A MEETING RAGES, THEN MEANDERS, then rages again in the tony Madison Avenue offices of Lear's magazine. "I'm tired of Bonnie Raitt," declares Frances Lear to the five women and three men sitting around her large cluttered office. Then, "Linda Ronstadt's a cosmic thinker." A few minutes later she wonders, "What's the next trend in breast-feeding?" At the front of the room a blackboard displays what appears to be a headline for a forthcoming article: WOMEN WHO PUNCH.

Though Lear, who turns 69 this month, is no longer editor-in-chief (she now calls herself founder), she remains very much the center of attention. A tiny woman in a tiny black suit, she fills the space around her, waving her arms, pointing, gesticulating. She enthuses, she dismisses, she laments. Everything she says, she says dramatically.

Which is how she has lived her life. She came into public view during her now famous 30-year marriage to Norman Lear, creator of the '70s TV hits All in the Family and Maude. (The title character of the latter, played by Bea Arthur, was supposedly modeled on Frances.) Then she blossomed into the outspoken feminist who in 1972 founded an executive search firm for women, fast on the heels of her 1986 divorce, with its staggering $112 million settlement and her flight from Los Angeles to New York, came the idea for her own magazine, which she boldly named after herself and called "the magazine for the woman who wasn't born yesterday." Spending an estimated $25-$30 million, for starters, she launched Lear's in 1988.

But this manic energy was the flip side of crippling, chronic depression, which stemmed from a dark and painful childhood, as Lear has now revealed in her new autobiography, The Second Seduction. The book deals openly with her love affairs, her suicide attempts, her battles with substance abuse and mental illness, and her attainment ultimately of a measure of peace. "I learned, through a long and painful process," she says, "that no matter what I had experienced in my life, I did not have to be unhappy."

Born simply Evelyn—she was given no last name—at the Vanderheusen Home for Wayward Girls in up-State New York in 1923, Lear was adopted at 14 months by Herb and Aline Loeb, who lived in I Larchmont, N.Y., and renamed Frances. She describes her adoptive mother as a cold, vain woman who was angry that the "prettiest child in the nursery" did not grow up to be a beauty. Her father, who ran a clothing business, was "handsome and tall, and he could do anything." He was also depressive and committed suicide when Frances was 10. Her stepfather sexually abused her. "Enamored," she writes, of suicide, over the years she has tried taking her life at least three times, and even now, she says, she keeps an "exit line—a stash of lithium." The horrors roll out, page after page, in a narrative jumble. "Frances Lear looks on her own experience with a mixture of fury, pathos, honesty and courage," wrote the reviewer for the San Francisco Chronicle. "It's not the easiest voice to like, but she isn't asking for that."

In 1956, after two failed marriages, she married Norman, whom she met in New York City through a mutual friend. Though she never explicitly says why the marriage ended, she writes that "in all the years I lived in Hollywood, I knew of only two monogamous marriages" and that "a wife of [a famous person] in Hollywood does not have a name of her own." Why, in such an intimate memoir, does she barely mention Norman by name? "It is so unthinkable," she explains, "that I would reveal my marriage [in print] to my children. Do people want to know the arguments [we had]?"

She and Norman have two daughters, Kate, 34, who runs a software company with her physician husband, and Maggie, 33, who just received her master's in social work from New York University. Lear sees both daughters at least once a week, and Norman and Frances both attended Maggie's graduation. Says Kate: "It's a very close family, and that did not change with the divorce."

The thread that ties the scattered episodes of The Second Seduction together is Lear's therapy-aided battle with manic depression, which was diagnosed when she was 50. "Between the mania and the darkness that followed," she writes, "I was a trolley car, a shrill, clanging, weather-beaten, worn, and ancient vehicle that ricocheted off the curbs as it sped along its customary route before crashing." People who have worked with her at the magazine have been mowed down by this vehicle; the early days at Lear's, in particular, were rife with reports of her erratic moods. One editor comments carefully, "She's struggled with demons, and that colors the way she is, but whatever she's doing, she brings tremendous energy to it."

Even in her impressive Fifth Avenue apartment, with art-filled walls and a huge magazine-laden coffee table, Frances Lear can't seem to sit still. Wearing a wine-colored Armani and her signature round black glasses, she perches on the edge of her armchair, then stands and goes to gaze out her picture window at the sweeping view of Central Park 12 stories below, then sits again. Writing the book was, she says, "an exorcism of sorts." Though the demons have not all been banished, when she was 61, she conquered a problem with both alcohol and marijuana, with the help of a Southern California rehab center and AA, and she says she has found the formula for happiness. It consists of love, work and self-determination. She says firmly, "If I had to say what I believe in most, it's that we all have the choice, every moment of every day, to be happy or unhappy."

The subject of her happiness is separate from that of her manic depression, which she treats almost reverently. Even though she takes lithium daily "to hold down the highs," along with the antidepressant Wellbutrin to help with the lows, she believes the illness has made her special. "I believe that it allows me to be in higher air than most," she says. "My unhappiness," she adds, "did not come from my illness. [It] came from thinking myself a victim."

Victim no more, today's Frances Lear has a firm sense of her place in the world, and that place is as a role model to her readers. As she puts it: "My life is very much a parallel of contemporary women's history. When I launched Lear's, I would go out and talk to women, and I would get my old self reflected. Now my new self is reflected. Women have so dramatically changed during the years of Lear's that I have to keep up with it." Her experiences, says Lear, are her readers' experiences, from her midlife divorce to her two facelifts. Says editor-in-chief Caroline Miller: "She's made an impression on a whole generation of women." As her friend and fellow magazine editor, Helen Gurley Brown of Cosmopolitan, puts it: "She represents a woman who had been a good devoted wife and mother, and most people feel she deserved the divorce settlement, which she plowed into something of her own." And, Brown adds, "I find her inspiring because she still likes men—deep down somewhere she's a Cosmo girl."

Indeed. Though she's not naming names, Frances Lear says her love life is "always very active. I will remain sexually viable until I can no longer walk." She warms to her subject. "I adore men. I adore loving men. I feel the same way about sex. I have different kinds of relationships with men which are very, very exciting to me." But she has no intention of remarrying: "I'm not dependent on one person, one love, one pocketbook," she says.

The editorial meeting at Lear's continues. It veers from a discussion of nude males in advertising—the consensus seems to be that, no, they don't turn women on—to test-tube babies, a subject that should be close to Lear's heart. After all, she has no idea who her biological parents are. But she feels she knows all there is to know on the topic. Her editors argue vehemently—how does it feel to be a technochild? they wonder—and Lear's interest is sparked. "I've always had the fantasy that I was conceived in passion," she says. "That's why I'm so passionate."