- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 22, 2000

There can be no quitting for the Cosmo Girl. On the eve of her 78th birthday, and with yet another book of "brazen thoughts" heading comfortably for the best-seller lists, Helen Gurley Brown is up at dawn, pumping dumbbells, laying the lipstick on thick, and worrying.

"I am driven," she says, "and the drive comes from yearning, from needing, from fear."

At 78? With millions in the bank? There may be an awful warning in this. For 35 years, Mrs. Brown's Cosmo Girl has been the figurehead for a certain sort of feminism, a "lifestyle" of self-fulfillment, glamour and multiple orgasms, in which the idea was to be happy.

Mrs. Brown became a celebrity in her mid-30s with a spunky little book "Sex and the Single Girl" that helped kick-start the sexual revolution. The book got her the job at Cosmopolitan in 1965 and gave her the formula that fused liberation with libido.

The magazine has lost some of its original cachet but still sells millions of copies a month in 28 countries and 16 languages. The latest scheme is for a 24-hour Cosmopolitan television channel, due to be launched in Italy in the spring.

She has just published a new book, "I'm Wild Again: Snippets from My Life and a Few Brazen Thoughts," about how ruthless her life's struggles have been. But in terms of the media business, Mrs. Brown is an enormous success. When she was pushed, gently, from the editor's desk four years ago, the Hearst group paid her the rare compliment of creating a title for her international editor and let her keep a full-time office.

There seems, however, to be something missing from her life. "Sometimes, I think it would be great to be at ease, at play," she says. "If I have a regret, it is that. I have no idea how to play. What is it like just to relax with friends at a barbecue or a cocktail party? I don't know. I feel more comfortable at a funeral."

A bitter little laugh comes out with that last remark. Even now, in an office decorated to meet her every whim pink ceiling, leopard print carpet, Louis XIV repro, lashings of gilt, old-fashioned typewriter, a cushion boasting her motto, Good Girls Go to Heaven, Bad Girls Go Everywhere Mrs. Brown does not seem quite comfortable.

She is tiny, and so rigorously starved through a lifetime of what she calls "controlled deprivation" that she has the look of a bird fallen from its nest. Perched stiffly on a chair, with her hands folded in her lap, she seems to have as much of the little girl about her as old woman.

The lack of flesh is alarming. Successive face lifts have left her cheekbones as smooth and taut as scar tissue, and even her earlobes appear to be pared down, because her heavy, baroque earrings keep falling off.

Couldn't she just relax? "No," she answers, quick as a flash. "Work gets me money, recognition and pleasure. It buys you everyone friendship and self-esteem. When people are raving about you, that is what is rewarding.

"And work continues to buy me recognition and popularity. Your work makes you viable. If you are as old as I am, who would invite you to a party?"

This seems an unbearably sad reflection on a lifetime of achievement a life that is about to be celebrated. Mrs. Brown is off to a birthday lunch at Le Circe, the most expensive restaurant in New York and one at which the ability to book a table confers a status equal to that of owning a private jet. The party is being hosted by Liz Smith, doyen of American gossip columnists and another of the city's grande dames.

Is Mrs. Brown saying that if she had simply retired to a rocking chair or, perhaps, a private estate staffed by young, blond bodybuilders, Miss Smith would not have bothered with a birthday tribute? She just smiles.

The "Girl" and her magazine have long been loathed by the more puritanical feminists and the family values brigade, while Mrs. Brown's more moderate critics fret that her pop-culture mantra of self-centeredness, sex and youthful beauty might not, ultimately, lead to happiness.

The price of eternal youth, she has discovered, can be high. Her only serious health problem came directly from "mainlining estrogen," in a desperate attempt to stave off middle age. The drugs so damaged her organs that she had to have a hysterectomy. The scars from that damaged her intestines, which led to a second, even more serious operation.

There is also a more general unhappiness to which Mrs. Brown is prone. For as long as she can remember, she has woken every morning with a sense of "melancholy," a depression that occasionally sharpens into something close to a panic attack.

"I know it could all go," she says, "that somehow I could get out of bed and there would just be nothing in my life."

Sometimes, this fear focuses on the terror of losing her husband, David Brown, 83, a film producer with credits that include "Jaws" and "Angela's Ashes." Mrs. Brown married him at 36, and he helped transform her into the author of "Sex and the Single Girl." He is, she thinks when she wakes up, the only person who might come to a party for her if she could no longer make the trip to her Cosmo office.

Is this state of mind, as a fire-and-brimstone preacher might suggest, just punishment for a lifetime of shallow values? Not in Mrs. Brown's book. Her mood goes back to the death of her father in a freak accident involving an elevator when she was 10, and the childhood of dire poverty in Arkansas that followed.

"My mother had a melancholy disposition," she says, "and then my sister got polio. So I grew up looking after a depressed widow for a mother and a crippled sister."

On top of that, Mrs. Brown was always reminded that she was the Plain Jane of the family. "I would have to make do on whatever brains I had," she says, "because I was told I would never be pretty enough to get a rich husband and succeed that way.

"Even my shrink asks me why I am so hard on myself," she says. "But to me, these feelings are good, because the fear has always been what I needed to make me get up and out from under the morass of poverty I grew up in. Never again"

So when she climbs out of bed, she immediately starts a 45-minute exercise routine, which is repeated after lunch. This regime focuses the mind on the day's battle and generates natural endorphins, the theory goes, to soothe the pain. It also, she insists, keeps the years at bay.

"I don't mean to be arrogant, but not many people my age look like I do," she says, without a hint of irony. "People who don't exercise are just ridiculous."

But wouldn't she really rather have a big hug from a daughter or a granddaughter and, that way, find some peace and contentment for the inevitable sunset of life? Would she like to have had a daughter, someone to whom, as she writes, she could at least leave her photo albums?

"No way" she says, fiery again. "I have never, ever wanted a child of my own."

And so Mrs. Brown clings to her youth and her market value and her office among Manhattan's skyscrapers because there is nothing else.

"I could never retire now," she says. "I have left it far too late for that."

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