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Profile: Helen Gurley Brown

Posted Sep 05 2012 3:58am

Words: Meryl Cubley

Helen Gurley Brown – A legend whose light will shine on for us all

In the 1960s, the publication of “Sex and the Single Girl” (1962) by Helen Gurley Brown became a runaway bestseller. Focusing on her single life it encouraged women to have sex freely, regardless of their marital status; and to go and grab the career and social life they desired. Throwing away the Stepford Wives mentality and heading fast towards liberation (and the contraceptive pill) meant a real leap in women’s culture and truly fired up the feminist movement. Sadly, the word feminism seems to have been vilified beyond recognition in today’s world – it is obvious that Brown would not be happy. Neither would her adversaries and famous feminists Germaine Greer, Kate Millet or Betty Friedan. But whoever’s feminism you recognize as your own, it is still true that Helen Gurley Brown is someone who should be applauded.

When this amazing woman took over the reins at Cosmopolitan in 1965 her passion for female empowerment really took off as she became the most influential women’s magazine editor of all time. Refashioning the publication from a dreary rag aimed at housewives, Helen Gurley Brown turned it into a bible for young women, giving its readers full license to seek extra-marital sex, alongside glittering careers and enjoy having it all with blissful abandon. The New York Times said: “She did not so much revamp the magazine as vamp it.” Under Brown’s stewardship, Cosmo’s stagnant circulation was transformed within four issues. Sales grew year on year, peaking at just over 3 million in 1983, and then plateauing at 2.5 million copies until Brown stepped down as editor-in-chief of the US edition in 1997.

Her office at the Hearst Building in New York was famously and fabulously pink – with a wall sign that read: “Good girls go to heaven/Bad girls go everywhere.” A recent statement from Hearst said: “It would be hard to overstate the importance…of her success. Helen was one of the world’s most recognised editors and book authors, and a true pioneer for women in journalism and beyond. Originally she hailed from Arkansas but moved to Los Angeles five years after her father died in a tragic accident. The event of her father’s death left her mother depressed and impoverished and, when her only (older) sister contracted polio, she felt the burden of having to support the family. It was a time when the main way out was to marry well, but she took the self-sufficient path of going to work and started out as a secretary. In a succession of such jobs (such as a successful copywriter demanding one of the highest salaries in the industry) she discovered that flirting with (male) bosses could result in receiving a range of benefits.”

Kate Millet (as mentioned earlier) is the current Cosmo editor and said, “I don’t think the feminists recognised that her message was one of empowerment.” Yet US feminist Betty Friedan who initially dismissed Cosmo as “immature teenage level sexual fantasy”, later conceded that Brown “in her editorship, has been a rather spirited and gutsy example in the revolution of women”. So we can comfortably say today that Brown was indeed the essence of a feminist. Indeed to say that all feminists must believe exactly the same thing is pure folly – and hugely undermines the foundations of feminism. The movement exists to reassure all women that they can and should go after whatever they want; and that these needs and desires may be very different from her sister in arms. Essentially we, as feminists, should believe in choice for all women.

To think of Helen Gurley Brown and the movement that she instigated, it’s wise to ask: Would Sex and the City have happened in the same way? Or Fifty Shades of Grey? In fact Sex and the City author Candace Bushnell tweeted on Helen Gurley Brown’s recent death: “This really is the end of an era.” As the main character, Carrie was a sex and relationship writer – who made her living in this way – without Gurley Brown can we say this would have been such a believable main narrative?

Marrying David Brown in 1959, it was he who Helen openly credited with being a huge influence on her life. David suggested that she turn some old love letters into ‘Sex and the Single Girl.’ When the title shot to the top of the bestseller lists and sold two million copies in three weeks, it’s possible to imagine the celebrations and joy in the Brown household. This must have intensified when the book went on to be published in 28 countries and translated into 16 languages. In 1964 it was turned into a film starring Natalie Wood, Tony Curtis, Henry Fonda and Lauren Bacall. David Brown who had been divorced twice before was a former Cosmopolitan managing editor and went on to become a movie producer whose credits would include The Sting, Jaws and Driving Miss Daisy.

The mayor of New York, Michael Bloomberg said that Helen Gurley Brown was: “A pioneer who reshaped not only the entire media industry, but the nation’s culture”. He continued, “She was a role model for the millions of women whose private thoughts, wonders and dreams she addressed so brilliantly in print.”

During an interview in 2006, Gurley Brown said: “Before I started writing the thought was that sex was for men, and women only caved in to please men. But I wrote what I knew to be true – that sex is pleasurable for both women and men.”

There are now 64 international editions of Cosmopolitan – some in Muslim countries – it is distributed in more than 100 countries and in 35 languages. Respectful to cultural and religious differences tweaks and changes are made – but this is the same for all media.  The magazine is taking the message of female liberation to places where many of the topics it covers can’t even be discussed openly such as in India and Muslim countries. If estimates of readership numbers of 100 million teens and young women are to be believed, Cosmo has the equivalent population of being the 12th biggest country (there are 196) on earth. Collectively, this number of people is an advertiser’s dream, as their average spend is $2.5 billion on beauty products, $1.5 billion on fragrances and $1.4 billion on shoes (of course).

Gurley Brown went on to make broadcast appearances over the years. Including the 1980s where she had a weekly spot on “Good Morning America” and her own show which she briefly hosted – “A View from Cosmo” on the Lifetime Channel. She was a regular guest on the Johnny Carson and Howard Stern shows; and appeared as an interviewee in documentaries such as “Inside Deep Throat” and VH1’s “Sex: The Revolution”.

In 1997 the perception of Gurley Brown – together with sliding circulation figures – led to Hearst replacing her as Editor-in-Chief of the U.S. edition of Cosmo (succeeded by Bonnie Fuller). She remained, though, as head of the international editions – and kept her beloved pink office. Bonnie Fuller said: “She was the first woman to say you could have it all – and by that she meant a career AND a man AND a hot sex life. She was a visionary. She created the modern woman.”

Following “Sex and the Office” (1964), was “Helen Gurley Brown’s Single Girl’s Cookbook” (1969), “Sex and the New Single Girl” (1970), “Having it All” (1982) and “The Late Show” (1993). The latter was an advice manual for the over-50s and true to her controversial style, Gurley Brown suggested going for sex on the side with husbands of friends, to counter a narrowing of the number of available men. She published her autobiography “I’m Wild Again” in 2000.

Her marriage to David lasted over 50 years until his death in 2010 at the ripe old age of 93. Earlier this year she gave $30 million to Columbia and Stanford University to create the memorial David and Helen Gurley Brown Institute for Media Innovation.

Gurley Brown and Brown had no children; which from a journalist’s point of view would have been fascinating to see how their childhood and thoughts and politics had been formed by having such an international firebrand as a mother. However it would seem that children did not quite fit with this couple’s lifestyle – or that they were unable to have children and made the most of their obviously loving relationship. Gurley Brown is quoted as saying that one of the key factors of their successful marriage was “that David never interrupted me when she I was writing from home at the weekends.”

She won many accolades for her achievements, including being named one of the 25 most influential women in the U.S. five times by the World Almanac. And in 2008 was named by Slate magazine as the 13th most powerful person over 80 in America. In 1998 she was inducted into the Publishers Hall of Fame and was the first female recipient of the magazine industry’s highest honour, the Henry John Fisher Award in 1995.

Helen Gurley Brown rose from poor roots, both feeling unattractive and plagued by disfiguring acne. She coined the word “mouseburger” – a physically unprepossessing woman with little money and few prospects – to describe girls like her. “Nearly every glamorous, wealthy, successful career woman you might envy now started out as some kind of schlep,” she said.

The sexual revolution would have happened anyway – but with her help it happened much sooner. Regardless of where you stand on her politics, this legacy is one in which Helen Gurley Brown is the rightful owner.

*Helen Gurley Brown died at the age of 90 in New York, 13th August 2012.


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