Helen Gurley Brown, Author and Iconic Magazine Editor
Mary contracted polio in Los Angeles, adding to the Gurley family’s hardships. Still, Helen persevered and performed well in school, both academically and socially, graduating high school as class valedictorian. She attended Texas State College for Women for a year but then returned to Los Angeles to attend Woodbury Business College.
Cleo and Mary, meanwhile, went back to Arkansas, though they relied on Helen for financial support. In 1941, Helen graduated from Woodbury with a degree in business. She accepted a variety of secretarial jobs. Her 17th position, at Foote, Cone, and Belding, an advertising agency, “was pivotal to Helen’s future success,” according to the Sophia Smith Collection.
At Foote, Cone, and Belding, Helen was an executive secretary to Don Belding. Belding was impressed with Helen’s hard work and made her a copywriter. By the late 1950s, she had become the highest paid female copywriter on the West Coast.
In it, Helen advised women not to feel “ashamed of the life choices they made” (especially if those choices meant staying single and finding personal satisfaction in a job), that “[b]eing smart about money is sexy,” and that sex was something to be enjoyed.
“The book was a rallying cry for unmarried women, exploding myths of lonely spinsters, and became a sensation on both sides of the Atlantic,” Jennifer Scanlon wrote for The Guardian. “Sex and the Single Girl” remained on bestseller lists for months, and was made into a 1964 film starring Natalie Wood (as Helen) and Tony Curtis.
Following the success of “Sex and the Single Girl,” Brown became a talk show staple. According to Scanlon, she became the 10th-most-frequent guest on “The Tonight Show.” She also wrote a syndicated newspaper advice column, and recorded albums and radio spots.
Though her next book, “Sex and the Office” (1964), didn’t sell nearly as well as “Sex and the Single Girl,” Brown was on a roll. She took over as editor at Cosmopolitan magazine in 1965 and revamped the struggling publication “into a hot, upbeat sourcebook of advice for the working girl on beauty, money, makeup, dating, dieting, therapy, dressing for success, undressing for success, and driving men wild,” Judith Thurman writes for The New Yorker.
While Steinem told Brown that “she was a victim of the patriarchy,” according to Thurman, and other feminists tried to take over the offices of Cosmopolitan and demand more feminist content, Brown asserted that Cosmo already was a feminist publication—sexy covers and all.
“Her readers, she knew, wanted to read about men and sex as well as money and work,” Scanlon writes, “and she saw it as her responsibility as a feminist to give them more rather than fewer choices about how they lived their lives.”
Though Brown gave up her post as editor of Cosmopolitan in 1997, she remains editor of Cosmopolitan’s 58 international editions. In 2008, she was also named one of Slate Magazine’s “80 Over 80: The most powerful octogenarians in America.” According to Slate, “sources inside the Hearst building say she still puts in long hours at the office every day.”
“Bad Girls Go Everywhere,” a biography of Brown by Jennifer Scanlon, a professor of women’s studies at Bowdoin College, was published in April 2009, and is available from Amazon.