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When Norman and Lyn Lear were first considering marriage, actuarial tables weren’t far from their minds. The pair fell in love when the thrice-divorced Norman was 64 and Lyn was “39 and a half,” as Norman would tell friends, a winking effort to nudge her closer to the less scandalous age of 40. “We were so in love at the time,” says Lyn. “We would say to each other, ‘Oh, we can only have 15 good years together.’ ” Norman chimes in, “But why not get married for 15 good years?” Thanks to Norman’s remarkable health it has been 34 years; he seems mystified by his longevity. “Ninety-nine,” he muses, shaking his head. “Holy shit!”
One afternoon in Beverly Hills, the couple are seated on a terrace of their newly leased house. They recently sold their 15,000-square-foot Brentwood estate, a spread befitting the creator of All in the Family, a man who at one point in the 1970s was producing six of the top 10 series on TV. Lyn, a youthful 74-year-old blonde, sneaks morsels of cheese from a platter to a maltipoo tucked beside her.
A maid silently refills water glasses. Norman arrives in a wheelchair. He’s smiling and wearing his signature white boating hat; having forgone haircuts during the pandemic, he has grown the first ponytail of his life. “One morning Lyn said, ‘Let me try something,’ and we fell in love with it,” he says.
The couple recently celebrated his 99th birthday with his six kids and four grandchildren, at the Gulley, their farm in Shaftsbury, Vermont. (The place formerly belonged to Robert Frost; Norman once dubbed it a “Yiddish Hyannis Port.”) Lear family photos are disorienting, as his kids range in age from 27 (twins Madeline and Brianna, who, along with Ben, 33, he had with Lyn) to 74 (Ellen, the only child from his first marriage, to high school sweetheart Charlotte). Kate, 64, and Maggie, 63, are the products of Norman’s 28-year marriage to magazine publisher Frances, who died of breast cancer in 1996.
The generational range of his progeny fuels one theory about his longevity. “I wonder if having three sets of younger wives and children didn’t help with that,” says Cindy Horn, who, along with husband Alan, Disney’s chief creative officer, is among the couple’s closest friends. “Maybe being around young people makes your body think you’re younger.” Senator Ed Markey adds, “It’s not your age, it’s the age of your ideas, and that means that Norman Lear is the youngest guy in every room he enters.”
Throughout his career Norman was known as a fighter—of network censors, of intransigent actors, and of the Moral Majority’s Jerry Falwell, whose political ascendancy spurred Lear to found People for the American Way, a liberal watchdog group. In the first season of All in the Family, CBS threatened to pull an episode that dealt with impotence. “Norman said, ‘Fine. Don’t put it on. But I quit,’ ” Rob Reiner recalls. Today, the once hard-charging Norman exudes the wizened air of a happy yogi. “That’s what we’re doing, living in the moment,” he says. “It’s taken every second of my life to finish this sentence. How about the importance of that?”
Now it’s Lyn’s turn to generate provocative content. Since producing the introductory film for the UN Climate Summit in 2014, she has emerged as a prominent documentary producer and financier, working on such high-profile documentaries as The Great Hack, on the Cambridge Analytica scandal, and The Vow, HBO’s series on the NXIVM cult, all while serving as a trustee at the Sundance Institute and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.
A former clinical therapist with a PhD in psychology, Lyn has been counseling Norman to tend to his oldest wounds. When Norman was nine, his father Herman Lear, the inspiration for Archie Bunker, got tossed into prison for three years for selling fake bonds; during this period Norman’s mother fobbed him off on various relatives. Until Lyn came into his life, in 1984, he lived with what he has described as “an Everest of denial.” “He had blocked it all out,” Lyn says, and she immediately began chipping away at his defenses. It’s an evolving process. At one point Norman says that longevity isn’t a family trait, since his father died young. “Norman,” Lyn says gently, “you know how your father died.” She pushes him to fill in the details: that his father likely took his own life by parking on railroad tracks.
Lyn arrived uncommonly prepared for any issues Norman might have. She was born in Whittier, California, and her father, like Norman, served in Italy in World War II, but he returned psychologically scarred. She married young, but her first husband descended into schizophrenia. At a low moment she read The Urantia Book, which frames the teachings of Jesus in a New Age light; this discovery led to what she calls “a profound religious experience.” One night, while she was deep in prayer, a candle flame shot to the ceiling—to Lyn a clear divine response to her calls for help. Since then she has felt that God has never left her side. “This sense of well-being just took over,” she says. “I knew that I never had to worry again.”
She got divorced, then spent a couple of years dating Eddie Fisher. She was seeing another man in 1984 when she was invited to dine at Norman and Frances Lear’s home. The couple, by then in an open marriage and living separately during the week, apparently got together to spar in front of guests on weekends. “You could feel daggers going back and forth,” Lyn says. Afterward she wrote to Norman asking to hear more about People for the American Way. “He thought I was coming on to him. It really wasn’t in my consciousness.” Norman called, and before long they were necking in cars. They married in 1987, two years after Frances won an unprecedented $100 million divorce settlement.
Lyn introduced Norman to a spiritual world he had never known. They gobbled psychedelic mushrooms and for a couple of years took ecstasy on weekends. “I liked it a lot,” Norman says. “I got very high.” His impromptu living room monologues have sadly not survived, so they won’t join Archie Bunker’s chair at the Smithsonian. “He was hilarious, just riffing on life,” Lyn says. “God, I wish I had recorded some of it.”
“Over. Next,” has been Norman’s lifelong credo, but now “next” is swathed in uncertainty. Death is a topic many people refuse to broach with him. “We haven’t talked about that,” says Tony Vinciquerra, chairman and CEO of Sony Pictures Entertainment, which owns the rights to most of Lear’s catalog of shows. “I’m enjoying him too much as he is.” Brent Miller, who runs Norman’s company, Act III, and oversees the more than a dozen current projects in development and production, says he hasn’t discussed what will happen upon Norman’s passing. “There’s no formal plan,” Miller says. “We’ll keep moving until he can’t move anymore.”
Lyn is direct about the inevitable. “We talk about it all the time,” she says. Norman admits to no fear. “The leaving is difficult,” he says, “but the going, I'm fine with.” He’s a skeptic about the hereafter, but Lyn is working hard to wear him down. “I’ve always known there’s something more,” she says, “but he hasn’t had that breakthrough.” Norman sighs. “She’s always doing this,” he says.
Photographs by Celeste Sloman. Styled by Will Kahn.
Hair by Richard Collins for WEN by Chaz Dean at TMG-LA.com. Makeup by Kindra Mann for Chanel at TMG-LA.com. Produced by Aaron Zumback at Camp Productions.
In the photo at the top of this article, Norman wears an Anderson & Sheppard knit jacket ($1,114); Sid Mashburn polo shirt ($95) and trousers ($225); Converse sneakers ($80). Lyn wears her own dress. In the photo at the bottom, Norman wears an Anderson & Sheppard jacket ($1,363) and turtleneck ($637); Sid Mashburn trousers ($225). Lyn wears The Row dress ($1,390); Lisa Eisner Jewelry necklace ($11,500) and cuff ($3,900).
This story appears in the December/January 2022 issue of Town & Country.
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