Lear: no more 'utter darkness'

May 18, 1992|By Tim Warren | Tim Warren,Book Editor

Washington -- Survivors should look this good.

Frances Lear is a striking woman of 68 -- thin and elegantly dressed and assured, the last two parts understandable when the phrase for your worldly wealth has a "hundred" before the "million." On this day, she sits on a couch in a splendidly decorated suite in a quite posh Washington hotel. She is talking about "The Second Seduction," her newly published memoir, and the magazine she founded that bears her name, and her two decades of activity in the women's movement.

Ms. Lear is as advertised: forthright, articulate, a woman of strong opinions and judgments. "My job is to improve the image of women -- not only to women, but to industry," she says with fierce pride about her role as publisher of Lear's. "I believe that we have contributed to that by not presenting women as they traditionally have [been] at the age of 35 and older."

There was a time, though, when Frances Lear would not have sat so confidently, so assertively, in this opulent hotel room that carries the heavy scent of success -- most of her life, in fact, and her book tells why.

Here's the roll call from "The Second Seduction": Frances Loeb was born out of wedlock in Westchester County, N.Y.; her adoptive father, whom she adored, committed suicide when she was 10; her adoptive mother both "gave me the laughter I had as a child" and also pretended not to notice her second husband's incestuous visits to teen-age Frances' room.

Thwarted by sexist hiring practices of the 1940s and 1950s -- she liked the retailing business but found advancement almost impossible for women -- she took such jobs as camera girl at the old Copacabana night club in New York. There were three failed marriages, the last to Hollywood producer Norman Lear. There was a lifelong battle with manic depression, and three failed suicide attempts, and a three-week hospitalization in Bellevue when the second marriage broke up after less than a year, and she tried to put her head in an oven.

And how about this to illustrate an almost incomprehensible run of bad luck with psychiatrists: During an especially vulnerable time, one told her coldly, "You will pay me in cash on the first of every month. I don't care if you have to whore for the money." Another fed her shots of booze and insisted she undress during their sessions.

I checked into a motel on Ventura Boulevard with a bottle of vodka and two full prescriptions of Seconal, swallowed both, and remained unconscious for two days before I was found.

The hospital attendant was middle-aged, gay, odd-looking, and sad. "Why did you do it?" he asked. "You have so much to live for."

He was right, I had much to live for. But none of it mattered. No one could have stopped me from trying to take my life. The pain in the depression preceding my suicide attempt was greater, by far, than my joy had been in giving birth, twice, to life.

That attempt came during the bad, bad days in Hollywood, where she lived for almost 30 years and which she hated with a passion. She writes: "The wife-of in Hollywood does not have a name of her own, or a face that has been seen, or a voice that is ever heard, or a character that anyone reacts to, or a persona that is recalled."

She left the place, and Norman, in 1985, and headed East to New York. There she lived out her dream of founding a magazine for people like herself: educated, sophisticated and intelligent women over 30. She had a felicitous jump-start -- a reported $112 million from her divorce settlement -- to burn; she sank close to $30 million of it to start Lear's, which was introduced as "the magazine for women who weren't born yesterday." Almost six years later, it is a successful and, she says, profitable enterprise.

"I live at the extremes," Frances Lear is saying now. "Manic depressives do. Everything is black and white. Now that I am properly medicated [with lithium] and monitored by a very capable psychiatrist, I see more gray. But all during my life I have seen immensely happy pictures, or utter darkness."

In "The Second Seduction," she writes of the "utter darkness" with at times a harrowing directness and intensity -- the chapter titled "Therapy" begins, "I have been in therapy since I was thirteen years old, and much of it was bad for my health." There are other frank passages: admission of three lesbian encounters and several affairs with men, including one that lasted for 12 years while she was married to Mr. Lear.

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