She made her true mark in the world when she took over the reins of a popular literary magazine. That was 50 years ago, in 1965. But by then she had already written a bestselling book that became a movie starring Natalie Wood and Tony Curtis.
She was born in Arkansas in 1922. Her father headed the Arkansas Fish and Game Commission, and later won election to the Arkansas state legislature. He died in an elevator accident in 1932, and not too long after that his family -- his wife and two daughters -- moved to Los Angeles.
After she graduated from high school, the family moved back east to Georgia, but she didn't last long in the conservative, slow-paced South. She turned around and headed back west, spending one college semester in Texas, then transferring to Woodbury Business College in Burbank, Calif.
She graduated in 1941 and landed a job at the William Morris Talent Agency in Los Angeles. She then worked for the Music Corporation of America (MCA), then Jaffe Talent Agency. From there she got a job as a secretary at an ad agency. Her bosses soon recognized her writing talents and promoted her to copywriter. (Shades of Peggy Olsen on Mad Men?). She married film producer David Brown, and using her talents and her contacts, worked her way up to become a top copywriter in the advertising business.
Still, for her, that was not enough. She had an idea, and in 1962 when she was 40 years old, she published a book urging young women to become financially independent and sexually liberated. She raised many eyebrows at the time by telling women it was okay to have sex before marriage, or even without marriage.
The book, Sex and the Single Girl, sold 2 million copies within the first few weeks. It quickly mounted all the bestseller lists and stayed there for over a year. The book offered advice on fashion, fitness, entertaining, cosmetics ... and how to have an affair. She also detailed her "Twelve rules for squirming, worming, inching, and pinching your way to the top."
Just as fame and fortune from the book began to crest, she took the job as editor-in-chief of an oldline literary magazine that was struggling and looking for a new direction. And the magazine sure did get a new lease on life when Helen Gurley Brown took over and recast it as a lively and sexually explicit guide for modern young women.
Maybe I don't have to tell you any more about the magazine, maybe you know more than I do. How many of you will admit to reading Cosmo as a young woman? But the point is, Brown revamped the monthly magazine along the lines of her bestselling book. She featured articles that spoke frankly about sex and relationships, and she developed an image for the magazine and her readers that she called the Cosmo Girl -- a young woman who was "self-made, sexual and supremely ambitious," as described by New York Times.
Many people credited Brown with helping women to reconsider their role in society, and empowering women to take control of their lives. But Brown's views were controversial -- not just with uptight conservatives, but with some feminists as well. They felt her approach went no further than an adolescent sexual fantasy, that it still left young women defining themselves as sexual objects in a male-dominated world.
In 1997, at age 75, Brown was ousted as editor of Cosmo, and "kicked upstairs" to a job at the parent company; although she remained editor of the interantional editions of the magazine.
Helen Gurley Brown died in 2012, but not before winning several media awards, founding the Brown Institute for Media Innovation at Columbia University, and being selected as one of the most powerful women in the world.
Where she is now, nobody knows. For as Brown once quipped, "Good girls go to heaven. Bad girls go everywhere."