A Very Singular Girl

Helen Gurley Brown in the art department of Cosmopolitan shortly after becoming editor in chief, New York City, March 1965
Sophia Smith Collection, Smith College
Helen Gurley Brown in the art department of Cosmopolitan shortly after becoming editor in chief, New York City, March 1965

Somewhere back in the day Helen Gurley Brown said that after a certain age the only thing a woman could rely on to improve her appearance was good posture and expensive jewelry. At least that is my recollection, though I no longer recall the exact source or context. The gender specificity, the whiff of doom in the goal, the daft simplicity, the conciseness, the candor, and the plausibility caused it to stick in my head (although my most recent earrings were bought for three dollars from a street vendor). Perhaps this is because everyone who already has their ears pierced and pricked for this kind of suggestion is tired and looking for quick, pithy advice—especially, it is assumed, women, around whom a many-tentacled advice industry was fashioned long ago, with its golden age perhaps corresponding to the golden age of magazine publishing, suburban housewifery, and leisure time—again, somewhere back in the day. That men—both gay and straight—were once a considerable audience for these women’s magazines, unacknowledged in the official target demographics, is another topic entirely though I will mention it here in passing.

I also recall once getting in the slowest grocery store line so I could flip through Brown’s Cosmopolitan in order to discover what “5 Things,” advertised on the cover alongside its monthly, near-taxidermic décolleté (who can recall the faces perched above?), were sure to “Drive Men Wild,” but not finding them anywhere and having to put the magazine back. Well, Brown may have only been pretending to know five (her husband did the cover headlines). And although she undoubtedly knew some number of viable things, in her first book Brown advises dozens of rather dubious ones, from broccoli almondine, to joining the wealthiest chapter of AA, to letting your lacy slip show beneath your office desk. “Unlike Madame Bovary you don’t chase the glittering life, you lay a trap for it,” she wrote in Sex and the Single Girl. She believed in showing an interest in sports:

I’ve found that it helps hypo your interest to have a small bet on one of the teams. Or to know somebody’s brother or cousin you can root for. One football season I “adopted” Jon Arnett of the USC Trojans. I pretended I was his mother and felt how she would feel watching the game. (Actually she probably had cold compresses on her head with somebody staked out at the TV set to tell her when it was over.) Then because of some NCAA ruling…Jon was benched for a semester and I lost heart. Now on Rose Bowl day and during the World Series I simply chloroform myself.

As for good posture and expensive jewelry? She herself had multiple plastic surgeries and underwent breast augmentation at the late age of seventy-three.

Of course, evolving and proliferating social and domestic roles for women have been discussed from the moment discussion was born, and it is sometimes interesting to look back and see which individual women move into that evolution with a professional eye to claim a historical moment for themselves or just to make one up. There are always currents to ride and they are ridden.

Hence a look back at the social swirl of the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s, with the new biographies Not Pretty Enough: The Unlikely Triumph of Helen Gurley Brown by Gerri Hirshey and the more innuendo-laden Enter Helen: The Invention of Helen Gurley Brown and the Rise of the Modern Single Woman by Brooke Hauser. Both Hirshey and Hauser believe that Brown was something of a pioneer and that her life and writings laid the groundwork for later commercial white-person fictions such as Sex and the City and Mad Men, which extol the virtues of work for women as if it were a new and glamorous idea. Both biographers spent a lot of time at the Helen Gurley Brown archives at Smith College and have generous things to say about the librarians there.

What does “modern single woman” even mean anymore? It is a phrase that has been with us for quite a while, and may be an improvement on “spinster,” although “spinster” is being hiply refurbished and celebrated as a lifestyle and not a temporary or pseudo-crippling condition. (“Single” and “modern” have ephemeral youth built into them, so the word “spinster” is being reclaimed as a preference for women of any age dismayed at having to depend on men for very much. See Spinster: Making a Life of One’s Own by Kate Bolick.1)

Helen Gurley Brown, we glean—perhaps more from her own writing than from the biographies of Hirshey and Hauser—was obsessed with the ostensibly fun culture of American offices and corporate expense accounts in a postwar boom economy. She began her own office career in the 1940s when she was still in her teens; she eventually became a successful copywriter for a Los Angeles ad agency, her first major client being Catalina swimsuits. She worked even on weekends, and stayed late when the men went home to their families. She then moved on to another agency, which doubled her salary, and there she began naming lipsticks and writing copy for Max Factor; according to Hirshey, she became “the highest paid woman in West Coast advertising.”

At thirty-seven she owned a Mercedes and a stock portfolio and had never been married. Although she didn’t believe in worrying about that, she had begun to worry. Marry late, she nonetheless advised:

You can have babies until you’re forty or older. And if you happen to die before they are forty…you [will] avoid those tiresome years as an unpaid baby sitter…. Frankly, the magazines and their marriage statistics give me a royal pain.

When baby boomers such as Lesley Stahl are currently peddling books on their own besmitten grandmotherhood (see Stahl’s Becoming Grandma 2), Brown’s fifty-year-old advice can still seem refreshing and iconoclastic.

Well, Brown took on many sacred cows that had already been half-throttled or at least smacked about in various marginalized countercultures. Somewhat amoral regarding sex (although she felt a woman should never bargain sexually for a dinette set), she lived a lot of her life as a quasi courtesan, which led to pleasure, love, heartbreak, adultery, nutritionists, psychotherapy with the author of Sex Can Be Art! (in group therapy when she was called a “slut” she had to go home and look up the word), and eventually marriage to the film producer David Brown, a bright, successful, devoted man. There was some subsequent adultery thrown in here and there for excitement, though the marriage was strong, allowing them each to dance with others, Brown’s quite literal preference at social gatherings. She and her husband worked together. They buoyed and anchored each other. They plotted together. They ate diet Jell-O together. Though the courtship had its bumps, once they were married they were thought of as inseparable.

When early in their marriage her husband happened upon some amusing—nay, sparkling!—letters his wife had written to friends, he encouraged her to write a book. (Mr. Brown liked writers and had something of a crush on the novelist Rona Jaffe.) Mrs. Brown wrote as she spoke (advice she continued to give writers). And since they both knew that sex sold, and Mr. Brown felt that Mrs. Brown had some interesting things to say about the bachelorette life—in Hirshey’s phrase, “some lubricious operating instructions” for being single—Helen Brown sat down with her high-speed typing and began several different sorts of drafts.

What she ended up with was in large part a spirited rebuttal to a widely discussed 1960 Look magazine article, “Women Without Men,” which had offended her with its depiction of a parched and barren single life. Hirshey astutely notes the social class anger in Brown’s book, but also acknowledges that Brown was not interested in a revolution but in practical navigation of an unfair system that was not going to change in time for you:

Her message was beamed to working single women with limited options and means, those who were still thrashing in the steno pool, who slept fitfully in a crown of bobby pins when the salon was too dear.

One person’s shocking truth confided vividly and recognizably can make others feel better. That is perhaps the very heart of the modern and certainly is at the core of Brown’s sense of sisterhood. It also came from every part of Brown’s life: the Arkansas girlfriends, the California psychotherapy, the reading of novels, all of which consoled her.

With disapproval from her family and blurbs from Joan Crawford and Gypsy Rose Lee, Helen Gurley Brown soon became the best-selling author of Sex and the Single Girl. The book contained no-nonsense advice, a wised-up older-sister tone, some recipes, some beauty tips, some bawdy anecdotes, stock tips, racetrack tips (bet the favorites to show), a defense of anorexia (a word never used; the extremely thin Helen Brown simply believed in not eating), and decorating suggestions for the bachelorette pad. Imitations ensued, including Sex and the Single Man, over which Brown sued for title infringement.

One book that followed Brown’s and imitated her get-the-heck-out-of-your-childhood philosophy was Jean Baer’s The Single Girl Goes to Town (1968), which more or less advises the single girl to choose Los Angeles or New York only, not to bother with other cities, saying that in Malibu “every night there is a party somewhere, and if you’re not invited, just walk in. Nobody cares.” Lest you think this is simply the freewheeling 1960s, Baer’s book also contains an “Earnings Chart” to calculate the financial worth of your targeted man, plus gift suggestions for various hostesses—whose parties you may be crashing.

Both Baer and Brown fail to warn against being arrested as a stalker, or a burglar, or being murdered by someone you don’t know as you eat your picnic alone in a park (Brown’s suggestion as a man-snare), but instead both do warn against the misleading if endearing charms of “homosexuals” (now that gaydar has been invented, this seems quite antique). David Reuben’s Everything You’ve Always Wanted to Know About Sex (1969) didn’t come out until seven years after Brown’s book but clearly there was consumer demand for all.

Helen Gurley Brown and David Brown, New York City, 1963
Sophia Smith Collection, Smith College
Helen Gurley Brown and David Brown, New York City, 1963

Gurley, steeped in Alfred Kinsey’s 1953 report on female sexuality, was ahead of other authors of how-tos in pronouncing openly on what so many already privately knew. But that it was a woman saying all this—be free! enjoy sex! have more than one partner! stay financially independent!—seemed like news, though it was not news to Brown or her Arkansas gal pals, who had always lived this way. Her book was a sensation and was even sold to the movies, or rather its title was sold to Warner Brothers, at $40,000 a word, as Life magazine put it, which resulted in a script cowritten by Joseph Heller and an otherwise unremarkable film but for its surreal and interminable car chase (Heller’s idea of the madcap single life?), its all-star cast, and a scene in which Natalie Wood, playing a fictional psychotherapist named Helen Brown, eerily falls into the ocean at night and almost drowns.

Helen Gurley grew up in Little Rock as what she called a hillbilly, though as Hauser rightly points out she was sturdily middle class (her mother was a teacher, her father a state legislator). But then she had a taste of poverty and tragedy when her father was killed in a freak elevator accident in the state capitol building, and the insurance money subsequently ran out. Her sister was disabled by polio. Their mother eventually moved them first to Tulsa and then to Los Angeles where Brown remained and went to secretarial school; over the decades she held nineteen different office jobs there.

It was a particular moment in social and economic history. A young woman could move around at that time and not cling to a partner or any one job because female office employees were in demand (for one thing, they were underpaid) and rent was affordable. Brown had a lively prose style, compulsively wrote thank-you notes with her favorite term of endearment (“pussycat”), and believed in women not so much as sex objects but as sex subjects; men were the actual objects. She had a confessional bent. Like Joan Rivers and Nora Ephron she was not a creative genius but a disciplined workaholic with a springy cadence in her sentences; she too felt bad about her neck; she too wanted to make a lot of money. She, too, was an amusing woman attached to something larger in the culture and wished to report on it.

The sexual revolution was not feminism, though there was a blurry overlap, and both movements had their waters muddied then clarified then expanded by gay rights and gender liberation. Is it politically permissible to wear false eyelashes and high heels and protest the meaninglessness of life without romantic love, wondering out loud where you went wrong? Well, you can if you’re Prince. But only if you’re Prince? The disruption and dismantling of patriarchal sexual culture can occur in a lot of different ways and it has taken various kinds of people to do it. Social change involves a more or less generalized smashing but from a collection of angles and directions, sometimes from both inside and out.

After the financial debacle of the movie Cleopatra (1963), many attached to the studio that made it were fired. David Brown was one of them but he landed a publishing job in New York with New American Library. The Browns then left California for good. What would the newly notorious Helen do? For the time being she wrote magazine and newspaper columns. With the help, encouragement, and connections of her husband (he was a former managing editor of the old Cosmopolitan; for those following the “feminist” path of Hillary Clinton out of Arkansas, pay heed to the helping hand of marriage), Helen Gurley Brown was eventually given the star vehicle she was looking for: editor in chief of Cosmopolitan, which was at that time a moribund but commercially minded literary magazine that the Hearst Corporation felt needed revitalizing.

Brown tarted it up. She shortened the articles. Her ethos and aesthetics were mostly her own but somewhat in step with the sexual revolution and with a general desire to eschew a female culture devoted to household chores. Brown kept the celebrity interviews but added a psychotherapy column, plus controversial articles on abortion and the birth control pill. But she did not want anything “fancy.” She said that her magazine was for “girls who have never heard of Mike Nichols.”

Cosmopolitan flew off the stands. Readers were also perhaps looking for those tips that David Brown cleverly advertised on the cover next to all that Francesco Scavullo photography. Although seemingly a weird new outgrowth of Playboy, Cosmo was also a precursor to a magazine such as O with its soothing working woman’s downtime-in-a-bubble-bath quality. Cosmopolitan stood outside any official dogma except to “keep the lonely girl company.” And when she became editor in chief and made a big success of it, Brown’s journey—Hirshey would say “unlikely triumph”—was complete. The scarlet woman who claimed to have slept with 178 men before she was married and who had never gone to college was now settled into something she had always wanted: an enterprise to run. She loved most people. She met Jacqueline Susann on the Park Avenue median strip in front of her apartment building and they became fast friends. She met Gloria Vanderbilt, with whom she became even closer. The Browns were said to move among their peers as plain, simple, and genuine. There was always something small-town about them that they exuded.

Helen Gurley Brown’s penchant for the soft/hard sell was sometimes thought to have come from her years in the advertising business. Not much is made in either Hirshey’s or Hauser’s biographies of Brown’s southernness. Arkansas is the South, but this is underplayed though it was very much part of Brown’s character and her story. Her self-proclaimed “hillbilly” roots were mostly just southern. Of course she was hardly the first steel magnolia to take Manhattan by storm (Truman Capote and his invented Holly Golightly brought many real-life imitators). But her personal niceness, “whispery half smile,” coy flirtations, desire to amuse, locked-in attentiveness, and “just folks” quality came largely from a societal expectation of women in the South, perhaps the only expectation she conformed to once transplanted. I recently listened to a friend who, after having sung the praises of charming southern women, did an impression of a generic northern woman responding conversationally to a man attempting to engage her: all warmth drained from his face as he pursed his lips and said in ostensible mimicry of the Yankee female, “‘And what is that supposed to mean?’” (I laughed my head off because why not.)

If Hauser’s biography sometimes reads like a screen treatment about making a glamorous life (her epigraphs are often movie quotes, particularly from Marilyn Monroe films, and she uses “Cut to” as a transition; photos, including one of the Browns’ grave in the Ozarks, are affixed), Hirshey’s book—once it gets past its bitter complaint about the Hearst Corporation’s virtual gag order on quoting Brown’s office memoranda—is a bit more like a novel in its attention to narrative tension and pacing and smooth writing. Moreoever, Hirshey cleverly transforms her final pages into something akin to an oral history, with several of Brown’s good friends—from the playwright Eve Ensler to Barbara Walters—chiming in. Here is Hirshey on Joan Rivers speaking of Brown’s famous frugality:

Cheap! Don’t get Rivers started. She recalled a day when she was in a cab and noticed Helen at a bus stop, trying to juggle overstuffed work satchels. Rivers rolled down her window and hollered at her: “Helen, calm down and take a cab! Your husband made Jaws!”

Brown was politically criticized by better (more conventionally) educated feminists, but she was close to women and believed in sorority—if that is a feminist principle. I think her biographers would say, yes, it is. Once, the young Kate Millett and her fellow Columbia students took over the Cosmopolitan offices and requested that Brown attend a consciousness-raising session and confess to her hang-ups. This Brown did with alacrity (she had spent all those California years in group therapy) and had only gotten to hang-up number eight when she was asked to sit down and be quiet. There was some froideur with Gloria Steinem and a complete stand-off with Joan Didion. But she admired Betty Friedan and raved about The Feminine Mystique in print. Like Rivers and Ephron, Brown believed in “Having It All” and wrote a book by that title. “Having It All” is more a fanciful cri de coeur than a feminist idea—most men don’t “have it all”—but it is true that some women do have more energy, opportunity, and fecundity than others, and if they claim to have some advice in that direction that goes beyond dumb luck and childhood zip code, let us see how useful it is.

Brown in her seventies had to be pried from her post at Cosmopolitan. She was given a decorative title as head of the international division (Hirshey reminds us that there are women in hijabs reading the magazine still). The Hearst Corporation also created a facsimile office for the elderly Brown, one that resembled her former one to a T, though the new one was fake—Hirshey suggests that perhaps even the fax machine was not plugged in, that perhaps nothing was plugged in. At the end, still in her Pucci dresses and fishnet stockings, Brown was wheeled into this office daily and mostly took naps there.

Her legacy, imprecisely feminist, is one of putting the pleasure principle dead center in a woman’s life—painful cosmetic surgeries notwithstanding—only slightly more complicated than “Girls Just Want to Have Fun.” Her biographers defend her from feminist derision and snobbery, and the reader understands this protective inclination, which is rooted largely in affection: Brown was companionable, charitable, self-deprecating—one wants to come to her aid. Hirshey and Hauser do not want her to seem an absurd figure but a unique confection of several eras, cultures, and social strata. She was not an intellectual but nonetheless a wee bit of a philosopher. Her critics might line up to say: Why should men and women have to get tricky with one another? Why all the artifice? Why must snakes be charmed, flesh be doctored? Adults should be treated and behave as adults.

Yes. But girlfriend, or, rather, pussycat, no matter how evolved, we all contain our basest selves, right up until the end. Get out the fishnets and cast them. Seize life—it’s really there. Such are the ongoing tidings of Helen Gurley Brown—no amens or ahems.

  1. 1

    Crown, 2015. 

  2. 2

    Blue Rider, 2016.