Helen Gurley Brown was born in Green Forest, Ark. on Feb. 18, 1922. After attending Texas State College for Women and Woodbury Business College, she held 17 different secretarial positions in Los Angeles. In 1959, she married movie producer David Brown. At this point in her life, there was nothing to indicate that she was on the road to success, or that she was becoming one of the most influential women in 20th-century America.
At age 37, she seemed to be, in “success” terminology, a nobody going nowhere. By her own admission, she was a “mouseburger,” a term she invented to describe people who are not prepossessing, not pretty, don’t have a particularly high IQ, a decent education, good family background or other noticeable assets. She did have one fungible asset. From the time she was 20 until her marriage, she had a risque sex life.
Her twice-married, twice-divorced husband encouraged her to write about her wild escapades as a bachelorette. She obliged, though she had never published so much as a magazine article before. The result was Sex and the Single Girl, a “shameless, unblushing, runaway, unmitigated” manual advising and instructing women on how to seduce men and enjoy their inalienable right to have as much sex as is humanly possible.
The book was a national sensation. Brown, now 40, was sounding the clarion call to release all single girls from their sexual inhibitions. She was granting permission for their ids to operate independently of any culturally imposed super-egos, while promising them a better sex life than their married counterparts. The author of Sex and the Single Girl had become for single girls what Hugh Hefner had been and was continuing to be for single men. But she was without competition in her field. She had a sexually curious and highly susceptible female readership all to herself.
The success of Sex and the Single Girl, “my first baby,” as she called it, led to the movie bearing the same name. Although the film version, in which Natalie Wood played Brown as a psychologist, had nothing to do with the book, it meant $200,000 in movie rights for the author. The fledgling writer had now parlayed sex into both money and success. She was well on her way.
Her next stop, on the wings of her first book’s success, was editor-in-chief of Cosmopolitan magazine. At that time, in 1965, the magazine was floundering. As a literary journal, it had featured writers such as Ernest Hemingway, John Steinbeck, John Dos Passos, et al. But now it needed a new face. Brown gave it that new face, increased circulation from three-quarters-of-a-million subscribers to three million, put it in the black, and stayed on at the helm for the next 32 years.
When she left her post in 1996, Cosmo was number six in newsstand sales among 11,475 magazines published, and number one for the 16th straight year at college campus bookstores. But she did not leave Cosmo. She now supervises its 39 international editions, all of them in the black. The Ladies’ Home Journal named Helen Gurley Brown on of its “100 Most Important Women of the 20th Century.” The Sophia Smith Library at Smith College is the repository for her manuscripts, papers, and letters. Cosmo Girl, for teenagers, is a spin-off of Cosmopolitan. The hit television show Sex in the City is a trendy and even more shameless re-incarnation of Sex and the Single Girl. Brown’s legacy is undeniable and her influence is incalculable.
Helen Gurley Brown did not have children of her own. But she did invent, or at least shape, the “Cosmo Girl.” She is the “girl,” between 18 and 34, who wants to take charge of her life, which means being free to pursue the cherished trinity of sex, money, and success.
Would Monica Lewinsky be a “Cosmo Girl”? “Yes,” Brown reckons, especially “since Cosmo girls do get involved with married men.” On the other hand, the genuine article would not have “a creepy girlfriend like Linda Tripp.”
Under the editorial direction of Helen Gurley Brown, Cosmopolitan was titillating. Its readers once confessed to the most unusual places where they made love (“in Edgar Allan Poe’s bed at the University of Virginia”). It was outrageous: “How I’d steal the president (Nixon) away from Pat.” And it was shocking. In 1972, it unabashedly provided its readers (viewers) with America’s first male centerfold – Burt Reynolds au naturel.
Such shenanigans outraged feminist founder Betty Friedan, who called the magazine “quite obscene and quite horrible.” By this time, its editor had learned to take the bad with the good. She had been booed and bombed with tomatoes at public appearances when she was promoting Sex and the Single Girl.
Helen Gurley Brown enjoys needlepoint and stitching hip slogans onto pillows. One of her favorites is, “Good girls go the Heaven, bad girls go everywhere.” Here is a charming example of the arithmetic fallacy – by adding anything to something, you automatically enrich it. Adding ice cubes to Dom Perignon does not improve its richness. Additives can have a destructive, as well as a diluting, effect. Being good, however, is not limiting. Not knowing where to draw the line, on the other hand, can be self-defeating. She wants us to believe that being good is a terrible deprivation. In reality, it is all we need. Good is good enough.
She tells us repeatedly that she never wanted to have a child (she also fought to keep abortion legal). Nonetheless, she concludes her memoir with a 13-page letter to her fantasy child, whom she calls Anna Marie. She informs her non-existent offspring that,”Your mother doesn’t believe in God … but I do believe in the okayness of everybody here on earth.” It is difficult to read this final entry of her memoir and not sense that, at 79, Helen Gurley Brown knows in the inner recesses of her soul that she has not had it all. Anna Marie will not be receptive to her mother’s advice. Her mother’s words will fall not on deaf ears, but on no ears. They will echo within the mind of the childless mother, emphasizing all the more that no children will grieve for her or carry on her legacy once she is no more.
If Helen Gurley Brown did not want children, she certainly wanted something she realized more and more, with the passage of time, that she could not have – immortality. As St. Augustine has said, anything that is not eternal is too brief. This might explain why she finds herself “waking up scared every morning” and why her advanced age prevents her from being happy. No amount of cosmetic surgery (she had breast augmentation when she was 73) can keep the grim reaper at bay.
Trying to deny death is the surest way of becoming engulfed by it. If we cannot find a love and a faith that transcends death, we inevitably become its abject victims. One of the roots of the culture of death is, paradoxically, a fear of death that is so strong it blocks out the spiritual realities that transcend it.
We are spiritual beings. This means that we need a form of nourishment that sex, money, and success cannot provide. Vice, which greases the wheels of the culture of death, contracts life, choking off the arteries that nourish our spiritual and personal needs. It is alluring, but not enduring. Virtue, which may be less marketable, less fashionable, and less glamorous, is expansive, allowing us to be more than an island of self-concern.
At a luncheon, a few years ago in Washington, D.C., Helen Gurley Brown found herself seated next to the editor of an orthodox Catholic magazine. When she was apprised of his occupation, she glowered at him and said, “So, you’re the enemy.” The editor is not her enemy, nor are human beings enemies to each other.
But virtue is the enemy of vice, just as vice is the enemy of virtue. And it is the ensuing battle between virtue and vice that constitutes the war between the culture of life and the culture of death. Morality is not an opinion. Much less is it a packageable consumer item. It is simply the only way we know that allows us to retain our humanity.