THE LIFE OF HELEN GURLEY BROWN
Oxford, $27.95, 288 pages
Reviewed by Marion Rodgers
Long before the phenomenon of Carrie Bradshaw and “Sex and the City,” there was Helen Gurley Brown, editor of Cosmopolitan magazine. Cosmopolitan, playful, irreverent and independent, showcased bosomy models and advised readers on “How to Marry a Millionaire” and provided a “Three Year Plan to Get Sexier, Smarter, Thinner, Happier, Funnier, Braver, Richer by New Year's Eve.”
Many feminists dismissed Cosmopolitan as sexist and oppressive. Others trashed it as lowbrow. Nonetheless, the theme of the magazine embodied this feminist principle: All women, whether divorced or widowed, young or old, secretary or career professional, must put their energies into their work and their selves, and occasionally shake things up, in order to have rewarding lives.
Now, in this first biography written about Mrs. Brown, Jennifer Scanlon convincingly argues that Mrs. Brown deserves to be counted among the great figures of the 1960s and '70s feminist movement, on par with Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem. The author relies more heavily on the papers Mrs. Brown bequeathed to Smith College than upon live interviews. As such, one wishes there would have been less analysis and more of Mrs. Brown.
If the tone of the book strikes one as academic and sober (Ms. Scanlon is a professor of gender and women's studies at Bowdoin College), it is also sympathetic and thorough. Ms. Scanlon gives an intelligent, rounded picture of her subject and the sociological currents underlying her time and place, with footnotes providing resources and ideas for further study.
Helen Marie Gurley was born in 1922 in Arkansas. Life was hard during the Depression. Her father died when she was 10; her sister had polio and was confined to a wheelchair; her mother suffered from depression. “I had no money, no college degree, I had wall-to-wall acne, and my family were hillbillies,” she once said. As a teenager, her highest ambition was to keep herself from going “down the drain.” She described herself as a “mouseburger,” a term she invented to describe a woman of average looks and some intelligence.
Because she knew she was not beautiful, she had to put her focus elsewhere: in a willingness to work hard and be charming. Work provided Mrs. Brown her self-identity. As the family provider, she worked her way up from secretary to copywriter to popular writer of several best-selling books.
Along the way, she brazenly pursued an independent, sexually and socially active life with men, married or single (among them prizefighter Jack Dempsey). By age 35, she was ready for marriage, and, with the same drive she gave to her career, pursued twice-divorced, affluent film executive David Brown. Once they tied the knot, both expected and practiced absolute fidelity.
From the start, their marriage has been a productive professional and personal partnership. As Ms. Scanlon attests, nowhere would the results be more apparent than in Mrs. Brown's first 1962 best-seller, “Sex and the Single Girl,” which dispensed practical advice about a young woman's workplace, money matters and sexual concerns. Published a year before Ms. Friedan's “The Feminine Mystique” and four decades before the television sensation, “Sex and the City,” the book, written candidly and wittily, resonated with mainstream American women.
Hard work and serendipity paid off when, in 1965, at age 43, Mrs. Brown became editor of Cosmopolitan, a long-standing but failing magazine that, as one journalist put it, she “transformed into the Bible of a certain sort of feminist - the Cosmo Girl.” Like its editor, readers supported the Equal Rights Amendment and abortion rights, but, unlike many hard-core feminists, believed that pursuing beauty can be a delightful endeavor and that men are not the enemy.
At first, Hearst Inc. did not know how to handle a “lady editor.” They overlooked her when making decisions about her magazine. Incredibly, Mrs. Brown and other “gal executives” were excluded from the guest list when Hearst President Richard E. Berlin was feted on his 50th anniversary with the company.
During those first early months of uncertainty and insecurity, Mrs. Brown relied on the support of her husband and mentor who would arrive at her office, whisk her in a cab and offer her advice about how much to pay for an article or handle an employee.