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helen gurley brown

Helen Gurley Brown, Author and Iconic Magazine Editor

January 26, 2011
by Colleen Brondou
As author of a groundbreaking book about single women and editor of Cosmopolitan magazine, Helen Gurley Brown has been called a voice for women’s liberation and a role model for working-class women. She’s also been a target of feminist scorn.

Helen Gurley Brown’s Early Days

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Helen Gurley Brown was born in Green Forest, Ark., on Feb. 18, 1922, to Ira and Cleo Gurley. When Helen was still a young girl, the family moved to Little Rock where Ira was elected to the state legislature, a biography of Gurley on the Sophia Smith Collection Web site reports. Ira was killed in an elevator accident when Helen was only 10 years old, leaving Cleo to support Helen and her old sister, Mary. The three left depression-era Arkansas, eventually moving to Los Angeles in the late 1930s.

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.

Brown’s Notable Accomplishments

In 1959, at the age of 37, Helen married David Brown, an older man who would later become an independent film producer. Brown encouraged her to write a book about her single life; “Sex and the Single Girl” (1962) was the result.

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.

The Rest of the Story

In the 1970s, the feminist movement was in full swing, and so was Brown’s Cosmo magazine. But “[u]nlike Betty Friedan, the author of The Feminine Mystique, who wanted to liberate middle-class housewives from their boxed-in lives, or Gloria Steinem, whose Ms. magazine targeted college-educated women, Brown deliberately targeted working-class women with her game plan for liberation,” Scanlon writes for The Guardian. Her hardscrabble upbringing and early secretarial jobs gave her an affinity with women that “had to find ways to work the system, since they hardly had the privilege to beat it.”

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.

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