Longtime Cosmo editor Helen Gurley Brown, 90, dies

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Brown and Cosmo were anathema to some feminists, who staged a sit-in at her office. One of them, Kate Millet, said, “The magazine’s reactionary politics were too much to take, especially the man-hunting part. The entire message seemed to be `Seduce your boss, then marry him.’”

Another early critic was Betty Friedan, who dismissed the magazine as “immature teenage-level sexual fantasy” but later came around and said Brown, “in her editorship, has been a rather spirited and gutsy example in the revolution of women.”

“Bad Girls Go Everywhere,” the 2009 biography of Brown by Jennifer Scanlon, a women’s studies professor, argued that her message of empowerment made Brown a feminist even if the movement didn’t recognize her as such.

There was no disputing that Brown quickly turned a financial turkey into a songbird.

Within four issues, circulation, which had fallen below the 800,000 readers guaranteed to advertisers, was on the rise, even with the newsstand price increasing from 35 cents to 50 and then 60.

Sales grew every year until peaking at just over 3 million in 1983, then slowly leveled off to 2.5 million at $2.95 a copy, where it was when Brown left in 1997. (She stayed on as editor-in-chief of the magazine’s foreign editions.)

She was still rail thin, 5 feet 4 and within a few pounds of 100 in either direction, as she had kept herself throughout her life with daily exercise and a careful diet.

“You can’t be sexual at 60 if you’re fat,” she observed on her 60th birthday. She also championed cosmetic surgery, speaking easily of her own nose job, facelifts and silicone injections.

An ugly duckling by her own account, Helen Gurley was a child of the Ozarks, born Feb. 18, 1922, in Green Forest, Ark. Growing up during the Depression, she earned pocket money by giving other kids dance lessons.

Her father died when she was 10 and her mother, a teacher, moved the family to Los Angeles, where young Helen, acne-ridden and otherwise physically unendowed, graduated as valedictorian of John H. Francis Polytechnic High School in 1939.

All the immediate future held was secretarial work. With typing and shorthand learned at a business college, she went through 18 jobs in seven years at places like the William Morris Agency, the Daily News in Los Angeles, and, in 1948, the Foote, Cone & Belding advertising agency. There, when finally given a shot at writing ad copy, she began winning prizes and was hired away by Kenyon & Eckhardt, which made her the highest-paid advertising woman on the West Coast.

She also evidently was piling up the experience she put to use later as an author, editor and hostess of a TV chit-chat show.

“I’ve never worked anywhere without being sexually involved with somebody in the office,” she told New York magazine in 1982. Asked whether that included the boss, she said, “Why discriminate against him?”

Marriage came when she was 37 to twice-divorced David Brown, a former Cosmopolitan managing editor-turned-movie producer, whose credits would include “The Sting” and “Jaws.”

Her husband encouraged Brown to write a book, which she put together on weekends, and suggested the title “Sex and the Single Girl.” A working title of “Sex for the Single Girl” had been rejected as a little too permissive, even for Gurley Brown.

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