Woman who put sex and the single girl into Cosmo
IN SPRING 1965, a reed-thin 43-yearold in designer clothes walked into the New York office of a struggling magazine to take over its editorship. She had never edited anything before and had landed the job through after publishing a controversial bestselling book, Sex and the Single Girl.
Within six months, she had boosted sales to a million. She aimed it at young single women. She put semi-nude girls on the cover, banned long words and, above all, talked about sex, sex, sex. Her name was Helen Gurley Brown and the magazine was Cosmopolitan.
Enter Helen attempts to tell the story of the real Brown and her rise from secretary to champion of the single gal. The woman who emerges is focused and bold in challenging prejudices about single women, but also at times mercenary and manipulative; shrewd while also seeming in some ways wildly lacking in insight.
Helen Gurley was from a modest background and became a secretary in an advertising agency in the 1950s, but then moved up to be a copywriter.
In this respect, she was a pioneer, like Peggy Olson in Mad Men, but Peggy would have been dismayed by Brown’s willingness to sleep with men to get ahead. The venality of becoming a rich businessman’s mistress to milk him for money did not seem to faze Brown. She approached her men like a spy approaches his target: with patience and a cool head. That was how she landed her wealthy well-connected husband, movie producer David Brown, though theirs proved to be a marriage of equals.
Was Helen Gurley Brown a feminist? Much later she did define herself as such, but to modern sensibilities, her liberated attitude to sex seemed to meld with the instincts of a Surrendered Wife.
On the one hand, her 1962 book Sex and the Single Girl was a landmark publication that argued a woman had as much right to a sex life outside marriage as a man. It celebrated a girl’s choice to live alone and included chapters on careers and saving money. Yet at the same time, the woman she described was obsessed with being pleasing to men. It gave advice on where to find men, having affairs with married men, informed women that it was the man’s role to pay for most things, and urged them to consider voice training if their feminine vocals were insufficiently sexy.
The irony about Sex and the Single Girl was that Brown wrote it once married; indeed, the whole project had been her husband’s idea.
As Cosmo’s editor, she related to women with hang-ups, but fuelled those insecurities with articles obsessing about hair, make-up and cosmetic procedures.
In the late 1960s, she published a painfully misjudged article extolling the glamorous side of Saigon, no less – “COULD YOU WORK IN VIETNAM?”– the idea being, of course, that there was no better place to meet men. Other articles included “Why I wear my false eyelashes to bed” and “How not to be dumped on his way up”.
But it is only fair to see Brown in the context of her time. She had been a single woman in the oppressively chauvinist 1940s and 50s, when many a clever woman advanced by manipulating men; by the late 60s, feminists were trying to free women from being defined by sex. The feminist Betty Friedan was one withering critic. Gloria Steinem defended Cosmo for proclaiming women’s right to a sex life, but her relationship with the older Brown was like that of an exasperated parent with a wayward child who lacks self-awareness.
And yet in some respects Brown shared the goals of Women’s Liberation, such as advancing abortion rights. In 1970, she wrote an editor’s letter endorsing the feminist movement.
A direct line can be traced from Helen Gurley Brown to Bridget Jones and Sex and the City: generations of women obsessed with being sexy and plagued with insecurities. Indeed, the parallel with the fictional Jones is striking: Brown regularly took her measurements and listed what she ate. Her 1973 New Year’s resolution was “Relax chin, stay at 105lbs…”
She is an uncomfortable icon for the modern feminist, but as this illuminating book makes clear, the western world would perhaps look rather different for women had she never put pen to paper.