A few years ago, Helen Gurley Brown, then in her mid-80s, sat directly behind me in the audience one night as Harry Connick Jr. steamed up a Broadway stage in a sexy revival of the musical The Pajama Game.
At intermission, she turned to her husband, movie producer David Brown, and declared of Connick, “He’s hot.”
It was pure Helen Gurley Brown: of the vernacular, to the point and touching on sex.
For more than three decades, from 1965 until 1997, Brown reigned as the plain-speaking editor of Cosmopolitan magazine. Through its pages, as well as her books and her many TV appearances, she encouraged millions of young women to boost their self-confidence, land a promotion, dress to attract (“Some authorities say eye shadow mustn’t show. . . Piffle poofle to that!”) and enjoy a healthy sex life.
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Brown, 90, died Monday in a New York hospital after a brief illness. She leaves a mixed legacy. Some will argue that she was a pioneering feminist, while others will sneer that she was little more than a huckster peddling a sexed-up version of The Power of Positive Thinking.
Helen Gurley was born in a small Arkansas town, where she grew up poor in a family she described as “hillbilly.” She remade herself, first as a secretary in Los Angeles (she had dropped out of college in favor of secretarial school) and then as a successful copywriter at a couple of advertising agencies. In 1959, at the then advanced age of 37, she wed David Brown, a successful Hollywood movie producer (whose later credits include the blockbuster Jaws). He encouraged his new wife to write the 1962 guidebook Sex and the Single Girl, which became a bestseller and turned her into a household name.
While the book provided self-help tips for single women on managing money, navigating the workplace, improving one’s appearance and other topics, Brown particularly wanted nice girls to know that sex was okay — more than okay. “You inherited your proclivity for it,” she wrote. “It isn’t some random piece of mischief you dreamed up because you’re a bad, wicked girl.” (Hollywood turned the book into a comedy in 1965, with Natalie Wood portraying Brown.)
Her advocacy couldn’t have been timelier. The first FDA-approved birth control pills had gone on the market in 1960 and the sexual revolution was beginning to rev up. Brown was riding a wave that would only grow larger and more forceful.
Despite having no previous experience as a magazine editor, Brown was hired by the Hearst Corp. in 1965 to save its ailing flagship monthly, Cosmopolitan. She gave the magazine a total makeover, ditching readers who were older, married homemakers in favor of reaching younger single women on the make, in every sense of the word. She dubbed her new reader the “Cosmopolitan girl” — always a girl, never a woman — and often said she aimed the magazine at the “mouseburger” that she herself had been 20 years earlier before embarking on her own self-improvement regime.
“Cosmopolitan is Helen Gurley Brown. Cute. Girlish. Exhortative. Almost but not quite tasteless. And in its own insidious peculiar way irresistible,” Nora Ephron wrote in a scathing but also grudgingly admiring profile of Brown first published in Esquire in the late 1960s.
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Cosmopolitan became massively successful under Brown. She stuck to her winning formula (cheeky cover lines written by her husband, lots of stories about sex, and cover models flaunting big hair and deep cleavage) for 32 years, until she was gently eased out of the top spot in 1997 after sales began to slip. She continued to oversee international editions of the magazine from her pink-walled corner office — its furnishings included an embroidered cushion that read, “Good Girls Go to Heaven, Bad Girls Go Everywhere” — at Hearst’s Manhattan headquarters until shortly before her death.
So what are the rest of us, those who were never Cosmo girls in deed or temperament, to make of Brown? I’m with Ephron in giving her grudging admiration and respect.
The problem with both Brown and her magazine was always in the packaging. Both tried too hard and put too much emphasis on glitz and glamour. What they were selling took too much effort, and much of that effort concentrated on polishing the superficial. Brown’s Cosmopolitan was always the equivalent of an elaborate dessert: lots of labor resulting in a flashy presentation and a sugar high, but no real nourishment.
What saved Brown was her sincerity. She really believed. She was an evangelist for her cause: a better you. She wanted you to know that she’d made it and you could too, though it would take work, perseverance and, yes, just the right shade of lipstick. “You can’t sleep your way to the top or even to the middle, and there is no such thing as a free lunch,” she once wrote. “You have to do it yourself, so you might as well get started.”
In Brown’s world, we were all Cinderellas before the ball and she was going to be our fairy godmother, whether we wanted one or not.
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