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Updated: August 15, 2012 04:06 IST

The pioneer of the women’s magazine

Margalit Fox
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Helen Gurley Brown (1922-2012)
Helen Gurley Brown (1922-2012)

Helen Gurley Brown, who as the author of Sex and the Single Girl shocked early-1960s America with the news that unmarried women not only had sex but also thoroughly enjoyed it and who as the Editor of Cosmopolitan magazine spent the next three decades telling those women precisely how to enjoy it even more died on Monday in New York. She was 90 (although parts of her were considerably younger).

The Hearst Corp., Cosmopolitan’s publisher, said in a news release that she died at NewYork-Presbyterian/Columbia hospital after a brief stay there.

As Cosmopolitan’s Editor from 1965 until 1997, Ms. Brown was widely credited with being the first to introduce frank discussions of sex into magazines for women. The look of women’s magazines on the newsstand today — a sea of voluptuous models and titillating cover lines — is due in no small part to her influence.

Before she arrived at Cosmopolitan, Ms. Brown had already shaken the collective consciousness with her best-selling book Sex and the Single Girl. Published in 1962, the year before Betty Friedan ignited the modern women’s movement with The Feminine Mystique, it taught unmarried women how to look their best, have delicious affairs and ultimately bag a man for keeps, all in breathless, aphoristic prose. (Ms. Brown was a former advertising copywriter.)

Ms. Brown routinely described herself as a feminist, but whether her work helped or hindered the cause of women’s liberation has been publicly debated for decades. It will doubtless be debated long after her death. What is safe to say is that she was a Janus-headed figure in women’s history, simultaneously progressive and retrogressive in her approach to women’s social roles.

Few magazines have been identified so closely with a single editor as Cosmopolitan was with Ms. Brown. Before she took over, Cosmopolitan, like its competitors, was every inch a post-War product. Its target reader was a married suburbanite, preoccupied with maintaining the perfect figure, raising the perfect child and making the perfect Jell-O salad.

Ms. Brown tossed the kids and the Jell-O, although she kept the diet advice with a vengeance. Yes, readers would need to land Mr. Right someday — the magazine left little doubt that he was still every woman’s grail. But in an era in which an unmarried woman was called an old maid at 23, the new Cosmopolitan gave readers license not to settle for settling down with just anyone and to enjoy the search with blissful abandon for however long it took.

A child of the Ozarks, Helen Marie Gurley was born February 18, 1922, in Green Forest, Arkansas, the younger of two daughters of a family of modest means. Her father, Ira, was a schoolteacher, as her mother, the former Cleo Sisco, had been before her marriage.

“I never liked the looks of the life that was programmed for me ordinary, hillbilly and poor and I repudiated it from the time I was 7 years old,” Ms. Brown wrote in her book Having It All (1982).

When Helen was a baby, Ira Gurley was elected to the State legislature, and the family moved to Little Rock. In 1932, when she was 10, Ira was killed in an elevator accident, leaving her mother depressed and impoverished. In 1937, Gurley moved with her daughters to Los Angeles. There, Helen’s older sister, Mary, contracted polio; she spent the rest of her life paralysed from the waist down and in later years battled alcoholism.

Although Helen graduated as valedictorian of her high school class, she feared she could never transcend her family circumstances. At a time when a young woman’s main chance was to marry well, she felt ill-equipped for the task. She did not consider herself pretty, she wrote years afterward, and had rampant, intractable acne.

In Having It All, she coined the word “mouseburger” to describe young women like her. (mouseburger, n., pejorative,@ mouse + -burger. A physically unprepossessing woman with little money and few prospects. Cf. milquetoast, said of men).

Helen Gurley persevered. She studied briefly at Texas State College for Women (it is now Texas Women’s University), but with no money to continue, she returned to Los Angeles and enrolled in secretarial school, from which she graduated in 1941.

Around this time she had a short, inadvertent career as an escort. At 19, as Ms. Brown recounted in her memoir I'm Wild Again (2000), she answered a newspaper advertisement seeking young women for “social evenings”. She needed to support her mother and sister: What could be simpler, she reasoned, than earning $5 for going on a date? On her first outing, she and her gentleman caller parked and kissed a bit before the full extent of her responsibilities dawned on her. She fled with her $5 and her virtue.

She went on to hold a string of secretarial jobs — 17 by her own count — and discovered the measure of security that sex could bring. At every office, or so it seemed, there were bosses eager to fondle and dandle. In exchange, there might be a fur or an apartment or the wherewithal to keep her family going a little longer.

She eventually became an advertising copywriter in Los Angeles, first with Foote, Cone & Belding and later with Kenyon & Eckhardt. In 1959 she married David Brown, a former managing editor of Cosmopolitan who had become a Hollywood producer. “I look after him like a geisha girl,” she told The New York Times in 1970.

David Brown, who produced Jaws and other well-known films, died in 2010; the couple had no children. Helen Gurley Brown’s sister, Mary Gurley Alford, died before her.

In the early 1960s, Ms. Brown found herself at loose ends and cast about for a project. Her husband, who had recently stumbled on a cache of letters she had written in her 20s to a married man who was smitten with her, persuaded her to write Sex and the Single Girl.

Although the book seems almost quaint today (“An affair can last from one night to forever”), it caused a sensation when it was published in 1962 by Bernard Geis Associates. It sold millions of copies, turned Ms. Brown into a household name and inspired a movie of the same title starring Natalie Wood, released in 1964.

In 1963, the Browns moved to New York. Two years later, the Hearst Corp. asked Brown to take over Cosmopolitan, one of its less prepossessing magazines.

Ms. Brown had never held an editing job, but her influence on Cosmopolitan was swift and certain: She did not so much revamp the magazine as vamp it.

Readers and advertisers flocked to the new Cosmo. When Ms. Brown took over, the magazine had a circulation of less than 800,000; at its height, in the 1980s, circulation approached three million.

Ms. Brown’s magazine did not find favour with everyone. In 1970, a group of feminists led by Kate Millett staged a sit-in at Ms. Brown’s office, protesting what they saw as her retrograde vision of womanhood. Even several nude male centrefolds (Burt Reynolds, April 1972; Arnold Schwarzenegger, August 1977) were for many of Cosmopolitan’s critics insufficient counterweights.

In 1996, with circulation declining and the public perception that Ms. Brown had lost touch with her readers growing, Hearst announced that she would step down the next year as Cosmopolitan’s Editor-in-Chief. Ms. Brown’s last issue was February 1997; she was succeeded by Bonnie Fuller, the founding editor of the U.S. edition of Marie Claire magazine.

Ms. Brown stayed on as the editor of Cosmopolitan’s international editions, continuing to work from an office appointed with pink silk walls, leopard-print carpet and a cushion embroidered with the maxim “Good Girls Go to Heaven/Bad Girls Go Everywhere.”

— New York Times News Service

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