20 August 2012

She Said WHAT?

Helen Gurley Brown, 1964
by Fran Rizer

A week ago today, Helen Gurley Brown died on August 13, 2012, in New York, at the age of ninety.  Wikepedia describes her as an "American author, publisher, and businesswoman...editor-in-chief of Cosmopolitan magazine for thirty-two years."

When Brown took over the magazine in1965, it was rapidly declining.  When she was replaced as editor-in-chief in 1997, Cosmopolitan ranked sixth at newsstand sales and, for the sixteenth straight year, ranked first in sales at bookstores on college campuses.

Numerous articles about Brown appeared last week, and though I read a lot, I won't try to summarize them.  Suffice it to say that among Brown's accomplishments in addition to developing the Cosmo girl image and making the magazine such a success were ten published books as well as winning numerous awards.

Personally, I quit reading Cosmopolitan when I grew old enough that I thought I knew as much about sex as writers of the articles whose lead lines appear in the upper left of each issue's cover--you know, the ones like "How to Please a Man."  Bet you thought I was going to say, "When they quit publishing quality fiction."  The truth is that prior to Brown, the magazine DID publish fiction, but the fiction disappeared when popularity rose.

Brown as successful writer of Sex and the Single Girl
Before taking over Cosmopolitan, Helen Gurley Brown became known worldwide in 1962 when her book Sex and  the Single Girl was published.  She claimed women could have it all--love, sex, and money.  The book was filled with advice, opinions, and anecdotes on why being a single girl didn't mean being a celibate female.  It also was filled with info about "catching" men and even suggested settling for an affair with a married man if necessary. Needless to say, I disagreed with a lot of what she said in the book, but then, I'm not so sure she believed it all herself. One thing is for sure--the book got a lot of attention and sold lots of copies.  Later feminists such as Betty Friedan and Germaine Greer didn't support her philosophy any more than the traditionalists who saw June Cleaver as the ultimate accomplished female.

I remember reading that book, but the main thing I remember is that she recommended using Jello as a substitute for candy.  Five feet, four inches tall, Helen Gurley Brown kept her weight at about a hundred pounds her entire adult life, and one of her recommendations was to make sugar-free Jello using only half the recommended amount of water.  Pour it on a cookie sheet and conjeal.  Cut into small squares and use to satisfy that urge for a sweet bite.  I tried this way back when.   It's a lot like Gummy Bears.

While many young women (and young girls like me who snuck that book to read it) thought Helen Gurley Brown was younger than she was when she wrote Sex and the Single Girl, she was actually forty years old and didn't originate as the slick city woman she had become.  Born in Arkansas, she moved to LA at fifteen, to Georgia for a while, back to LA, and then to New York.  After working at the William Morris Agency, Music Corp of America and Jaffe talent agency, she went to work for Foote, Cone & Belding where her writing skills were recognized and she was moved to copy writing and became one of the nation's highest paid copy writers of the early sixties.

The Middle Years
Some readers assumed that Helen Gurley Brown was single herself and lived a wild life.  Her book titles would support that idea, but she was married over fifty years to David Brown, who produced The Sting, Jaws, Cocoon, Driving Miss Daisy, and other well-known movies before he died in 2010. Married in 1959, he suggested she write Sex  and the Single Girl.  He also wrote those sexually explicit cover lead lines for Cosmopolitan.  More than a decade older than his wife, David Brown was no doubt a strong influence in her success, but she made her own way, and part of that way was marrying successfully.

In her 1982 book  Having It All, Helen Gurley Brown wrote, "I never liked the looks of  the life that was programmed for me--ordinary, hillbilly, and poor--and I repudiated it from the time I was seven years old."  She is credited with numerous quotes, most having to do with sex, money, appearance, and success. 

A few of the better-known lines attributed to Helen Gurley Brown:

What you have to do is work with the raw material you have--namely you.

Never fail to know that if you are doing all the talking, you are boring somebody.

Nearly every glamorous, wealthy, successful career woman you might envy now started out as some kind of schlepp.

Money.  If it does not bring you happiness, it will at least help you be miserable in comfort.

After you're older, two things are more important than any others:  health and money.

My success was based not so much on any great intelligence but on great common sense.

Her most famous, most quoted line sounds a lot like Mae West:

Good girls go to heaven; bad girls go everywhere.

Helen Gurley Brown in her eighties
Into her eighties, Helen Gurley Brown still loved big hair, big jewelery, short skirts, and textured or fishnet stockings.  Not only did she still love them, she still wore them to her office at  Cosmopolitan where she remained a workaholic as international editor until near her death.
Her boldness in following her own style is only one of the reasons I admire her enough to write about her.

The females I most admire are those who knew what they wanted, went after it, and succeeded while creating their own styles along the way.  Among those women are, in addition to Helen Gurley Brown, Dolly Parton, Liz Taylor, and Tina Turner. Their styles, outrageous; their successes, phenomenal.

I may be wrong, but I don't believe Helen Gurley Brown believed everything she promoted.  I think she was a good writer and fine PR person who knew that sex sells and had the talent to sell it.

Rest in Peace, Helen Gurley Brown! You made Cosmo girls out of a lot of mouseburgers.

Please be sure to check here two weeks from now for a very special column from a very special guest writer.

Until we meet again… take care of YOU!


  1. Wasn't there a movie loosely based on Brown? Maybe a comedy? I vaguely remember a girlfriend wanting to see it.

    I never thought for a moment that Hugh Hefner believed all the Playboy 'philosophy' he espoused, but it occurs to me Helen Gurley Brown made many more sensible choices, including not believing she was a character in her own magazine.

    Nicely written, Fran!

  2. Yes, there was a movie, with Natalie Wood and Tony Curtis; it makes "Ishtar" look like high art.
    I read "Sex and the Single Girl", like just about every other young woman, and discovered that I agreed with and already lived by the central premise: That a woman can be anything she decides to be, and live the way she wants to live. And if the man in your life doesn't like that, he is the wrong man. Luckily, I found the right one... :) I agree, I don't think she believed all of what she said in her book or her magazine, but isn't that normal? She was a very bright, ambitious woman who achieved a heck of a lot. Hats off to you, Helen, wherever you are!

  3. Thanks Leigh and Eve,
    I had forgotten about the movie. I agree with Eve about being whatever a woman wants to be. BTW, congrats to Eve on finding the right man.

  4. Thanks, Fran - I was very lucky; and choosy.


Welcome. Please feel free to comment.

Our corporate secretary is notoriously lax when it comes to comments trapped in the spam folder. It may take Velma a few days to notice, usually after digging in a bottom drawer for a packet of seamed hose, a .38, her flask, or a cigarette.

She’s also sarcastically flip-lipped, but where else can a P.I. find a gal who can wield a candlestick phone, a typewriter, and a gat all at the same time? So bear with us, we value your comment. Once she finishes her Fatima Long Gold.

You can format HTML codes of <b>bold</b>, <i>italics</i>, and links: <a href="https://about.me/SleuthSayers">SleuthSayers</a>