Obituary: Frances Lear

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The Independent Online
Frances Lear was a political activist and Hollywood wife who spent some $25m she received from a divorce settlement on a magazine she named after herself. Lear provided something of an example for the divorced women of America. "I believe the second half of one's life is meant to be better than the first half," she once commented. "It certainly is true of me."

In 1985 she divorced her third husband, Norman Lear, the successful television producer of television series like All in the Family and Maude, and received over $100m in a settlement, one of the largest ever recorded. She claimed, and it was generally agreed, she was the model for Maude, played by Bea Arthur, and that Mr Lear could not have produced the shows without her.

She subsequently sank $25m into Lear's, a magazine aimed for women like herself - "for the woman who wasn't born yesterday". Circulation quickly grew until she decided to abandon the older age niche and compete with other women's magazines. By 1994 circulation had reached half a million copies but Lear's failed to attract enough advertising and closed.

She was known as a hot-tempered editor who sought, but reliably ignored, advice, and changed her mind capriciously. A staff member recalled Lear's reaction when she was told she could not change a quote."It is my magazine," she shouted."I can do what I want."

Earlier, Lear made a name for herself among feminists, working on Eugene McCarthy's 1968 presidential bid and with the National Organisation for Women on behalf of equal rights causes. But as her husband's television career took off in the 1970s she felt increasingly stifled, once commenting that a woman in Hollywood is nothing "unless she is under 21, powerful or a star".

She attributed her fiery streak to having lived in Hollywood and freely discussed her manic-depression, alcoholism and the several suicide attempts she had made over the years. "I've always been both tough and fragile, she said in an interview in 1992. "I had to be tough because the fragility was so at the ready to take over."

Frances Lear was born in Hudson, New York, at a home for wayward girls, the child of an unwed mother and an unknown father, and was adopted at the age of 14 months. In her autobiography, The Second Seduction (1992), she related years of sexual abuse at the hands of her stepmother's second husband, at the age of 12.

After school in Massachusetts she moved to New York and worked at various secretarial jobs from which she was consistently fired. She worked briefly at the Copacabana nightclub as a camera girl. That job ended when she asked Frank Costello, the famous gangster, if he would like his picture taken. Costello grabbed her under the arms, carried her out of the club and down the street, kissed her, and advised her to find a new line of work.

She had two short-lived marriages, first to a traffic manager at a naval shipyard in North Carolina and secondly to a man of whom she later claimed she could not remember how to spell his name, before marrying Norman Lear. After raising two daughters, she realised that "we had become he" and she spent 15 years summoning up the courage to leave the marriage.

Edward Helmore

Evelyn (Frances) Loeb, magazine proprietor: born Hudson, New York 14 July 1923; married first Arnold Weiss (marriage dissolved), secondly Morton Kaufmann (marriage dissolved), 1957 Norman Lear (two daughters; marriage dissolved 1985); died New York 30 September 1996.