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The woman who wanted it all

Sali Hughes
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Pioneering magazine editor Helen Gurley Brown taught generations of women that it was their right to have it all — a career, a family and great sex. Sali Hughes recalls the life of a fascinating woman.

Incredibly driven:Helen Gurley Brown.Photo: Reuters/ Courtesy Hearst Corp.
Incredibly driven:Helen Gurley Brown.Photo: Reuters/ Courtesy Hearst Corp.

Helen Gurley Brown, creator of the Cosmopolitan magazine brand as we know it, died in Manhattan on August 13, aged 90. To many, she is the founding mother of women’s magazine publishing and the woman who first put the concept of sex and single girls into the mainstream. Decades before Sex and the City and 50 Shades of Grey , and at a time when single women couldn’t even obtain a mortgage, Cosmopolitan was telling them to celebrate their unmarried status, demanding better sex, better orgasms and better men.

But despite Gurley Brown’s notoriety as the editor who invented sex talk for women, former U.K. Cosmo editor Sam Baker says it wrongly overshadows her passion for careers and financial independence for women. “Right up until I left, she would still be sending editors notes, saying: ‘I love what you’re doing, but more careers! Careers are so important!’” Gurley Brown is credited with inventing the term “having it all”, a sentiment that endures to this day, if only in making women feel failures for not achieving her ultimate feminist goal. But what Gurley Brown arguably intended was for us to want more, to not have to choose between having a family and retaining our own identities, or between caring for our families and providing for ourselves. “Don’t use men to get what you want in life — get it for yourself,” she often said. And she never suggested women use anything but hard graft to make it. “Nearly every glamorous, wealthy, successful career woman you might envy now started out as some kind of schlepp.”

Self-made

She was no exception. Gurley was born in Green Forest, Arkansas, to schoolteacher parents. Her father, Ira, went into politics soon after and moved his family to Little Rock. When Helen was 10, in 1932, he was killed in a freak elevator accident. Broke, at the tail-end of the Great Depression, her mother, Cleo, took her two daughters to Los Angeles, whereupon Helen’s elder sister, Mary, contracted polio and never walked again. The family was uninsured and lost what little they had to Mary’s medical bills. Helen said much later: “Why am I so driven? It seems logically to have derived from things that happened to me after my father died, but some of it must have been residual from very early.” She cut short her education to go out to work to support her mother and sister (she remained obsessed with the importance of money management throughout her career). She became an advertising copywriter at a New York agency in the time of Mad Men and, within five years, was one of Manhattan’s most celebrated ad execs. She pitched a new magazine to Hearst publications and instead was offered the job of relaunching Cosmopolitan , where she remained for the next 32 years as editor.

According to everyone who knew her, “Gurley was girly”. In stark contrast with the “dour feminist anger” she banned from Cosmopolitan when she successfully overhauled the ailing literary magazine in 1965, she revelled in her femininity. Her existing Manhattan corner office on the top floor of the Hearst building was pink, full of flowers and heavily accented with animal print. She described herself as neurotic, as plain (she saw herself as a champion of the unexceptional-looking woman, and an example of what they could achieve).

Forever young

She remained young at heart and obsessed with maintaining an appearance to match. Gurley Brown was still exercising for 45 minutes beside her desk at 85 years old, and was from a young age rarely without her custom-cut wigs and false eyelashes — though as former employee Nora Ephron observed: “It never quite comes together properly. An earring keeps falling off. A wig is askew. A perfect matched stocking has run.” A relentless self-critic, Gurley Brown was a big fan of plastic surgery and claimed the only sick days of her 60-year career in order to undergo facelifts, a nose job, injections and various other nips and tucks, none of which she denied (she once even wrote a Cosmo feature on how to have great sex while wearing a hairpiece). She was known to weep at criticism or disagreements, and was regarded by some as emotionally incontinent (“Whether it was group therapy or what, there’s nothing left inside Helen. It all comes out,” her husband told Ephron). She believed in love and being sexually available to one’s partner. Through it all, her girlish sense of fun never left her.

Gurley’s marriage (at 37) to film producer David Brown marked the beginning of her most important personal and professional relationship, continued until his death in 2010. She called him “Lambchop” and kept a photograph of him on her pinboard, next to flatplans, ideas and tearsheets. She used him as a sounding board for her work. “She and David were a real team,” says Baker, now editor-in-chief at Red. “Even greater than the sum of their parts — and she was always very proud of that, which I found very admirable.”

As a colleague and friend, she was kind and supportive. Baker says: “She was always sending notes, written on a typewriter and amended by hand. She was one of the last great letter writers.” “Before she came along, women’s magazines were edited by men and ignored the single readership altogether,” says Court. Baker agrees: “In 1965, when Helen took over, women’s magazines were about homemaking. Helen made them about life, love, work, sex, money, friends. Society has moved on and I truly think Helen Gurley Brown gave it a push.” While magazines have moved on a great deal since the 60s, Gurley Brown’s legacy is indelibly marked on Cosmo ’s glossy pages (she was still writing for some international editions when she died). “What Helen did was make feminism populist, accessible and relevant to normal women’s lives,” says Court. “She showed women what they could be at a time when everyone else told them women were absolutely nothing until they married a man.”

© Guardian News & Media 2012


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