LONG BEFORE THE WORLD EVER heard of Frances Lear, the mercurial former editor of Lear's magazine and an ardent women's rights activist who died in New York City last week of breast cancer at 73, they saw her—or a version of her—on the '70s sitcom Maude. True, Bea Arthur played the tarttongued feminist on TV. But, as Lear told PEOPLE in 1975, "a great deal of Maude comes from my consciousness being raised by the [women's] movement—and from Norman's being raised by me."

Norman, of course, was Frances's husband, Norman Lear, the TV writer-producer who built a $225 million media empire out of hits such as All in the Family, The Jeffersons and Maude—and who, in 1986, shelled out $112 million to his wife of 30 years in one of the priciest divorce settlements ever.

Frances poured $25 million of that windfall into Lear's, the first magazine aimed at women over 40. Typical stories dealt with face-lifts, drug addiction and motherhood after 40. "She had this gusty quality," says Nelson Aldrich, one of a dizzying succession of editors whom Lear hired during the Manhattan-based monthly's six-year run (1988-94). "She blew sometimes like a gale through a broken window"—thoroughly rattling the magazine's staff. "As much in love as she was with you on Tuesday, she was out of love with you on Wednesday," recalls a friend, writer Linda Feldman. To another editor, who once begged her not to alter a source's quote, Lear retorted imperiously, "It's my magazine, and I can do what I want with it!"

Even a Lear defender like Cosmopolitan editor Helen Gurley Brown concedes, "She was a prickly person." But as Seventeen editor Caroline Miller, the magazine's last editor before its namesake decided to pull the plug, insists, "She could also be incredibly smart and inspiring."

Lear blamed her difficult management style on bouts of manic depression, for which she had been taking lithium off and on since 1974. "My illness makes me more volatile than other heads of companies," she told FORTUNE in 1989. "Frances had a severe form of [the disease] that went untreated for a long time," says a riend, psychologist Kay Redfield Jamison, author of Unquiet Mind. "She handled her illness with wit and, at times, rage." In her 1992 autobiography, The Second Seduction, Lear also revealed a host of other past woes, including alcoholism, an addiction to prescription drugs and at least three attempted suicides. Her troubles all seemed to stem from her childhood. Born out of wedlock and raised in an orphanage until she was 14 months old, she was adopted by a Larchmont, N.Y., couple, Herb Loeb, a clothier, and his wife, Aline. When Frances was 10, Herb, depressed over financial losses, killed himself. Not long after, Aline remarried. In her memoir, Lear claims that her stepfather, a textile manufacturer, began molesting her when she was 12. Five years later, she left home and moved to New York City, where she found work as a department store salesclerk.

In her 20s, she embarked on two short-lived marriages. At 33, she wed Norman, a 35-year-old TV comedy writer who had been married once before, and they moved to L.A., where in 1971 he launched All in the Family. Frances raised their daughters, Maggie Beth, now 37, and Kate, 38. But "I had no identity," she told The Washington Post in 1992. "I was nothing but my marriage and my motherhood."

The women's movement gave her an outlet—and a voice. As cofounder of an L.A. executive recruitment firm for women and minorities, she lectured often on women's issues. One subject she never discussed, though, was why she and Norman divorced. "I still love him," she told columnist Liz Smith in 1992. "I don't want to go into detail on someone I care about."

Norman remarried in 1987, and Frances, too, fell in love—with her chauffeur, Peter Foley, a man half her age who, after Lear's folded, was installed as a vice president of her video production company. Their relationship lasted only a year.

Since 1994, Lear had been battling breast cancer. In late September she learned the cancer had spread to her brain. Lear took the news calmly. "She called people up and told them, 'This is our farewell,' " says Bobbie Handman, a friend. "You can't imagine anyone as serene as she was." Her ex-husband Norman can't imagine anyone like her at all. "She had flamboyance and flair and a taste for elegance rare in this world," he says. "She was an original from the day we met until the day the world said goodbye to her."

MICHAEL A. LIPTON
ANNE LONGLEY and LIZ MCNEIL in New York City and PAULA YOO in Los Angeles

  • Contributors:
  • Anne Longley,
  • Liz McNeil,
  • Paula Yoo.