‘Don’t sponge off a man, get it yourself.’ Cosmopolitan editor Helen Gurley Brown followed her own advice, and her legacy still resonates, writes Lori Anderson
THE copywriter offered pithy advice. “The message was: So you’re single. You can still have sex. You can have a great life. And if you marry, don’t just sponge off a man or be the gold medal winning mother. Don’t use men to get what you want in life – get it for yourself.” It should come as no surprise that this was written by not just any copywriter. Helen Gurley Brown rose to become the highest paid woman in advertising on the west coast of America, published eight books and was editor in chief of Cosmopolitan magazine for 32 years.
The diktat for every Cosmo girl was also her legacy, Helen Gurley Brown died on Monday in New York at the age of 90. She was Martha Stewart with balls. She believed that women could have it all; love, sex, money and good hair. Ah yes, the hair; she incensed the reigning feminists of the day, Gloria Steinem and Betty Friedan, with her dogmatic proscriptions for hair, make-up and diet, but she was the original “mouseburger” a term she coined to describe those of us who weren’t born with a Crème de la Mer spatula in our mouths. She taught us not to envy those naturally gifted with beauty, aquiline noses and size 8 dresses: “What you do have to do is work with the raw material you have, namely you, and never let up.”
The sturdily shod, dungaree clad feminists cried: “Women are more than just sex symbols to be used up by men.” But Gurley Brown believed in the power of “the other”, of feminine wiles; why couldn’t women work hard, be disciplined and be alluring?
“Sex is wonderful and to be a sex object is fabulous,” she insisted. She was a hard working Venus in blue jeans with an army of mouseburger (plain Jane) acolytes. As New York mayor Michael Bloomberg said: “New York City lost a pioneer who reshaped not only the entire media industry but the nation’s culture. She was a role model for the millions of women whose private thoughts, wonders and dreams she addressed so brilliantly in print.”
Gurley Brown was born in Arkansas in 1922, eventually exchanging the Ozarks for Los Angeles, the city of angels, where in later life she would indulge in cosmetic surgery and the pursuit of the body beautiful. Her first job was as a secretary for the advertising agency Foote, Cone & Belding and, in many ways, she was the original Peggy from Mad Men – the show’s creator, Matthew Weiner, said she was an inspiration.
At the agency her sharp wit was recognised and she moved from the secretarial pool to a large office of her own as one of the highest paid advertising executives on the west coast.
She wrote every single word of her life’s script and practised what she preached. Her life of stood in contradiction to the times. In the 1950s, American women were marrying young. She was 37 when she married a successful movie producer, David Brown (Jaws, Driving Miss Daisy) after eschewing, as she said “a gas station attendant or somebody who boxed the groceries because he was sexy.”
Her great role in the sexual revolution was to recognise and celebrate the single girl. Prior to the publication of Sex and the Single Girl, a young unmarried woman was a problem to which the solitary solution was marriage and children. While the desires of single girls in the workplace, and those unhappily married and at home, had been explored in novels such as The Best of Everything (1958) and Peyton Place (1956), Sex and the Single Girl, published in 1962, was the first factual handbook. And that was its stroke of genus: it was a how-to guide to having a happy life by having a successful career and a colourful love life.
Virginia Woolf said to be happy a woman required a “room of one’s own”. Gurley Brown wanted more for all of us; women should also have a job, a healthy bank balance and a good lover. Calling her book the 50 Shades of Gray of its day is no exaggeration. It clearly spoke to a generation who snapped up two million copies in three weeks.
Where Gurley Brown separated from the feminists of the day was her belief in the importance of fashion, diet and good grooming, all of which were then viewed as forms of male oppression. She also believed that women should use their feminine charms as a means to career advancement; this was utterly at odds with the advice given in The Executive Secretary (1959) by Marilyn Burke, the previous girl’s guide to office life, which strongly advised against using sexuality in the work place.
On the grounds that affairs with married men were frequent, Gurley Brown wrote a chapter on what to expect, but despite the invention of the Pill two years previously, a chapter on contraception was ditched at the last minute by the publishers.
By writing about young, single women who enjoyed their careers and their love life, as if they were an undiscovered tribe of pin-striped amazons in the concrete canyons of Manhattan, she dressed the set for Carrie Bradshaw and Samantha Jones in Sex and the City and a rack of other rom-coms. But being an outlier on the frontier of the sexual revolution came at a price.
Betty Friedan may have dismissed Gurley Brown’s book as “obscene and horrible”, but I suspect there may have been a tinge of envy, for, as she admitted in her own book The Feminine Mystique, published a year later in 1963, she married too young and regretted giving up her career in psychology. Yet in her book Friedan was to identify a problem to which Gurley Brown would become the solution. The prime pedlars of “the feminine mystique” – the idea that all women would be automatically fulfilled by motherhood and a house in the suburbs – were women’s magazines, the editors of which, as Friedan pointed out, were primarily men.
If Gurley Brown lit a beacon with Sex and the Single Girl in 1962, she was able to fan the flames and pass it on when she was appointed editor of Cosmopolitan in 1965. And while there are those who could argue that the fire raged out of control in the 1970s with the era of “free love” and increased promiscuity, for the vast majority of single women she provided sound advice and in the process lifted the shroud of shame from sex.
In her very first editorial, published in June, 1965, and entitled “Step Into My Parlour”, her clarion call was to the “grown-up girl, interested in whatever can give you a richer, more exciting, fun-filled, friend-filled, man-loved kind of life!” When interviewed by Roy Newquist in 1967, Gurley Brown explained why she wrote her book: “Nobody was championing single women. Volumes had been written about this creature, but they all treated the single girl like a scarlet-fever victim, a misfit, and… you can’t really categorise one-third of the female population as misfits.”
In 1982 she published Having It All. I was in sixth year at school and it became the vademecum for every girl in my class on the heady verge of womanhood. I confess I may have been the “pusher”. We passed that book around like the Essenes’ most revered scroll. I wish I still had my dog-eared copy; at least three of us were punished for bringing home “filth”, for on, oh I wish I could remember, let’s say page 46, Gurley Brown explicitly told us how to pleasure a man, step by step. It was destined to be ripped to shreds by many a Presbyterian mother in the south side of Glasgow. At least four times a year, I still remember her call to “give up the pecan pie à la mode” in exchange for a figure that would make a bishop kick a hole in a stained glass window.
She may be gone, but I think she still deserves the last word.
“You may marry or you may not. In today’s world that is no longer the big question for women. Those who glom on to men so that they can collapse with relief, spend the rest of their days shining up their status symbol and figure they never have to reach, stretch, learn, grow, face dragons or make a living again are the ones to be pitied. If you play your cards right, single ladies, life will be a good show… enjoy it from wherever you are, whether it’s two in the balcony or one on the aisle – don’t miss any of it.”
Well, almost the last word.
Here’s to flirting, the deliciousness of womanhood and the enduring legacy of Helen Gurley Brown.
I’ll raise a cocktail glass to her. Make that a Cosmopolitan.
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