The woman who made it good to be bad

Is Helen Gurley Brown's legacy more than just sex quizzes and cleavage? A new biography of Cosmo's founder proclaims her a pioneer of today's raunchy, unapologetic brand of feminism.

Published April 12, 2009 4:55PM (EDT)

The long, fabulous life of Helen Gurley Brown has stretched between the heydays of two iconic blondes: Lorelei Lee (the gold-digging flapper created by Anita Loos and best known for declaring that diamonds are a girl's best friend) and Carrie Bradshaw, the shoe-worshiping sex columnist and everygirl heroine of "Sex and the City." Jennifer Scanlon, a professor of gender and women's studies at Bowdoin College and the author of the first full-length biography of Brown, "Bad Girls Go Everywhere," astutely compares her subject to these two figures in the first pages of her book, undeterred by the fact that both Lorelei and Carrie are fictional. In a way, so is Helen Gurley Brown -- and not just because Natalie Wood played a completely fabricated version of her in the 1964 film ostensibly based on Brown's bestselling book "Sex and the Single Girl." Like all self-created women (or men), Brown is part real person, part mythical creature. Not all of the myths, however, are of her own making.

Scanlon aims, with "Bad Girls Go Everywhere," to reclaim Brown as "a pioneer, a founder of the second wave [of feminism]," deserving of as much credit for bettering women's lives, in her way, as Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem. That Brown's image could use an overhaul is unquestionable. As a recent item on suggests, to the current crop of smart young women, Brown is now little more than a joke, a hopelessly dated and gracelessly aging "bobble head" with an intentionally emaciated body and helmet hair, a peddler of cheesy sex quizzes and rampant cleavage at the magazine she edited for 32 years, Cosmopolitan.

As Scanlon sees it, however, any young woman claiming entitlement to career opportunities and a satisfying sex life, financial independence and sensational lipstick, abortion rights and a darling apartment, owes a lot to Helen Gurley Brown. The face of feminism today -- at least in the hedonistic, individualistic version embraced by many young single women, including some who wouldn't necessarily call it "feminism" -- is more her creation than Friedan's or Steinem's. Yet Brown's brand of mainstream feminism (she has never hesitated to call it that) "has largely been left out of established histories of postwar feminism's emergence and ascendance."

One reason for this omission, Scanlon believes, is social class; Brown spoke to and for aspiring secretaries and other working women who shared neither the background nor the desires of college-educated movement feminists. Brown may look like a social X-ray, but she grew up in Little Rock, Ark. (also the hometown of Lorelei Lee, "just a little girl from Little Rock"), the daughter of a promising local politician who died in an elevator accident when Helen was 10. In the midst of the Great Depression, she was raised by an intermittently depressed single mother and helped care for a sister stricken by polio. According to Brown, her adolescence was circumscribed by poverty and average looks (she had acne), although Scanlon finds evidence that even in high school Brown had plenty of friends and the kind of social success (club presidencies, class valedictorian, etc.) that comes from sustained effort. She would later coin the term "mouseburger" to describe herself: average in most respects, but willing to "work like a wharf-rat" to better herself.

Working hard would be Brown's means of getting what she wanted for the rest of her life, although -- as in her self-deprecating descriptions of her high school years -- she also has a tendency to play down the exceptional quality of her drive and her achievements. Able to attend no more than a semester of college, she supported her mother and sister in a series of 17 secretarial jobs in the 1940s and '50s. Finally, she landed a copywriter's gig at an advertising agency in Los Angeles, a break that partially inspired the story of Peggy Olson on "Mad Men." By the end of the '50s, although she became the highest-paid female copywriter on the West Coast, she'd hit what would become known as the glass ceiling. At 35, after having thoroughly enjoyed her single years (albeit, often in the company of other women's husbands), she decided to marry. At 37, she landed David Brown, a magazine editor turned studio executive. It was only then that she turned to the work that would make her famous: playing guru to America's unmarried women.

"Sex and the Single Girl," a guide to young women working in urban offices and eager to enjoy the unprecedented access to "money, work and sex" to be found there, sold 2 million copies in three weeks when it was first published in 1962. Based on Brown's own much-savored premarital adventures, it made her a household name. The book was, in a way, a joint effort; the Browns' marriage has been a remarkably harmonious and productive union, partly as a result of an implicit deal: He supported her desire to go on working, and she pampered him domestically when she was at home. But Brown's husband was also unusually self-confident at a time when many men felt emasculated if their wives merely took jobs, let alone thrived in them. He was the kind of guy who, upon discovering a cache of flirtatious letters Helen had once exchanged with a married man, thought not "Why is she keeping these?" but "Damn, she can really write!"

The Browns attempted to parlay "Sex and the Single Girl" into any number of profit-making enterprises, from board games to a syndicated newspaper advice column to a record album to several ahead-of-their-time proposals for television programs that never got off the ground. Eventually, they hit pay dirt when Hearst Publications hired Helen to revamp the ailing, 80-year-old Cosmopolitan, a general-interest magazine previously known for publishing fiction. Brown regeared it to speak to her core following of single, urban women (although half the audience at any given time was married), put sexy models flashing plenty of décolletage on the cover, and teased newsstand browsers with provocative headlines penned by her husband. (In time, he left Cosmopolitan to go back to producing movies, including "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid" and the blockbuster "Jaws.") Although eventually pushed out of the editor in chief position at Cosmopolitan in 1996 at the age of 75, she continues to oversee the magazine's popular international editions.

Throughout, Brown's vision has remained impressively consistent. "You can have almost anything you want out of life," she told her readers, in one of countless pep talks, "if you work like a wharf-rat at everything you take on." And what most of her readers wanted, in her opinion, was sex, love, fun and material success. She urged them to find gratification and financial independence in work rather than relationships, but she insisted that women had carnal appetites commensurate with men's and were perfectly entitled to fulfill them, whether or not they were married. Although Cosmopolitan is associated with man-pleasing tips on hairstyles and sex positions, Brown was adamant on including career and financial management advice in every issue. She regarded fashion and cosmetics, as well as any number of coquettish affectations, as enjoyable in themselves but also as tools women could use to get what they wanted.

Brown's notion of American womanhood may have stayed the same, but American society changed around it. When "Sex and the Single Girl" came out in the early 1960s, the most shocking thing about it was Brown's matter-of-fact attitude toward affairs with married men. In this, she pleaded simple realism; most of the men single women were likely to meet at work were married and "Man is not monogamous no matter how much religion and social writ tell him he is." Acknowledging the perils of such affairs, she nevertheless refused to rule them out, provided the woman remembered not to take them too seriously. Instead, she recommended that her readers take advantage of the situation, milking a guilty and grateful married lover for gifts, money and workplace advancement, which Brown regarded as fair recompense for the fact that men got paid more than women and kept the best jobs for themselves.

After she took over Cosmopolitan, Brown's philosophy offended different people for different reasons. The burgeoning women's movement produced critics who deplored the lengths to which the "Cosmo Girl" and other women's magazine readers were encouraged to go to charm men. Grooming choices -- makeup, leg-shaving, hair color -- that Brown viewed as merely fun and sexy suddenly became politically charged. The magazine's racy cover photos were accused of leading people to view women as sex objects who mattered only as erotic diversions for men. Gloria Steinem told Brown that the pleasure-seeking image of the Cosmo Girl fortified the stereotype of women as frivolous and superficial. Furthermore, second-wave feminism was intimately linked with other social change movements that founded their politics on a critique of capitalism. Cosmopolitan's giddy embrace of consumption and Brown's faith in the free-enterprise system that made her own triumphs possible put her fundamentally at odds with the surprisingly large number of people who thought the revolution was imminent.

If that revolution never happened, another sort of revolution did, and much of the time, Brown found herself out of step with it. Although she actively supported the Equal Rights Amendment and (especially) abortion rights, she didn't always grasp the extent to which gender relations could and did change. Hearst used some clueless remarks she made about sexual harassment to justify her ouster as editor in chief from Cosmopolitan. ("The problem," she joked of the magazine's offices during the Anita Hill hearings,"is that we don't have enough men to go around for harassing," and she warned of the danger of "stomping out sexual chemistry at work.") Writes Scanlon, "Brown still viewed women, to a degree, as guests in many workplace settings. And since she viewed sex far more as a tool used by women than as a weapon used by men, she was reluctant to attempt to rid the workplace of sex altogether."

But if Brown sometimes seemed mired in an inane, conventional, Playboy-style conception of good sex, she had valid objections to the restrictive, overly negative and victimized picture of women's sexuality painted by movement feminists. One fascinating aspect of "Bad Girls Go Everywhere" is the history of Brown's repeated and more often than not squelched attempts to inject positive depictions of lesbianism into her discussions of women's sexuality. She wanted to include a "case study" describing ("in steamy detail") a divorcee's affair with another woman in the sequel to "Sex and the Single Girl," "Sex and the Office," and she was baffled at her editor's refusal to even consider it. The subject, she asserted, "is not all that taboo" and, besides, "just seems part of the office to me." (Must have been some office!) In this, Brown showed more broad-mindedness than Betty Friedan, who a few years later would publicly fret over the "lavender menace" that threatened to take over the women's movement.

Underlying all of the tension between Brown and other feminist leaders was, Scanlon believes, a drumbeat of unacknowledged class prejudice. Friedan and Steinem were graduates of Smith, a Seven Sisters college, and their constituencies, at least initially, were middle-class housewives and college graduates looking for more meaningful lives and work. Brown's designated readers were secretaries, receptionists and file clerks working to survive and hopeful of getting ahead so they could sample the very luxuries -- pretty clothes, cosmetics, sex (and possibly marriage) with generous, professional men -- from which Friedan and Steinem had become alienated. When a New York Times article praising Steinem dismissed the Cosmo Girl as "little more than a Playboy bunny with a clerical job," Brown wrote in to say that there was nothing wrong with being a Playboy bunny (or, by implication, holding a clerical job). It wasn't always clear where scorn for Cosmopolitan's signature flashy style left off and contempt for the pink-collar vulgarity of its readers began.

Still, as Scanlon notes (though perhaps not emphatically enough), there were serious flaws in the Helen Gurley Brown formula. "My relevance is that I deal with reality," she once said when accused of too readily accommodating business-as-usual relations between men and women. But it was the rash, demanding idealism of more radical women's movement activists that helped push through the kind of changes in the workplace that gave women access to real power, not just the kind that comes as a favor bestowed by men. It was women like Friedan and Steinem who agitated to, say, end the once universal practice of segregating help-wanted ads by sex and who pressured officials to enforce anti-discrimination legislation. Cosmo girls would have had a lot harder time working their way up from the mailroom without those efforts.

Brown admitted as much when she said of such agitators, "If they had been Southern belles, the whole thing would not have happened. I totally give them credit." Scanlon depicts Brown as humbly petitioning for admittance to the feminist sisterhood while facing perpetual rebuffs from prudes and snobs who disapproved of her tarted-up vamping and plebeian constituency. Yet Brown, with her legendary charm and frankly artificial feminine wiles, bore no small resemblance to a Southern belle herself, and was not above describing women who rejected her own grooming standards in favor of a "natural" look as "dirty" and smelly. (She reviled hippies for this reason, too.) She also regarded flattering, manipulating and outright lying to men as the necessary gamesmanship required to secure their valuable presence in women's lives. "My observations," she told Steinem in an interview, "are that men do not want the truth." The power of the Cosmo Girl too often resembled that of the courtesan rather than the queen.

Perhaps the most serious impediment to Scanlon's depiction of Brown as champion of the average American woman was the editor's attitude toward motherhood. Brown knew from an early age that she never wanted children, and would claim not to "understand" them. Having witnessed her own mother's frustration at being forced to leave the teaching job she loved to raise a family, she regarded women with children as "encumbered" and put off addressing the issue of working mothers in Cosmopolitan until 1986. It was Steinem -- the one usually tarred by her critics as a mom-hating radical feminist -- who called Brown on the "remarkable absence of children" from Cosmopolitan. Scanlon attributes this omission to the escapism working women sought in Cosmo's pages, but this doesn't jibe with Brown's portrayal of herself as a "realist."

Still, it was Brown's version of feminism -- calling for equal pay and career opportunities while continuing to swoon over hotties and revel in manicures and high heels -- that prevailed with most American women, the youngest of whom are only hazily aware of the injustices the second wave swept away. One of the occupational hazards of the reformer's life is that when you really succeed at it, eventually people will forget the problem was there to begin with. Brown always regarded the pro-career part of her message as even more important than her advocation of women's sexual liberation; what were once provocative, defiant assertions have now become truisms, and open to the questioning of new generations of women.

Feminists have always had a highly fraught relationship to women's magazines, and as the woman who single-handedly remade the genre, Brown now looks less like a pioneer than a cautionary tale about the dangers of uncritically embracing their values. The work ethic she used to surmount obstacles in her career and love life has been less effective at fending off a more formidable adversary: time. Determined to remain girlish into her 80s, Brown became notorious for her near-anorexic diet, compulsive exercising and multiple cosmetic surgeries. It is one thing to enjoy the trappings of conventional femininity and another thing entirely to feel as if they are obligatory; that is what Helen Gurley Brown's critics could never quite get her to see.

By Laura Miller

Laura Miller is the author of "The Magician's Book: A Skeptic's Adventures in Narnia."

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