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Los Angeles Times, Published August 13 2012

Longtime Cosmopolitan editor Helen Gurley Brown, who made sexual revolution accessible, dies at 90

Helen Gurley Brown, the self-described “mouseburger” who in the 1960s inspired women she said were like herself – average looks, brains and talent – to go out and get what they wanted out of life, including good sex whether they were married or not, has died. She was 90.

Brown, who went on to become the longtime editor of Cosmopolitan magazine, died Monday at New York-Presbyterian Hospital/Columbia, according to an announcement from Hearst Corp. The cause was not given.

In 1962, Brown, a copywriter for a Los Angeles ad agency, wrote a book about the single life that she had recently left behind at what was then considered the over-the-hill age of 37.

Her “Sex and the Single Girl,” a frank and exuberant mix of advice, exhortation and naughty girl talk, was a publishing phenomenon that broke ground by suggesting that the single woman not only had a sex life but was “the newest glamour girl of our times.”

She added: “Nice girls do have affairs, and they do not necessarily die of them!”

Virtually no one had dared to utter such things in a time when marriage and motherhood were the goals for women and sex was viewed as immoral unless 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’s book led to a column, a movie of the same name and, eventually, to Brown’s role as editor of Cosmopolitan magazine, the once-literary Hearst publication that she recast into a slyly risque bible for single women. Overnight it seemed the unmarried woman went from an object of pity to being seen as sophisticated, hip, smart, sexy, 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 – movie producer David Brown – became legendary: “How to Turn Him On While You Take It Off,” “The Pill That Makes Women More Responsive,” “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.

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 a shot at writing 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.

After the book was published, Brown got thousands of letters from single women. Initially she tried to answer them all.

“One night David looks at me typing and says, ‘You know, if you had your own magazine, you could answer everybody at one time,’” Brown related years later.

The two of them went around New York proposing the idea to no avail. Finally, Hearst Magazines offered them Cosmopolitan, where Brown’s husband had been a top editor in the late 1940s and early ‘50s but which had been losing money.

The Browns 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 Los Angeles 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.

Some observers found this sexualized image of women objectionable, but others noted cheerily that it was sort of like a cookbook: Follow this recipe and you, too, can look like her. Or at least a little more like her. Operating from an office on West 57th Street in Manhattan that was carpeted in faux leopard print and frou-frou furniture, 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.”

But, 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.)

Other women’s magazines offered the sincerest form of flattery by widely imitating Cosmo. 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.’”

David Brown died in 2010.

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©2012 Los Angeles Times

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