Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Remember Her?

     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."


Anonymous said...

I so remember that book just 18 I read it from cover to cover, this was one smart lady and I appreciated her advice immensely..I followed a lot of her advice, I married at 26 and never lived with my husband and no this and that either..I worked and worked and worked and kept my money safe..Lived nicely and have learned ladies do have a better time of it now, still there is such a disparity in salaries our only makes a mans wage cause she would never work for nothing, she said this at 2 years old, she is smart and beautiful and just turned 38 yesterday, she travels and has a great life, she had a cat for many years she passed last month and it was hard on her but she has a great life, she doesn't want kids and a husband well we see about that, this lady was extraordinary in that she was well before her time in the 50's and 60's and 70's she worked well into her later years always a Lady and smart as could be..RIP to a wonderful wonderful human being!

DJan said...

I knew this one! I read her book and thought she was way ahead of her time. Loved it, Tom. :-)

Wisewebwoman said...

I have very mixed feelings about HGB as she still emphasized the sexuality of women in the workplace and sleeping one's way to the top. Having said that, she was a one of a kind, in yer face woman who had it all - on her terms. Though she surely was privileged from the get-go and could hardly relate to the poorer classes. Bootstraps are only a component of success.


Barbara said...

I was totally into my teenage years when the book came out. I was a little too young but I definitely remember the big to-do about it. Funny though I can't remember if I read it later on or not. I did read Cosmo from cover to cover for many years when I was a working girl. My lifestyle wasn't as lose as some of those she wrote about but it helped me make decisions as to what I would and would not do with my life.

A couple of years back I happened to see Cosmo on line and read an article or two. Now I know what my parents must have thought of Sex and the Single Girl. Not something I want the granddaughters to read. Hahaha. Do as I say, not as I did.

Dr. Kathy McCoy said...

OMG, I remember my father ranting -- in the wake of her book and her re-imagining Cosmopolitan --that
"she is the dirtiest woman in America!" Sounded pretty enticing to me. I read her book in secret and while I found some of the advice just off the wall and not my style, I did like what it -- and she -- represented. I was a much bigger fan of Betty Freidan and Gloria Steinen, but I think that Helen Gurley Brown also played an important role in helping women to take charge of their own lives.

Tabor said...

I do remember Cosmos. It was a fun read, but eventually too focused on the sex part of life and not the intellectual. LIke Playboy it seemed to me to stagnate a bit.

Friko said...

I read Cosmopolitan for many years, even when I was no longer a young girl. I only gave up on it when I outgrew it in real time.

Anonymous said...

Helen Gurley Brown's book and Philip Roth"s "Portnoy's Complaint" made for exciting reading for me when I was single in New York.

Stephen Hayes said...

Love the quote on that last line. Sounds like something Mae West might have said.

Anonymous said...

HGB was never high on my list of people to admire. She didn't speak for all women, only those who were at the fringe. That's the problem, the fringe amoung women always makes the most noise and many overlook the silent others.

Janette said...

We did laugh about articles in Cosmo when I was in college. Lots of eye rolling. Maybe that is the difference between those of us born in the late '50s and those before us.
Really? Sleeping your way to the top? How sexist is that????

Jono said...

We men owe a lot to her pioneering efforts.