Gurley Brown during her first year as editor, 1965. (Photo: © I. C. Rapoport / Courtesy of HarperCollins)
Several months ago, the 81-year-old feminist icon Gloria Steinem had a very bad day. In an interview with Bill Maher, Steinem accused young female Bernie Sanders supporters of, essentially, voting with their hormones. “When you’re young, you’re thinking: ‘Where are the boys? The boys are with Bernie,’ ” said Steinem, who was quickly and summarily raked over the coals by present-day feminists for her dismissiveness.
The gaffe, which will not and should not tarnish Steinem’s legacy, has mostly faded from memory, but I was reminded of it while reading Enter Helen, Brooke Hauser’s new biography about the late Cosmopolitan editor Helen Gurley Brown.
Gurley Brown, who helmed Cosmo for more than three decades and authored such classics as 1982’s Having It All and 1962’s Sex and the Single Girl, is nothing if not controversial. On the one hand, long before second-wave feminists took up the cause, Gurley Brown encouraged women to cast off Eisenhower-era expectations of marriage, kids, and housewifery in favor of moving to the city, playing the field, and building careers. On the other hand, her way of spoon-feeding progress to her readers—whom she called her Cosmo girls—was frustratingly retro, and her brand of bubbly, sexy, girly-girl power was desperately out of tune with the zeitgeist of the 1970s women’s lib movement, of which Steinem was a leader.
“She was filled with contradictory messages,” said Hauser, chatting by phone from her home in western Massachusetts. “There were things in Sex and the Single Girl that were so ridiculous.” Among Gurley Brown’s tips for women seeking boyfriends: Head to your local Alcoholics Anonymous meeting or—and surely Steinem had this in mind—join both the Democrat and the Republican parties to cast a wider net. “You hope she’s joking, and she probably was,” said Hauser. “But there’s this message that resonated with me: Be an individual. Don’t live in your parents’ house anymore. Go to the big city and make something of yourself.”
That’s, in some ways, exactly what Gurley Brown did. She was born Helen Gurley in Arkansas in 1922, the daughter of a schoolteacher and a lawyer. Hers was a mostly middle class upbringing that she would later, for dramatic effect, recast as rural and impoverished. She attended a few years of business college, then became a secretary in Los Angeles, eventually rising in the ranks at an advertising firm to become a star copywriter, a sort of West Coast Peggy Olson. At 37, after years of sleeping around, often with married men—she once bragged about 178 notches on her bedpost—Gurley wed David Brown, a divorced magazine editor turned Hollywood producer.
It was Brown who encouraged his wife to write her 1962 best-seller, Sex and the Single Girl, a life manual for an expanding class of upwardly mobile, unattached working girls. And it was with her husband’s help that Gurley Brown, with zero editorial experience, fashioned herself a magazine editor and the savior of Hearst’s then flailing Cosmopolitan.
At Cosmo, Gurley Brown invented the mix that would become the magazine’s signature, crafting a product targeted toward the masses of readers who reminded her of herself: striving small-town middle American girls who made up in gumption for what they lacked in sophistication. She ran articles dispensing blow-job tips alongside features on the importance of abortion rights. She convinced a young Burt Reynolds to pose nude as a centerfold and a young Nora Ephron to get a makeover and write about it. She courted feminist writers like Steinem. (In less brilliant moments, she ran articles that claimed women were not able to contract HIV and suggested single girls head to Vietnam mid-conflict to pick up men.)
Gurley Brown only retired from Cosmo in 1997 (she retained the title of editor for the magazine’s international editions until her death in 2012), but in recent years, her name, says Hauser, once synonymous with trailblazing career women, has lost some of its oomph. “I think if you were to mention the name Helen Gurley Brown to a lot of young women of college age, many would not know who she is. To some, they picture her in her near-to-last days, aging but still wearing miniskirts and fishnet stockings and high heels.”
Hauser, who for years worked in magazines, and who thought of Gurley Brown as “someone people made fun of more than anything else,” became interested in the legendary editor’s story after reading her lively New York Times obituary. “I thought, This woman sounds fascinating: Why don’t I know more about her? She’s been forgotten by history in a way.”
Enter Helen will hopefully change that, though its author was less interested in reclaiming Gurley Brown’s legacy than in nailing it down. “My goal was to interview as many people as I possibly could who knew Helen, worked with her, loved her, hated her, to really create this portrait based not just on her own story, but on other people’s perceptions of her,” said Hauser. “I think she was very tricky, and I don’t necessarily believe the story that she told about herself.”
Hauser and I discussed what discoveries those interviews yielded, whether we can claim Helen Gurley Brown as a feminist, and why Sex and the Single Girl should be on everybody’s reading list.
You read Helen’s first book, Sex and the Single Girl, a few years ago, before deciding to write this book. What was so compelling about it?
It was published in 1962. I read it in 2012. The sex part of it was not at all shocking. It was completely groundbreaking when it came out: Helen was saying that single women do have sex, they enjoy it, they have it with multiple partners, and you should, too.
What resonated with me, as a 30-something woman, was her advice in terms of how to budget and save money, how to be an independent woman. That’s what was truly revolutionary. She was saying: Hold up! Don’t get married at 20. Date around; sleep around; put your career first. If you have a job as a secretary, become a lawyer, the head ad copywriter at your agency. Here’s how to do it. Then find the man of your dreams. Of course, you can be looking all along.
Helen made her name writing advice to single girls, but she was married to David Brown. You argue that, as a public figure, she was in some ways packaged by her husband.
I think David definitely packaged her, and so did Bernard Geis Associates, her original publisher for Sex and the Single Girl. But David had been an editor at Cosmopolitan already, and he was also a film producer whose career was on the rise. My feeling was he was the producer, and she was his biggest production of all time.
But you end on an interesting detail: David died first, and Helen, on his tombstone, wrote only: “Married to Helen Gurley Brown.” So he was branded by her, even as she was packaged by him.
Exactly. I do think he was the mastermind, but I also think they produced each other. Early on, she was more famous than he was. For a while in the ’60s, after Sex and the Single Girl came out, he was Mr. Helen Gurley Brown. She certainly supported his career as much as he supported hers. But I also think he was more influential over her career than she was over his. The fact that he had been managing editor at Cosmo long before she became editor in chief, and that he continued to write cover lines when she was editor—that speaks to how involved he was.
When women’s lib rose to the fore in the ’70s, Helen’s primordial brand of female empowerment came into conflict with a much more political and rigorous feminist movement. In what ways do you feel that Helen was and was not a feminist?
That’s an interesting question. But I don’t want to say whether I think she was a feminist or not, because I don’t think that was the question I was trying to answer. I didn’t want to write a dissertation. I wanted to tell a story, and show how Helen Gurley Brown came along and rose above before there was a women’s movement. She was working outside any framework. She was working for herself.
A magazine like Ms. was working for the betterment of all women. Helen Gurley Brown, I think, was really looking out for herself and, in some ways, she encouraged Cosmo girls to do the same, to use their feminine wiles and whatever means necessary to advance their careers. If that included flirting with the boss, fine.
Gloria Steinem emerged as a leader of the women’s movement: She was young and beautiful and likeable. Then there’s Helen, who was much older, and just didn’t get it at times. I tell this story in the book that Gloria told me. One time there was a protest at Cosmo. It was getting disorderly and Helen called Gloria. She said,“Your people are downstairs, protesting Cosmo.” Gloria said,“Who are my people?” Helen said,“You know: women.”
It’s this idea that they were this other species that she had nothing in common with. I think she really looked out for number one.
Even though I said I didn’t want to make a case one way or the other, a feminist is just someone who believes in equality for men and women. I think she certainly believed in that. The word didn’t really exist when she was young, which is why we’re having a hard time applying it.
Gurley Brown at home on Park Avenue in 1965, with her cats, Samantha and Gregory. (Photo: © I. C. Rapoport / Courtesy of HarperCollins)
Gurley Brown leading a staff meeting in the mid-1960s. She often stood in front of her desk, instead of sitting behind it. (Photo: © Ann Zane Shanks / Courtesy of HarperCollins)