Lear: no more 'utter darkness'


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.

In all, there's an extraordinary amount of personal stuff packed into the 191 pages that constitute "The Second Seduction," enough material to embarrass even the most thick-skinned. Ms. Lear reveals, for instance, that she cannot recall how her second husband spelled his last name (though she does write, "He was a printing salesman who worked now and then and was, despite the fact that he was short and round and had spaces between his teeth, a womanizer"). So the obvious question is brought to Ms. Lear: Now that all this is in print, don't you feel a little funny?

"I really have no self-consciousness about my life and my experiences," she answers with believable conviction. "I know that people adore gossiping and take great pleasure in, 'Oh, she did this and she did that.'

"But I tell you -- it no longer matters. I'm 68 years old, I'm extraordinarily happy, I have a successful product. I no longer care. I am eccentric, and certainly I've led a life that anybody could gossip about. But I don't think it has any effect on me as a human being."

Actually, she continues, "The book was not painful to write at all. I did stumble through the chapter on my father's suicide and had a crying bout there for a short time, but the rest of it was not painful because I had worked out the material before, in therapy. As all writing is, this must have been an exorcism of sorts, but it did not hurt on the way out."

Still, at the book's end, there seems to be one enormous omission: Where's Norman? "The Second Seduction" never tells how the Lears met, or much about their breakup -- precious little, really, considering they had two children together and were together almost 30 years.

Ms. Lear is said to have frosted up in previous interviews at the mention of her ex-husband; this time, she handles the topic evenly, dispassionately, even if she is not terribly forthcoming: "I have no intentions about writing about our marriage," she says. "It doesn't belong to me -- it belongs to the two of us. This is not a kiss-and-tell book by any measure, and there was no question in my mind that I would write about anything intimate between us."

But later in the interview, when the subject comes up again, she leans forward and says to her questioner, in a stunning admission: "Would you believe me if I told you I didn't remember more? About the things I wrote, I only remember that -- and nothing more. It never occurred to me at any time that I would write about my marriage. I'm sure I will, but this book was about me."

(Actually, Mr. Lear may not feel so bad to be slighted. About her first husband, she writes, "Arnold was a mama's boy, a tall, Neapolitan-looking man with weakness all over his face." Their marriage lasted less than two years.)

Still, although "The Second Seduction" alternately can be uncomfortably filled with personal admissions (and quite self-absorbed), and then maddeningly elusive and evasive, it still is a powerful document of one's survival. As she writes at the end of "The Second Seduction": "The better part of my life has been snake eyes, but I have won at every crap table I have visited. I have failed to sit midway on the seesaw in this incarnation, but I have been in a larger air more often and higher than most."

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