Editor was risque spirit behind Cosmopolitan
In her bestselling 1962 book “Sex and the Single Girl,” Helen Gurley Brown dared to tell American women that they inherited their “proclivity” for sex, that it “isn’t some random piece of mischief you dreamed up because you’re a bad, wicked girl.”
When her frank and exuberant mix of advice, exhortation and naughty girl talk became a publishing phenomenon, thousands of women wrote to seek her advice, and she would sit at home at night in Los Angeles, trying to answer them all.
One night, her husband, the movie producer David Brown, had an idea while he watched her type. “You know,” he said, “if you had your own magazine, you could answer everybody at one time.”
And, eventually, she did, taking over a money-losing literary publication called Cosmopolitan and turning it into a slyly risque bible for single women.
Brown, whose name became synonymous with the magazine she ran for more than three decades, died Monday at a hospital in New York, according to an announcement from Hearst Corp. She was 90.
Brown’s ideas about femininity were scandalous at a time when marriage and motherhood were considered the pinnacle of a woman’s life and sex was viewed as immoral unless it was within the confines of marriage.
Many serious feminists have viewed Brown as a lightweight whose gushy writing style covered over a dual message that women were at once independent and yet should do everything they could to get a man.
But others, such as Barbara Ehrenreich, Elizabeth Hess and Gloria Jacobs, writing in “Re-Making Love: The Feminization of Sex” (1986), consider Brown the “first spokeswoman for the [feminist] revolution.”
Comparing “Sex and the Single Girl” to Betty Friedan’s groundbreaking “The Feminist Mystique” published a year later, the authors said that “Brown’s was in many ways the more radical”: “It was ‘Sex and the Single Girl’ that disposed of what Friedan called the feminist mystique in a few brief, confident sentences: ‘You may marry or you may not.... In today’s world, that is no longer the big question for women.’”
Brown wanted credit for her pioneering sensibility: “One part of your life is sex and men, and another part of your life is work and achieving,” she told The Times in 1997. “And where I sometimes get into trouble is saying your work is just as important as your love life. But no feminist -- not Gloria Steinem, not Betty Friedan -- ever inculcated me with that idea. I came up with that by myself, and it’s on every page of Cosmo. I think some women who are homemakers who don’t have professional jobs might feel that’s a little unfair, and I would have to plead guilty to that.”
Though it’s become fashionable to blame the feminist movement for misleading women about the difficulties of combining motherhood and work outside the home, it was Brown who coined the expression “having it all.” The phrase was the title of a bestseller she wrote in 1982.
Years later, she claimed she had never said it would be easy.
“I don’t think I sold a bill of goods,” said Brown, who never had children. “You can have it all. And it’s a hell of a lot of work. And it causes considerable stress. I never, so to speak, had it all. But I had my all, which is what I wanted: work and love.”
“Sex and the Single Girl” led to a syndicated newspaper column, a movie of the same name and, in 1965, to Brown’s role as editor of Cosmopolitan. Overnight, it seemed, the unmarried woman went from an object of pity to being seen as sophisticated, hip, smart, sexy and desirable. In other words, a “Cosmo Girl.”
Cosmopolitan’s cover photograph of the glamorized, well-endowed Cosmo Girl took her place in American culture. And the cover lines written exclusively by Brown’s husband became legendary: “How to Turn Him On While You Take It Off,” “The Pill That Makes Women More Responsive” and “I Was a Passed Around Girl.”
Brown, incidentally, never apologized for calling her readers “girls,” saying she was addressing the “girlish” side of them that sometimes wanted to be a sex or love object.
“Cosmo” was beloved by great swaths of young women who soon learned to say aloud the word “orgasm” and, even more shocking, pronounce their right to have one.
Brown remained at the helm of Cosmopolitan for 32 years, and would not have left in 1997 had she not been forced out. By then, Cosmo was selling 2.5 million copies a month -- much of it at the newsstand -- and collecting about $160 million a year in revenues. After leaving the editor’s post, Brown oversaw the international editions of Cosmopolitan for many years.
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.
But Brown always had ambition.
“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.