The Widow of the Learjet Inventor Is Getting Her Husband's Last Design Off the Ground
For 36 years she lived in the restless shadow of her husband, William Powell Lear, inventor of the corporate jet that still bears his name. Whenever the entrepreneurial nomad changed bases—moving from Ohio to Michigan, then on to California, Switzerland and Kansas—she cheerfully followed. She even forgave him as he wove a daisy chain of adulterous love affairs. Then in May 1978 Bill Lear died of leukemia at the age of 75. Stunned, his widow, Moya, considered suicide. "I had squirreled away enough sleeping pills to kill an elephant," she recalls. "But I went into Bill's office the day after he died, and I've been there ever since."
Moya has not been merely the figurehead chairman of the LearAvia Corp. Overcoming numerous obstacles, including lawsuits initiated by her two daughters, she has struggled successfully to make her husband's last dream a reality. When the first Lear Fan aircraft rolled out of its hangar outside Reno, Nev. last month, Moya, 65, watched tearfully. "It's a beautiful, beautiful airplane," she told a crowd of employees and supporters. "You all know how proud I am, and you know why. It took a lot of effort on everyone's part and a lot of emotion."
Before his death Lear had nearly completed designs for a revolutionary lightweight nine-seat plane powered by two turboshaft engines and a propeller in the rear. The plane is expected to cruise at about 400 mph—100 mph faster than its nearest competitor—while using only half as much fuel. "Mr. Lear believed way back that fuel would be scarce," says Samuel Auld, the company's chief executive officer. "He was not formally trained, but he out-invented regular engineers like me. He knew exactly what the market would want five years ahead of time." When he became ill, Lear ordered his will rewritten so that his estate would finance the airplane's construction. On his deathbed he whispered to Moya, "Finish it, Mommy. You've got to finish it."
From her office on the top floor of a hangar, Moya has carried out Bill's final instructions. Her first problem was raising additional capital. After the British government finally agreed to put up $50 million in return for LearAvia's promise to build its new plane outside Belfast, venture capitalists pitched in another Photographs by Ben Martin $30 million. Finding customers for the $1.6 million airplane proved considerably easier. Already 140 orders have been placed—each now requiring a $160,000 deposit—with first deliveries scheduled for late 1982. But faith in the new plane is not universal. Shortly after their father's death, two of Moya and Bill's four children—Shanda, 37, married to Italian TV producer Giancarlo Bertelli, and Tina, 26, married to sculptor Harry Jackson—went to court, challenging the changes Lear had made in his will. The daughters refuse to discuss the suits, and Moya says she hopes for an amicable settlement. "I understand the uncertainty of my girls at first," she says. "They never saw their mother in the role of executive. The airplane was in fact a high risk—a brand-new technology—and they did not believe it could be built without their father. What I didn't understand," she continues, "was the intensity of their feeling. But I love my kids, and I know things will work out."
It is that kind of faith and forgiveness that held her marriage together for more than three decades. When Moya first met high school dropout Bill Lear in 1938, he had already established himself as inventor of the first practical car radio and of sophisticated communications and navigation equipment for aircraft. Moya, the daughter of vaudeville comedian Ole Olsen, first met her thrice-divorced future husband in her father's dressing room backstage in New York. She was typing the script for Olsen's career-capping show Hellzapoppin. Three months later Lear showed up in black tie on Christmas Eve and asked Moya to have a drink with him. "Well, I had never had a drink in my life, but we went to the Stork Club and I had coffee," she recalls. "On the way back in the taxi, he held my hand, and that was it. I was in love. I put my hand in his and never took it away."
Moya accepted philosophically his continued stepping out. In the house they bought on the Truckee River near Reno, there still hangs a needlepoint she once gave him. Under the heading AH, L'AMOUR, she stitched the names of several girlfriends and ex-wives, followed by the mischievous observation, SOME I'VE FORGOTTEN, SOME I DIDN'T KNOW. Marvels Moya, sounding very old-fashioned for a very modern woman executive: "How can girls think they can marry an attractive, fabulous guy and be the only one? Sure, I was hurt at times, and at other times we laughed about it. He was always very, very sweet to me when he came home. I was always secure in Bill's love," she sums up. "He was my first and last."