Lear, Frances (1923–1996)

views updated

Lear, Frances (1923–1996)

American magazine editor and feminist who founded Lear's magazine "for the woman who wasn't born yesterday." Born on July 14, 1923, in Hudson, New York; died on September 30, 1996, in New York City; adopted daughter of Herbert Adam Loeb (a businessman) and Aline (Friedman) Loeb; briefly attended Sarah Lawrence College, Bronxville, New York; married Norman Lear (a television producer), on December 7, 1956; children: two daughters, Kate Lear ; Maggie Lear .

In the early 1960s, Frances Lear was an unquestioning, full-time housewife and mother when she read Betty Friedan 's groundbreaking treatise The Feminine Mystique which served as the catalyst for the modern women's movement. Lear became an ardent women's rights activist, working in the political arena with the National Organization for Women (NOW) and as a partner in one of the first executive-search firms dedicated to the placement of women. In 1988, after receiving an unprecedented divorce settlement from her husband of 30 years, television producer Norman Lear, Frances used a portion of the money to launch Lear's, the first mass-circulated magazine dedicated to women over 40. She would remain editor-in-chief of the magazine until it ceased publication in 1994, the same year she began a two-year battle with breast cancer.

Frances Lear was born in 1923 at the Vanderheusen Home for Wayward Girls in Hudson, New York, the daughter of an unwed mother and an unknown father. She spent the first 14 months of her life in an orphanage until she was adopted by Herbert and Aline Loeb of Larchmont, New York, who also changed her name from Evelyn to Frances. When she was 11, her adoptive father committed suicide after his clothing business fell victim to the Great Depression. Her adoptive mother, who remarried, died seven years later. Frances was educated in a series of boarding schools and briefly attended Sarah Lawrence College, but she dropped out at the age of 17 to head for New York City. For the next 15 years, she held a series of jobs in retailing and advertising; she also married and divorced twice. In those days, she said, you had to get married in order to sleep with a man.

At 33, Frances met and married Norman Lear, then a successful comedy writer, newly divorced. The couple settled in Encino, California, and while Norman and Bud Yorkin launched the sitcom "All in the Family," Frances took care of the couple's two daughters, Kate and Maggie. (Norman also had a daughter, Ellen Lear , from his previous marriage.) "I sewed and crocheted and gardened and wallpapered and cooked gourmet meals," she told Dinah Prince in an interview for New York magazine (December 15, 1986). "I loved being a mother." When Lear read Friedan's book, her initial reaction was one of anger; she interpreted it as a put-down of all the traditional values she held dear. Then she realized that, in actuality, Friedan was only prodding her to seek the recognition and sovereignty that she—and all women—deserved.

Lear worked with missionary zeal. In 1968, she joined the presidential campaign of Eugene McCarthy and also served as the national talent coordinator for the Democratic Party. She was active in the National Organization for Women and demonstrated with her husband for the passage of the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA). The Lears also used their new home in Brentwood to host fund-raising events for progressive political causes. In 1972, Frances founded Lear Purvis Walker & Company, a first-of-its-kind executive-search firm specializing in the placement of women. For several years, she chaired the Women's Lobby, a Washington-based feminist organization, and in 1976, she served a term on the advisory board of the National Women's Political Caucus. She also promoted the cause in print, contributing articles to Newsweek, Vogue, Ms., and the Harvard Business Review.

By the 1970s, Norman and Bud Yorkin's successful television shows—"All in the Family," "The Jeffersons," and "Maude" (whose title character, played by Bea Arthur , was thought to have been based on Frances)—had made Norman a multi-millionaire and a celebrity. Frances began to suffer a loss of identity that worsened during the 1980s when Norman founded his own civil-liberties group, People for the American Way, thus becoming more deeply involved in an area she had staked out as her own. In 1981, she vented her frustration in a piece for The New York Times, writing that in Hollywood "a woman is a nonperson unless she is under twenty-one, powerful, or a star…. Unless she is nailed to her husband, an industry wife is looked through, never at." Frances later explained her creeping sense of worthlessness to Prince: "I had very little self-esteem. I was depressed often. I tried very hard to be involved in things that brought me pleasure. But it wasn't enough…. Emotionally, I was a nonperson."

In her search to boost her self-confidence and to find a new "area of mastery," Lear first left her husband, moving to their duplex in Manhattan's posh Ritz Tower. When they subsequently divorced in 1986, she walked away with a settlement estimated at between $100 and $112 million, then the largest ever recorded. "I was very much a part of his thinking," she said. "Norman could not have done his shows without me." Lear next sought a new outlet for self-expression, a quest that was finally realized in her magazine Lear's. Conceived for the middle-aged woman, who in the past had been ignored in favor of her more youthful counterpart, the magazine was Lear's attempt to raise the self-esteem of women just like her. "I wanted to focus attention on this woman as something other than what she was perceived to be," she said in an interview for Advertising Age (October 23, 1989). "She was not this menopausal, depressed, empty-nested person whose life was finished."

Ignoring the naysayers who doubted she could pull it off, Lear invested $25 million in her new project and hired savvy professionals to bring her concept into reality. But despite her access to expertise, her inexperience proved to be a stumbling block, both during the two-and-a-half year period it took to get the magazine off the ground, and throughout the six years it was in publication. There were complaints about her inability to make crucial decisions in a timely fashion, her need to have total control over editorial policy, and her volatility. "She blew sometimes like a gale through a broken window," said Nelson Aldrich, one of a succession of editors at Lear's. "She could also be incredibly smart and inspiring," commented Caroline Miller , who would serve as the magazine's editor in its final days.

Lear blamed her unpredictable management style on manic depression, a disorder she battled off and on for years. "My illness makes me more volatile than other heads of companies," she told Fortune magazine in 1989. In her 1992 autobiography, The Second Seduction, Lear also revealed that she had battled alcoholism, addiction to prescription drugs, and had tried on at least three occasions to end her life. Writing that the odds were stacked against her from the beginning, Lear claimed that her adoptive mother only tolerated her to please her adoptive father, and that her stepfather had molested her from the age of 12.

Lear's sold out its first issue, which hit the newsstands on February 23, 1988, with an unprecedented number of ad pages and a circulation base of 250,000. After a year as a bimonthly, it went monthly with its first anniversary issue, featuring Lear on the cover. A typical issue contained articles on politics, finances, and automobiles, along with celebrity profiles and health and style reports. In the fashion spreads, Lear used older models, adhering to her theory that beauty endured well beyond the middle years. After two years, however, Lear abandoned her original concept and lowered the magazine's target age to 35, putting it in competition with standard women's magazines. Advertising revenues suffered as a result. When the magazine ceased publication in March 1994, it had a circulation of 500,000, but had lost an estimated $25 to $30 million during its six-year run.

Lear never spoke badly of her ex-husband, or revealed the details of their divorce. "I still love him," she confided to Liz Smith in 1992. "I don't want to go into detail on someone I care about." Norman was like-minded. "She had flamboyance and flair and a taste for elegance rare in this world," he said when Frances Lear died of breast cancer in September 1996. "She was an original from the day we met until the day the world said goodbye to her."


Lipton, Michael. "Queen Lear," in People. October 14, 1996, pp. 101–102.

Moritz, Charles, ed. Current Biography. NY: H.W. Wilson, 1991.

Nemy, Enid. "Obituary," in The Day [New London, CT]. October 2, 1996.

Barbara Morgan , Melrose, Massachusetts