- The Washington Times - Friday, April 10, 2009


By Jennifer Scanlon

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.

As circulation and advertising rates climbed, males in the industry openly began to admire the editor who had reinvented the women's magazine. As a boss, Mrs. Brown was hands-on, straightforward and fair, resulting in unusually low employee turnover and a loyal staff that stayed with her more than 20 years. Writers loved her editing and encouragement, although the pay was miserly compared to that of other publications.

In 1997, at the time of Mrs. Brown's retirement, Cosmopolitan was selling 2.8 million copies a month. Now age 87, Mrs. Brown continues to work as editor-in-chief of Cosmopolitan International. There are now 60 editions published in 36 languages, available to more than 100 million women across the globe, including Russia and China. The magazine's popularity attests to the empowerment of Mrs. Brown's mantra, that women have the right to have their sexual, emotional, economic and professional needs met.

One American fan wrote of the impact that the magazine and its editor had on her. “You liberated us,” she wrote, “taught us to use our brains and not just our looks, and in the '70s when women suppressed their femininity in order to fit into the male-dominated work-place and the feminist revolution … you went right on telling us it's OK to be women, to use our beauty and our brains and to be confident who we are as individuals.”

One could argue that long before, French women had mastered this balancing act. But now, thanks to Ms. Scanlon's careful and insightful study, Mrs. Brown has finally been accorded her due.

Marion Elizabeth Rodgers is the author of “Mencken: The American Iconoclast.”

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