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…

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