Helen Gurley Brown was the editor of Cosmopolitan and the author of the controversial, bestselling 1962 book Sex and the Single Girl. She was later the catalyst for the hugely popular Sex and the City series written by Candace Bushnell, in which the main protagonist, Carrie Bradshaw, writes a sex column on her sexual escapades and those of her close friends, as well as musings about the relationships between men and women. Arguably their lifestyles would not have been possible without Brown’s pioneering views.
The petite Brown gained notoriety for championing the notion that women should have sex, regardless of marital status. Hired by the publisher Hearst, in 1965, to turn around the flagging fortunes of Cosmopolitan, Brown said at the outset that her aim was to tell a reader “how to get everything out of life – the money, recognition, success, men, prestige, authority, dignity – whatever she is looking at through the glass her nose is pressed against.”
Bonnie Fuller, the celebrity editor who succeeded Brown at Cosmopolitan in 1997, said, “She was the first woman to say you could have it all – and by that she meant a career AND a man AND a hot sex life. She was a visionary. She created the modern woman.”
Over the next 32 years, Brown transformed the often prudish magazine, aimed at suburban housewives, into one that built a global readership based on Brown and her colleagues’ idealised image of the sexually liberated, careerfocused “Cosmo Girl”.
In paying tribute, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg said the city had lost “a
pioneer who reshaped not only the entire media industry, but the nation’s
culture”. He continued, “She was a role model for the millions of women whose
private thoughts, wonders and dreams she addressed so brilliantly in print.”
Frank Bennack Jr, chief executive of Hearst, said, “Helen was one of the world’s most recognised magazine editors and book authors, and a true pioneer for women in journalism.”
Born in February 1922 in rural Arkansas, Helen Gurley Brown earned money as a child by giving dance lessons to other children. At 10, her father died, whereupon her mother, a teacher, moved the family to Los Angeles. She graduated from John H Francis Polytechnic High School at the top of her class in 1939, before working as a secretary at several advertising agencies. When finally given the opportunity to write advertising copy, she began winning prizes and became the highest-paid advertising woman on the west coast while working for Kenyon & Eckhardt.
Aged 37, Brown married the twice-divorced, former Cosmopolitan managing editor and movie producer David Brown, whose credits would include The Sting and Jaws. He encouraged her to write Sex and the Single Girl, which went on to be published in 28 countries and translated into 16 languages.
Under Brown’s stewardship, Cosmo’s stagnant circulation was transformed within four issues. Sales grew year-onyear, peaking at just over 3 million in 1983, and then plateauing at 2.5 million copies until Brown stepped down as editor- in-chief of the US edition in 1997.
However, Cosmo’s relentless focus on sex and Brown’s approval of cosmetic surgery made her a controversial figure among feminists; she always spoke freely of her own multiple cosmetic surgeries, including a nose job, facelifts and silicone injections. Current Cosmo editor Kate White said, “I don’t think the feminists recognised that her message was one of empowerment.”
Initially, many women did not understand. The entire message seemed to be “Seduce your boss, then marry him.” Indeed, Brown championed office sex. “I’ve never worked anywhere without being sexually involved with somebody in the office,” she once confessed. Asked whether that included the boss, she said, “Why discriminate against him?”
US feminist Betty Friedan initially dismissed Cosmo as “immature teenagelevel sexual fantasy”, but later conceded that Brown “in her editorship, has been a rather spirited and gutsy example in the revolution of women”. Indeed, some say today that Brown was the essence of a feminist.
Brown stayed on as the editor of Cosmopolitan’s international editions, continuing to work from an office appointed with pink silk walls, leopardprint carpet and a cushion embroidered with the maxim “Good Girls Go to Heaven/Bad Girls Go Everywhere.” In 2009, a biography of Brown, Bad Girls Go Everywhere by Jennifer Scanlon, was published by Oxford University Press. In 1967 Brown hosted a TV talk show, Outrageous Opinions, syndicated in 19 cities. She wrote another five books, including Having It All (1982 and 1993) and aged 71, The Late Show, which was subtitled A Semi-Wild But Practical Survival Plan for Women Over 50, in which she suggests that as women age and the supply of available men dwindles, they should simply appropriate their friends’ husbands for jaunty recreational sex.
“It was a terrific magazine,” she reflected later of Cosmo. “I would want my legacy to be: ‘She created something that helped people.’ My reader, I always felt, was someone who needed to come into her own.”
Helen Gurley Brown, editor and author: born Green Forest, Arkansas, USA 18 February 1922; married 1959 David Brown (died 2010); died New York 13 August 2012.
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