Helen Gurley Brown dies; editor of Cosmo and author of ‘Sex and the Single Girl’ was 90
By Kate Carlisle, Published: August 13 in The Washington Post
Helen Gurley Brown, the influential editor of Cosmopolitan magazine and zesty author of the 1962 bestseller “Sex and the Single Girl,” a book that helped spur the sexual revolution by declaring that women could “have it all” — including a career, marriage and great sex — died Aug. 13 at a hospital in New York City. She was 90.
Her death, of undisclosed causes, was announced by the Hearst Corp., the owner of Cosmopolitan.
The svelte and glamorous Mrs. Brown, who in her four decades at Cosmo transformed the faltering general-interest magazine into a newsstand powerhouse with a circulation of more than 2.5 million, regarded herself as a champion of feminine power even as her Cosmo covers promoted “20 ways to please your man” and other tips to attract male attention.
“Sex and the Single Girl,” written when Mrs. Brown was 40 and married, aimed to revolutionize single women’s attitudes toward their lives. The book, published a year before Betty Friedan’s “The Feminine Mystique,” sold millions of copies and became a cultural touchstone with its message that single women didn’t need to be married to enjoy sex and didn’t need to apologize for it, either.
“I think marriage is insurance for the worst years of your life,” she wrote. “During your best years, you don’t need a husband. You do need a man of course every step of the way, and they are often cheaper emotionally and a lot more fun by the dozen.”
Her book was an outrageously bold riposte to a modern culture she thought was far too Victorian in its attitudes toward women and their right to seek pleasure and get ahead in the bargain.
She cautioned that interoffice relationships were fraught with peril but that the payoffs could be crucial for women to advance in the workplace. She warned women not to take such affairs seriously and instead see any profit — from gifts or raises — as fair compensation, considering the huge disparity in salaries between the sexes.
Reliably saucy, Mrs. Brown became a frequent guest on “The Tonight Show.” But as the years passed, many in the second-wave feminist movement, including Friedan and Gloria Steinem, said Mrs. Brown and her accent on pleasing men fostered a deeply offensive approach toward female empowerment.
“Sex and the Single Girl” and Mrs. Brown’s prominent role at Cosmo cemented in the minds of her strongest critics that she was objectifying women above all else. She had defenders as well, including novelist Judith Krantz, who once said, “There is a lot women can learn from Cosmo about living intelligently.”
Mrs. Brown, a successful advertising copywriter before she wrote “Sex and the Single Girl,” saw herself as a germane inspiration to women long after the 1960s. She championed the values of hard work and thrift and credited both for her rise from a self-described “mouseburger” to one of the most powerful women in publishing.
She said she was writing for most women, who, like herself, were not born to privilege or blessed with beauty or a college education. And it was those women she was aiming to inspire in her writing, namely by taking more responsibility for the direction of their lives.
“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 wrote in “Sex and the Single Girl.” “You have to do it yourself, so you might as well get started.”
Helen Marie Gurley was born in Green Forest, Ark., deep in the Ozark mountains, on Feb. 18, 1922.
She often described her background as “hillbilly,” and she said her Depression-era childhood left her “mildly terrified” about the prospect of bankruptcy and failure. This fear deepened after the death of her father, a schoolteacher and state legislator, in an elevator accident in Little Rock when she was 10.
She later described her mother, Cleo, also a schoolteacher, as prone to depression. Cleo Gurley struggled to keep the family together, taking in sewing and caring for an older daughter, Mary, who had contracted polio. Cleo settled the family in Los Angeles, near the hospital where Mary received treatment.
Helen completed high school in Los Angeles and was class valedictorian, an accomplishment she attributed as overcompensation for a bad acne problem and less-than-voluptuous figure. She attended Texas State College for Women before financial reversals led her back to Los Angeles.
She took shorthand classes and held more than a dozen secretarial jobs to support her family. She said she took it personally when she was not chased around the office like the other young women. Lack of harassment, in her view, was not to be envied.
She would later write in her bestseller: “If you’re not a sex object, you’re in trouble.”
In 1948, she joined Foote Cone & Belding, an advertising agency where she became executive secretary to board chairman Don Belding.
Her boss recognized her facility with words, especially in vivacious letters to him when he was out of town, and promoted her to copywriter. Several years later, working as a copywriter and account executive at Kenyon & Eckhardt, she became one of the nation’s highest-paid advertising writers.
Meanwhile, she dated several of her bosses and a number of well-known men, including champion boxer Jack Dempsey and Ron Getty, the son of oil billionaire J. Paul Getty. In 1959, when she was 37, she married David Brown, an executive with 20th Century Fox movie studios who later produced films including “Jaws,” “The Sting” and “The Verdict.”
Brown, to whom she was married until his death in 2010, was one of her biggest fans and supporters, and he urged her to write “Sex and the Single Girl” after professing delight in reading many of her early letters to boyfriends.
Mrs. Brown often used her own long and faithful marriage as an example when doling out tips for happy relationships. Among them: “Communicate maniacally” and “always say yes to sex.”
The book brought her national prominence, and that fame was heightened in 1964 with a movie version of “Sex and the Single Girl” in which Natalie Wood played a fictitious version of Mrs. Brown.
She launched a syndicated newspaper advice column, called Woman Alone, and wrote several more books, including “Sex and the Office” (1964) and “Helen Gurley Brown’s Outrageous Opinions” (1966). The latter also became the name of her short-lived TV talk show.
In 1965, the Hearst Corp. tapped Mrs. Brown to revive Cosmopolitan’s sagging fortunes. Although she had no editing experience, she had impressed Hearst president Richard Deems with a magazine proposal that fit his own goal of transforming Cosmo from a magazine for homemakers into a publication for career women.
Deems promoted Mrs. Brown as the standard-bearer of the “working girl.” She immediately converted the somewhat turgid pages of the monthly into a must-have bible for the single female, such that a social, career-driven woman became known in common parlance as a “Cosmo girl.” Job tips and money-management advice were offered along with dating strategies.
Mrs. Brown, who had written in her 1962 book that “being smart about money is sexy,” promoted brown-bag lunches and savings accounts along with features on beauty and weight loss. She always featured an alluring woman on the cover (“I like pretty, and I like skin,” she said), and in 1972, a nude centerfold of actor Burt Reynolds rocked the magazine world.
As with her most famous book, her work at the magazine made her a target of criticism. In 1970, a group of militant feminists led by Kate Millett conducted a sit-in demonstration at Cosmopolitan’s office in New York.
As the decades passed, Mrs. Brown made no serious effort to cover AIDS or domestic violence. The magazine seldom if ever mentioned children, a reflection of Mrs. Brown’s own lack of interest in motherhood. “I didn’t want to give up the time, the love, the money,” she told USA Today in 1990.
She was a relentless proselytizer for an age-defying body and boasted about the breast implants she received at 73.
A strict diet — at one point, she gave up all sugar, alcohol and caffeine — and a daily exercise routine kept Mrs. Brown slim — some say painfully thin — and she promoted abstemious habits her whole life. Still, she told Vanity Fair in 2007, the thing about herself she least liked was “my fat tummy.”
Her personality was so woven into Cosmopolitan that it made huge news when she was forced from her position as editor in chief in 1996. She was replaced by Bonnie Fuller, the 39-year-old editor at Hearst’s Marie Claire magazine. Mrs. Brown stayed on to manage Cosmopolitan’s dozens of international editions, telling reporters there were no hard feelings.
“I’m a very smart, realistic person,” she told the New York Times in 1997. “I live in the real world. . . . Even though Cosmo is working — didn’t need to be fixed — the time comes when you can’t be 75 and edit a magazine for a 24-year-old.”
Mrs. Brown had no immediate survivors. In January, she gave a combined $30 million to Columbia and Stanford universities to create a journalism and technology institute housed at both schools.
She earlier gave her papers to Smith College, the alma mater of both Friedan and Steinem, and donated money to support the Ada Comstock Scholars program at Smith, which provides tuition for late-in-life and other nontraditional students to attend the women’s college.
“I am a feminist,” Mrs. Brown told the New York Times in 1982. “Cosmo predated the women’s movement, and I have always said my message is for the woman who loves men but who doesn’t want to live through them. ‘Sex and the Single Girl’ was controversial at the time because it said a woman could be a sexual creature and not have a wedding band on her finger.”
She added, “I sometimes think feminists don’t read what I write. I am for total equality. My relevance is that I deal with reality.”
Her hard work, modest habits and traditional marriage were often overshadowed by the saucy public image that Mrs. Brown cultivated — the Cosmo girl, her philosophy summed up by a quote she displayed in her office: “Good Girls Go to Heaven — Bad Girls Go Everywhere.”
Who Won Feminism?
Hint: She's the diva who ran Cosmo.
By Naomi Wolf in The Washington Post
Sunday, May 3, 2009
Bad Girls Go Everywhere
The Life of Helen Gurley Brown
By Jennifer Scanlon
Oxford Univ. 270 pp. $27.95
Look at Michelle Obama: She has segued seamlessly from an active professional life as a highly paid hospital executive to her current incarnation as fashion plate, doting mom and demure sex object, posing for Vogue in a hot fuchsia frock that shows plenty of skin. What's most surprising about this metamorphosis? How few people are objecting to it.
Every other first lady in living memory has been flattened into some stereotype of either/or femininity -- from Nancy Reagan as adoring Stepford wife to Hillary Clinton as shrill career woman. But now we finally seem to have reached the point where women don't face a false choice between sacrificing their softer qualities to be taken seriously as professionals or embracing love, sensuality, fashion and pleasure only to be dismissed as frivolous. And this revolutionary development isn't unfolding just in the White House: It's now affecting your house and mine. It's everywhere.
So what happened? Well, when it comes to women's rights, Americans have clearly matured. What has helped that process along is that stealthily, quietly, second wave feminism -- the movement personified by Betty Friedan and her 1963 bestseller, "The Feminine Mystique" -- has been supplanted by "third wave" feminism, with its more upbeat and individualistic signature.
And how timely that at this moment of next-generation triumph we have a new biography of an icon whose optimistic, go-getter vision of female emancipation helped bring on that third wave. Yes, it's that leopard-print-wearing provocateuse, Helen Gurley Brown.
"Sex and the Single Girl," Brown's brash, breezy and sometimes scandalous young-woman's guide to thriving in the Mad Men and Playboy era, made headlines the year before Friedan's severe, profound manifesto burst onto the scene. Since then, the media and the women's movement itself have put these two icons in opposition, pitting Friedan's intellectual, ideological, group-oriented feminism against Brown's pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps, girl-power style. They contrast the Seven-Sisters-educated, brainy, politically serious Friedan with the working-class, aspirational and funny Brown, who claimed that a woman could be happy whether single or married, that she could have sex on her own terms, and that she should refuse to see herself as a victim and have fun.
For the past 40 years, as Jennifer Scanlon points out in "Bad Girls Go Everywhere," her cracking new biography of Brown, serious feminists have derided the longtime Cosmopolitan editor's claim to a version of feminism. They have attacked her as too optimistic, too politically incorrect and too frothy. But Scanlon makes a solid case that, apart from her easy-to-satirize excesses, Brown is a genuinely important figure who pioneered a feminism that championed women as cheerful, self-empowered individualists, that held that "every woman has something that makes her unique and gifted; pursuing beauty can be a delightful endeavor, not just a preoccupation; sex is among the best things in life; and men are not the enemy."
And guess what? In the long battle between the two styles of feminism, Brown, for now, has won. Just look at the culture around us. Ms. Magazine, the earnest publication that defined feminism in the 1970s and '80s, has been replaced on college women's dorm room shelves by sexier, sassier updates such as Bitch and Bust. The four talented, smart -- and feminist -- women of "Sex and the City," who are intent on defining their own lives but are also willing to talk about Manolos and men, look more like Brown's type of heroine than "Sisterhood Is Powerful" readers. The stereotype of feminists as asexual, hirsute Amazons in Birkenstocks that has reigned on campus for the past two decades has been replaced by a breezy vision of hip, smart young women who will take a date to the right-on, woman-friendly sex shop Babeland.
In fast-paced, energetic prose, Scanlon, a professor of gender and women's studies at Bowdoin College, tells the story of a young self-described "mouseburger" who was raised in Arkansas during the Depression, who never graduated from college but wrote a bestseller that sold in 28 countries and who became, for a quarter-century, the voice of one of America's most influential women's magazines.
What's revelatory about the book is the description of what was missing from women's lives before the second wave emerged. Brown infuriated feminists by urging single women to essentially expect payment for their sexual availability -- men, she argued, should buy meals and trinkets, if not hand over actual cash. As awful as this notion is, it forces us to think back to a time when bright young women were locked out of the good jobs in advertising, publishing, law and other fields and herded into such appallingly underpaid secretarial or research roles that they could scarcely make ends meet. Though sometimes marred by a fondness for such PC terms as "problematic" and "oppressor," this primer on our pre-feminist days tells a story worth retelling, and one whose implications are worth reconsidering. For American women are at a crucial turning point.
Friedan's second wave feminism, loosely described, was sincere in its emotional tone, reformist (though many would say radical) in its goals and middle-class or upper-middle-class and overwhelmingly white in terms of its most visible spokeswomen. Its great strength lay in analyzing entrenched gender-based power and challenging it politically, ushering in the great triumphs that made women's lives today possible -- from reproductive rights to Title IX to laws against sexual assault and domestic violence.
But its shortcomings grew more visible with wear: Second wave theory and practice tended toward humorlessness. The movement often saw men and women in opposition (rather than seeing sex discrimination as the enemy). It sometimes viewed domesticity and family life as a trap rather than a potential source of joy for both sexes. It could be puritanical about sexuality, and it often cast a skeptical eye on what it saw as women's frivolous pursuit of romance, fun and fashion.
Then third wave feminism came along, critiquing its staid mothers and reinvigorating -- while simultaneously giving some political heft to -- the kind of gestures Brown had set out in her 1962 manifesto. Third wave feminism is pluralistic, strives to be multiethnic, is pro-sex and tolerant of other women's choices. It has led to an embrace of what was once so politically suspect -- the notion that you can be a "lipstick lesbian" or a "riot grrrl" if you want to be, that you can choose your persona and your freedom for yourself.
But that very individualism, which has been great for feminism's rebranding, is also its weakness: It can be fun and frisky, but too often, it's ahistorical and apolitical. As many older feminists justly point out, the world isn't going to change because a lot of young women feel confident and personally empowered, if they don't have grass-roots groups or lobbies to advance woman-friendly policies, help women break through the glass ceiling, develop decent work-family support structures or solidify real political clout.
Feminism had to reinvent itself -- there was no way to sustain the uber-seriousness and sometimes judgmental tone of the second wave. But feminists are in danger if we don't know our history, and a saucy tattoo and a condom do not a revolution make.
The fact is, we know the answers to Western women's problems: The way is mapped out, the time for theory is pretty much over. We know the laws and the policies we need to achieve full equality. What we lack is a grass-roots movement that will drive the political will. "Lipstick" or lifestyle feminism won't produce that movement alone.
As Scanlon puts it: "Ever the optimist, [Brown] chose to see pleasure where others saw danger, allies where others saw oppressors, and opportunities where others saw obstacles. If other feminists could be faulted for overemphasizing the ways in which women were victimized, Helen Gurley Brown can be faulted for underemphasizing women's workplace and personal challenges."
Surely we can find a way between the merely personal and the mostly political -- a synthesis of Brown and Friedan. If Michelle Obama's generation is getting closer to it, maybe Sasha's and Malia's generation will find it at last.
Naomi Wolf is the author of "Give Me Liberty: A Handbook for American Revolutionaries."