It was fitting that Helen Gurley Brown rather than her husband David, the film and Broadway producer, was the center of attention at his funeral yesterday; she had been throughout their more than 50 years of marriage together. As Richard D. Zanuck, David’s former producing partner, launched into the first eulogy of the afternoon while trying to control his emotions, Helen, in a voice as clear as a bell, said, “Will you please speak up? We can’t hear you.” The standing-room-only service broke into applause, happy to hear that at 87, the iconic Cosmopolitan editor remains as commanding as ever.
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While David Brown, who died on Monday at 93, most famously played second fiddle to his wife, he was remarkably successful in his own right. His Hollywood producing credits include Jaws, The Sting, Cocoon, The Player, Chocolat, and Driving Miss Daisy. On Broadway he produced Tru, a one-act play about Truman Capote, the musicals Sweet Smell of Success and Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, and Aaron Sorkin’s A Few Good Men, which he also made into the Jack Nicholson-Tom Cruise film.
Furthermore, in 1991 he and Zanuck were awarded the Motion Picture Academy’s Irving G. Thalberg Award and, two years later, the Producers Guild of America’s David O. Selznick Lifetime Achievement Award.
But Brown was that rare overachieving spouse who joyfully relinquished center stage to his mate, all the while maintaining his own comfortable identity. With his elegant manners, signature moustache, erudition, and understated wit, he was a consummate showman who just happened to think that his own wife was the greatest show on Earth. He encouraged her to write the seminal Sex and the Single Girl, which paved the way for her success at Cosmopolitan, where he chipped in by helping write salacious cover headlines on such pressing topics as landing a husband and being a tiger in bed.
“Whereas Helen liked to be the center of attention, he didn’t mind being a little off-center,” said Pamela Fiori, the editor of Town and Country, for whom David wrote on subjects ranging from Frank Sinatra to civility in the post-9/11 world.
“His pride in Helen was staggering,” said Alexandra Mayes Birnbaum, one of his oldest friends. “She’d say to me, ‘Call David and tell David how wonderful his play is.’ But he would be really thrilled if there was a new international edition of Cosmo in East Waziristan.”
The other reason David Brown’s talents may have been somewhat overlooked was that he wasn’t cut from the megalomaniacal Hollywood mold. A Manhattan-born Stanford graduate, he came to the movies from writing for publications such as The Saturday Evening Post and Harpers, and working as a magazine editor. In fact, he served as managing editor from 1949 to 1952 of a far sleepier version of Cosmopolitan than the one it would become under his wife during the 1960s.
The drive and ambition necessary to create a blockbuster such as Jaws “usually obliterates less-driven characteristics like kindness and sensitivity,” observed the actor and director Bob Balaban, who was the recipient of several thoughtful, incisive notes regarding his work from Brown on expensive stationary over the years. “By the time you put together a movie that grosses $200 million, why bother to be nice? He bothered.”
When Tri-Star flew Brown and Kit Golden, his producing partner for the last 25 years, out to L.A. for meetings he insisted they also put her up at the Bel Air, his favorite hotel. “He said, ‘If there’s any problem I’ll pay for it.’ He always had a room by the pool and a car and driver,” Golden remembered.
Pamela Fiori ran into him there. “He was pulling out in a stretch limo,” she recalled. “He saw me, rolled down the window, and said, ‘Try the croissants. They’re the best in town.’”
Indeed, Brown’s greatest achievement may have been a life well lived. Certainly those made most despondent by his loss will include the members of New York City’s hospitality industry, the maitre d’s and waiters at such watering holes as The Four Seasons, Michael’s, and Cipriani. “Our accountant would come in with a credit card receipt and say, ‘Would you look at this—he tipped 100% on his check,’” Kit Golden said. “The service he got was phenomenal.”
Ralph Gardner, Jr. is freelance writer whose work has appeared in New York magazine, the New York Observer, the New Yorker and other publications.