The pioneering Cosmopolitan editor and author of ‘Sex and the Single Girl’ encouraged women not to give up on love, men, sex, or using their feminine wiles—but also boosted their self-confidence to take charge of their own lives. Plus, Robin Givhan on how Gurley Brown harnessed cleavage and 10 tips from her seminal book.
I have always thought of Helen Gurley Brown as the female version of a Horatio Alger hero—the American dream of a self-made woman. Like Alger’s fictional heroes, but real, she started with nothing: a father who died early, an impoverished mother, and a crippled sister she needed to support. What she lacked in money for higher education she made up for in hard work and self-discipline, bucking the sexist workplace of the 1950s and ’60s by starting as a secretary and toiling through 17 jobs before she achieved her dream of becoming an editor, at the age of 42.
She called me up that year, in 1965, and introduced herself as the new editor of Cosmopolitan. I was a green reporter at the New York Herald Tribune, but I jumped at her offer of a dream assignment: fly to Paris with Pan American stewardesses (as they were called then) and follow them through their weekend layover—did they have a secret love life? Although they all had hometown boys waiting for them, once assured that they could use pseudonyms, they were guiltless in describing their naughty one-night stands. Well, Virginia, you should have heard the shock and outrage: how dare a magazine lure virgins into vixen-hood!
“Whenever I took a trip after that, stewardesses gave me so much trouble,” Helen later told me, laughing. “They’d say, ‘We’re not horny like that,’ and I’d say, ‘Maybe you aren’t, but your friends are.’”
Helen looked nothing like Venus—skinny, pancake-chested, with small eyes and a surgically whittled nose—but to ordinary women in the dark ages before feminism flowered, Helen Gurley Brown was the practical Goddess of Love. In 1962, a decade before Gloria Steinem launched Ms. magazine as the bible of the women’s liberation movement, Brown published her first culture-buster, Sex and the Single Girl. That little book liberated the minds of millions of homely, working-class girls stuck in hardscrabble towns across America where life after high school held no more promise than a job at the 5 & 10, a bossy husband, and no control over the birth of too many children. Brown challenged them to take the same liberties as young men: to enjoy a long and lusty sexual prelude to marriage and to use the rest of the time to build a successful career.
Like a talented politician, Helen Gurley Brown had a vision of how American society would and could change. In her 32 years as editor in chief of Cosmopolitan magazine, she fostered, amplified, and embodied in her own life the ideal of a liberated woman who compounds her impact by partnering with an equally liberated man.
“I stopped being a virgin at 19,” she told me years later, “and I enjoyed 18 years of many romances and lots of sex before I married David Brown when I was 37. I was his third wife. I’m not bragging, but one of the advantages of marrying late is you get a lot of stuff out of your system.”
It was a power marriage that advanced the careers of both the Browns. David Brown had momentarily lost his job at 20th Century Fox when he gave Helen the idea for her bestselling Sex and the Single Girl.” He also co-wrote with Helen the persuasive proposal to Hearst to revive the failing Cosmopolitan and make his wife editor in chief. He and Helen entertained lavishly in Hollywood while Brown coproduced with Richard Zanuck one blockbuster movie after another, including Jaws and The Sting, before he became the independent producer of sophisticated hits such as The Player, A Few Good Men, and Angela’s Ashes. He always went out of his way to let me know how he adored his Helen.
Helen is usually left out of encomiums to the early pioneers of women’s liberation, because she was nothing like the movement ideologues. Helen cultivated a low and seductively breathy voice and gushed with compliments to win people to her wishes. She loved men and sex, and enjoyed using feminine wiles, and she encouraged women not to give up on any of that, ever. But she worked hard to reconcile those natural drives with boosting women’s self-confidence to take charge of their own lives. She believed in chutzpah, “the drive to put yourself ahead,” as she defined the Yiddish word. A woman had to know when to push and how hard.
She was not happy about turning 50. “The ball is now in our court,” she warned me before I hit 30. “Instead of being pursued, after 50 we have to take the initiative. But it’s just ridiculous for a woman over 50 to assume sex has to be over. You may not be as rambunctious as when you were a teenager, but an orgasm is an orgasm, it doesn’t matter how long it takes to get there.”
She proposed adopting the formula used by older men in attracting younger partners. “You may have to spend a little money, take him to dinner, take him on trips, introduce him to a successful group of your friends, make an investment, make it worthwhile for him to know you.”
She was even less happy about reaching her 70s, but again, she wouldn’t give in to age or ageism. Over lunch one day, she told me she had mainlined Premarin (high-dose hormone replacement therapy) for 20 years before giving it up. “It does keep you gushy, but it’s not necessarily good for you,” she said. “I think it caused my breast cancer,” which caught up with her at 65, but which she survived.
At 74, she was forced out of her job on which her identity was based, the U.S. editor of Cosmopolitan. It threw her into despair. “I knew I’d jump out of the window if I didn’t have a job,” she told me two years later, when, after using her wit and wiles, she had persuaded Hearst CEO Frank A. Bennack Jr. to create a job for her, critiquing Cosmo’s foreign editions and often traveling to ballyhoo their launch.
Nine years later, in 2005, the 83-year-old Helen, still an assisted redhead and stalk thin, was as exuberant as ever. Over another lunch she told me: “We now have 70 international editions and they make pots of money. We’re in two Muslim countries, Indonesia and Turkey, and all over Asia.” She was still going in to the office every day from 10 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. before making the social and cultural rounds of New York at night with her husband. He was then 88 and had a play opening on Broadway, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels.
She assured me that their romance was not over. “It helps if you go on romantic trips together,” she said. “I took David to Bosnia this year to open Cosmo editions. I took him to Russia and China. When you’re in another city and a glamorous hotel that is conducive to sex, you think, ‘Hey, let’s don’t let this go to waste.’”