Cosmo vs. Ms.

Bad Girls Go Everywhere: The Life of Helen Gurley Brown

By Jennifer Scanlon

New York: Oxford University Press, 2009, 270 pp., $27.95, hardcover

Reviewed by Emily Toth

Writing about Helen Gurley Brown puts me at war with myself. I admire her energy and ambition, wish she’d talked less about sex and more about social change—and recognize that she’s a colorful character who had an enormous impact on American women. She’s a superb subject for Jennifer Scanlon’s well-researched and fascinating biography of the woman who created the “Cosmo Girl.” It’s no accident that the favorite drink of the independent, sassy-but-loyal women of Sex in the City is the cosmopolitan.

Most readers know Helen Gurley Brown as the longtime editor (1965-1997) of Cosmopolitan, the magazine with glossy cover stories like “The World’s Greatest Lover” (1965) and “Plan to Get Sexier, Smarter, Thinner, Happier, Braver, Richer by New Year’s Eve” (1997). All the easily parodied headlines and cover-girl poses helped make Cosmo far and away the best-selling women’s magazine—which also puts me at war with myself. Cosmo outsold Ms six to one when both were flourishing, and while Ms. supported our political struggles, Cosmo (which many feminists read as a guilty pleasure) was more fun. It made us wince and gasp. It talked about the joy of having breasts.

I first read Helen Gurley Brown’s Sex and the Single Girl (1962) with my college classmates. We’d grown up with Grace Metalious’s Peyton Place (1956) as our dirty book. Both are about women’s secret yearnings for money, sex, and autonomy. Sex and the Single Girl was Brown’s upbeat, Horatio-Algerish advice-memoir about changing oneself from a “mouseburger” (Brown’s name for herself) into a flashy rich woman. It was zesty and overblown, but never dull.

Half a dozen years later I read The Feminine Mystique (1963), Betty Friedan’s well-researched, passionate call to women not to drown in mindless housewifery but to ask, “What do I want?” While Friedan seemed to be speaking to my mother’s generation, Brown was speaking to mine. As Scanlon notes, Brown and Friedan seemed to be at opposite ends of the second wave—but both were propelled by seeing their mothers’ limited lives. They wanted something better, as all feminists do They wanted women to be fighters, whether as individuals or in a group: Brown created an outrageous women’s magazine; Friedan co-founded the National Organization for Women.

Brown, who’s just turned 87, credits her longevity to exercise, meaningful work, and perpetual starvation dieting. Her drive stands out in Sex and the Single Girl, in which she insists that sex outside marriage is okay (not a common position in 1962). She also says it’s okay to have affairs with married men, who can pay for expensive meals and gifts to offset the poverty-level wages paid in most women’s jobs. Rereading the book this year, I felt it hammered on too much about sexual liberation—but then, Brown was one of the creators of the sexual revolution, which was fueled by the availability of the Pill in 1960. She roared about sex to get women to pay attention, telling them to do it if they wanted to, not because a wedding ring finally gave them permission.

Still, sex wasn’t what stuck with me from my first reading—though I was as innocent as they come. What I remember most vividly is Brown’s emphasis on money. She was more Suze Orman than Dr. Ruth.

Make your own money, have your own job, save and invest wisely, and don’t feel you must marry, insisted Brown—who, I learned in Scanlon’s book, was born poor in Arkansas in 1922. Her father died young, and Brown soon became the major breadwinner for her ailing mother and sister, who had polio. She held seventeen different secretarial jobs and developed the penny-pinching habits of anyone who scraped through the Depression: In Sex and the Single Girl, she advises her readers not to buy any more clothes than they have to, to brown-bag their lunches, and to pay cash for everything. Her proudest acquisition was a Mercedes Benz for which she’d saved up the full price—an extraordinary purchase that made her look exactly like what she was: a successful ad copywriter who’d worked her way up from the steno pool. She was flashy and single by choice, until, at 36, she was finally ready to marry a man worthy of her.

In 1959, David Brown was a twice-divorced, rich, powerful movie studio executive. Together, the two of them created the publicity campaign for Sex and the Single Girl, and he has been behind her career, always cheering, ever since. While American women were being told that they could find fulfillment only in the home, Helen Gurley and David Brown were a power couple. She never wanted children and loathed suburban domesticity, saying, “I cannot identify with the professional wife . . . looking after other people and taking care of their house, anymore than I could identify with a frogman or a rock-and-roll band.”

Both Browns sat for interviews with Scanlon, and they gave her complete access to their papers—including a revealing cache of love letters between Helen Gurley and a married man, from her late twenties. (Like many torrid online romances today, the relationship fizzled in person.) Brown gave Scanlon total freedom and never asked to see the manuscript before publication.

Scanlon does have a thesis about the importance of Brown to the women’s movement. She promoted career opportunities and financial independence, mentored other women, opened up choices. The beginning of Scanlon’s book is a little slow, as she ponders what Brown’s early life means in feminist terms. Scanlon seems worried that readers won’t see the significance of Brown’s “hillbilly” background (Brown’s term). But once Scanlon steps aside and lets the story unfold, it’s a great read.

There’s the feisty “girl” (Brown’s term) who carves out her own life in her own apartment in Los Angeles—and Scanlon’s younger readers may have no idea how rare that was. In the 1950s, women were told that finding the right husband would mean happiness, and for many women, marriage looked better than the workplace. “Office girls” were always the prey for sexual harassment (a term that hadn’t been invented yet) and date rape (likewise). Many wound up having illegal abortions (rarely talked about). Wealthy young women were kept out of most top colleges, since the Ivy League and elite liberal-arts schools such as Bowdoin, where Scanlon teaches, were male-only. Professional schools had quotas—Harvard Medical School admitted exactly three women per year, and when future Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor graduated from law school in 1952, the only jobs she was offered were secretarial ones.

And so, after Sex and the Single Girl became a huge bestseller, Brown followed up with Sex and the Office (1964)—whereupon she ran into trouble with her publisher. Bernard Geis had enthusiastically supported everything she wrote about women’s sexuality, but he made her take out chapters on date rape and sexual harassment. He also kept her from publishing her thoughts on three other subjects he deemed too controversial: lesbians, abortion, and ambition in women.

Brown was far more radical and far-seeing in real life than she was in the pages of Cosmopolitan, which was a moribund, eighty-year-old magazine when she took it over at age 43. At that time, only one other women’s magazine, Vogue, was edited by a woman. Now they all are, and it seems bizarre that there was a time when the images of women, the rules and advice were all handed down by men (Friedan dissects this beautifully in The Feminine Mystique). Women today assume we’ll define our own destinies, and as Cosmopolitan’s editor, Brown mentored other up-and-coming career women. She wrote openly about abortion—one of the first to do so and to march for reproductive rights—and promoted the Equal Rights Amendment. All the while she kept up a kind of pippy-poo writing style and girlish, don’t-take-me-seriously affect that often grated on other feminists. Still, she combined that with an unswerving insistence that “work can be—and ought to be—just about as thrilling as a love affair.”

Aging, though, proved hard for Brown. Wanting to keep Cosmo upbeat, Brown resisted publishing accurate, well-researched articles about domestic violence and AIDS. In 1997, the Hearst Corporation forced her to step down. At 75, the publisher thought, she was out of touch with the magazine’s demographic—although sex-positive third wave feminists follow in her wake, as does Sex and the City.

Like Cosmo, that show isn’t only about sex—it’s also about work and power. It’s about self-confidence, having your own money, and most of all, having friends who are loyal, funny, and forthright. Jennifer Scanlon’s biography does what our best friends do: she listens to her subject, quotes her when she’s most earthy, and figures that when an outrageous woman speaks out—even when she’s wrong—she opens more of the world for all of us.

Emily Toth (rhymes with both), professor of English at Louisiana State University, is the author or editor of eleven books, including five on Kate Chopin; Inside Peyton Place: the Life of Grace Metalious; and two advice books: Ms. Mentor’s Impeccable Advice for Women in Academia and Ms. Mentor’s New and Ever More Impeccable Advice for Women and Men in Academia. She writes the online “Ms. Mentor” advice column for the Chronicle of Higher Education

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