Women in the World

08.15.12

The Helen Gurley Brown I Knew

She was a vixen, a “mouseburger,” and a re-gifter. John Searles remembers his iconic boss of 15 years at Cosmopolitan. Plus, Gail Sheehy on the goddess of love and Robin Givhan on the power of cleavage.

My first day as an intern in the books department at Cosmopolitan also happened to be the day the O.J. Simpson verdict was announced. The buzz among the editorial staff was that at one o'clock, we would meet to watch the decision in “her office.” I didn’t know whose office they meant, but at five minutes till one, I followed a brigade of women in miniskirts and high heels into an office with chintz wallpaper, a leopard-print rug, and a China-doll collection lined up along the windows looking out toward Columbus Circle in Manhattan. Dozens of staffers gathered around the TV, riveted by the news from the L.A. County courthouse, but I couldn’t take my eyes off the woman seated among them behind a French antique writing desk. At the age of 70-something, Helen Gurley Brown was still a woman who knew how to get men to look at her. She wore a low-cut pink dress and bangle bracelets up both arms, her hair properly poufed.

Before I ever laid eyes on “HGB,” as many of us affectionately called her, I only knew the Cosmo coverlines on the magazines I found on the floor of my sisters’ bedroom growing up in a small New England town: What You Can Teach a Man About Sex, Why Some Women Attract Men Like Crazy, The No. 1 Sex Question: How Often? Sure, by today’s standards, they almost sound tame, but it left me with a certain impression of Helen. Glamorous seductress. Sex goddess. Vixen. All of those things were the opposite of me: a 20-something kid right out of graduate school with dreams of becoming a writer. The most glamorous item in my wardrobe consisted of a $12 blazer from the Salvation Army.

As it turned out, HGB and I were destined for our own love affair of sorts. I stayed at Cosmo well beyond my internship, moving up the ranks over some 15 years to become books editor, then brand director, then editor-at-large—editing everything from an excerpt of Gore Vidal’s memoir to writing some of those juicy coverlines myself. And I learned that Helen was much more than a sex kitten.

Despite being the author of the game-changing book Sex and the Single Girl and the creator of the world’s most iconic women’s magazine, Helen regularly said she wasn’t a classic beauty (“mouseburger”—that’s the word she most often used to describe herself), but it was never about that. For her, it was about making the most of what you have, and that’s the lesson she tried to impart on millions of women and even some men like me.

Whenever I answered the phone to hear her kitten-purr voice or found one of her flowery, typewritten letters on her trademark pink stationary in my in-box (back in those pre-Internet days), it was a treat. Most of the time, the calls and letters were about simple requests for a book she wanted me to call in from a publisher, but as I began to write for various newspapers and magazines myself, then published my own novels, Helen told me she was proud. One letter I still have hanging over my desk gushes, “Pussycat, it is absolutely delicious to have watched you start out in the Cosmo basement and work your way up to the penthouse suite!”

That was the thing about Helen. In this age we now live in, where everyone obsessively posts and tweets the most self-obsessed details of their lives, she rarely focused on herself in personal interactions. Instead, she liked to compliment people—most often about their good posture—and was more interested in asking others about their lives. After listening, she could be counted on to offer thoughtful advice on how they could—what else?—make the most of what they had.

She was surprisingly careful with money. She had amassed her own fortune and also was married to David Brown, one of the most successful film producers of all time, and yet she pinched every penny. That meant taking the bus most days to work “to see what my Cosmo girls are wearing,” as she said. It also meant that when the holidays rolled around, she didn’t go hog-wild with gifts. Instead, Helen had a closet where she saved all sorts of loot that publicists sent her throughout the year, which she wrapped up and re-gifted to her staff. I know, I know…but it was entertaining to see what she had chosen for you—a watch promoting a Robert Redford movie, a pair of Jane Fonda leg warmers. Helen’s frugality also meant that in the final year of her life, she was able to donate $30 million to educational charities that were important to her.

She was wonderfully kooky. During my early years, I assisted an editor whose office was next to hers. Often, when Helen returned from lunching with a famous friend (Liz Smith, Woody Allen, Candice Bergen), she would disappear into her office, where she cranked up the classical music. There I sat, answering phones while doing my best to ignore the groans coming from behind her door and suspecting that she might very well be testing out some of those racy coverlines. That is, until one day, when she emerged in her purple leotard and matching sweatband. Apparently, she was “aerobicizing” off her lunch—it was the ’90s after all.

As the only guy on Cosmo’s edit staff for so long, maybe I did receive a teeny bit of extra attention from her…like that one time she actually patted me on my rear.

In her final years, deep into her 80s, when Helen was no longer editor in chief of the U.S. editions, but still a fixture at the Hearst Tower—a glossy skyscraper where we had relocated from our former, rickety old building with brass doorknobs and mice—she maintained an unrelenting work ethic, putting in five full days a week keeping watch over the magazine’s international editions. I would occasionally stop by her office. Out of respect for Helen, the company had re-created a version of her former office in our old building, which felt surprisingly cozy tucked away on the 37th floor of the sleek glass tower.

It was during those visits that I realized as the only guy on Cosmo’s edit staff for so long, maybe I did receive a teeny bit of extra attention from her…like that one time she actually patted me on my rear. That was just Helen’s way. Mostly, her attention came in the form of her wisdom.

In those last years, I heard the Hearst bigwigs had given her a car and driver too, which should have meant no more public transportation. But some nights, I would run into Helen on the way out of the building and she’d sometimes say in her trademark, kitten-purr voice, “John, pussycat, I’m taking the bus, but whatever you do, don’t tell David.” I promised I wouldn’t, and then held out my arm for her to hold onto while walking her to the bus stop.

After all, Helen needed to see what her Cosmo girls were wearing.