Yes, I know:
She advocated for legal abortion and contraception.
She made the world safe for Sex and the City.
Worst of all, she insisted on wearing mini-skirts well after menopause.
I’ve always had a soft spot for “outsider” female writers of the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s. It’s hard to imagine two women more different than Grace Metalious and Jacqueline Susann, yet I inhaled both their biographies.
Helen Gurley Brown was part of the same cohort of fiercely ambitious, sometimes uncouth “literary” females of the era.
But while those novelists created vivid fictional worlds in which to play out their fantasies of beauty, romance, fame, and revenge, Helen Gurley Brown’s accomplishment was far more audacious:
She too imagined, in pointillistic detail, her ideal realm — then set about remaking an entire society to match her personal vision.
The old joke goes, “It’s Sinatra’s world — we just live in it,” but it would be more accurate to say we’re living in Helen Gurley Brown’s.
Not everyone is happy about that.
However, there ARE three things to love about the brash publishing icon.
1. Her work ethic
Apocryphal show biz legends tell of studio execs fighting over the film rights to, say, Anna Karenina, then wondering “if the broad really has to die at the end.”
In reality, Hollywood has rarely missed the point so widely as it did with the 1964 film version of Sex and the Single Girl.
Not only is the movie’s “Helen Gurley Brown” a “Dr.,” she’s a 23-year-old virgin, played by the stunning Natalie Wood.
In actuality, Helen Gurley Brown’s life was movie-worthy, but along the lines of the Joan Crawford or Barbara Stanwyck flicks she grew up watching. She was a plain girl from the Ozarks who made herself over, escaped to the big city, and ended up with the (pink) corner office — and a rich husband, too.
And forget that fictional degree — Gurley Brown wisely skipped college altogether.
Instead, she worked her way up from sexually harassed secretary (although she wouldn’t have used that term) to top copywriter.
And I do mean “worked”: unlike plenty of women then and now, she kept long hours at the office, even before she got her own magazine — and even after she became little more than a figurehead at Cosmo.
Here some women will chirp, “Hey, I work hard at the office, too!”
No, you actually spend most of your time planning bridal and baby showers and birthday parties for your colleagues — not to mention the annual walk-a-thon — and rearranging pictures of your dog on your desk.
That’s between trips to the coffee machine or the break room or the bathroom (again).
Please, ladies: I’ve worked with you. I’ve worked for you.
And I thank God my last office job ended years ago.
“But Helen Gurley Brown could work long hours,” you insist. “After all, she didn’t have children.”
Exactly. She chose not to. So did I.
Ironically, the very woman who kept insisting “you can have it all” realized she couldn’t early on, and chose accordingly.
Ironically, Helen Gurley Brown only wrote Sex and the Single Girl after she got married — at the then-advanced age of 37 — and only because her husband suggested the idea for the book.
For a woman who always put herself down as a “hillbilly” “mouseburger,” she certainly married well: to a well-to-do fellow who went on to produce Jaws and The Sting.
She flippantly counseled the occasional adulterous affair for others, but her 50-year-marriage was apparently never once placed in jeopardy.
As she told a reporter who asked her if she’d leave her husband if he cheated:
“I wouldn’t have left him, I would have killed him,” she says. “I could never have gone through what I went through with the Don Juan all over again. I couldn’t face it. I would have had to divorce him.”
And frankly, any woman who could live with a man with a mustache like that for a half-century deserves my respect.
Helen Gurley Brown’s “lipstick feminism” is the best thing about her.
When I was still part of the women’s movement — at the dawn of “third-wave feminism” — vicious arguments went on constantly about leg shaving and makeup wearing.
Not being one of the naturally lovely neo-hippie chicks who advocated a hirsute, barefaced existence, I couldn’t afford to be as “brave” as they thought they were.
(“She’s got a lot of nerve writing a book called The Beauty Myth,” my-then roommate tsked about the glamorous Naomi Wolf’s epochal debut.)
Second-wave au natural types always hated Helen Gurley Brown. They even staged a 1970 sit-in at the Cosmo offices.
Those back-to-goodness-and-nature hippies are certainly not natural. They may not wear makeup, but some of them bleach their hair and their fringy, furry, funky costumes certainly didn’t grow on their bodies (though they sometimes smell like it); the clothes are carefully, “unnaturally,”collected from thrift shop and Army surplus stores.
Magritte claimed the only way he could paint like a bohemian was because he lived like a bourgeois; indeed, he often created his bizarre surrealist canvases while wearing a suit and tie.
It’s a lesson lost on most would-be artists, who use up their meager talent cultivating sartorial affectations, literary feuds, and unoriginal “experiences” instead of actually working.
Helen Gurley Brown grasped that paradox. As one (male) writer noted wisely in a 2000 book review:
But on closer inspection, I’m Wild Again is a strangely inapt title and a poor description of Brown’s life. She’s not wild again (and she may never have been very wild in the first place). This is the autobiography of a puritan. Wild chronicles how Brown exercises obsessively; doesn’t drink, smoke, or eat; has remained utterly faithful to her husband of 35 years; and lives for her job. The Cosmo girl’s dirty little secret isn’t sex. It’s work.
If only her millions of acolytes had ignored much of what Helen Gurley Brown said, and instead imitated what she did, the modern world would be a much happier, healthier place.
Not all her advice, mind you.
Like, “Never refuse to make love, even if you don’t feel like it.”
For instance, I’ve adapted her wise counsel on what to say when your new beau asks you how many other men you’ve slept with — although on account of the very sexual revolution she helped usher in, I’ve had to adjust it for what one might call “inflation.”
- Silently add up the number in your head.
- Divide it by 2.
- Now, just say “Five.”
Anyway, if you need me, I’ll be in my non-pink, non-corner office, working another 12-hour-day…
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