Helen Gurley Brown was born Feb. 18, 1922, the daughter of schoolteachers in Green Forest, Ark. After her father's death in an elevator accident when she was 10, Helen moved with her mother and her sister, Mary, to Los Angeles. Shortly thereafter, Mary contracted polio, and it fell to Helen to do much of the caretaking.
"I never liked the looks of the life that was programmed for me — ordinary, hillbilly and poor," Brown wrote of her early life. She described herself as a teenager this way: "Flat-chested, pale, acne-skinned, terrified." She was determined not to stay a "mouseburger," what she called women who are "not prepossessing, not pretty, don't have a particularly high IQ, a decent education, good family background or other noticeable assets."
Brown attended what is now Texas Woman's University and Woodbury, a business college then located in Los Angeles. Next came a series of 17 secretarial jobs.
She always loved writing, and became known as someone who could dash off an entertaining letter. One that she wrote to one of her bosses, Don Belding of the Foote, Cone & Belding advertising agency, led Belding's wife to say that Brown "writes nicely — why don't you let her write copy?" Brown later was one of the winners of Glamour magazine's "Ten Girls With Taste" contest, which led to an opportunity to write for her employer.
Brown met her husband at the place that she recommended all single women look for a mate: on the job. After they married, he encouraged her to write about her experiences as a single woman, having noticed that she had a lively style of telling these stories in letters to her friends.
"Let the 'secure' married girls eschew shortening their skirts ... and wear their classic cashmeres and tweeds until everybody could throw up," Brown wrote in typical prose in "Sex and the Single Girl." "You be the girl other girls look at to see what America has copied from Paris."
Brown endeared herself to her readers by telling them that she was hardly the kind of woman at whom a man would look longingly across the room. She had learned — and she thought every woman could learn — how to flatter a man and how to make the best use of her sex appeal.
She advised women who were offended by the idea of out-of-wedlock sex to "skip the whole book!" (She wrote and talked in italics and exclamation points.) She was, she said, talking to women who knew "instinctively" that "a girl with a 'natural' predilection toward sex is sexy."
These same women, she said, also understood that sex was power. Married women might owe their husbands sexual favors, but single women could wield sex to get what they wanted!
(Which, ironically, to Brown often meant the retro goal of getting the man to marry her.)
She also proposed a daring idea: Keep sex in your life, and if that means sometimes sleeping with a married man, well, so be it. Just don't let him break your heart, she said.
At Cosmopolitan, where Brown's husband had been a top editor in the late 1940s and early '50s, she quickly came up with the winning formula: a beautiful woman on the cover and a mix of sex advice and articles about men, work and female health on the inside. Cosmo was, more than one person has noted, a sort of female version of Playboy.
"Both of them were about not the exotic girl, the quote unquote 'bad girl,' but the girl next door or the average middle-class woman," feminist scholar Paula Kamen, author of "Her Way" (2002), said. "It was OK for her to be sexual and not be seen as a bad, immoral person."
Like Playboy, Cosmopolitan's cover featured an airbrushed version of womanhood — not the all-but-naked Playmate but certainly one who flaunted substantial cleavage. Brown chose photographer Francesco Scavullo to take these photographs, which he did for more than three decades.
"I knew women wanted to look at bosom as much as men did, to see how they compared," Brown told The Times in 2004, commenting on her partnership with Scavullo at the time of his death. She said Scavullo and his stylist "used bobby socks, breast tape, baseballs, whatever they had to" to make the women look busty.
Brown also helped usher in the era of self-help, offering ways for women to improve their ability to overcome their jealousy, shyness or insecurity.
"We've done jealousy once a year, repackaged, for 25 years," Brown told the New York Times in 1990, on the occasion of the 25th anniversary of the magazine's revamp. "We do rage, envy, sloth, possessiveness — all the deadly sins that Pandora released."
She was familiar with envy; petite and always perfectly dressed, Brown insisted that she was an object of dislike because of her size. "People hate me … really despise me because I am little," she said.
Of course, the mainstay of Cosmo was how to look good, whether that took a new dress, a diet or cosmetic surgery. (Brown herself admitted to adjustments to her eyes, nose and breasts.)
Brown's husband died in 2010. She had no immediate survivors.
The debate over whether Brown empowered women to take charge of their lives or self-helped them into good old-fashioned servility is likely to go on.
Ms. magazine editor Gloria Steinem told the Washington Post in 1982 that she appreciated Brown as a pioneer who acknowledged women as sexual beings. "But she's fooling herself if she thinks her message is a feminist one," Steinem went on to say. "She's telling women that if they look good, smell good, wear the right perfume and underwear, wonderful things will happen to them."
Friedan, who initially called Cosmopolitan "quite obscene and quite horrible," later conceded that Brown was a "very smart and gutsy lady" whose role in the women's movement had been important.
As for Brown, she always had viewed herself as a feminist. "I was there saying, 'You're your own person, go out there and be somebody. You don't have to get your identity from being somebody's appendage.' "
Luther is a former Times staff writer.
Times staff writers Dennis McLellan and Robin Abcarian contributed to this report.