characters representative of America: magnificent, but flawed. You might actually start to believe you’re getting to know a man who was, even to those closest to him, unknowable.” — Robert Nott, author of He Ran All the Way: The Life of John Garfield and The Films of Randolph Scott


“This book is incisive, eloquent and gorgeous, but what elevates McKinney is that the prose is matched by the thinking behind it, as singular as it is brilliant, and bracingly unimpressed by the decades of conventional wisdom that have preceded it.” — Steve Erickson, author of The Sea Came in at Midnight, Zeroville and Shadowbahn


“Both a biography and an often-brilliant feat of criticism. McKinney paints Fonda as a performing artist who continues to matter because of his lifelong reckoning with the darkest recesses of American history.” — James Gibbons, Bookforum

“A major new examination of Fonda . . . Most biographers don’t understand how to talk about acting . . .  McKinney does.”Steve Vineberg, author of High Comedy in American Movies: Class and Humor from the 1920s to the Present and Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting Style, in The Threepenny Review

“Those interested in the intimate lives of the stars will appreciate the attention to detail and richness of research. Highly recommended.” — Library Journal (starred review)


“[An] excellent work of biography. In rich, lyrical prose, McKinney deftly honors both the man and the mystery.” — Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

“An extraordinary movie-star bio . . .  McKinney has a penetrating critical eye and a style at once concentrated and free-flowing. Performances one remembers fondly but dimly, now – dozens of them – are restored to brilliant life and specificity, and the troubled, often chilly character of the man is lent warmth by the author’s depth of appreciation.” Sullivan County Democrat


“As unusual and intriguing a Hollywood biography as its title suggests . . . a unique portrait of an actor who hid so much emotionally but trusted his audience to see what he couldn’t show them.” — Associated Press


“A biography of uncommon urgency and feeling . . . a work of art.” — R. Emmet Sweeney,


“Excellent.” — Buffalo News


“Detailed and often provocative . . . McKinney gives us fresh insights to draw on as we watch a Fonda performance.” — Washington Post Book World


“Deeply wrought biography of the dark, conflicted, amazingly talented actor, whose personal life was messy, and whose professional life resulted in some of the truly great films – and film performances – in Hollywood history.” — Philadelphia Inquirer

“This may be the single best piece of writing you'll see this year.” — Lucy Sante, author of I Heard Her Call My Name, Low Life, and The Other Paris

See the Archives for more Fonda material.
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