Jane Fonda gives tycoon more than he bargained for as she goes rogue at Vienna ball

Hollywood star says ‘I engage in civil disobedience’ as she denounces event sponsor and calls for action against climate change

Vienna’s opera ball is the highlight of the Austrian season and, each year, local businessman Richard “Mörtel” Lugner likes to be the centre of attention.

At 90 years old, the shopping mall magnate knows how: each year he pays a Hollywood actor, a singer or starlet to be his plus-one.

Over the years he’s invited them all: Grace Jones, Goldie Hawn, Pamela Anderson, Ivana Trump and even Kim Kardashian. But on Wednesday, Mr Lugner admitted he had finally been beaten at his own publicity game by a woman just five years his junior: Jane Fonda.

When the 85-year-old Hollywood star arrived in Vienna on Monday she got a full Lugner welcome: a bouquet, a photo opportunity and a white stretch limousine with her name on the side.


Instead of going along with her host, the Grace & Frankie star went rogue. She refused the limo and took his private car instead, tore up their itinerary and spent Monday and Tuesday visiting Vienna’s famous museums and galleries without him.

When she finally saw her host at a joint press conference on Wednesday, Ms Fonda admitted she had come to Vienna under false pretences.

“Until yesterday I thought I was going to the opera with this man, now I’ve learned that it’s a popular ball,” she said. Asked if she planned to dance with Mr Luger, she demurred: “I have an artificial shoulder and hip replacement, I might fall apart.”

After chastising Mr Lugner for talking behind her back, Ms Fonda used the event to promote climate activism – even attacking the Vienna opera ball for accepting sponsorship from an oil company.

“These fossil fuel companies are criminal, they are killing people and killing the planet,” she said.

With a history of activism going back to the Vietnam War, Ms Fonda expressed support for radical climate activists and urged people to “show compassion for them and do everything we can to prevent the climate crisis becoming an out-of-control catastrophe”.

“I engage in civil disobedience, I get arrested just like people glueing themselves to the street, more people pay attention and, little by little, people start doing something,” she said.

By now Mr Lugner was doing and saying very little, offering journalists a tragic smile as Ms Fonda explained she was in Vienna only because her host had paid her “quite a bit of money”.

How did the 90-year-old feel about helping finance Fonda’s activism with not even the prospect of a waltz with her on Thursday evening? “I’m happy,” he insisted as the cameras flashed, “I’m happy.”

Derek Scally

Derek Scally

Derek Scally is an Irish Times journalist based in Berlin