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In Her Own Image : Sneers, Jeers and Cheers Mark Start-up of Frances Lear's Magazine : 'I am the Lear's woman. I know what she is looking for, seeking in a magazine.' --Frances Lear

February 21, 1988|ELIZABETH MEHREN | Times Staff Writer

NEW YORK — On Halloween Day, 1985, Frances Lear arrived in New York with a vision. She would create a magazine for women over 40. She would start a publication for "returning" women, those re-entering the work force after ending marriages or raising families. She would invent a periodical for women who had some money and were comfortable spending it. She would publish a journal for women who were tired of looking at pictures of wrinkleless teen-agers, or slender-thighed 30-year-olds.

She would devise a magazine for herself.

"Because I am the Lear's woman," she said, using the name of the bimonthly periodical that will make its debut Tuesday. "I know what she is looking for, seeking in a magazine."

But, she added, "I knew nothing about the magazine business."

At that start, Lear admitted in a pair of interviews conducted at different phases of the publication's development, she did not even have a word processor, much less a staff or an office.

What she did have was a bankroll estimated at between $100 million and $125 million, the product of her divorce after almost 30 years of marriage to television producer Norman Lear.

Unretouched Laugh Lines

Lear's prototype came out Nov. 10, 1986, barely a year after she first set out to create a magazine that would reflect her "mind-set." On the cover was a smiling woman of at least 40 years old, her laugh lines proudly unretouched.

The cover also trumpeted the phrase that has become the Lear's slogan: "For the woman who wasn't born yesterday."

Kevin Buckley, a former Newsweek bureau chief in Saigon who signed on as the first editor of Lear's but was subsequently fired by Frances Lear, the editor in chief, claims credit for the slogan. Lear, who grows almost as frosty at the mention of former staffers as she does if the subject of her ex-husband is raised, embraces the catch phrase happily, but says simply, "Someone else thought of it."

The slogan, and the magazine, have clearly captured the interest of many top advertisers and what Lear's executive vice president Marc Liu says is a guaranteed initial subscription base of 175,000 as well. The magazine, which will be formally unveiled Monday at a splashy party atop Rockefeller Center at the Rainbow Room, where Frances Lear liked to go dancing as a young woman in the retail business, is the product of voluminous demographic research, including a series of focus groups Lear conducted around the country. Hefty in ads and editorial content, it is the work of a staff that changed several times in the course of the magazine's development.

Though the for-women-over-40 philosophy of Lear's remained constant, the content went through many changes, too. Staffers and ex-staffers attribute this in large part to Lear's inexperience in publishing. Lear herself concedes the staff shakedown took its toll.

"The most difficult part of starting a new magazine is finding people to do it with you," she said.

But Lear was fueled by a firm confidence that her idea for the magazine would work, and she was convinced she could overcome her lack of publishing experience. As Lear likes to point out, she was no stranger to the workplace.

"I had been working all my life, since the age of 14," she said. At 17, as Frances Loeb from Larchmont, N.Y., she began working as a salesgirl at B. Altman & Co., later becoming a buyer at Lord & Taylor. She was 33 years old, divorced twice, and still working in the retail business when she met, and soon married, a television writer named Norman Lear.

They resettled in Los Angeles, and had two daughters, Kate and Maggie. By the time the girls were teen-agers, Frances Lear felt the itch to return to work.

"My children were growing up, my husband's career was very much on its way, and I also felt a great need to express myself creatively," she said. "I felt a need to work again."

She became a founder of Lear Purvis Walker & Co., an executive search firm specializing in career placement for women. She did career counseling and taught at USC. She wrote articles for newspaper opinion pages.

In Los Angeles, Lear was known as a strong supporter of feminist and liberal political causes, often lending the Lears' big house in Brentwood for fund-raising functions. She and her husband rose to prominence in the Hollywood political circuit.

Today, Lear will not talk about what went wrong between her and the producer of "All in the Family," "Maude," "One Day at a Time," "The Jeffersons" and other wildly successful television series.

"I cannot answer any questions about my marriage," she said, her lips tight. In a more relaxed moment, however, she will acknowledge that "I did go through a difficult period" as a result of the divorce.

In any event, after 28 years together, the marriage crumbled. At 62, Lear was ready for a new challenge, one entirely of her own making.

"I didn't get a job, I became an entrepreneur," she said of her decision to launch her magazine.

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