Author of Sex and the Single Girl who became the influential editor of the women’s magazine passes away at 90 in Manhattan.
Image credit The Frisky
Helen Gurley Brown’s bestselling book Sex and the Single Girl in 1962 made public (and also, perhaps, made possible) a major change in US mores: the admissibility of female sexual experience and experiment before, or even without, marriage. Brown, who has died aged 90, spent the rest of her life, 32 years of it as editor of Cosmopolitan magazine, disseminating her beliefs.
After she published her memoirs, I’m Wild Again, in 2000, she toured America clad in scarlet promoting it as the indiscretions of the original Cosmopolitan girl. One reviewer, David Plotz, was shocked not by the dirt the book claimed to dish, but by its real secret – that the key to her success was not sex, but work. It was the “autobiography of a puritan,” he wrote.
She had scrabbled out of disadvantage in Green Forest, Arkansas. Her father, a state legislator, died in an elevator accident when she was 10, leaving only enough insurance to save the family from welfare. Her mother slumped into depression and soon afterwards her sister contracted polio. They relied on Helen for support.
Helen, being “very competitive in a quiet, deadly way”, shorthand-typed her way up and out. The “mouseburger from the Ozarks” – as she described herself – reached Los Angeles in the 1940s as a whizzbang executive secretary in a firm of Hollywood lawyers, where her boss told her the rich and famous could marry anyone they wanted: “It will not be you – they want sensuous and sexy girls: you are not pretty enough.”
However, at about that time she realised her talent for short, snappy sentences, and got her break as a copywriter with the advertising agency Foote, Cone & Belding – she rose to be their highest-paid sloganeer before transferring to Kenyon & Eckhardt as account executive in 1958.
In these positions she had an exceptional overview of the US female labour pool in transition during the 1950s, and understood that the workplace, usually the office, was where the young met likely marital partners; these women spent much of their earnings on their appearance, and some of their time on self-improvement, not to advance a career, but to claim a classier mate.
She married the Hollywood producer David Brown in 1959. (“Marry me or it’s over” was her ultimatum to him.) She always described the match as the payoff on her efforts: “He was the man I had worked all those years to deserve”; “I had earned him”. It was his suggestion that she should write a book based on her prolonged bachelorette days. The result was Sex and the Single Girl, with its bold proposition that unmarried females had sex, and liked it (“This was very astounding news in 1962,” wrote the US feminist Barbara Ehrenreich). Brown became a liberator, a sensation and a rich woman, after the sale of film rights, a syndicated advice column and a 1964 sequel, Sex and the Office. (She later felt that it would have been fair if the Sex and the City phenomenon had acknowledged her, – perhaps with a cut of the profits.)
She was the only choice for editor-in-chief of the monthly magazine Cosmopolitan, appointed in 1965. She gutted it of worthiness and reinvented it. In it, she counselled fresh mouseburgers, “23-year-olds with their noses pressed up against the glass”, on how to rise from the typing pool to personal assistant: arrive on time, fake confidence, stay late, don’t blow your pay on fun.
More significantly, Brown transposed her work ethic to sex, or rather, the performance of sexiness. “You can have HIM, honey, if you know what to do,” she promised, and what honey had to do was burnish her appearance, never refuse sex, despite not being in the mood, rise early to paint her face anew and brew him real coffee, with a linen napkin on the tray, before waking him with the words: “Darling, you were wonderful.” Critics later called Cosmo the “unliberated woman’s survival kit” and “bitchcraft”; but, as one British edition editor, Deirdre McSharry, said, “lots of people did not know how to pronounce orgasm before it launched”. When contrasted with the domesticity and snobbery of other magazines on the newsstands, Cosmo felt energetic, and even meritocratic.
Sales soared until circulation reached a peak at around 3m. Maintaining that success consumed much of the rest of Brown’s life. Her 12-hour working days over three decades brought Cosmo editions to more than 40 countries.
There was also the upkeep of the reputation for endless desirability that Brown believed essential to female triumph. She was as “thin as it’s possible to be in the western world without being ill”, her diet was rigid and supplemented with vitamin pills, her exercise unremitting and her facelifts repeated. Brown never attempted to reconcile her two favourite pronouncements: “being stupid is much worse than being ugly” and “girls who look good get the jobs, men and recognition”.
Long after women rejected the word “girl” as demeaning, Brown and her empire stayed fixated on the years between puberty and the acceptance of adult responsibility: she was dedicated to prolonging the period of sexual potential long after fulfilment might reasonably have set in. There was a doll collection in her pink office (with her motto “Good girls go to heaven, bad girls go everywhere” pinned on the wall) but children went unmentioned in Cosmo and her life: she described them as “competitors for attention”. For her, the workplace never updated beyond the 60s: “a little sexual tension in the office never hurt anyone,” she wrote in 1991, when the US judge Clarence Thomas faced harassment charges.
The unchanging nature of Brown’s ambitions came to seem spooky – and even sad. “If you’re not having sex you’re finished,” she threatened; she had breast implants at 73, and in The Late Show: A Semiwild But Practical Survival Plan for Women Over 50 (1993) and I’m Wild Again, she wrote as the ever-hot sexpert, advising girls to “Spread semen over your face … makes a fine mask – and he’ll be pleased.” She was desperate to remain Miss High School Popularity, blurting out fears in interview: “It will all go away and I will be an old crone”; “People don’t turn on the street to look at an old woman”; and “Who will lunch with me after I leave Cosmo?”
That last question was answered in 1997. Brown announced in 1996 that she would step down as editor the following year, although she kept a senior advisory role on non-US editions. Her husband died in 2010; earlier this year Brown donated $30m to found an institute for media innovation, at the Columbia School of Journalism and Stanford University Engineering School, in both their names.
• Helen Marie Gurley Brown, journalist, born 18 February 1922; died 13 August 2012
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