This is not an obituary. The woman who wore miniskirts in her 80s and couldn’t figure out why as a slim 60-year-old she couldn’t triumph over younger girls for attention on her yachting holidays, wouldn’t want something so utterly drear as an obit. Helen Gurley Brown, author of the sixties smash book Sex and the Single Girl and the editor of Cosmopolitan magazine from 1965-97 died on Aug. 13, age 90. For female readers who take premarital sex, contraceptive pills, abortions and the right to any job that talent and hard work can obtain, you don’t know what you owe this woman. Scientists may have invented the pill, suffragettes got you the vote, but it was Helen Gurley Brown who helped make your lifestyle commonplace. After Helen got her hands on Hearst’s Cosmopolitan in 1965, her magazine became the mainstream’s flagship for middle-class females wanting more than a home and kids.
Let me tell you about the sixties. The popular notion is of an era where all hell broke loose and everyone smoked pot and wore miniskirts while listening to the Beatles. Well, it wasn’t like that for most of us. Sure there were hippies—or at least we heard about them and some could be spotted at night on Yorkville Avenue in Toronto before it became Boutiqueville, though the ones I recognized were actually failing grad students from the University of Toronto. And yes we saw pictures of model Jean Shrimpton looking utterly pouty, but in the halls of the CBC where I was working as a clerk on the Juliette show, most things were cement, from the job ceiling to our girdles. I took a rather relaxed view to underwear and had scissored up my own comfy balcony bra. Very cool, I thought, but the female employees I worked with weren’t impressed by notions of swinging sixties and went to CBC management complaining no decent woman could sit in the cafeteria given my jiggling parts.
The glossy magazine for young women then was Seventeen and before Helen hit Cosmo, its covers featured a promised land of stupendous boredom: “Science confuses you, and math? Strictly for boys!” and a “heartwarming story about a blind girl who sews a wedding dress for home ec.” Even by 1970, Seventeen’s daring approach to dating advised young women, “Dating do: do read his palm. Say something like, ‘What an extraordinary thumb! Mind if I have a closer look?’ ”
After college, Gurley Brown landed in steno pool Siberia. She got her start writing advertising copy—shades of Mad Men’s Peggy. She scrimped by living off her dates and then blew $5,000 of savings on a Mercedes sports car which she credited with making her more desirable to men who saw her as a woman of independent means. She was 37 with a successful advertising career when she finally hooked her husband—David Brown, a former managing editor of Cosmopolitan magazine. The marriage lasted more than 50 years until his death in 2010. They had no children except their books and films. (He co-produced Jaws and The Sting among others.) In 1962 she wrote Sex and the Single Girl and—take heart unpublished authors—it was rejected big time by publishers. Eventually someone took a flyer on it and it hit the bestseller lists. Chapters included “Where to meet them,” “How to be sexy,” “The affair: from beginning to end.” The book promotes dressing smartly in the office since “bosses love to have chic, sleek cats around” and concedes that sleeping with the boss is not always unhelpful. In 1965 she became Cosmopolitan’s editor. Circulation went from 800,000 to more than three million.
The Cosmo girl was glamorous, sexy, eager to have fun in the bedroom and unapologetic about having it. The magazine was to help her find sexual nirvana between the sheets and on any other handy surface. She achieved in work using femininity as well as brains. With Gurley Brown’s helpful instructions, she could rope in her man. The writing was brisk and not half as easy as it looked. I tried in 1968 and submitted an article on “How to make the most of bad things” with a list of what-to-dos when your kleptomaniac brother stole from your friend’s vacation place in the Hamptons or you were born with an incurable stutter (“Mention you went to a British public school and that King George VI set the standard. Americans won’t know what you’re talking about but they’ll copy your word hesitation.”) An editor at Cosmo sent back my piece with Gurley Brown’s hand-written note: “Good but too clever. More direct examples.” I tried three rewrites until Brown wrote: “She’s not for us.” I wasn’t a serious Cosmo girl.
Feminist Kate Millett organized a sit-in at Cosmo’s offices in 1970 protesting the “retrograde” Cosmo girl. But Gurley Brown, often referred to as the second wave of feminism, was telling women don’t burn your bras, just wear clean ones every day. Don’t throw out your makeup for the natural look but secretly take off lipstick when he’s walking around to open the car door if you are going to be kissed. She emphasized thrift and never took her eye off hard work on the job. There was nothing a woman couldn’t do if she gamed the rules properly—and forgot some of them. At the very end of her life, she was still exercising, rail thin though she had gone up to 125 lb. from her usual 100 lb. Tant pis. She was declared a “living landmark” by the New York Landmarks Conservancy in 1995. “A girl with brains,” wrote Anita Loos, “ought to do something else with them besides think.” And Helen Gurley Brown, the girl from Little Rock, Ark., sure did.